I love the concept of yoga, of making one with the universe and feeling at peace with myself and the world.
However, I don't think that the physical practice of yoga serves our modern bodies well.
I drew the above picture after completing a 60-hour foundation course with the British Wheel of Yoga, considering at the time becoming a yoga teacher. However, I decided that I needed to know more about how the body works so embarked on a BTEC in remedial and sports massage to learn about anatomy and soft tissue therapy, followed by a 2-year programme to learn about biomechanics and movement science.
This is the kind of body that I had when practising yoga.
A ribcage stuck forward and a pelvis also stuck forward resulting in lower back pain.
Locked knees, hypermobile elbows and wrists gave me some discomfort. I had zero awareness of my body parts and how they are designed to articulate with each other.
Yoga may have a lot to offer to a great number of people. However, I see many of my clients suffer as a result of overdoing certain poses that seem easy and comfortable to them, and it takes them a while to make the link between their pain or discomfort and their yoga practice.
It's not that any movement is particularly bad or wrong, it is a question of frequency of similar positions and a lack of awareness of where your body is in space (proprioception) that are an issue. Not to mention what position your body defaults to at rest and standing.
Here is a list of what needs attention in my view:
1) Spending too much time cross-legged (lotus pose) - shortens the fascia around the gastrocnemius at both ends (knee and heel), leading to stiff, tense calves and a pull on the Achilles tendon, and eventually pain near the heel, especially when combined with excessive sitting (at work, at home, in transport and in certain sports such as cycling and rowing).
2) Excessively stretching the hips (pigeon, cobbler's stretch, piriformis stretch), likely to increase a lack of stability in the SI joint due to a weakening of the muscles at the side of the hips linked to a sedentary lifestyle.
3) Locking of the knees, leading to tension-holding patterns in the quadriceps and damage to the knee joint over time. Instructing to lift the knee cap before moving introduces unnecessary tension to the quadriceps so is best avoided.
4) Turning the sternum towards the sky, leading to (or increasing) the displacement of the ribcage forward and up, leading to compression of the vertebrae.
5) Doing too many Backbends, which increase the displacement of the ribcage forward or up, on one side or both. Extremes of spinal extension can be damaging for a sedentary spine.
6) Doing the Cat-cow pose, which increases hyperkyphosis (excessive curvature of the thoracic spine) and a lack of independent mobility of the ribcage and the pelvis as they always move as one.
7) Corpse pose - most people cannot lie flat without their ribs poking out or their legs lifting off the ground or their neck overextending, compressing the spine.
8) Letting fingers and wrists that cannot extend fully (fingers that cannot straighten and wrists that can't form a 90 degree angle with the forearm) bear your weight
We spend many hours sitting in relative stillness, so our bodies become shaped by our chairs. In bed at night, we keep this position which our soft mattress accommodates, so we spend even more hours in this position. Body parts quickly adapt to a lack of movement. A sedentary body is more at risk when doing the yoga poses mentioned above.
The good news is that it is possible to restore our mobility and strength and enjoy yoga. It takes time and dedication but it is doable and a pleasant experience.
I'm almost there now, thanks to better body awareness, specific exercises, sitting very rarely and sleeping on a futon on the floor. A combination of all three really works.
After four years of restorative exercise, I can lie flat comfortably on the floor. Check it out for yourself - can you lie flat without your ribcage protuding/flaring/poking out and without your chin lifting up to the ceiling (compressing the vertebrae in your neck? If you can, well done! If you can't, you might want to take some steps towards restoring a relaxed spine.
Yoga is a great practice, but the current physical practice doesn't serve our sedentary bodies* well and risks causing us injuries*. We need to address the areas that hardly ever move in our daily lives due to our sedentary ways so yoga can be enjoyed fully without long-term ill-effects.
To improve your own body awareness, you are welcome to read my other blog posts. Bring that awareness to your yoga practice for long-term health.
If you practise yoga, how can I help?
For more information, you might want to read How to Psoasana until you can Savasana.
* A sedentary body or an active-sedentary body - in other words, someone might be very active (running, sports, exercise classes) but some parts never get to move very much - usually feet, hands, ribcage, shoulders, etc.
* For more details on injuries linked to yoga, please read Soft Tissue and Bony Injuries Attributed to the Practice of Yoga: A Biomechanical Analysis and Implications for Management.