“Teach what is appropriate for an individual” Sri Tirumalai Krishnamacharya, the father of modern yoga, said. Likewise a yoga student must learn to practice what is appropriate. This is understood through a careful study of yoga science and or the direct experience of practicing over long periods. Knowing what postures to practice for various conditions of concern from back pains to high blood pressure are just some of the challenges of practitioners and teachers. Preceding this myriad of yogic knowledge a committed beginner or a yogaholic addict needs to know and always remain mindful of the 10 elements of a practice. These 10 elements will improve your yoga practice while minimizing possibilities of injuries. By understanding and honing these 10 elements you will truly grow with the practice and tap into the hidden aspects of yoga. This will lead you to a myriad of yogic knowledge which is only realized intuitively. What are the 10 elements of the practice that practitioners need to know? Practitioners should know their underlying reasons for practicing yoga, how to draw the attention inwards, to create regularity in practice, joint preparation, understand the core, the steps to building strength, avoiding contact with pain, stages of healing, the 2 reflexes governing asana and diet basics. During this year we are going to review 1 of these 10 elements of the yoga practice every month. This will lead us not only to experience the depths of yoga but what is most important is that we will reduce injuries while having some fun along the way.
For our 1st in a 10 part series on the elements of the practice a committed beginners or yogaholic addict needs to know and be mindful of their underlying reasons for practicing yoga. If you are new to yoga then consider a few questions. Can you examine yourself carefully and note any underlying reasons for practicing yoga? Why are you starting a yoga practice? Is it because one of your favourite celebrities started yoga and now looks better? Are you searching for a good looking body? Ask yourself if you are tapping into the fad? Did your doctor suggest yoga for a specific problem? Or are you just wishing to acquire a little more spirituality and balance in a world you feel is cruel and superficial? If you are focused on the look of your body then you will certainly stop short of all the true benefits of yoga. When practicing yoga at the very least always consider function over the form. In other words what your body’s limits are and how to overcome them (Function) should be the focus and not how the body should be looking (Form). Tightening the abs and having a well-toned bottom are not signs of wellness and yoga does not make these a focus. Such outlooks are cleverly presented in our world as an ideal state but which is unrealistic for most and yoga does not make the (Form) a focus. So is it an injury you are trying to overcome? If so that does not mean you simply start practicing just any yoga posture or sequence. Not all postures are meant for everyone especially for those with specific problems. For example many with low back problems may aggravate their back with boat postures, plough positions and or forward bends. You must approach yoga according to the issues you may have since a posture that is good for someone else may be harmful to you. It is a real shame that yoga is not seen or presented from such a perspective. Many never learned to understand this and just dove into yoga without considering their own limitations and how to overcome them through yoga. Approaching the practice in such a manner is often negative and because of this yoga has been wrongly judged in the media on numerous occasions. “Those who are searching for spirituality are the furthest away from it”, is what the wise have said. If you are looking for spirituality try to ponder this idea. Searching for something intangible is elusive. Spirituality is something that exists within and outside of us at all times. So if it is within and outside of us then why are we searching? If you do look then the first place to look is within yourself. By simply being open to spirituality without any expectations will lead you down the path to spirituality. When pursuing your practice there should truly be no underlying reason for practicing yoga. You should just do the practice without thought. By having no reason is ironically the way to tap into the spirit of yoga. Just be disciplined, focused and let the practice of yoga take over your life. In this way you will grow with yoga in a more meditative and safe manner.
