In this series on staying safe in group classes we have talked about the inner teacher and the outer teacher, in this final article I want to share what I am the most passionate about and why I came to be a hatha yoga teacher and studio owner-it’s you!
Each of our bodies carries our unique histories. As babies we are born supple and flexible like blank little canvases. Then, as life happens, the good and the bad imprint themselves in our physical make up painting the picture that is our story. What does that have to do with staying safe in large group hatha yoga classes??? Well, a lot actually! Getting to know and observing your unique postural story is key to you modifying and challenging yourself in the right ways to keep you safe and keep your practice thriving for years to come!
Let’s start simple
Say you work at a desk all day over a computer- what does that do to your shoulders? The fast answer: they hunch and stiffen. The anatomical answer: the muscles on the front body (think the pectorals etc) become tight (and possibly strong) and the muscles on the back body (think the middle trap and rhomboids) become long and weak creating an imbalance.
So we go to yoga. Then, what happens? We take our misalignments into our vigorous yoga practice. Instead of creating openness and harmony in the body we run the risk of aggravating already existing compression. In the case of “desk shoulders” a pose like Chaturanga, that we do many many times throughout a yoga class can easily reinforce the already existing imbalance, strengthening the closed heart and possibly lead to pain and injury down the line.
What do to?
Just before class head into the studio and find yourself a wall. Stand with your back to touching the wall. Notice the natural places your back comes into contact with the wall. Be specific- what do you feel? This is your personal story as it lives in your body. After a few breaths begin to release the story and come into your neutral body. Do this by aligning the feet directly under the hips with the outer edges parallel ask that the lower sacrum come to the wall as well as the back of the heart, the back of the head, the shoulders and backs of the hands. If any of those areas simply can’t come to the wall, note that too.
No judgment here, simple knowledge is all we are seeking. Breathe here and feel what muscles are working and which are stretching, this is very important feedback about what your practice needs! After a few breaths bend the elbows to 90 degrees and begin to press the triceps into the wall. Flex the palms toward the face. Make sure the tops of the shoulders are releasing down the back and the crown of the head is still lengthening upwards. This is a well-aligned Chaturanga. Again, what do you feel working? Close your eyes. Listen. Look. Be specific. Now take that feedback into your practice!
Another place where our stories often manifest is the low back. Again, think a life of sitting at a desk, driving in a car, sitting in chairs- all of these actions when not carefully observed lead to rounding and compressing the low back. In my private sessions, this is by far the most common issue I see. We spend all day sitting at a desk then jump right into a yoga class and come to Down Dog where we are told to send our heels to the floor. What happens when we do this? Due to tight hamstrings we round the low back- aggravating existing compression. There is a healthy and necessary curve in the low back it is our job to find it and protect it. How:
Before class come to your mat and warm the spine with about 10 rounds of slow Cat/Cow. Then come into a neutral spine with the crown of the head reaching forward and the tail reaching back. Allow the low belly to gently hug up to support the spine. Breath. Observe. Then lift the knees one inch off of the floor. Notice how the low back wants to round. Lift the tail into the air (it may feel to you like you are sticking your butt into the air) keeping the knee one inch off of the floor. Feel what is working! Maintain that sense of lifted-ness in the tail and begin to straighten the legs- move very very slowly and notice at what point you sacrifice the low back for the heels coming to the floor. Back up. Try again. Find your own personal sweet spot where the low back is protected and you feel the backs of the legs opening. Protect the spine FIRST. Rest in Child’s Pose. Take what you just learned into your practice!
The examples above are very habitual and common and not particularly emotionally charged. But, as we all know, there is plenty of very potent emotional history stored in our posture as well. It is important to treat these areas with lots of love and care allowing them to open when they are ready. The simple act of drawing the shoulders to the wall in Tadasana, as in the example above, can be enough to make a person feel vulnerable and charged. What postures really activate you? Which ones do you love? Which ones do you hate? Which ones scare the living daylights out of you? Observing all of these things gives us insight into where our story is stuck in our tissue as well as the keys to set it free!
Get a special practice journal, (or just make a special note in your phone) after each class take a few seconds to jot down your most loved and your most disliked pose of the class. After a few months go back and read both columns. Do you notice a pattern? Do backbends drive you nuts? Are inversions your dream?
These are just a few examples of how the lives we have, and our currently, living can be stored in our bodies. There are countless others! It is imperative as we move through group classes that we continue to get to know what makes us each unique so that our practices can move from the outside in. We are very used to watching the teacher demonstrate a posture and then try to imitate what he/she is doing. But their story is not your story so allow your practice to be informed by YOU and as always your Inner Teacher!
When it came time to name my yoga studio, my inner teacher said very simply: “Call it 2:16”. In his Yoga Sutra’s Patanjali state in Chapter 2 verse 16: Pain that has not yet come is avoidable. Get to know your story, release what no longer serves, and pain on many levels- including in large group classes, just doesn’t come!
More on a safer yoga practice:
• 3 practices to avoid injury
• caution! 3 cues to ignore in large group classes