This advice might come as a surprise from a yoga teacher, but if you approach movement with stretching in mind, you are missing a crucial distinction between what you're attempting and what is actually happening.
There's only one thing you need to concern yourself with; 'pandiculation'.
This is something you naturally do when waking up, and one that animals are seen to be doing all day (we should be too).
What is a pandiculation?
It's simple really, don't think of stretching, think of contracting.
Notice what is really happening when you yawn in your bed as you wake up. You are not stretching, but contracting.This is very different to stretching, which only serves to create more tension.
Question: What do you need, mobility or flexibility?
Answer: Mobility, as flexibility comes under the mobility umbrella.
You probably don't need anymore flexibility, but you may want it, especially if you're a yoga student/teacher.
Air types have the least amount of stability and should take particular caution when 'stretching'. Fire types may injure themselves more, but they have adequate strength for it not to be particularly dangerous: apart from the usual pulled muscles. Pitta types can create more problems over a longer period of time, just like an air type.
Water types need to be aware that they may have more protection, but only up to a point. At some point, they must be aware of moving beyond ranges of motion that an ordinary individual does not need to everyday life.
If you are a dancer, yes, you may need more of a range of motion, but most of us do not need it if we do not use it.
It's simple really; if you're weak, get strong, and if you're strong, get mobile. If you don't use it, you don't need it.
What earthly benefit can you derive from placing your legs behind your head?!
Mobility is not the same as flexibility, although mobility could be seen to encompass flexibility. In other words, you may be flexible and get your legs behind your head, but you may not even be able to lift one leg off the ground and make a circle with your knee, while standing on one leg in a controlled articulation.
Pulling legs into lotus is just one extreme example of what I mean. Flexible people can pull the legs into the posture, but those with more mobility would be able to do that without using their hands.
Please don't attempt to pull your legs into lotus pose. And while you're at it, please don't attempt to stretch, because that's not what is happening, anyway. Instead, lengthen your body, finding more space to move as you contract and release tense muscles.
'Relax your glutes'.
'Tuck your tailbone'.
'Square your hips'.
'Roll your shoulder blades down your back'.
'Squeeze your elbows into your ribs'.
The shock waves of the #metoo movement are still being felt throughout the world and in the yoga community. Stories of sexual abuse by leading yoga teachers are the most shocking, but there are subtler changes happening as inappropriate structures continue to collapse, including how we practice yoga postures.
We must build these from the ground up, to be stronger.
This includes inappropriate cues for yoga postures.
This offers a great opportunity to uproot outworn cues and practices.
Are you beginning to feel like modern yoga is a bit like nutritional advice?
That's because nutritional advice and yoga practice is unique to each individual, and when an approach is systematized it suits only certain individuals.
When we find something that works for our bodies, or a diet that works for us, we may shout it from the rooftops and claim it to be the best one for everybody.
When I first trained as a yoga instructor, I was given certain cues to teach others. I no longer use all of them.
Yoga systems are taught, not for the benefit of the students, but for the benefit of the yoga school. It's easier to simply give a group the same instruction. Systems can be taught to individuals, of course, adapted to their specific needs.
We are seeing more and more competent yoga teachers use a system of yoga or sequence; tailoring it for individuals' needs.
However, there are certain cues that must to reexamined - some which just need to be dropped completely.
Here is a list of cues I no longer use:
'Relax your glutes'
This was the first cue I dropped when I stepped outside of the traditional norms and cues taught by most yoga schools.
I followed this instruction for years and, like anyone else who does this, developed a weak and important part of core strength: the glutes.
Yes, of course there is a tendency to rely too much on the glutes in certain yoga postures, which naturally externally rotates the thighs, but a balanced approach is not cuing this to find that balance.
Instead, a balanced approach would be to cue 'engage the glutes' while engaging other muscles such as the inner thighs, for example, to come to a neutral position in bridge pose.
'Tuck your tailbone'
Tucking the tailbone may suit some with hyperlordosis, but even then the cue can lead to poor movement mechanics, by overcompensating. Better to cue a movement for such an individual with something like, 'lengthen your tailbone'.
For those who are already posterior tilted, any 'tucking' will only lead to even more problems.
There are very few people with a neutral pelvis, i.e., a pelvis that is not naturally posterior or anterior tilted. I've noticed over the years that pitta (fire) type individuals (mesomorphs) are more likely to have a neutral pelvis.
However, this cue is just inappropriate for anyone, no matter what is going on with the pelvis.
'Square your hips'
It has now become obvious that this cue needs to be dropped, when we consider how the pelvis, hips and knees are affected by this instruction when turning the legs out.
Take any wide-legged posture, externally rotating the front foot, while the other leg is at, or close to, a 90 degree angle.