In the 2nd of the 10 part series on the elements of the practice we will understand what it means to always keep the attention drawn inwards. Drawing the attention inwards means to let go of all those that occupy our mind from finances to family and more. Then we must maintain this drawn in state during a yoga practice. By maintaining such a state during a practice we may step into deeper sessions. Only through the acquisition of deep practices will we experience the true benefits of yoga. For beginners this is not simple. The postures are new. Learning yoga for the first time is like a child learning to walk. We have to think about every step. It is not long till the steps we take are void of effort. After learning is achieved we no longer pay attention to how we walk anymore and so walking becomes natural. The same occurs for the martial artist who learns a technique to perfection and does not have a memory of using it when attacked. Or the dancer who rehearses for hours and somehow during the show the legs keep moving even though the mind does not recall what the body is to do. These are known as the no mind states also called Mushin by the Japanese. It is comparable to the state of flow experience that artists acquire while in a creative process. Many refer to this same concept in many other ways such as being in the moment, present, in a zone, on a roll, in the groove, on fire, in tune, switched on and centered. Even after many lessons practitioners may not draw the attention inwards to experience a no-mind state and be truly present within a practice. This is even so when the technical aspects of the posture along with memorizing the sequence of postures are achieved. One culprit preventing the mind from being drawn inwards is our competitive side. Some men are seen looking embarrassed in group classes just because they could not keep up with women in side planks or crows. Looking around the class and worrying about what others are doing will never draw the attention inwards to step into a state of flow. To draw the attention inwards stop focusing on the abilities of the other students and stop comparing your postures with theirs. Another reason why students do not tap into the higher states of yoga is because they are too focused on more advanced postures. Normally students did not easily see the numerous yoga pictures of complex postures as we have scattered across the internet today. One method of teaching had the teacher only demonstrating the next and more advanced posture when the aspirant was ready to receive the new knowledge. In such schools beginners did not practice with or even look into advanced classes. In this manner the student remained blank with the attention drawn inward to focus on the present practice and not a future possibility. Then the last reason students may not draw their attention inward is due to particular ways the class is instructed. Jokes are fine once in a while. On occasion some lessons end up with a lot of chit chatting. But that should never be the norm of every lesson. This is why people do not talk in most yoga classes. The overall norm of the class should be silence, focus and discipline which are the tools to draw the attention inwards and acquire a finely tuned mental state. Remember it is a yoga class and not a coffee shop. Try to save the dialogue for after class and work on drawing your attention inwards.
Yoga was always passed on orally for thousands of years. Then around a 150 BC a revered sage named Patanjali wrote 195 aphorism otherwise called sutras or words of wisdom. He is believed to have greatly contributed to the works of Ayurveda and the Sanskrit language. To this day the works of the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali remain one of the biggest influences on modern yoga especially. In the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali he wrote that “Yoga is the control of thought-waves in the mind”. The entire system of yoga is hinged on this idea of controlling the thought-waves of our minds. When you can draw your attention inwards then begins the ability to control the thought-waves in the mind leading to the true depths of yoga. From here according to Patanjali you may then better concentrate. From concentration comes the ability to meditate which leads to enlightenment. As already mentioned such higher states of yoga begin with drawing the attention inwards.
The third element from the 10 elements of the practice is heard frequently, “Always practice at the same time and place every day”. Regularity within all aspects of our lives from sleep, diet and work is a pillar of stability leading to inner peace. Our biggest stresses are simply a lack of regularity. To reach the depths of yoga regularity in practice is paramount. It is one thing to hit the mat at the same time every day. But we must, to avoid monotony or injuries, understand how to practice regularly. Once a method of practicing regularly is realized and implemented then we may appreciate the benefits of regular practices while grasping the subtle influences of the environment.
To practice regularly avoid the same yoga movements every day. There are many ways of doing this but here is one basic method. Practice 6 times a week and divide the practice up into 3 different sections. Consider the 1st section as related to the core postures from boat to locust, 2nd for standing postures such as warriors and the third would be arm balance postures from plank to crow. Practice 1 section per day for example Monday would be section #1, Tuesday section #2 and Wednesday #3. Thursday through Saturday would repeat Monday through Wednesday. Then Sunday would be a time to fast and or meditate. This example method will prevent the practice from turning into drudgery while minimizing the chances of having to drag a ball and chain of injuries. This example method allows every section a minimum of 2 days rest before returning to it. Within a week each section is repeated 2 times. Over training is minimized since the same part of the body is not repeated every day. Again this is one of many examples of how to practice regularly in a safe manner that is results oriented. The benefits of regular yoga practices are numerous. The body is stimulated daily for detoxing, burning excess calories and relieving stress. Regular practices create a rhythm between practice and recovery that leads to predictable sessions and realistic goal setting. With consistency the mind tunes into the practice and stays tuned in. For example, after months of consistent sessions, the body learns the exact hold time of a plank or warrior. So goal setting becomes realistic. Then failing to meet the usual minimal goal would require introspection. Did we go to bed late the previous night, deviate from our diet, experience more work