I teach a lot of workshops about anatomy and biomechanics in yoga practice, and I am a physical therapist. So inevitably, people come to my classes with their aches, pains, and injuries, or hoping to prevent aches, pains, and injury in themselves and their students. Because of this, it gets so easy to start rattling off a list of “dangers” and cautions around movement and poses. Yet, I have a pretty strong aversion to dualistic thought (good/bad, right/wrong), especially when it comes to movement, so the other day I made what I think is an important distinction in summary form about my recommendations for practice —
Healing and prevention don’t happen with maximal effort or at the end ranges of mobility.
I actually think this statement has implications that go beyond the physical, but I’ll let a mental health professional take that one.
I also say this in full recognition and support of the reality that we are not always nor should we be always striving for healing and prevention, and thus our choices can vary widely.
That being said, from the neuromyofascial perspective, if your intention is healing of an injury or prevention of injury, key elements of practice, in my opinion, are as follows:
Grading your effort such that you able to breathe comfortably through your nose (adjust this statement to “breathe comfortably” if you have an obstruction that does not allow you to breathe through your nose).
Avoid pose variations or exercises that require maximal physical effort (aka “trying too hard syndrome”), which does not allow for observation, exploration, or mistakes.
Avoid pose variations or exercises that require you to reach the end of your available mobility. This means if you are in a passive stretch, the point beyond which you are “stuck” and unable to move further. If you are in an active shape (like triangle pose or side angle, for example), this would be the point where one or more parts of your body are at their maximum capacity to elongate with you still able to sustain the posture. This has the same effect as “trying too hard syndrome,” where often sensation or fear/concern/panic take over and there is no room for breath, observation, exploration or mistakes without negative consequences.
Examples of this would be things like, if you can’t breathe comfortably (or at least focus on the attempt to breathe comfortably) while in side plank pose, then you need a new variation that is less effortful for you in that moment. The same goes for hanumanasana, or front splits, where using props as part of the pose or trying variations of the pose can allow your nervous system to be less, well, nervous, therefore giving you the presence of mind to observe/explore/listen to your body’s messages.
The important distinction here, I think, is for each of us to get clear about our “why” for practicing, or even for choosing a particular variation in the moment. Asking ourselves “Why?” is an essential part of learning to practice discernment, and to make our yoga practice our own, even in the midst of a group class. Maybe I know that practicing bakasana (crow pose) could end in a face plant, or irritate that old wrist injury, so I ask myself, why do it? Maybe I have a good reason to do it anyway, and I make the choice with awareness of the risks and my reasons for taking them. Maybe I have a teacher that has offered an alternative that keeps me feeling included without having to attempt to pose, so I choose safety.
Much like a skydiver, figure skater, soccer player, *insert whatever sport or adventure suits*, doesn’t do it for their health, some days I choose to practice and teach effortful, gymnastic asana, because it’s fun, or the physical challenge enlivens me. But let’s not kid ourselves into thinking that practicing headstand or lotus are key ingredients to a better life.
It’s important to me that, whether in the role of teacher or practitioner, that we’re clear about which choices are supportive of healing and injury/illness prevention, and which are supportive of something else (and what that something else is). The responses will not be the same for every person, and may not be the same for one person on different days or at different points in life, which is why we must keep asking “Why?” and challenging ourselves to really consider the answer and if/how it serves us.
We are not all in the same body, living the same life, with the same experiences, with the same needs, and in the same place along our path. This truth is what makes both teaching and learning yoga so difficult. There are no absolutes here, only observation, listening, exploration, and practice. Notice when you are practicing in service of your “why,” and when you are practicing in service of your “shoulds.” This is probably the best advice I can give anyone in the end.