Four Yoga Myths Dispelled – Making your Practice Work for YOU!
by Sara Dwyer Lane, Yoga Teacher at Bodytree Studio
During your yoga asana practice you are responsible for making continuous decisions while you move. How is your breath in a posture or during transitions? Have you reached your edge? Should you push further? Should you back off? Is your movement serving your body and mind in the way you need it to today? Do you need to sweat or is your body telling you that you need something more restorative? These are important questions you should be asking yourself, instead of trying to attain that picture perfect pose. It’s more important to listen to your body than listening to anything else!
As I explore my own ever-changing practice, most recently I spend a lot of time thinking about the spine. I think a lot about the way I use and move my spine. And I spend a lot of time thinking about how I teach others to be aware of how they are moving and using theirs. Why pay special attention to your spine? You have heard people say ‘you are only as healthy as your spine,’ right? If you think about it, the mobility, flexibility, and strength of your backbone is absolutely essential to ALL other movements. These vertebrae that are so elegantly stacked and curved atop one another, carry your nervous system from your brain to each and every part of the body. It sends all the information our brain conveys to our various body parts and then returns the feedback to the brain. Besides students saying they aren’t flexible enough, the thing I hear most often is that their backs hurt/ache in various ways. Much of this is under-developed core strength, but more so it’s about being thoughtful about how we treat our back. I want to share a few common alignment myths to keep in mind as you navigate your own body, while being mindful of your spine, in your practice. These are some simple places to start.
Myth #1: Tadasana is a resting pose
Think of it instead as a re-set pose. Use this posture to check in with your breath. Use it to scan your body. If you stand in Tadasana (mountain pose), weight evenly through your feet and your head held high with eyes gazing forward, you will carefully notice the curves of your spine from the base of your head down to your hips – your neck spine (cervical) curves in towards the throat, your upper back (thoracic) curves outwards, your lower back (lumbar) curves back in, and the flat bit at the bottom (sacral spine) tilts back out as it rests inside the pelvis. This is your natural spine. And this shape is what we aim for in nearly all yoga postures – yes, even backbends and forward folds! Firm in the lower belly a little and let the shoulders relax so the neck feels long. Maintaining a natural spine in this pose, and in your practice, requires core strength, a little flexibility, and lots of mindfulness. You are not just hanging out at the top of your mat – there is actually a lot to think about! The goals are length, spaciousness, stability, and mobility!
Myth #2: You need to tuck your tailbone
You might notice that you hear the once-popular cue ‘tuck your tailbone’ less and less in classes. It is meant to protect the lower back, or lumbar spine, a spot particularly susceptible to injury due to its already super-mobile nature. This or something like it is usually suggested in any posture where the lower back might over-extend and the lower ribs jut forward. Examples may be poses with arms overhead, plank, and downward dog, even backbends. If you tuck the tailbone with great effort, you will neutralize the spine for certain, but unfortunately you will also take mobility and space out of the sacrum as it sits in the pelvis. Jamming the sacrum into immobility isn’t ideal. Instead of tucking your tailbone, try firming in the belly (helping to build strength in the core), and knitting together the lower ribs. You will notice if you do this, the back neutralizes, the glutes are not as tight, and the groins stay a bit softer – all leading to easier movements in the back and hips. It brings a bit more ease to the effort of poses Urdhva Hastasana (standing with your arms reaching straight up overhead) is a good place to begin exploring this, but it can be applied to nearly all postures.
Myth #3: You must touch your heels down in downward facing dog
Another easy place to start to mind your spine is in Adho Mukha Svanasana, or downward facing dog. We spend so much time in this posture and we all think we need to get those heels to the floor, right? Without loads of openness in the backs of the legs (oh hamstrings!), the heels touching down are of little concern. If we force the heels down, it pulls on the leg muscles, which pull on the pelvis and rounds out the lower back. If you do not easily touch down with the heels while keeping a long, neutral spine, try a little bend in the knees, letting the sitting bones tilt up more, making space in your sacrum and allowing that natural inward curve back into your lower back. Now… firm in the belly and gently knit together the lower ribs. All of these small adjustments will move the spine to a more neutral and healthier position. You want to feel length all down your side body from your hips to your fingertips. You might find that your shoulders feel more stable too! You can then begin to work the heels down a little bit at a time until the backs of the legs become more open.
Myth #4: You must be able to touch your toes
Though I could give a hundred examples – twisting and backbends, Surya Namaskar, and on and on – the last simple one that I will mention here is forward folding. This is another posture we put the body into over and over again during a practice. There are a few choices to make here. Should the feet go together or hip-width apart? Should you bend your knees? It is traditional to practice with your feet together and legs straight in forward folding. We don’t all have traditional bodies and may need a lot of practice to get to that version of a fold. You might find that this feels restrictive in your sacrum, your lower back, and possibly even your hips. Try standing with your feet hip width as it can provide a little space for the low back and hips. Now, try softening the knees and even a good bend might be best. Much like in down dog, unless the backs of your legs are really open, those muscles will pull down on the pelvis, rounding the lower back. A softened or bent knee will let the sitting bones tilt up giving you that curve back in your lower spine. You want to feel length from the hips to the top of the spine as your head hangs heavy.
Something to think about as you explore these and any variations in your practice…
Each and every yoga posture involves your spine. These are just a few really simple postures where you can begin to notice how some variation might make your practice feel better. Your mindfulness to this incredible system of bones and joints – the one that keeps you standing tall, keeps you moving forward, keeps your head held high – is essential to a healthy body and a healthy yoga practice. Keep aiming for length, spaciousness, stability, and mobility.
The beautiful thing about yoga – all levels, all practices, and all types – is that it belongs only to the practitioner. While we often practice in class, holding community space while moving and breathing together, we all come with different bodies, different minds, and different intentions. No two practices are alike. No two yogis are alike. Inspiration is helpful, but comparisons are not, most often doing more harm than good. It is your practice. We, as teachers, are here to guide your practice, but you are the only one who knows how it feels and how it makes you feel. Often, with this important realization – that your practice is uniquely yours – you can tap in to a new awareness of your body and mind that makes yours grow into a sustainable, life-long practice that is just right for you.
Saturdays were made for perusing market stalls and enjoying a beautiful flowing practice on the grass. Cap off your weekend with a free yoga class taught by Sara every Saturday at Ripe Market Abu Dhabi – starting in October. Bring a yoga mat with you and leave your worries behind you! Sara is also available for private sessions at Bodytree studio – email firstname.lastname@example.org to enquire and book.