Squaring your hips to the long side of the mat is a typical cue. This doesn't work for any body because it places too much torque on the hips and pelvis.
A better cue would be to 'open your groins', without forcing the pelvis to square the hips, either to the front of the mat, as in warrior 1, or to the long side of the mat, as in warrior 2.
This change in cuing will impact a lot of yoga postures, including twists. Although the form of the posture may look the same from the outside, the difference it makes is huge.
This will be especially apparent to those with sacroiliac joint issues, but really to anyone that has practiced traditional yoga postures for any length of time.
'Roll your shoulder blades down your back'
This is another cue that could do with being ditched.
This is because of what it makes most people do when instructed this way. Most people are going to create more tension while trying to pull the shoulder blades down their back, especially when already holding a posture under tension.
A better cue is 'relax your neck and shoulders', before entering a posture by 'externally rotating your arms before you lift them'.
External rotation of the arms will naturally roll your shoulder blades down your back.
Which brings me to the last one of the list, but one of the first I ditched myself in my own practice...
'Squeeze your elbows into your ribs'
I dropped this one a long time ago, but a lot of yoga teachers still use it.
When instructing someone from plank to bent elbows, (chaturanga) the cue to 'squeeze your elbows to your ribs' needs to go.
When you do this, it naturally internally rotates your humerus, rolling your shoulders forward as you hold the posture.
What does that look and feel like? Rounded and tight shoulders!
Fix the shoulders first, just as you would when taking them over head as you externally rotate the arms, and let the elbows do what they want to do, which will not be squeezing them to your ribs.
A brighter light casts a darker shadow.
Abuse happens all too easily in a practice that often attracts vulnerable people -both as students and as teachers. When a teacher’s presence, or system, override your own sense of freedom in your own body, you lose something to suit the teacher's need to be in control.
You fall in line and do what you are told; what you think you should be doing, or what you are often literally pushed into.
I’m lucky I never experienced that many physical injuries in yoga classes over the years; just the usual knee problems, after being badly adjusted. But that's just the physical mistreatment and misalignment. It goes way beyond the physical.
Yoga can be a dogmatic movement system. As most of us are brought up to respect our elders and to navigate the often thin line between being disciplined by a parent, or being abused, we come to yoga classes not always sure of where that boundary lies.
Oh yes, there is freedom when a discipline is observed, but you may have to pay for it with your individual needs, in the moment. Just do the postures the way the teacher tells you to, despite what you know to be right for you.
Powerful practices naturally attract an abuse of such power. There are the sly remarks, the subtle put downs, the ‘ah you’ll get it next time’ type of thing that is all too common. I'm sure I unintentionally participated in this as a teacher too; passing on a tradition of abuse, masquerading as a spiritual discipline.
The bright lights of yoga hide some very dark corners indeed.
I am doing my bit in shining a light on those dark corners.
Beginners (modified) to Intermediate and Advanced
Equipment: yoga mat, two foam blocks and a belt
One set of 10-15 reps (depending on constitution) on each, except on squats = 3x10-15
Warm up 10 mins
Supine leg raises (with belt). Knees to chest. Cat and cow poses.
Standing: Neck stretches, head rolls, shoulders rolls, wrist rolls, spinal twists, hip rolls, knee and ankle rolls and spinal waves. Standing hip openers, rear lunges and knee raises, curtsy pose (calf raises) and side lunges. Tree Pose.
Main Phase 30 mins
Squats 3x10-15 into Squat Posture (with Block)
Chair pose onto balls of feet and into forward bend
lunges into warrior 1 & 2 into side-stretch & triangle - reverse postures + half Moon
into wide-legged forward bend
Sumo squats into side lunges into Sarpasana - deep side-lunges
Into calf raises (modified) into wide-legged forward bend
Romanian dead lifts into warrior 3 - dancer pose
Push ups and plank – core exercises – Leg /opposite arm extension -hip extension
half Sun salutations (modified) - peacock
Dips (table tops) into Vaisistasana into forward bends – janu sirsasana
Seated twist – marichayasana
Leg raises into boat pose into cobblers pose
Bicycles - side crunches
Supine twists – iron crosses with legs straight (knees bent) into side plank
Back extensions into up dog (cobra) and supermans
Back bends – (hip extensions) - pigeon (box pigeon)
Bow pose prep. into Camel – Bow – raising hips into little bridge - wheel
Cool Down 10 mins
Knees to chest – legs and arms raised (two blocks)- shoulderstand
Corpse pose or viparita karani (legs on the wall) with two blocks or bolster for hips
Have you ever been to an exercise class and the instructor has shouted out 'don't forget to breathe'? Don't forget to breathe! How is it possible that you would ever forget to breathe? Breathing is an involuntary process the body adapts in order to stay alive!
