How to practice yoga at home safely

A home practice means you can practice whenever you want, for as long as you want, and do whatever you want! 

A home practice means you can practice whenever you want, for as long as you want, and do whatever you want! 

One of the most common questions I am asked is something along the lines of:

"I can't practice at a studio and I want to practice yoga. But I am afraid I will injure myself without a teacher for guidance. How can I practice at home safely?" 

Well, there's a lot I have to say on that. I'll try to keep it simple. Enumeration to the rescue!

1:

I sincerely believe having a regular yoga practice, whether at home or at a studio, will lead to more overall benefits to your life than NOT having one. Even if you do injure yourself. Because injuries are a part of life.  But so is stress, which yoga can alleviate. So is bad posture, which yoga can correct. So is pain, which yoga can help. 

2:

The practice of postural yoga is one which involves strengthening--more than any muscle--the connection between the mind and body. So if you are practising yoga, you are LISTENING. This means moving with mindful attention to how your body feels as you move. Move slowly and with a sense of curiosity and intrigue. 

3:

This may be a very unpopular stance but: I believe that injuries aren't that bad. They're a part of life. We all get injured in our lives. Usually it's when we're kids and more carefree, and then at some point we get scared of doing anything and start bubble-wrapping ourselves and holding back on what we really want for fear that we might do some minor damage. 

The body is brilliantly designed to heal itself. If you begin to feel pain or discomfort or something that just doesn't "feel right", then listen to that, honour that, and let your body heal while you stay away from anything that causes that pain to return. Chances are, your body will heal itself, but more importantly as you discover what things you can and cannot do while avoiding that pain, you'll learn so much!

Injuries are great teachers! If you allow yourself to learn from them. Of course I'm not in any way advocating carelessness or pushing yourself towards pain. Quite the opposite! I'm only saying that IF you do something to cause some strain or stress, then don't see it as a reason to stop moving, or feel you did something wrong. See it as an opportunity to learn.

(Also drink plenty of water, eat anti-inflammatory foods, and get plenty of sleep, which will help the healing process.)

3b. 

As well as moving mindfully, you will also greatly reduce your risk of injury by making sure you are warmed up. All this takes is starting your movements gently and slowly. 

If you go cold into a handstand or chaturanga or wheel pose, then you're asking for trouble. Warm up the body, and get the muscles activated in simple postures. As you feel ready, move towards more and more intense postures. 

4:

Understand your intention: why do you practice asana? What do you want to get out of it? What I hope you want from it is to go inwards and learn about yourself. Flexibility, strength, balancing on one foot or on your hands are all things that may come from a regular movement practice, but that’s not why we practice yoga.

Yoga is union: connection of mind and body, connection to the breath, connection to yourself. Asana can teach us so much about ourselves — what our bodies tell us as we move, what our mind's reaction is to what the body says. And this comes through moving MINDFULLY. Not moving in a way to achieve some goal or put your body in some particular shape, but moving, breathing, and observing body and mind every inch of the way. 

If strength or flexibility or crazy arm balances is what you want, then I really believe that will come with regular practice, if your practice is indeed regular (i.e. as close to daily as possible) and varied (i.e. moving in a variety of ways).  Practice online in as many different styles as you can so you're getting a variety of movement in. If you're doing the same few postures all the time, then you'll stagnate. There are so many free videos and apps for following along to if you need some inspiration or guidance. 

But remember, if it's YOGA you want to practice, then you can practice that by sitting and breathing. 

5:

Finally, I know there are a lot of scary things out there about bad alignment. Instagram posts with big red Xs on them, or showing two postures as "right" or "wrong". They're intended to be helpful, I'm sure, but I personally disagree with most of them.

Alignment is as individual as taste in music; we're all going to have different preferences and those preferences are probably going to change depending on how we feel that day. 

Anyway, the purpose of most alignment guides in yoga are to get slightly MORE out of a posture, rather than to avoid injury.