stress or become ill? Stress builds up without conscious realization. Without warning physical symptoms of stress from low energy, headaches, upset stomach, diarrhoea, constipation, nausea, tense muscles, chest pains, rapid heartbeat and insomnia begin to plague us. Mental symptoms of stress from constant worrying, uncontrollable thoughts, forgetfulness, disorganisation and lack of focus come upon us unexpectedly. Practicing ritualistically communicates the state of the body and mind on a daily basis. Regular daily yoga sessions teach us of how subtle changes in day-to-day living are affecting us. Then it becomes possible to see clearly what to adjust of our lives from sleep to work. When there is a deviation from stress-free living ideals the consistent practices not only warns us but it also delays the onset of all stress symptoms. Eventually regular practices become intuitive and feel starts to dominate more than thought. The teacher within awakens. The environment influences the practice. Standing postures on a mat that is laid over a lawn is usually unstable compared to a studio hardwood floor. Arm balance postures on grass may causes wrist or shoulder stresses. Then grass can be itchy especially while sweating which is not meditative. The beach is relaxing especially with the rhythmic sounds of the waves. But standing and arm balance postures will see body parts disappearing into the sand thus changing the foundation of the asana. Then watch out for falling sand onto the face on inverted postures. There are routines that enable grass and beach practices to overcome environmental challenges without the use of mats or special clothes. Are home practices limited on floor space? People often defeat themselves with an all or nothing attitude. Think out of the box. The bed will not allow many postures or salutations but a lot of stretches are within reach along with several upper body joint routines. If going to spacious yoga studios are not possible then wake up before traffic and pollution starts for yoga in the bed. Learn to be imaginative with your environment when a spacious studio is unavailable. Or simply get tips from an experienced teacher. Practice regularly and eventually the method for a location will be honed and the for deep and meditative yoga sessions.
In our 4th of the 10 part series on the elements of the practice of yoga we will investigate preparation of the joints. Where two or more bones make contact is considered the location of a joint. Here are a couple of scenarios that many may relate to. After a long period of inactivity you decided to play football with your child. Then after you stopped firmly to switch directions while running a mild pulling sensation was felt in the knee. A few hours later the knee started aching with pain and stiffness. Perhaps one day you woke up to realize that months or years passed without any physical activity. Somehow you fell out of the loop due to parenting and work constraints. After a long absence a return to sport and fitness activities begins. Then this return ends up being cut short of wrist, shoulder or other joint pains which completely demotivates the best efforts to maintain a regular yoga practice. Sound familiar? This is because those diving into exercises after a long absence without addressing the joints first are at risk of injury. Most yoga classes address the basics of muscular strength, flexibility, breathing along with endurance thrown into the mix. Depending on the teacher or style we often find these fundamentals in varying levels. But the joints are often dismissed to the side lines. For most this is something that does not require attention or it is considered to be addressed through the typical postures as a by-product. Those new to yoga without a fitness background or returning after a long inactive period require joint exercises first. What happens is that the muscles develop faster than the tendons because they receive more blood compared to the tendons they are attached to. People with long absences from physical activity must return lightly on their routines so that the tendons have time to strengthen and catch up with the muscular development. Otherwise the tendons cannot accommodate the increasing pressure the muscles are creating resulting in strain.
Let us look at some easy to do joint preparation exercises to achieve safer yoga practices. For the shoulders there is the Double Elbow Rotations. Place your fingertips together and then put them onto your shoulders. Once that is accomplished turn your elbows in circles as wide as possible insuring that you touch both elbows together in front of the chest. Try 10 at first and over time build up to 25. Always touch your elbows together in front of the chest to experience the full effect of this great joint preparation exercise. For your neck keep the back straight and circle the head 10 times in each direction while standing. Feel your neck throughout the exercise while rotating the head around the neck. Do not push into any neck pains. Move slowly and work around any pains. For wrist preparations keep the arms extended in front of you and then open and close your fingers. Extend and flex the fingers completely squeezing them as tightly as possible into a fist. Open and close the fingers as fast as possible. For the knees bend them slightly from the Tadasana standing position with your feet together and back straight. Place your hands on your knees with the knees squeezed together. Then rotate the knees 25 times in each direction. While rotating keep the back straight and maintain the heels on the floor. This will protect the back and knees. For the hips open your feet a little wider than your shoulders. Place the hands on the hips and rotate the hips in circles25 times each direction. This is as if you are trying to use an imaginary hula hoop with both hands on the waist. Perform all circular joint exercises in both directions. Establish a regular program of joint routines. Most falsely believe that yoga is mainly about stretching and breathing but the truth is joint preparation leading to strength building of muscles is paramount. Deep stretching alone will lead to over loosening of joints if they are not continually conditioned. As a new student to yoga always start every lesson with joint conditioning exercises. Eventually let these routines establish itself as warm-ups to strength building postures. Practice yoga for your joints consistently and properly to avoid being side-lined from your practice or from being a star parent. In this manner we may more easily maintain regular practices and reduce the demotivation we feel because of aches and pains. Never lose sight of one fact. Yoga is about avoiding contact with pain but at times there will be some “positive aches” along the path of practice.