Think about it. If you were to lift a heavy weight, you would probably take a short, sharp inhale and hold your breath while lifting the object. Your body already has an intelligent approach to the activities you put it through, without your conscious involvement, or voluntary control of the breath. In fact, your body knows best in this scenario. If you are lifting something heavy you would need to brace yourself as you lift, which means holding your breath as you tighten your core - maybe making sounds like urrrrrggghhhh! Weightlifters know this as the Valsalva manoeuvre.
But there is more to it that simply bracing yourself. Holding your breath actually builds up more concentrated levels of carbon dioxide in your blood, which in turn allows the oxygen in your blood to be released to the tissues. So, by holding your breath you are actually supplying your tissues with more oxygen, not less. Without this holding, a heavy lifter will be put at risk of damaging their spine, and a person focusing intently on a task will likely perform worse in the task as they let their concentration drift with the breath. One thing that holding your breath guarantees is focus.
Yoga emphasizes nose breathing. If you are breathing through your mouth you are likely to be over-breathing. For newcomers to yoga, it is necessary to initially create an awareness of breathing patterns, the benefit of placing the body in various postures to open and expand the breath, and the containment of the breath by introducing particular locks.
Sometimes you may use the intercostal muscles (muscles between the ribs) more when breathing, expanding the ribs forcibly as you inhale, particularly in back extensions. Sometimes, you may be using your abdomen more, keeping the chest relatively still, expanding the abdomen as you inhale, drawing the pelvic floor up slightly to keep control, and then strongly engaging the pelvic floor upon exhalation. Some exhalations in some postures will naturally encourage you to pull the upper abdomen in and up as you exhale fully, particularly postures such as headstand or downward-facing dog.
Eventually, you may find that you can remove all force and control of the breath and let the body's position dictate how you breathe. The breath is not forced, in that case, but is a natural result of the position of the body and the type of movement it is put through.
Slowing down the breath, with a natural pause between breaths, could be described as the ultimate breath retention, without force or strain, building up tolerance of carbon dioxide levels, making you a more efficient breather and a fitter, healthier and happier individual.
I have often been told by yoga teachers that yoga lifts stress and depression due to unexpressed emotions being given a safe space to be felt in the body and that this is one way trauma can be healed effectively. I have been told that yoga creates a safe environment in our bodies to feel what has been suppressed, allowing the circuit to be completed, as it were.
What if anger is an emotion which has gone unexpressed?
Anger is a messy emotion. It feels tight in the body and doesn't want to be controlled by a yoga practice.
If you have been traumatized - and who hasn't to some degree - the tendency is to shut down and not complete the cycle.
If someone has been abused to any degree and not expressed what they felt in that moment, i.e. rage, then that trauma creates problems down the line. If you know anyone who feels things fully when they come up you will probably notice they do not usually suffer from chronic bad moods. They feel things intensely and move on.
There are two sides to this story. Another, more 'scientific' view of what actually happens when we practice yoga is that our 'logical brain' is 'given a workout' and quietens down the negative 'emotional brain'.
When the emotional brain is triggered by stress it goes into negative overload and the logical brain is unable to switch it off. The stress system impairs the serotonin, noradrenalin and dopamine signals and they become under-active.
When we practice yoga we give the logical brain a 'workout' and can then quieten down the emotional brain.
There is a fundamental problem with the practice of asana or 'yogic postures'. That is, when an individual geared to exercise (and so many who attend yoga classes are) applies the same ambition they have to increase fitness levels to their yoga practice, something happens which should never happen. They go beyond the point of tension, and into pain when it comes to stretching.
Students push and pull when they should relax.
It's not that you shouldn't work in yoga postures but many find it hard to differentiate between when to push themselves to increase strength and when to hold back when stretching.
Even if you were to hold back you might find a teacher pushing you into a posture! This actually astounds and devalues yoga in the eyes of those in the fitness industry. I've witnessed this myself.
In order to increase your fitness levels you need to increase the work load, whether this is running faster or longer, lifting heavier or whatever the activity. However, if, like many are doing in yoga today, you push yourself into a yoga posture to increase your flexibility, stiffness or injury are bound to happen eventually. You are going to create weakness in the joints and injure yourself over time.
I attended a kettlebells training earlier this year and the instructor noticed my flexibility and asked me 'You don't want to be anymore flexible, do you?' No, not if it's going to cost me my stability.
The muscle receptors actually create more stiffness if you push too hard into a stretch if you don't know how to do it correctly - simply knowing the antagonistic muscle and how to work them etc. I have found over the years that the more strength training I combine with my yoga practice, the more open my body becomes, as a firm structure can make one feel safer stretching beyond the usual range of motion.