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Enjoying a Safe and Sound Yoga Practice

Posted Apr 24 2009 7:22am

As you move from one yogic posture to the next, pay attention to the signals taking place between your mind and your body. Do you feel removed from your problems, comfortable and confident with your strength, motion, and steadiness? Or are you painfully in tune with each passing minute, sensing physical awkwardness and strain in your movements? Listening to your own rhythms — and acknowledging their importance — can make your Yoga experience peaceful, calm, and secure. And that's what Yoga is all about.

Making sense of the perfect posture myth

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Some modern schools of Hatha Yoga claim that they teach "perfect" postures that you can slip into as easily as a tailor-made suit. But should a 15-year-old athlete perform a posture following the same guidelines that apply to a 60-year-old retiree? Surely not. Besides, these schools disagree among themselves about what constitutes a perfect posture. To spell it out, the perfect posture is perfectly mythical.

Posture has only two requirements: A posture should be steady and comfortable.

  • Steady posture: This is any posture that's held stable for a period of time. The key isn't freezing all movement, though. Your posture becomes steady when your mind is steady. As long as your thoughts run wild and your negative emotions are not held in check, you're not steady.

  • Comfortable posture: A posture is comfortable when it is enjoyable and enlivening rather than boring and burdensome. A comfortable posture increases your sattva. The more sattva you have, the more relaxed and happy you will be.

Listening to your body

No one knows your body like you do. The more you practice Yoga, the better you can become at determining your limitations with each posture: Each posture presents its own unique challenge. Ideally, you want to feel encouraged to explore and expand your physical and emotional boundaries without straining or injuring yourself.

Some teachers speak of practicing at the edge. The idea is to gradually push that edge farther back and open up new territory.

To practice at the edge, you must cultivate self-observation and pay attention to the feedback from your body.

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Gauge the intensity of a Yoga posture using a scale from 1 to 10, with 10 being at the threshold of pain. Especially watch your breath. If your breathing becomes labored, it's usually a good indication that you are going over the edge.

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Beginners commonly experience trembling when holding certain Yoga postures. Normally, the involuntary motion is in the legs or arms and is nothing to worry about, as long as you aren't straining. The tremors are simply a sign that your muscles are working in response to a new demand. Instead of focusing on the wobbly feeling, make your breath a little longer and allow your attention to go deeper within. If the trembling goes off the Richter scale, either ease up a little or end the posture altogether.

Moving slowly but surely

All postural movements are intended for slow performance. Unfortunately, our movements are unconscious, too fast, and not particularly graceful. We stumble, bump into things, and are generally not aware of our bodies. The yogic postures oblige you to adopt a different attitude. Among the advantages of slow motion are:

  • You enhance your awareness, which enables you to listen to what your body is telling you.

  • You lower the risk of straining or spraining muscles, tearing ligaments, or overtaxing your heart.

  • You relax more quickly.

  • Your breathing is improved.

  • You use more muscle groups.

Practice your postures at a slow, steady pace while calmly focusing on your breath and your movements. Resist the temptation to speed up; instead, savor each posture. If your breathing becomes labored or you begin to feel fatigued, just rest until you're ready to go on.

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If you find yourself rushing through your program, pause and ask yourself why you're in a hurry. If you have an actual reason, such as an imminent appointment, your best bet is to crop your program and focus on fewer exercises. However, if you're rushing because you're bored, remind yourself why you're practicing Yoga in the first place. Renew your motivation by telling yourself that you have plenty of time to complete your session; you have no earthly reason to be in any hurry.

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Boredom is a sign that you are detached from your own bodily experience and are not living in the present moment. Resume your Yoga practice as a full participant in the process.

Function over form

You don't have to have perfect form the day you start practicing yoga. Instead, think of having forgiving limbs. Although bent arms and legs don't look flashy, they enable you to move your spine more easily, which is the focus of many postures and the key to a healthy spine. For example, the primary mechanical function of a standing forward bend is to stretch your lower back. If you have a good back, take a moment to do this adapted posture that's safe for beginners:

1. Stand up straight and, without forcing anything, bend forward and try to place your head on your knees with the palms of your hands on the floor.

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Very few men or women can actually do this, especially beginners.

2. Now stand up again, separate your feet to hip width, and bend forward, allowing your legs to bend until you can place your hands on the floor and almost touch your head to your knees.

Bending your legs is perfectly acceptable. As you become more flexible — and you will! — gradually straighten your legs until you can come closer to the ideal posture. A common lower back injury occurs when weekend warriors, inspired by young agile instructors, try to do the seated version of the straight-legged forward bend and push too far.

Approaching Yoga with open eyes

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Should you keep your eyes open or closed during Yoga practice? If you're comfortable with your eyes closed, then close them. You may feel more focused and able to hear your body's signals. However, standing and balancing postures require you to keep your eyes open.

With a little practice, you can stay focused even with your eyes open. In general, Yoga practitioners favor an open-eyed approach to life's challenges. They like to know what's in front of them, and therefore execute the postures with open eyes.

Seasoned meditators, by the way, can enter into deep meditation without shutting their eyes, though don't be surprised if they have a blank look; they have effectively withdrawn their awareness from external reality and are happily conscious at a different level. You can expect to experience something of this attitude as you master the various postures and breathing exercises.

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