The past decade has seen an incredible amount of focus placed on core development throughout the fitness and wellness worlds. What is the core? The core muscles are the muscles found in the trunk of the body. Take away the limbs (legs and arms) along with the head and what is left over is the core. The major muscles of the core are in the abdominal and mid to lower back. They act as the foundation for all leg and arm postures right up to head standing. Core muscles that are not properly addressed and left underdeveloped will create a greater predisposition to injury. This is why it is fundamental to develop the core as one of the first steps to a regular yoga practice. In addition to that the health of the spine and the internal organs are better addressed through core based postures. For this reason core focused postures are truly the heart of any yoga practice. In yoga all limb postures are considered secondary to the core.
During dynamic yoga movements the core stabilizes the chest and pelvis. It is believed that power transfers from the core to the limbs. So developing and maintaining a strong core is vital as a stepping stone to approaching postures of the limbs. For example tennis players, golfers and boxers use the core to deliver their swings. When muscles of the core are loosened and lengthened the result is increased speed and range of motion in their swings. This increased range of motion is critical. Ask any avid golfer and they can tell you how much strain comes on their hips and back from swinging those clubs. For such athletes yoga core conditioning work helps to reduce fatigue and improve trunk rotation along with recovery from and prevention of injuries. Furthermore such athletes always emphasize the use of one side of the body more than the other causing over use of muscles functional to that direction. For them yoga core practices of strengthening and stretching is vital to maintaining a symmetrical body.
Prior to any practice the core is important for warming-up. Be sure to include it in every warm-up routine. Ideally the yoga practice should begin with some core routines before or after joint preparation. Then only is it recommended to progress into the postures related to limbs such as the various forms of Plank and Warriors. Once or twice a week focus on strong sessions of core muscles while giving the limbs a rest. Yoga movements such as locust, east facing pose, wheel, lying leg lifts and boat will strengthen the core. Forward and backward bending along with twisting postures such as Ardha Matsyendrasana will stretch it. It is recommendable for beginners to practice 1 month of core routines for a minimum of 3 times per week before moving to the limbs. Despite all that has been said the core muscles have to be approached in a progressive manner. This is especially true for anyone with back pains. Otherwise such pains may become aggravated. Even if there are no known back issues then overdoing areas of weaknesses could lead to injury. For example people with lower back issues may irritate it when attempting lying leg lifts and boat postures. Seated or standing forward bends may cause low back irritations if there are existing issues. If experiencing back pains after yoga classes then it is imperative that the focus is placed on resolving or atleast stabilizing such core problems before moving onto the limbs. Avoid performing full forward bends if there are back issues. Often times bending the knees and keeping the spine straight while minimizing the range of movement could stop most aggravations which stem from forward bends. Considering stopping the use of the iliopsoas muscle group which is involved in leg lifting and boating movements may dramatically reduce aggravating most low back problems.
Training the core is vital for detoxification and elimination. The core provides the internal pressure to expel substances from the body. If there is fecal matter to expel it is the core that is involved. While training the core we stimulate peristalses which are the waves of involuntary muscular contractions involved in moving food through the intestines. When sick and needing to vomit the core is also involved here. Sound core practices will maintain proper spinal health which translates to good posture. Often the cause of back problems is simply poor posture. This is just another reason why the core should be addressed especially if there are back and neck issues. When the core muscles are well developed the posture is greatly improved making a person appear taller, upright and confident. Keeping the core well developed will enhance the asana for limbs, detoxify the body, reduce injuries and improve posture to create a confident individual.
