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On a panel at a recent Midwest Yoga Festival, Mas Vidal from Dancing Shiva Studio in Los Angeles and I were asked an identical question.
How is it that one teacher (Mas) taught a class in which the sequencing was intuitive, organic and fluid, with virtually no emphasis on alignment, whereas I had led a class – actually a day-long workshop – focused on safety, alignment and form? The questioner wondered whether the dual approaches were contradictory, and how to integrate both dynamics into her practice.
The answer, of course, was there is no either/or. Yoga can, and should embrace both approaches. The metaphor I shared was the game of tennis. In order to play, we have to have a semblance of correct form, otherwise the balls fly right by. The game eludes us. There is no joy. My teacher David Life once said that form and structure bring freedom.
Without underlying form, the intricacies of the game, dance or asana might … just … pass us by.
Yoga injuries are once again in the national news, a reminder once again of the importance of proper form: it keeps us safe. Orthopedic surgeons in Europe, New York City and around the U.S. have reported an increase in a hip injuries and surgeries among women practicing yoga, according to a recent story in The New York Times. The injuries, known as FAI, are caused by impingement of the hip socket, stemming from -- my translation -- repeat jamming or grinding of the hip socket by the upper thigh bone.
Poses noted among doctors included Paschimottanasana, Uttanasana and Deep Low Lunge – Anjaneyasana, which -- if done in the extreme -- cause the upper femur bone to rub right against the rim of the hip joint. Women are disproportionately affected, due to our wide range of motion and flexibility.
With this kind of news, as yogis we could have one of two reactions. Fear, as in “Oh, no… now I can’t do this pose??” Or hope, empowerment. “Wow, how can I work safely to sustain my practice for a lifetime?”
Basic facts and knowledge allow us to work safely within the form, within the essence of the poses. Here are important tips and suggestions for our practice and our students.
We know from yoga anatomy that the hip is a ball-and-socket joint. While we hope to outlast it, the joint can and may eventually wear out. We might regularly ask, "Is this my/my student's normal range of motion, or are we jamming the joint??" When nicely warmed up, normal range would move like a well-oiled door hinge. Jamming would feel pinched -- and the joint would simply grind. As in, bone on bone. Imagine what this might feel like in your body, and help students understand the difference.
Modifications – Skip the Pancakes and Paninis
If you have a tendency to “overdo” these poses, try these slight modifications.
In Paschimottanasana, dial back slightly. Avoid going down “flat like a pancake” if you’re feeling any impingement or if pain is or has been present. Put a rolled up blanket sideways across the upper thighs to relieve pressure on the hips and prevent grinding. Keep the legs active to prevent collapsing through the seat, hip joints or lower back. Focus more on lengthening the back body rather than pressing towards the floor.
Uttanasana –Those of us with extra flexibility like to flatten out against the legs, our bodies resembling a panini sandwich! Skip that shape and instead maintain a small degree of space at the upper thighs. Keep even weight on the feet, trying not to pitch back into the heels. Weight in the heels deepens – unnecessarily -- the angle where the thigh bones meet the hips.
Low Lunge/Anjaneyasana – Over-extension in this pose would jam either the back working leg or the front supporting leg. Protect the back leg from collapsing forward with a block or rolled up blanket just under the thigh. To protect the front hip from over-extension, place a block just under the front thigh, near the upper hamstring. Calibrate the lunge to avoid habitual forcing, saving the extra extension for Hanumansana (when you really need to save the world!)
A word for teachers: Hyper-flexible students need your love and attention, especially for weight-bearing poses. Get to know your students’ normal range of motion (even if surpassing the rest of the class) so you can help gauge how much is “too much” on any given day. Don’t Push through Pain. Pushing through pain is never a good idea. Pay attention to your body and follow its inner wisdom.
Here’s a link to the article printed in the New York Times.
Jill Abelson is a bi-coastal yoga teacher, author and workshop presenter renowned for expertise in alignment, injury prevention and the art of hands on assists. In 2007, she was recognized by Yoga Journal as one of 5 “Yogis Changing the World.” Her website is www.yogaofliberation.com and her books, EXTRA LOVE, are available on Amazon as well.