Sustainable Yoga

By Mark Stephens on Tue, 10/08/2013 - 15:56

5 Ways To Sustain Your Yoga Practice

If you’re like most yoga students, you imagine practicing for the rest of your life. There is little else that creates such a sense of bliss or that takes you so deep into simply feeling good, clear, joyful and connected with a sense of spirit.

So why do so many dedicated students and teachers eventually fade away from the practice? One reason is that in the normal course of a lifelong practice one encounters physical, emotional or spiritual “plateaus” that often give way to burn-out or boredom. But even more often an attainment mentality – striving to “get the pose” – leads to injuries that may undermine your practice. Your original intention of feeling better, living a healthier lifestyle and awakening to the beauty and spirit of life gets lost.

Hatha yoga (whatever style, from Ashtanga to Iyengar to Jivamukti to Yin) offers a set of practical tools – asanas – for cultivating wellbeing, self-understanding and self-transformation. Each pose, each breath and movement within and between each pose, is as if so many different windows onto you, how you are who you are. In each and every practice you discover anew what you gravitate toward, resist, find frustrating, enticing, scary, fun or blissful. When approached with an attitude of aparigraha – “non-grasping” or “non-covetousness” – you can better honor the inner voice of your heart and the wisdom of your body, practicing in a safer, more sustainable manner.

Yet ironically, many of the most fun, exhilarating and powerful practices that at first seem healthy could be setting you up for long-term chronic strains, possibly spelling the end to your asana practice as you know it.

Here are five prime things to watch out for:

1. Standing Balance Pose Sequences

Inviting disciplined focus and surrender to a deeper will, standing balance asanas are a shimmering mirror onto the self as the ego and spirit express their magical dance. The order in which they are explored – their vinyasa krama - can make all the difference in the how long this dance will last. Sensible standing balance pose sequences will draw from an understanding of functional human anatomy, biomechanics and kinesiology, helping you to open up, strengthen and balance your practice. But sometimes the asana choreography is downright dangerous.

Take the all-too-common flowing sequence moving from Utthita Trikonasana (Triangle Pose) to Ardha Chandrasana (Half Moon Pose) to Virabhadrasana III (Warrior Three Pose), typically exited by coming directly back to Ardha Chandrasana. In Ardha Chandrasana and Virabhadrasana III most of the body’s weight is pressing the hip down onto the top of the thigh bone (more technically, the acetabulum is pressing squarely down onto the greater trocanter of the femoral head). This is not a problem in and of itself. But when moving from the internal hip rotation of Virabhadrasana III to the external hip rotation of Ardha Chandrasana (or vice-versa)  with full weight-bearing on one leg, that downward pressure can cause stress fractures in the femural head as the lining the hip joint is worn away with repeated weight-bearing internal-external rotations.

Instead of moving back-and-forth between internal and external hip rotation in standing balance poses, a more sustainable sequence would explore internal and external rotation standing balance poses separately. While that may diminish what seems for awhile like creative,  fun and awakening movements, in the long-run you will have happier hips that can comfortably carry you in the world throughout your life.

2. Hard Body Delusions

Opening the bodymind safely involves a balance of what the Indian sage Patanjali described as sthira sukham asanam – steadiness, ease and presence of being. But with popular DVD titles like “Yoga: Buns of Steel,” it is not surprising to hear of so many students being told to squeeze their buttocks in backbends – a big mistake. Similarly, our culture’s obsession with “six-pack abs” lends to gripping in the abdominal core that is problematic for the lumbar spine when intense abdominal work immediately precedes backbends.

Undifferentiated squeezing of the buttocks in backbends externally rotates the thighs and thereby compresses the sacrum (think the back of your pelvis) at precisely the moment when one most wants a supple sacrum to allow stable extension of the tail bone toward the knees. Learning to use only the lower fibers of the gluteals without the upper gluteal fibers allows the pelvis to extend free of sacral compression and possible pressure on the sciatic nerve. You can learn and practice this awareness in poses such as Virabhadrasana III by using the buttocks to lift the back leg into extension without squeezing the upper buttock (which is where the external rotators are located). You can also try standing in Tadasana (Mountain Pose) and extend one leg straight back behind you while rotating the inner thigh back, keeping one hand the buttock to feel what it takes to maintain its relative softness. Now bring that awareness into your backbends and feel greater freedom of movement and ease in your low back.

Gripping the belly - often confused with and instructed as “Uddiyana Bhanda,” which is a very different energetic action – further constricts suppleness and movement in the lower back, leading to undue pressure on vertebral disks and nerves. Practicing deep backbends either just after sustained core work or while gripping the belly not only limits part of the stable mobility we want in backbends, but potentially compresses the lumbar spine. Conscious awareness of suppleness in the belly and radiating energy throughout the abdomen and spine creates safe, expansive , heart-opening backbends that you can do for the rest of your life.