Whether you are training the core or limbs the steps taken when it comes to building strength are progressive. A classic strength posture for example is the plank. If we are to remain in plank for fifteen to 30 seconds or more and not move into downward dog or chaturanga then this could be thought of as a static or holding posture also known as an isometric exercise. The opposite of this is if we were to move from plank to chaturanga stop at chaturanga and return to plank.
You may think of these as transitional movements often referred to as isotonic type movements. Please note that isotonic technically refers to contraction of a muscle under “Constant / Unchanging” load / pressure. Over time the term isotonic evolved to apply to exercises that involved movement. These transitional movements may be broken down into either going against gravity such as returning from chaturanga to plank also known as concentric contraction. Or these transitional movements can be broken down as going with gravity such as coming from plank to chaturanga also known as eccentric lengthening. This is simply a general overview from which you may look at postures and the creation of sequences.
Now throw the jargon out of your head such as isometric, isotonic, concentric contraction or eccentric lengthening and just think simply. Think of it as either holding or transitioning. Then if you are transitioning it is either with or against gravity. Once joint preparation exercises, as explained in element number 4, are well honed then the first steps to building strength are to do holding postures. Holding postures such as plank, side plank, double warrior and warrior 2 usually place less pressure on the joints when the emphasis is just that followed by a rest period. Transitioning from one of those strength postures to the other immediately after finishing one and then going right away to the next may sometimes lead to pains. For example going from plank to chaturanga or warrior 1 to Warrior 3 are transitional and for some along this way a joint may become aggravated. So do not do transitional movements till after holding postures are practiced for a few weeks or months then and then only consider moving into transitional movements. Once prepared to do transitional movements follow the flow of gravity first such as moving from plank to chaturanga. When you do such movements such as arriving into chaturanga from plank then avoid bouncing when concluding the transition. If transitioning with gravity hurts a joint for example the shoulder, elbow or wrist then continue only with the holding posture of plank for more weeks or months. Only after considerable time has passed should we consider returning again to see how the body reacts to transitioning. Once transitioning for a few weeks or months along the flow of gravity reveals that there are no joint issues then take the next step. The next step is moving from chaturanga to plank which is to go against the flow of gravity. Again if during or after class pain in the related joints of strength building movement is felt then consider going back down the ladder to work with the flow of gravity only. With such an outlook simply ask yourself if you are holding, transitioning and if transitioning is with or against gravity. Approaching yoga in such a manner minimizes coming into contact with pain and is a very simple, safe and effective way of building strength.
Avoiding contact with pain is fundamental to growing in yoga. It is not fun or productive to be repeatedly injured from the practice. Nor is it motivating to continually practice with an injury. Most long term practitioners have experienced that ball and chain at some point. If you are carrying a ball and chain of injuries from yoga then ask yourself honestly. Do you ignore pain signals during your yoga practice? If a certain part of your body is injured are you adjusting your postures? In other words are you practicing accordingly to accommodate that part of the body that is hurt? Practitioners and especially the complete beginner that does not listen to pain signals from their body will become a candidate for pulled muscles, pinched nerves and ruptured discs. Keep it in mind that it takes time often months and years for tendons, ligaments and muscles to adjust to the postures. The first step to initiating such adjustments is to let the practice pass through the mind before the body. It is important to mentally understand the direction of a practice prior to pushing strong. For beginners the first few lessons are only to get a bearing on what are the postures and sequences. Once these are mentally understood then only can we start to feel deeply into the body. After creating such a minimal familiarity it does not mean we start pushing the practice at full throttle. That is exactly how we get hurt. Our bodies are like machines and we must conserve the machine we are housed in. If you take a car for a drive but avoid slowing down for bumps, take every turn at the fastest possible speed then what are the results? You not only may get a police citation but the car will also develop mechanical problems. The likelihood of an accident to damage the car or kill you will also increase. It is the same for our bodies. If we are pushing it in every practice to the maximum level we will more than likely develop an injury. So do not push your body to 100% but instead remain at the 80% level. As long as we practice no more than 80% of our maximum possible level then the chances of injuries along with wear and tear of the body will dramatically reduce. At the same time you will make steady progress when practicing regularly. There are also so many who were top athletes when younger. Then after college they were lead to focus on career, marriage and kids with years perhaps decades passing with neglect of the body. Finally after 5, 10 maybe 20 years or more of a sedentary lifestyle the idea of taking up yoga is ignited. These former athletes often fly into yoga classes like rockets especially after experiencing an invigorating class. They start with much enthusiasm and flair. But the body after a sedentary lifestyle has changed. Apart from obvious changes such as a loss of strength, endurance, flexibility and weight gain there is another more hidden issue. Tendons which connect muscles to bones have weakened. They receive less blood compared to the muscles they attach to. For this reason muscles grow faster than tendons. So starting a practice after a sedentary period easily leads to injuries since the load on the tendons comes about to quickly for the tendons to adapt. Again this is when the tendons do not keep up with the growth of the muscles. For this reason progressing slowly in the beginning is important to let the tendons catch-up with the muscle growth.
