This is hopefully a simple read, but one that I find important.
I see this all too often in teaching yoga classes that I am compelled to write about it. And as a yoga student, I too have experienced it. “It”…being the conscious (or perhaps unconscious) matter of hurting or injuring ourselves during yoga class.
Yoga is thought to be a gentle form of movement. But lets face it, no matter how gentle the class might be, the potential to injure ourselves is ever present. This potential exists in any other type of movement too (spin class, Zumba, cleaning the house, working on the car, gardening, etc). Hence the article that came out several years ago, “How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body.”1
The difference in yoga is that yoga should be a “mindful” practice of movement. Not that you can’t be mindful in your other movement practices or daily life, because you certainly can.
However, I envision yoga as being at least one pathway into your “awarefulness.”
It can be a route that leads you to a greater sense of presence in body and mind throughout your life’s daily activities.
During Yoga Class: Making a Conscious Decision
If we are aware in that moment, we may make a conscious choice to go past our body’s boundaries. Twisting, bending, grunting out nervous system into labored submission.
Perhaps we see others doing it, so we want to be right there with them. Or perhaps we haven’t tried it and we just want to see if we can. Or possibly the instructor encouraged you to try it verbally, or they provided input with their hands and encouraged you to “go deeper.” Maybe in that moment you didn’t know where “safe” was when the instructor cued you.
That used to be me. Attending fast-paced yoga classes where the teacher physically pushed you deeper into the pose. Despite my body’s quiet, yet present internal questioning, “uh, is it supposed to hurt?”–I persisted and moved past my boundaries. The result being that at the end of class or even later that night, I was aching in my arms, aching in my neck and popping an Advil.
But how could this be? It was yoga, after all. I was doing something good for myself, right?
What I was doing, was teaching my nervous system to be more sensitive. Keep pushing your nervous system and it will keep poking back. You don’t keep tempting a rattlesnake with a stick and expect it to back down. It’s going to strike back. Not the ideal game you want to play.
Several weeks ago, I had a 5-day episode of the worst back pain I had ever experienced. I was literally humbled to the ground. Unable to stand up, crawling on the floor if I could make it that far. Resigned to listen to my body, I rested.
But when I was able to do a little movement, I got back on my yoga mat with a beginner (enlightened?) mind.
Try some movements and assess: if I stay here, does it feel nourishing to my body? Can I breath smoothly? Can I stay with these “sensations” (of pain, or of ease) and recognize them as just that, “sensations.”
If not….if my breath went into immediate hyperventilation (not a good sign)……or if the movement that at first seemed nourishing after one breath was no longer nourishing at two breaths, then I moved out of it. With the clear understanding in my head that in that moment, the sensations that were overcoming me did not feel safe to my nervous system.
In. This. Moment.
I could revisit as many times as I wanted to– at another moment, but for then, I was honoring my own ability to be interoceptive. Following my own body and mind’s internal cues: breath rate, sensations of discomfort, stress or excess effort in other parts of my body (cringing of the face, verbal sounds of distress).
“Interoception refers to sensitivity to stimuli originating inside the body, a type of bodily perception that contributes to how someone “feels.” Thus it is tied to mind and body and integral to one’s sense of “being” or well-being, and emotions.” 2
And thus we find ease of our momentary suffering and we are able to walk away feeling better than we did when we came in.
Back to the Roots: Ahimsa, Aparigraha, & Samtosa
In yoga philosophy, we can trace this “ease of suffering” back to the Pantanjali’s yoga sutras. We can draw from several of the ancient teachings such as the yamas (abstinences) and niyamas (observances).3 I’m only including the ones which I believe are pertinent in this current discussion (there are 10 total).
Ahimsa (nonviolence): If you’ve been to my classes, you’ve no doubt heard me use this term. Can you find it in yourself to be non-violent/non-harming towards yourself for this one moment? Even if it’s yoga class and even if everyone else is doing the “full pose.” Can you back out of the pose just a little and re-assess to see if you can breath smoothly and be easeful in the moment? Even if it’s just that….a moment.
Aparigraha (non-greed): A way to think of not taking more than what you need at the moment. In class, can you resolve to be ok with what you are able to do at the moment? Forget about what you might have been able to do last year, last month or even yesterday. This time on your mat, can you find peace with just moving to where your body feels nourished and not agitated? Why take more when you could be satisfied with the abilities you have at this moment?
Samtosa (contentment): For this time, in your space, on your mat, can you find contentment with where you are right now? Can you do this even if the instructor asks for you to go further? Can you do this when your fellow classmates are touching knee to nose? Again, not where you were yesterday, but meet yourself this time on your mat with a beginner’s mind. With the understanding that “hey, I’m going to make this feel good for once.”
I mean it when I say that if the path to least resistance is coming out of the pose before it’s cued, then please do it. I mean it when I say, you can take a restful pose whenever your body is whispering or SHOUTING the signals to do so.
We aren’t competing with each other. You won’t be disappointing me. Heck, I am always so happy when someone takes the path of least resistance. Brings me absolute joy that you have found that recognition within yourself that you need some radical self-care today.
And you won’t be limping out with a grimace on your face.
And you will leave class feeling better than when you came.
And I will selfishly feel successful…that another student went home having learned something about their own self-compassion and their nervous systems will be on the way to healing and not feeling harmed.
And our body & mind will be looking forward to the next time we meet again on our mats.
In. This. Moment.
I welcome your feedback and if you find this information helpful, please share with your colleagues and your friends. I would love to hear if this worked for you. Contact Tianna if you are searching how you can care for yourself In. This. Moment.
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- Broad, W. J. (2012). How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body. Retrieved August 23, 2016, from http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/08/magazine/how-yoga-can-wreck-your-body.html?_r=0
- Mind Body Skills for Regulating the Autonomic Nervous System [Scholarly project]. (2011, June). In Defense Centers of Excellence for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury. Version 2
- S., & P. (1990). The yoga sutras of Patanjali. Yogaville, VA: Integral Yoga Publications.