I recently listened to a Jason Crandell podcast on injury prevention. My net takeaway to share with you is this: The best way to prevent injury in yoga is to make sure you’re hearing your signals. Crandell says, “Yoga IS for everybody. But not all POSES are for every body, OR for every body at every time.” You know that’s consistent with my approach to teaching and practicing, but I loved what he has to say about how this way IS the practice.
Crandell recalls the prime purpose of yoga, which is to bring about composure and equanimity that can inform our whole lives. He asks us to seek that same approach in our physical practice. We certainly need challenges in order to grow. But, pushing too hard, too often or with force that’s too concentrated causes injury. In further researching this topic I came across the following quote from BKS Iyengar, one of our most renowned yoga teachers:
The challenge of yoga is to go beyond our limits - within reason. We continually expand the frame of the mind by using the canvas of the body. It is as if you were to stretch a canvas more and create a larger surface for a painting. But we must respect the present form of our body. If you pull too much at once, we will rip the canvas. If the practice of today damages the practice of tomorrow, it is not correct practice. --B.K.S. Iyengar
So how do we find that composure in our practice? Crandell urges us practice in a way that allows us to seek evenness, an equal sensory experience with balanced sensation. If you’re in a pose and it creates a lot of intensity, that force needs to be distributed equally in order to avoid injury. He says to consider our pacing, alignment, intensity, and the duration and repetition of practice to remain safe. It’s easy to get swept along in the joy of practicing (ie. overdoing your favorite pose) or going along with the rest of the class even when your body would do better to pause, or even to modify or choose a different pose (legs up the wall anyone?)
Pacing is an easy place to start. If you’re going so fast that you can’t listen to the signals of your body, you know you’re creating the possibility of injury. Alignment can help us make sure we’re distributing our force evenly. One example we frequently explore in class is the effect of our head being forward of the rest of the body and how that creates excessive pull on many other parts of the body.
We can think, too, about the intensity of force on our body. Crandell uses the example of cat/cow where the force on our body is relatively low. There, it’s safer to explore the end ranges of our ability to move. It’s low stress, so we aren’t exerting high force when we’re at the end-range of each movement. But, in bigger, more forceful poses we want to use even greater care to distribute stressors across the system. Think about a forward fold. If there’s a concentration of sensation in one place we aren’t sharing the load and are at greater risk. Instead, we can move in and out of the pose slowly. Then we’ll listen for feedback from the body on whether there’s focused pulling such as on the hamstring attachment at the sitting bones, or in the low back. Is the pose even, and is the opposing muscle group/ie. quadriceps activated to support the lengthening of the hamstring? In other words, is everything working together or are we overworking any place?
Overwork can occur even when we’re stacked up just right—like when we hold something too long or do it too often. It would be nice to say, “If you just do the pose this one perfect way, you will always be safe from injury.” The reality is that our whole practice requires us to stay present. Long, flexible muscles result from balanced practice that is also STABLE. That means resting when we’re tired. It means noticing if our effort is even or if we’re feeling much more sensation in one spot than anyplace else. It means skillful use of props and modifications and variety of experience so that we’re challenging ourselves in new ways.
We need to stretch ourselves to stay resilient. And the best way forward is not to hurt ourselves in the process! Being present to our practice gives us the tools to enjoy and skillfully navigate the journey whether on or off the mat.
I've taught and lived yoga for more than 20 years. I know it can be intimidating. But it can also be fun--and rewarding--regardless of your starting point or challenges. On this blog I share some of the yoga wisdom that sustains me.