Always pursue a yoga practice with the idea of avoiding contact with pain. Remain patient take as much time as needed and do not be pushy and bouncy with the practice especially if there are injuries. Practicing correctly should not only avoid pain during a lesson but also for 24 hours after the lesson. Approach the yoga practice slowly and diligently. Do not be in a hurry to become good. In yoga there is always tomorrow. Traditional yoga is not hurried or competitive. Otherwise injuries will be created leading to a state of fear. The nervous system may store pain memories which will cut the best efforts to repeat a posture pain free. Yoga teacher Baron Baptiste explained in his book, “Journey into Power” that practicing yoga is comparable to an onion. He explained that when practicing yoga we must treat the practice like an onion. Only peel the onion layer by layer to make your way to the core. Do not chop through the onion. So approach the practice in stages like the layers of an onion but do so slowly. By being snappy and pushy with our yoga practice in other words chopping the onion we would create injuries. Stay mindful of pain and you will have a safe, enjoyable and long life of yoga practices with all the benefits that come with it.
Once we are in contact with pain what should we do? How should we approach our yoga practice? When an injury occurs in yoga it means that a mistake has been made either by the student, teacher or both. At this point the first thing to know is how the injury occurred. Rethink the sequence or individual postures. From here it can be derived as what should be or should not be done in the future. For example if we recently injured our elbow or shoulder then we must consider avoiding arm balance postures within any sequence. Focusing on core and leg postures would be the sensible thing to do. Injuries along the spine such as the lower back for example would normally be addressed by avoiding forward bends or simply minimizing the movement of the lower back during practices. Perhaps the injured practitioner could bend forward at the hips at no more than a 60 degree angle while keeping the lower back straight. During salutations the forward bend could be addressed with the lower back kept straight and the knees bent. Despite the variables to consider when carrying and guarding an injury there are still easily understood common underlying points for all injuries. While injured there are 3 basic stages of healing to be aware of as the underlying foundation of any injury. With the knowledge of the acute, sub-acute and chronic stages of healing we will understand better on how to proceed while dramatically reducing the possibility of re-injury and facilitating the healing process. The first stage known as the Acute Stage is when the injury first occurs. The injury may have occurred from an activity outside of yoga or perhaps felt during a posture or within 24 hours after the practice. This first stage of injury normally lasts for 4 – 6 days. The numbers of days are rough estimates and will vary. During the Acute Stage the injury will experience the most swelling. The depth of swelling and sensitivity is the true answer of what stage the injury is in. During this acute first stage rest the injured area completely. Practicing yoga on a completely different part of the body from the injury is mandatory. Avoid stretching or straining the painful spots in any way. It is the ideal time to ice the injured area. With inflammation present elevating the affected area will help control swelling while reducing throbbing / discomfort. If the injury is in the lower body then inversion poses will reduce inflammation by providing elevation. The second stage known as the Sub-Acute Stage lasts for another 1 – 3 weeks give or take a few weeks. Again the stage will vary from person to person. The injured area is susceptible to re-injury. During this stage do not become overzealous and try to make a quick return to the usual level of performance. An adequate warm-up (preparatory postures) before coupled with correct postural alignment is essential. During Sub-Acute less is more. Move into the yoga poses slowly and gently with non-weight bearing movements. It is a time to slowly strengthen the affected muscles. As symptoms diminish gradually commence weight bearing movements. When stretching use long hold times while executing the posture less than the maximum range. Hold the postures with long, slow, deep breathing. If a yoga pose creates pain, tingling or numbness stop immediately. The pain may also not be felt immediately. It is important to note how the injury feels for the first 24 hours after practicing. If the next morning the symptoms have not worsened then it means the practice done the day before was the correct one. This may take several sessions to establish the correct feel of a practice in order to guard the injury. Always ice the injured area after the practice to reduce inflammation. Icing the injury after practice could mean the difference between feeling swelling and pain the next day or an overall experience of healing.
