I had the pleasure of reading and marking the final research papers of the 2016/17 cohort of 889's LYS program. While I was moved by many that I read, I wanted to share this one by one of my students, Melissa. It speaks my language if you know what I'm saying :)
They say that headstand and shoulder stand are the king and queen of all asanas. By mastering these postures, it is said that you are one-step closer to the divine, but is the average yoga student ready to embark upon these postures and can they do so safely, without risk of injury? I have discovered through my own journey, injury, and rehabilitation that there is much work to be done before these postures can be safely achieved. A dynamic asana sequences in itself is a wonderful physical practice but does it alone provide the strengthening required for a student to practice safely in their body?
In ancient times, a Guru would assign a student a posture to study, and only when that posture was mastered would the Guru allow the student to move on to the next. Take a traditional Surya Namaskar A for instance, in this series we move from Plank into Chaturanga, through to Upward Facing Dog. How many students practice these postures incorrectly and how many of them are actually ready to move on to the next posture in the series? As you look around the room in any modern day yoga class, Chaturanga is practiced incorrectly by a large number of students. Weight is often dumped in the chest as a result of weak upper back muscles, causing the shoulders to roll forward, putting pressure on the joints. While the muscles in the front body tend to be stronger in most students, the rhomboids and serratus anterior muscles that are required to stabilize the shoulder girdle are often not engaged. There is work that needs to be done in between these Vinyasa classes to build these supporting muscle groups in order to effectively, and safely move through these postures.
While it is often not openly discussed in studios, and especially not during a class, most advanced practitioners engage in some form of weight training to support their asana practice. Beautifully aligned Chaturanga is likely supported by engaging in strengthening the core, upper back muscles, and triceps. While practicing Chaturanga on your knees or with a block under your chest will in fact help to build strength, it is not commonly observed in your average modern day yoga student. Beginner to intermediate students haven’t yet achieved a regular self practice and can be concerned with what the person on the mat next to them is doing, and by not wanting to appear weak, push their bodies before their muscles are strong enough to advance. One of the many problems with this is that students will continue to push themselves through bad form and as a result, their muscles do not strengthen. If these muscles do not become stronger, the arm balancing series will not be safely accessible, and if attempted may result in injury. The mark of a newly found Bakasana practice are bruises on the backs of the triceps, yogis proudly displaying these injuries as badges of honor, a mastery of mind over matter. However, are these students aware that when you see a practitioner with a beautiful Bakasana practice, it is important to note how much core strength is required to take the weight out of the knees, which dump into the triceps and cause those bruises? All arm balancing postures are supported by a strong core and that strong core is essential for proper form and to avoid injury.
One of the goals of a yoga practice is overcoming the ego but the ego itself is what seems to drive students to push their bodies past their breaking points. Students observe yogis on social media, in Youtube videos and in publications and see advanced postures being effortlessly displayed without much explanation of what journey it took to get those practitioners to that point in their practice. It is also not known if those practitioners are pushing through pain themselves, or if the photo is a clear representation of sthira and sukha (steadiness and ease). It is a case of image versus reality. Even the most advanced practitioners can succumb to the ego and open themselves up to injury if not mindful of their body’s limitations.
A common misconception in the mind of a yoga student is that passive stretching of the hamstrings will open up your practice. While it may be the answer for some, it is not the case for everyone. I have personally been told by my own teachers that stretching my hamstrings would tremendously open doors in my practice, but are hamstrings the only problem and is the teacher really qualified to dish out that advice? It was not until visiting a fascia specialist that I discovered that while my hamstrings are in fact tight, they were not necessarily the problem. The culprit? Tight calves. Not many yoga teachers talk about stretching the calve muscles but after a lot of very uncomfortable rehabilitation, my forward fold and downward dog were greatly improved. Had I not visited a Physical Therapist and had only listened to my yoga community, I would still be suffering through long passive stretching sessions hoping that one day my practice would advance, and perhaps injuring myself in the process.
It is important for open dialogue between teachers and students regarding self-care and the strength building required for an advanced practice. It is my intention to not only teach yoga but also offer resources for strength building through my own experience as well as referencing material that I find helpful in advancing my own practice. Not only will I share my journey through a blog on my website, it is my intention to spotlight postures and the work outside of the yoga studio required to safely practice and advance. If it were to spotlight Chatarunga, I would offer strength building sequences such as rows, core work and tricep work utilizing weights, resistance bands and blocks. Other areas of focus will be on the anatomy of the posture, as understanding the anatomy is crucial for understanding what your muscles should be doing to safely support the pose. It is important to educate students in order to help them not only practice safely but also grow as practitioners. My experience with 30 hours of anatomy was quite eye opening and I feel that every student could benefit from it.
Students experiencing injuries often ask the advice of their yoga teacher but with most teaching training programs, anatomy is only a small part of the curriculum. Some teachers may feel comfortable giving advice on the subject but it is dangerous territory unless you are certain of your advice. As a teacher, I tread lightly on the subject, and while I may offer soft advice, such as suggesting Epson salt baths or using a foam roller to assist in the breakup of fascia, I feel it is important to refer students to an appropriate practitioner such as a Chiropractor, Physio Therapist, Acupuncturist or Massage Therapist for a proper diagnosis. It is important to grow and learn as a teacher but to also understand your own scope of practice. As Yoga Teachers, it is crucial to stress the importance of proper self-care and injury rehabilitation for beginners and advanced practitioners alike.