Part two: preventing injury on your yoga mat.
(Read Part One here.)
I like to view injury and illness as an opportunity to rest and recoup on more than just a physical level.
Having said that, your yoga practice should be where you come to rejuvenate, not to get hurt. So why has this become such a common topic within yoga circles?
I think a huge part of it is as basic as people not learning proper safety techniques before embarking upon a practice that’s outside of their individual range of healthy ability. Put more simply, we allow our egos to hop on our mats with us, and we aren’t learning from a qualified source.
The following suggestions are, in many cases, over simplifications of complex mechanisms within the body and our practices, but you have to start somewhere. So let’s begin with these simple tips.
- Flex your feet. During postures that externally rotate your hips (Pigeon pose, Firelog pose), flex your feet. This protects your knees and ensures that your stretch is coming from where it should be—your hips.
- Lengthen your lower back. Don’t only lengthen through your lower back in backbends. Make sure you’re also lifting your frontal hip points in poses like Warrior I., and lunging postures. Yoga aims to create space. Keep this in mind if you ever feel a crunched lower back. (Yet don’t go overboard and round through your lower back either.)
- Stay lifted in lunges. In postures like high lunge, don’t sink your hips too low. Imagine that your back leg and pelvis are being lifted from underneath by helium. Don’t be so obsessed with getting into such a super low-hipped lunge that your front knee becomes compromised.
- Parallel feet. In Chair pose the reason your big toes touch and there’s space between your heels is simple—and it relates to how your feet should look when standing hip-width apart on your mat. (Ultimately this equates to proper neutral action within your hips.) Look at your second and third toes and make them parallel. For most of us, our feet are kind of v-shaped and this, when your feet are together, creates some very slight space between your heels.
- Proper headstand. Flopping up into a headstand, flinging your legs haphazardly against a wall—this is not preparing your body for the strength and concentration a headstand utilizes. You’re better off learning how to prepare your body physically and mentally—even if this means you don’t come into the full inversion.
- Eclipse your heels during downward dog. Essentially, this is just another way to tell you how to activate your legs. (The more common queue is take your inner thighs apart and back, but to many people this makes no sense until they learn more about their bodies.) Another way to think of this is when you’re in your downdog, do you look at your ankles and see that your inner ankle looks kind of scrunched, kind of shortened compared to your outer ankle? If you’re lengthening equally, you’ll begin to see your heels disappear and your inner thighs will make themselves known. Using your body in this micro-movement fashion teaches you how to use your muscles to prevent injury.
- Healthy standing knees. It’s crucial not to lock your knees out in standing postures because you’re not properly engaging your muscles and you could be hyperextending. Learn how to activate your arches. This is rather complicated, so don’t get frustrated. Imagine an outline around your foot, including around each toe. Press into this outline as you lift up through your arch. You should feel activation of your quadriceps right above your knee caps. You’re pulling your knee up by engaging your leg muscles, rather than just locking out the joint. Point: you want to work your muscles, not other soft surrounding connective tissues.
- Warm up—and I’m not just talking about sun salutations. Example: If you want to work towards Firefly pose then make sure your hips and hamstrings are prepared. If you don’t know how to properly work through preparation postures, talk to a qualified teacher.
- Stay in your body. Get out of your head and into your body and breath. Not shockingly, this takes—wait for it—practice.
- Push your limits safely. It’s absolutely great if you practice a style of yoga that encourages you to step out of your comfort zone and try new things. However, learning to let go of your ego and stay within your body’s physical capabilities is not just a requirement of staying injury free, it’s also a practice in self-respect. Learning when to push ahead and when to back off takes both skill and self-knowledge. My yoga mat has taught me that my ego-driven, type-A personality does not serve me—it undermines me, and yet, my yoga practice has also taught me that the only limitations that exist for me are in my head. Let your yoga mat be your ally on your life’s journey rather than a source of stress.
Yoga doesn’t have to be dangerous. Actually some of the best yoga happens nowhere near a mat.
I hope these tips help you re-think your practice, yourself and, more than anything, I hope your mat becomes a source of healing. Namaste.
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Ed: Brianna Bemel