The Chronic Stage is the final phase of any injury and may last as little as 12 months or as much as18 months for complete healing. During this time the injured site may feel healed but it is still susceptible to a re-injury and chronic inflammation if excessive force is used. Sprained ankles are famous for this. Caution must be taken during this stage because the injury will not be healed until this stage has passed. Postures pertaining to the affected area must not be executed at 100%. Take it easy and slow with the injured area. Give it time to recover and know that tomorrow will arrive and once again the body will return to what it was. Yoga is not only a spiritual endeavour but also a physical endeavour. Knowledge of self and the method of yoga will help reduce injury but the possibility of injury will always exist. These injuries will be nothing more than a lesson in the self and a method of yoga. Look within and remain patient and disciplined when injured. Follow the stages of healing and the body will return to the original state again.
Our yoga practices are influenced by the Myotatic Stretch Reflex and the Clasp Knife Reflex. Reflexes are not defined as having lightning fast reaction times. For example the ability to react fast enough to catch a glass just before it crashes to the floor. This is often interpreted as “good reflexes”. Reflexes are actually unconscious motor responses to sensory stimuli. They occur within the nervous system as an unconscious response. So while executing postures certain nervous system signals travel to the spine and back to the required part of the body the posture is influencing. Nothing is communicated to the brain itself. This is why reflexes are not conscious. How a posture is approached during a practice will stimulate the Myotatic Stretch Reflex or the Clasp Knife Reflex. The Myotatic Stretch Reflex is also known as the knee jerk. At the doctor’s many may recall being seated on a table with the feet dangling over the floor followed by a rubbery hammer used to thump the knee. Immediately the foot pops up. This is the Myotatic Stretch Reflex in action. The doctor’s hammer taps onto the patella tendon which connects to the thigh muscles. This makes a mild tug onto the thigh muscles. When these muscles are tugged on receptors within the thigh known as “Muscle Spindles” are tugged on. The slightest pull on these muscle spindles activates the reflex. Instantly within a fraction of a second a signal from the area is sent to the spine followed by another signal back to the thigh causing the thigh to contract. How does the reflex help us? For example water skiers would collapse quickly at every small bump their skies pass over. Instead the bumps pull the muscle spindles within the quadriceps causing unconscious muscular contractions of the thigh to keep skiers from falling. How may this affect a yoga posture? When this reflex is overly stimulated the muscles involved shorten and become less flexible. Runners mildly stimulate this reflex in their legs with every step. Running across a crosswalk is not a concern. It is the thousands of impacted steps over a thirty minute run that stimulates the reflex enough times to tightened and shorten muscles. Most avid runners can agree that flexibility tends to be an issue in their legs. This is why it is advisable to avoid jumping and bouncing in and out of postures and sequences such as Sun Salutations. Practicing yoga with a lot of pizazz and bounciness triggers the Myotatic Stretch Reflex making it harder to open and lengthen the muscles for deeper stretches.
On the other hand the “Clasp Knife Reflex” causes muscles to relax. Certain pocket knives when folding the blade back into the handle resists closing up to a certain point. After this point the blade snaps into place. Similarly our muscles resist stretching and then open up and relax for a deeper stretch. The Clasp Knife Reflex occurs when receptors within the tendon that are connecting the muscles of concern to the bone become stimulated through steady pressure. The receptor known as “Golgi Tendon Organs” signal the spine to send another signal back to the muscle the tendon is connected to. The signal sent to the muscle requires it to relax. The main way this reflex works is best seen in weight training. Those who bench pressed will notice that when pushing to failure the arms quite almost instantly at the failure point causing the bar to lower back to the chest requiring the spotter to help. This is because at the point of failure the Golgi Tendon Organ signals to have the muscle relax. If this relaxation signalling of the muscles did not occur then the tendon receiving too much pressure would tear. So avoid tears by training in all activities at no more than 80% of the maximum. Despite this commonly known example of the Clasp Knife Reflex we also use it within yoga. The best example is when waking first thing in the morning to do a forward bend with the knees slightly bent while hugging the quads. Slowly extend the knees and hold with a firm stretch for 30 seconds. Release the pose and return after a minute to see how much looser it is with the knees straight. The difference experienced in how far it is possible to bend is a measure of the effect of the clasp knife reflex.To follow the guidelines of the reflexes it is not necessary to know the anatomy. Hold stretches without bouncing and moving through dynamic sequences without force and flair. Enter and exit a yoga posture slowly and smoothly. Then while holding yoga postures remain in a space of stillness. Without knowing anatomy the reflexes will be worked with and the yoga practice will improve with fewer chances of injuries. A regular yoga practice done over long periods creates an intuitive sense of the two reflexes.
