Maintaining a healthy lifestyle requires listening to our body’s internal feedback and responding to it pertinently.
Come into plank. Hug your elbows in, firm your shoulders and core and slowly lower halfway to the ground.
Your muscles working and burning or maybe all you feel is your face hitting the floor—that’s what I experienced for the majority of my yogic life.
Chaturanga Dandasana (the yoga push-up) was always a pose that seemed out of reach for me; I was never strong in my upper body, so I would regularly avoid Flow classes at my Moksha studio. I’d wince my way through the dreaded few Vinyasas in our regular Hatha series.
That is, until I tapped into the magic of Sun Salutations.
I began practicing Surya Namaskar every day and for the first time in my life, I could actually see the muscles in my arms! Inspired by my newly bulging triceps, I began practicing all the inversions and arm balances I could. Over time, I developed an uncomfortable pain in my shoulder—and still no full Chaturanga!
After several physiotherapy appointments, I was told that a childhood injury—a broken collarbone—part of my trapezius and certain back muscles had rarely been used. This was seriously affecting my posture, as well as my shoulder joint function.
I was given some thera-band and plank exercises and after about ten seconds, it felt like the tiniest muscle was exploding out of my back. After months of battling with my shoulders, a new-found love for Vinyasa flow and hundreds of modified Chaturangas, there it was!
It wasn’t perfect or held for very long, but I was finally able to hold a decent Chaturanga, smoothly transitioning to upward dog.
When your upper back and shoulder muscles are weak (specifically the lower trapezius and rhomboids), they don’t pull your shoulders back and down properly. This causes hunching, neck pain, headaches and many other problems associated with poor posture.
I was appalled that I had gone so long without recognizing this glitch in my body and a little scared when I learned of the long-term implications if it wasn’t fixed (disintegration of my shoulder socket, for starters). From that moment, I became hyper-aware of everything in my body.
Tight lower back? My fascia was tight.
Sore knees? I wasn’t stretching my hips properly.
This is one of the many powers of yoga—to keep us in tune with our bodies so that we may care for it properly.
It is one thing to get sick or injured and immediately treat. But what about those injuries we don’t feel? Those injuries that don’t bother us until it’s too late?
Everyone has some experience like this: you injure yourself, and whether it’s five weeks or five years later, pain re-emerges.
I recently read a book by renowned yogi Ganga White, Yoga Beyond Belief, in which he discusses the idea of “the long view”—how to look at your body from a long-term perspective. I don’t want to experience back problems when I’m 30, weak bones when I’m 50 or hip replacements at 70; I want strength and mobility and health.
There is a clever analogy in White’s book: “What if you received a brand new car when you were sixteen, and were told it was the only one you could own your whole life? How would you treat it?”
Yes, our bodies are organic and can heal, but they are also fragile and should be treated as such. There is a popular notion that yoga is for flexible or strong people.
On the contrary, it is for people who want to become flexible, strong and healthy. We need to let go of the impression that we are stuck with the body we have and strive to change it. I love my wonky, imperfect and weak Chaturanga! It’s mine and it is a reflection of my hard work.
Your body is the only vessel you have to live in and take you through your [hopefully] long life. The body has been changing and developing for thousands of years, giving it precedence to any modern medicine or philosophy. Of all the resources for health available to us in the modern world, our body’s internal feedback is the most important and accurate one.
It is my belief that we could do without so many medicines if we would consult more often the doctors of Sun, Vegetables, Sleep, Yoga and Self.
Health is a rich word. It concerns our bodies, minds, spirits, and in turn our outlook on life and how we treat the world around us. Distinct from possessions, relationships and status, your health is something only you can affect and change—making it your most prized possession. To quote a simple phrase: “The greatest wealth is health.”
Yoga poses for Checking In.
Consult these poses to check in with yourself and before undertaking a healthy journey! The outcome of these postures will be different for every body type and there is no right or wrong. They are not designed to make you feel weak or inflexible, but to educate you about the needs of your own body.
Shoulder strength: modified (knees down) Chaturanga or Dolphin Plank with hands flat on the floor
Core strength: Navasana (boat) or half boat. Can you hold a half boat for 30 seconds? Core strength is essential, as it protects our backs and hips from injury by encouraging proper posture in exercise and daily life.
Low back flexibility: Downward Dog or Paschimottanasana. Pull the flesh out from under your bum and try to sit on your seat bones—for most of us there will be a low back curve in these poses, which could improve with hip flexibility and massaging the huge layer of fascia in this area.
Hip flexibility: Thread-the-Needle. Can you grab the back of your thigh with both hands, while keeping shoulders and tailbone on the ground? Hip flexibility is especially important if you are seated the majority of the day or walking/running around (so, everyone), as tight hips most commonly lead to back and knee problems.
Balance: Vrkshasana (tree pose) or Tadasana (mountain pose) with eyes closed. Balance in your body = balance in your life. Balancing postures improve coordination, focus and deep breathing, and one of their best benefits is that they teach us to soften our ego and are very humbling.
Spine flexibility: Natarajasana. Keep hips level and squared forward in dancer’s pose…can you kick your leg back so your heel is level with your tailbone?
Ankle strength: Utkatasana (chair pose) on toes. Make sure you are on your very tip-toes, pushing the fronts of your feet forward and lifting your heels as high as they can go before slowly bending your knees.
Wrist strength: Downward Dog. Can you bring the weight forward into the ball of your hands (rather than the heel) and lift the heels slightly off the ground? If you practice plank regularly and cannot lift the heels of your hands up in downward dog, you may be putting too much pressure on your wrists and carpals, in which case dolphin plank is a better option.
Wrist flexibility: Anjali Mudra. Can you bring your hands and forearms into a 90 degree angle without the heels of your hands coming apart? Flexibility will help protect your wrists from things like carpal tunnel and arthritis.
Christabelle Pausey is an aspiring yoga teacher, hiker, writer, reader, musician, traveller and artist, and current lover of vegetarian food and her dog Phoebe. She practices Moksha yoga in Toronto and is hoping to inspire others to do the same and live a happy, healthy life!
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Assistant Ed: Sara Crolick
Ed: Bryonie Wise