3. Groundless Extension

Many conventional athletic training practices are the source of some risky stretching habits. “Bouncing” into forward bends with the goal of getting your nose to your knees is one of them. Aside from doing little to elongate the spine or calm the nervous system, such an approach is a sure way to strain your low back and hamstrings while denying yourself the opportunity to develop internal awareness and support for a healthy spine and open heart.

The key to seated forward bends rests in firmly rooting down through your sitting bones and consciously exploring the lengthening of the front and back of your body while keeping your thighs firm, inner thighs spiraling toward the earth. From this base in the sitting bones, breathing as if though your heart and riding a gentle wave-like undulation of breath in the movement of your spine, explore moving breath by breath to elongate your heart center toward your toes while keeping your feet flexed and heels extending forward. Rather than straining to get your face close to your thighs, try to ride your breath to just where your body is inviting you to go, all the while drawing your pubic bone down and back and your sternum forward to lengthen the front of your torso. Amidst it all, soften and allow yourself to settle into the deeply nourishing, quieting and revitalizing world of forward bending.

4. Attainment Mentality

When the practice of yoga gives way to obsession with attaining the outward form of poses, not only is the yogic process interrupted but serious injuries, motivational letdowns and burnout are likely to occur.

Seeing your teacher or other students practicing handstand in the middle of the room can be wonderfully inspiring. But be careful. Some teachers will offer you ill-informed and dangerous gymnastics-based short-cuts to achieving this balance, such as locking your elbows or deliberately hyper-extending your wrists. Yes, you will balance in handstand much more quickly and easily – until your wrists develop carpal tunnel-like strains and the tendons in your elbows become strained and inflamed to the point that you’re not practicing yoga at all!

Similarly, the goal of performing a Urdvha Danuransana (Upward Bow Pose, often called “Wheel”) at all costs has cost many students the health of their lower back, neck and shoulders. As a general rule of thumb, if you cannot straighten your arms in this asana, do not try straining your way to straight arms. First, it won’t work because the straining effort will only make the limiting muscles tighter. Second, you are prone to straining your shoulder rotator cuffs, wrists and low back by trying to force your way up.

A better approach is to explore deepening your backbend with Danurasana (Bow Pose) while allowing your overall practice – including shoulder and upper-back openers such as Gomukasana (Cow Face Pose) arms, Garundasana (Eagle Pose) arms and Adho Mukha Mukha Svanasana (Downward Facing Dog Pose) - to gradually open you up with ease and integrity to the delightfully heart-opening experience of a comfortable Urdvha Danurasana.

5. Shoulder & Wrist Imbalances

Vinyasa Flow,  Ashtanga Vinyasa and Power Yoga practices involving repeated vinyasas of chataranga-up dog-downdog, hopping to standing or into arm balances can build self-purifying internal heat while strengthening and opening the bodymind in beautifully spirited ways. They can also blow out your shoulders, wrists and low back unless approached consciously, compassionately and with structural integrity.

Let’s look just at the wrists. As Susi Aldous Hatley has shown in Anatomy and Asana, with tightness in the mid- to upper-spine and shoulders, natural blood flow and neurological flow to the wrists is compromised. The ability of the nerves to tell the muscles what to do and the blood to maintain ample oxygenation of the cells is thrown off, thereby contributing to the likelihood of injuries such as wrist sprains or carpal tunnel syndrome.

As you begin to apply pressure to your wrists in the movement into, through and out of Chataranga, Up Dog and Down Dog, commit yourself to firmly rooting down into the knuckles of your index fingers so that you are balancing the pressure across the entire span of your wrists and hands. In Up Dog look to see that your shoulders are directly above your wrists (farther back will further strain the wrists, farther forward will strain the low back). And whenever jumping forward from Down Dog to standing, note the tendency to pretty severely hyperextend your wrists as you land, a tendency that can be minimized by slightly bending the elbows before landing. Meanwhile, when folding into Uttanasana (Standing Forward Bend) amidst a flowing vinyasa, consider momentarily placing the back of your hands on the floor each time to gently counter-stretch your wrists,  integrating a simple form of wrist therapy into the flow of your practice.

Yoga for Life

The key to reducing injury and sustaining your practice begins with conscious vinyasa – from the root word "nyasa, meaning "to place," and the prefix "vi, meaning "in a special way. " It continues by tuning into the best yoga teacher you will ever have - your inner teacher that you can sense through the breath and myriad reactions that you experience amidst it all. It goes forther my exploring with wise progresssion, with proper sequencing as you gradually warm and open to the fullest expression of your creative being. This is the ancient wisdom of yoga as expressed in Surya Namaskara, bowing to the inner sun, the truth and wisdom of the heart, and letting all else unfold from there like a flower to the morning rays.

When you next step onto your mat, play with beginning with your palms together at your heart in Anjali Mudra, the reverence seal. Bring your fingertips to your forehead and set conscious intention in your practice, vowing to practice with the inner intelligence and compassion of a dedicated sadhu, a yoga practitioner guided by the principles of ahimsa (non-hurting) and satya (truth). With your palms - that intention - sealed into your heart, feel your breath and let the practice begin.