Diet is an element that influences our sense of wellbeing and the yoga practice. Understanding and following diet basics does not require memorizations of herbs, vitamins and their properties. Diet basics hinges on the idea that the digestive system needs to never slow or stop. As long as the digestive system moves at a pace nature intended then the possibilities of arthritis, low energy, slow mental functions and tight postures will be dramatically reduced. A basic understanding of influences responsible for slowing or stopping digestion is only needed. Various influences exist and consulting with a nutritionist will be ideal for individual needs. For the general population the diet basics is of real help and easy to follow. Simply knowing 4 food limits, understanding habits of consumption and easy fasting methods will help one to follow diet basics.
The 4 food limits of diet basics are meat, alcohol, caffeine and sugars. The consumption of meat within yoga circles is a taboo due to the principle of ahimsa / nonviolence. Despite this there are many great spiritual masters such as Buddha, Christ and the enlightened Shaolin warrior monks of China that ate meat. Diet basics follow the idea that the digestive system must keep moving as nature intended. But it is known that red meats such as steaks may take 2 – 3 days to digest. On the other hand poultry takes less time and fish requires the least digestive energy. The longer meats are digesting the more it putrefies in the intestines causing constipation, low energy and poor postures. If meat is included in the meals then do not consume more than 30 grams at a time. Follow the idea of consuming white meat before red and fish before poultry. Excessive amounts of alcohol, caffeine and sugary products will slow the digestive system. Meats, alcohol, sugar and caffeine require more water to eliminate them from the body. For example a serving of coffee or alcohol or a sweet would not only pass through but it would also take additional water from the body to eliminate it. If consuming the above mentioned then drink plenty of water. The absolute limit is two cups of any alcoholic or caffeine beverage per day in order to maintain hydration of the body . Habits are part of diet basics. It is important to avoid practicing yoga for atleast 4 – 6 hours after a meal. The meal has not finished digesting. After the meal digested then may the practice begin. The same is true for eating. Only after a meal has finished digesting, normally taking a minimum of 4 – 6 hours, then only may the next meal be eaten. Eating all day whenever desired will lead to indigestion, sluggishness and poor yoga practices. In India it is said, “that if one eats 1 meal a day then this person is a yogi. If one eats 2 meals a day then this person loves life. If one eats three meals a day then this person needs to see a doctor”. The right choice stem from individual metabolism. Good habits require the individual does not eat for 2 – 3 hours before sleeping. Consuming meals close to bed time leads to weight gain. Then when eating 3 additional habits need to be followed. First do not to eat till completely full. Second eat slowly and finally chew completely. By simply chewing food till it is absolutely broken down before swallowing enables the digestive system to easily absorb the nutrients. Eating slowly allows the digestive system sufficient time to release nutrients from the food being eaten into the blood stream. This starts the process of communicating to the body that it is getting full. Eating fast will only make a person full before they become consciously aware of it.
Fully grown adults may consider fasting once a week during the day. Wake up in the morning and just drink water all day till 5pm. Follow that with a light meal that avoids the 4 food limits. The colon will catch-up on passing anything that was out of balance from stress, mistimed meals and even irregular sleep which affects digestion. No matter what be sure to drink plenty of water for the first hour of waking. Morning is a time for detox and the firsts hours can be spent just drinking warm water followed by juice to clean out the body.
To truly become fluid with the digestion consider vegetarianism but do so with the advice of a doctor especially with medical issues. While on social events enjoy splurging without feeling guilty. Having a sweet or two will only make life sweeter. Then hit the mat the next day. With diet basics water flows easily through joints enhancing postures. The increased blood circulation created enables easier warm-ups along with heightened concentration and energy.