We’re told that yoga is good for our health, right?
I wonder then, why the vast majority of people I meet through yoga have, or have had, practice related injuries. Another curious observation is the increasing number of yoga centers that include a chiropractor or other structural therapist’s office on their premises.
What went wrong or what are we missing when it comes to yoga practice to have these many ?
A widespread encouragement is to practice, and continue to practice, for all the anticipated flexibility, strength and health to manifest. This statement on the one hand is hinting at an important part of yoga practice - that yoga is about the practice – a regular practice specifically. Without going into the specifics here, our body, including the nervous system and brain, exists on a use it or lose it foundation. Strength, flexibility and balance all require to be attended to, much like the proverbial plant that will die when not watered.
The difference, and point of interest here, is that our practice, or perception thereof, is often not following the ideal for the individual. Our habit patterns, overall posture and neuromuscular coordination differ from the healthy alignment, economical activation and biomechanically sensible use of your physique and needs. Resultantly, we notice the tightness, soreness, fatigue and various levels of discomfort when the initial ‘yoga practice makes me feel good’ moment wears off. Then a massage, extra rest or other treats and treatments become appealing in order to balance the impact our yoga practice has had.
Body awareness, understanding of the individual components of parts we move during asana practice, holds the key to really improving health with asana practice. When we develop sensitivity for what limitations and sensations feel like and how those can guide us to a frictionless and lighter practice, then we move closer to the proposed result.
Intellectualizing the yoga practice is counterproductive in this quest. Substituting reading for movement and practice will hardly improve the discomfort. An integrated, intelligent yoga practice, has the potential to bring about change. The more we understand, independent of the source of this understanding, the greater our potential for improvement. Understanding can be gained by simply listening to the sensations in our body with discernment. A muscle that is contracting to support a movement or joint, feels different from a muscle that is stretched or a potential strain of the same tissue. A joint moving to the end of its range of motion can be distinguished from a joint compression or ligament strain. Practicing with our breath held or forced feels different to breathing with ease. External observations of bodily shape often fall short of noticing these finer, yet important differences.
It takes only a relatively short time for most yoga practitioners to learn how to make the basic shapes of yoga asana. This by no means should be taken as an understanding of yoga practice. A saying by one of my yoga teachers is: ‘Yoga is not a work out – it is a work in’. The performance of yoga asana shapes stands somewhere on par with knowing a dance routine and a gym work out. And this is a good start.
Easily the idea can be grasped how instability and misalignment might result from attempting to fit the hundreds of movable parts of our body into an outer mold without considering at least minimal structural support guidelines.
Understanding anatomical (structural) and physiological (functional) relationships and principles will facilitate asana expression. Knowledge of your body may be gained from teacher’s instructions, reading books, watching instructional videos, sensing internally or other means. Translating this knowledge into asana practice then opens the door to refining what we attempt to do. Once awareness is brought to an area of our body, to an action, or a sensation, then we have a choice. We can either continue as we have done so far, or make adjustments to reflect the expanded knowledge of who we are and what we are capable of.
Intelligent yoga practice in this regard is an involved practice of awareness and adaptation. For our yoga practice to be reflected in our health, intelligent, applied practice is necessary. Intellectual practice might be involved for some, but is not required for success. Practice without awareness or intelligence might fail to be yoga practice.
Intelligent yoga practice perpetually improves well-being by addressing and integrating all parts of us.