Charlie says: “Yoga asana practice requires a combination of strength and flexibility. Too many yoga students are excessively focused on improving their flexibility without developing the necessary stabilizing strength to support their joints and their muscles. Flexibility without stability can lead to injury. Cultivating a strong support for your yoga postures allows you to develop flexibility safely, and allows you to practice more advanced asana when the time is right.”
Pain is not something you envisage experiencing in your yoga practice, right? And it’s a black hole that no one (even yoga teachers) likes to admit to because it makes us feel… weak?
But I’m going to put my hands up and confirm that whilst holding certain asanas, I have allowed my ego to egg me on and keep me in it so as not to give in! Surely, not surrendering to discomfort whilst holding say Trikonasana, can only strengthen the body?
That would be a big fat no followed by lots of tumbleweed.
Let’s just define pain: that is going past your edge, and accepting your edge. Your edge is the place you first feel some pull, tension or mental awakening. Pain is zooming past your edge into a situation that does your mind and body no favours. Unfortunately, the hard and fast culture of today finds it hard to discern the two. Are you aware of the very beginning of your edge? Try and find it in seated forward bend (Paschimottanasana). As you fold forward are you straight away thinking of getting your head down and pulling on your feet? Has pain gone straight to your lower back, knees or neck?
Whilst discussing aspects of practice with Charlie Taylor-Rugman, my teacher, being mindful of a shoulder injury, we got onto the topic of pain and sensations during a yoga practice. You come into a pose and… What? What do you do? What should you experience?
What you shouldn’t experience at any point in your practice is pain or an intensity near your joints? Why? because this isn’t muscle you’re playing with, its ligaments and tendons.
What’s the difference between a tendon and a muscle? Muscle stretches, tendons/ligaments don’t!
Tendons are tough bands of connective tissue found in joints all over the body and connect muscle to bone. A tendon is the mediator between the specific joint and muscle, creating movement when the muscle contracts.
Ligaments are made up of the same connective tissue as tendons, but connect bone to bone, stabilizing joints and creating a firm structure of support. And this is something we need to be aware of in our practice – stabilizing joints. Not just stretching them.
There are three types of muscle, ranging from voluntary to involuntary, which all activate once they receive messages from the brain.
So, when we move into Virabhadrasana, the brain sends the muscle impulses creating movement via a contraction, which then allows the tendons to pull the muscle and bone together, which is then stabilized by the ligaments so we don’t go beyond our physical capabilities. But do we? In a class situation, can you recognise your individual bodies capabilities and edges? Because when we push past these boundaries our bodies have created, we are jeopardising our bodies stability and therefore putting tremendous strain on our ligaments and tendons, parts of our bodies that don’t really have much stretch. But why do we do this? What makes us stay stuck in a position that really doesn’t serve us mentally (we’ve all been there in pain, screaming “oh my goodness!! Please hurry up and get me out of this bloomin awful position before my knee, hip, shoulder, neck snaps!)
Holding a pose. I think this speaks volumes in regard to its execution and deliverance.
verb – assume a particular position in order to be photographed, painted or drawn.
Noun – a particular way of behaving adopted in order to impress or to give a false impression.
Asana – to be seated in a position that is firm but relaxed.
Do you pose or do you asana? Are you performing without due intention on what you’re trying to achieve? Or does your asana support your flexibility with stability?
When practicing Parsvakonasana, tension could be felt in the back straight leg. When my teacher showed me a picture of myself holding said pose, the straight line from foot to arm which is paramount to a stable and supportive posture, was replaced with a hanging in the knee joint.
What happened? Well, my ego took hold and I went as far and deep as I could. Because that’s what you do, right?
Nope. Against the grain, I took a beginners stance of feet much closer together and inner arm resting on bent thigh. Ego hated it. But then I pulled my feet together as strongly as I could (stability) and pushed my arm into my thigh and vice versa (stability), allowing the stretch to be greater along the entire top side of my body (flexibility) with no sagging in the knee joint.
From years of road running, years of Thai massage and allowing my ego to get the better of me and pushing my legs into places they just weren’t ready, they can be quite sensitive at times, so for this to be implemented into my neurological pathways is a revelation and has had an amazing effect on my practice, with the sensations I feel and how I maintain an asana.
I think this highlights just how important a physical teacher is in ANY aspect of yoga learning. Whether you are new or a sadhu, to receive the gift of a teachers perspective can make the world of difference to your yoga. As I’m beginning to learn both on and off the mat, you don’t have to do everything yourself. Be supported more often than not.