Asana: Self Care, Awareness and Injuries

Yin Yoga Workshop Beginner YogiI’ve been riffing this blog post for a while now, catching myself ‘writing’ the article in my head in the shower…you know, as you do. I want to talk about self-care, awareness and injuries…not necessarily in the context of yoga causing injuries (though sadly sometimes the case) but about safety, presence and ultimately prevention.

I’m not trying to offer the answers to the injuries and disconnection I often see in class, I’m trying to spread awareness and create a conversation with teachers and students, and hear from both sides as I’m sure I’m not alone in my thoughts about yoga and injuries.

Note: all of this is my (very) humble opinion. My priority is helping students to practice safely, and with awareness so that they can breathe, move and feel better. Peace.

It is Beginner Yogi Yoga Studio’s first birthday on 1st August (YAY!) and I have learn’t SO much in the last 12 months, especially when it comes to people, physical injuries and yoga. Staying safe in a yoga class, while still challenging yourself and deepening your practice is a two fold thing. It involves the teacher and the student. There is responsibility on both sides.

As teachers we should be giving people options (and not instructing more advanced poses unless we are 100% confident that we can keep people safe) and educating students that it should feel good in their bodies, any pain: BACK OFF! I recently went to another studios Power Vinyasa class and instead of coming into Upward Facing Dog, I moved myself into a gentle Cobra, because for Me that is what feels good. After a couple of rounds the teacher walked in front of me, came down to my level and used physical and verbal instructions to get me into Upward Facing Dog…even though my actions through out class had made it quite clear that I was super happy with my Cobra pose. Because she had made a thing about it, I dutifully came up into my Upward Facing Dog and then went back to Cobra for the rest of the class. Peace.

What worries me about this is that a: even as a teacher I felt pressured to move my body into a back bend that does not feel good for me and b: everyone else in class was also doing Upward Facing Dog even though it was pretty obvious that not everyone was ready or really knew how to do it properly.  Its a recipe for disaster. As teachers we need to give options, and permission for the practice to truly be your own. During a class, people will do exactly what you tell them to do. Example: when you get your rights and lefts mixed up and everyone gets into a tangled mess, even though it felt wrong, they followed your lead and went with it.

This is why we have our 6 Week Beginners Courses. We try to cultivate body awareness in the students, encouraging observation of how the pose feels, educate that they are in charge of their practice. In Warrior I or II or any other pose, there are squillions of modifications to be offered so that people know they have a choice. It literally takes seconds to add a few more words to your instructions. Lead by example and place yourself in a modified pose, this may help students feel they have the permission to soften their practice a little.

There are often times during class that a modification is offered to a student (a helpful one as opposed to unhelpful as above!) because it is clear that they are not physically enjoying an asana and then in the next round the student goes straight back into old habits. Doh! It’s complicated, there are so many factors involved here (ego, disconnection, 110%’ers, no pain – no gain etc etc), but as teachers, we still have a responsibility to do what we can to educate about self care and awareness.

The other side to this is about the student. You the student, the one actually practicing. While teachers should be cultivating a safe environment for you to practice, ultimately no one can know how You are feeling in each and every pose. I’ve witnessed numerous students (in our studio and others) with injuries that just keep pushing through, 110%, even though there have been a million modifications offered: soften to your knees, rest in child’s pose, left foot to ankle or inner calf, baby cobra, hands on hips, use a block to rest your head…SHAVASANA! SAVASANA! CORPSE POSE!

Tash Domonkos Beginner YogiThats why breath and presence is such an important key in asana practice. Personally, I can admit to times when I’ve realised that my lower back is aching every time I come into a certain pose, but because I’m not actually present (i.e thinking about dinner) I don’t even register that I’m hurting myself through out the whole practice. Like a song on repeat, I’m just going through the motions, completely disconnected from my body and what is telling me. 

Yoga can be incredibly effective as a therapy tool (along side other therapies), but I’ve seen students glaze over when it is suggested that actually right now pranayama and yoga nidra are likely to be more helpful than a Power Vinyasa class. Yoga is not a magical tool that will heal your physical injury by continuing a strenuous physical practice, when actually what is needed is a softer approach.

Luckily, it looks like self-care is trending at the moment, and more and more teachers are creating a space in their classes to tune in and do what feels good. In turn, students find the presence within themselves that they can tune into and look after themselves during their practice. The beauty of this is that this Presence and Self awareness will show up off the mat too, and you’ll find yourself only inviting what feels good into every day life. And that is magic.

So teachers: give your students the option to bring their foot to their ankle or calf in Tree Pose. Students: look after yourself, spend the next class you are in doing only what feels reeeeeeeeally good and notice the difference you feel after class. Energised. Peaceful. Spacious. Better.