Magazines around the world promote slender models doing yoga poses and even manipulate the images to show an even smaller figure. It is somewhat ironic that one of the core guiding principles of yoga is humility and self-acceptance. Yoga has been sought after by gyms, personal trainers and health practitioners to promote a healthy body and there is nothing wrong with that. However, yoga has the power to transform much more than just your physical body.
Practicing yoga involves a strong intention to accept the body as it is in the present moment. We need to be patient with ourselves and find the space between effort and effortlessness that will challenge the body without pushing it to the point of injury or harm. In doing so, we slowly come to realize our own unique beauty regardless of perceived limitations and imperfections.
Unlike other exercise forms which strive to distract the practitioner from physical sensations, the yoga practitioner strives to develop a heightened sense of awareness on all levels of his/her being. Particular emphasis is placed on awareness of the breath and the practice of yoga postures becomes a meditation on the sensations of the body. One of the classical goals of yoga is to become both aware and accepting of any injuries, diseases and perceived imperfections so that we can learn from them and eventually become aware of the deeper, inherently joyful part of ourselves that is beyond the suffering of the physical body and mind.
The integration of breath and movement is an essential aspect of the practice of yoga. Awareness of our breathing patterns gives us insight into how we approach challenges and suffering in other areas of our life. Working on taking deep, long, full breaths during the practice of yoga can help us to become aware of the source of our suffering and give us insight into how we can alleviate it. It can also help to more thoroughly oxygenate all of the cells, ligaments, tendons and muscles in the body and pave the way to better breathing habits in general.
Originally, the practice of yoga postures was to create greater comfort and ease within the body so that we would be in a better position to concentrate or focus during meditation. The practice of yoga can help us to cultivate this ability to focus. By first becoming aware of the fluctuations of the mind, the practitioner becomes better able to control his/her thoughts. We come to a realization that our thoughts and emotions are transient and that we no longer need to be reactive or enslaved by them.
During the practice of yoga postures, our attention is often drawn to ideal alignment. Although postures draw us in and out of neutral spine, the healthy, natural curves of the spine are emphasized and we become intensely aware of how we are positioning our bodies in space. The practitioner learns how to move in and out of postures with awareness and good body mechanics so that less stress is placed on the joints. At the end of a yoga practice, the muscular skeletal system is better able to relax and rejuvenate.
This refers to movement patterns that minimize stress on ligaments, tendons, muscles and joints. When a yoga teacher talks about aligning the knee above the centre of the ankle or positioning the shoulders above the wrists in a quadruped position, she is helping her students achieve greater stability around the joints to allow for less stress on supporting structures.
Playing Your Edge
When a yoga student is playing her edge, she is finding that ideal place between effort and effortlessness where the body is challenged but not stressed. The student bumps up against her limitations. By honouring them and not pushing through pain sensations, the student avoids injury but over time reaches new levels of strength and flexibility.
Prana is the Sanskrit word for “vital life”. In Vedantic philosophy, prana is the notion of a vital, life-sustaining force of living beings and vital energy. The concept of prana is comparable to the Chinese notion of Qi. Yogic and aryuvedic texts describe prana as life force which suffuses all living beings and flows through a network of fine subtle channels called nadis. It is talked about in ancient yogic texts as far back as the Upanishads where it is said to sustain the body and be the mother of thought.
This is a term meaning to do no harm. The word is derived from the Sanskrit root hims which means to strike. Himsa means injury or harm, and ahimsa means to avoid doing harm, non-harming or nonviolence. Ahimsa is a vital component in many Indian religions such as Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism. This non-harming encompasses nonviolence towards all living things in thought and action, including harm to ourselves, animals and the ecosystem. At the core of this tenet of nonviolence is the belief that all living things are connected; to do harm to others entails doing harm to oneself and is also thought by many yogis to create a domino effect of unforeseen and negative karmic consequences.
The SAID principal
By applying the SAID principal (Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demand), basic yoga poses have the capacity to systematically strengthen and stretch each part of the body in a balanced, progressive way. By simply increasing the duration of time a yoga pose is held and/or sometimes lengthening the lever, strength, flexibility and stamina will progressively improve.
The practice of yoga postures (like any other physical activity) should involve a warm up. Breath awareness (pranayama) exercises can help to calm and focus the mind. Examples of warm-up movements in yoga include:
- lengthening and rounding the spine in a quadruped position such as one might do in Cat pose (marjarasana)
- lateral flexion movements either lying down on the back, in a quadruped position or standing. While standing it can be advisable to start with lifting only one hand and arm while the other rests at your side
- gentle lunging movements (possibly with one knee resting on the mat or a blanket)
- spinal roll downs from a standing position
As a yoga instructor, it is up to you to make sure that your participants avoid forcing, straining or overtraining. Starting your class by speaking a little bit about ahimsa (non-harming) towards oneself can be helpful. This is a preventative measure which can help your participants to understand that yoga can cause injury when practitioners push themselves to hard.
Explain that yoga poses should be practiced with awareness and should never cause any kind of pain or discomfort. Choreograph your class by providing a modified version first and then suggest a version of the pose that participants who need more of a challenge can try. For instance, you can describe and demonstrate plank pose with the knees down first and then say, “for those of you who need more of a challenge, lift one or both knees”.
Use of Props
Props can be used to make students more comfortable doing a pose which they might otherwise be unable to do (i.e. are injured or too inflexible). For instance, a bolster or a block can be placed underneath the hands in separate leg forward fold or a folded woolen blanket can be placed underneath the seat for people who would otherwise be unable to sit on the floor due to tight hamstrings. Using a strap around the foot can help participants achieve a more comfortable, even stretch on the back of the leg in supine hamstring stretch. A bolster underneath the knees can make a student with lower back discomfort more comfortable in corpse pose and a blanket over the body can help them feel warmer and more relaxed.