For example, if you do a revolved chair pose (Parivrtta Utkatasana), chances are your knees will slide away from each other as you twist, and at home on your own, you probably don't notice. In a group yoga class, the teacher may come over to you and tell you to bring your knees back in line, and you'll feel that you have to twist deeper then. What you'll realise is that your hips were doing some of the twisting too, and with the knees glued back together, the twist happens more in the thoracic spine, which is a nice area to twist from. 

But is it WRONG or INJURIOUS to allow the knees to slide away from each other and have some of the twist come from the pelvis? No! It's entirely natural. I reckon if it's what most of us do in our first revolved chair pose, then it's how our bodies are designed to move.

Does it hurt? No! Are we going to spend hours and hours like it every day? No!! So how can it be "wrong"? (By the way we DO spend hours and hours sitting in bad posture at desks or in our cars everyday -- so that's what we should be more afraid of.)

Yes, some alignment cues are to avoid injury, but going back to what I said earlier, if you are moving mindfully and not pushing yourself into some posture that feels wrong, then you're only going to learn more about your body and your self, and that is the goal.

Final thoughts:

I've completely failed at keeping this short and simple. Sorry. 

But my final piece of advise is this: 

If you are still unsure of your home yoga practice, then seek out some way to have a yoga teacher look at your practice and help you with some of the postures you're unsure about. Go to a class, or buy a private lesson. Remember that with the internet you have access to pretty much EVERYTHING. Yoga teachers don't even need to see you in person! I, among many other yoga teachers, give private lessons via Facetime and Skype. If it's important to you, you'll prioritise it, and do what you need to do to make your yoga practice feel amazing. 

 

 

YOGA & HYPERMOBILITY: Some tips for the already-flexible yogi

You’re basically a superhuman in training. Add strength to your flexibility and you will be AH-MAZED at what you can do.

Before I dive in, let me first point out two key words in the title of this post: "SOME TIPS".  i.e. there's a WHOLE LOT more that goes into being a hypermobile person, or a person who is hyperflexible (different to hypermobile), and their personal practice of yoga. 

For one thing, we're all different.  Even if you and I have in common that we are both flimsy floppy people who have no trouble throwing our leg up over our heads, we still differ in many many ways.

So these are "some" (i.e. not comprehensive) "tips" (i.e. not rules, just suggestions). 

K...now that's out of the way, I do think it's important to recognise if you yourself are a very flexible person (for whatever reason) who lacks strength, or if you're a yoga teacher who has a very flexible student without the strength to stabilise the joints.

Flexibility seems to be the most coveted result of yoga. It seems like everybody wants to be flexible, and if you're already flexible then you get praised for it. But too much of anything is not good! 

I don't know what it feels like to be inflexible. I do know what it feels like to be weak though. To be able to contort my body around in all sorts of shapes but barely the strength to hold myself upright with proper posture. And that's fun when you're a kid in a gymnastics or dance class, or when you go to your first yoga class and people say to you afterwards "you're so good at yoga!" (whatever that means).

But lemma tell ya, just as being SO sculpted and muscular that you can't even move because you're so rigid isn't healthy (like a noodle of uncooked dry spaghetti), being so flexible that you have no stability also isn't healthy (like overcooked spaghetti). 

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We gotta have a balance.  Flexibility AND strength. (Al-dente spaghetti perhaps?)

But whatever the culinary comparison, it's due to a critical misunderstanding that so many super flexible people get praised for being "good at yoga" 

TANGENT: being "good at yoga" is...what? What exactly? YOGA ISN'T ABOUT WHAT YOU CAN DO WITH YOUR BODY, OKAY? Yoga is a way to understand yourself so you can detach from your mind and body. It is chitta vritti nirodhah. That's why asana is only one part of yoga.

Anyway.....

So, if you're somebody who can just sink deeper and deeper into a stretch but then you get up to walk out of the class and you feel like your legs are like over-cooked spaghetti, here are some tips to avoid that and make sure you build STRENGTH around your joints so you can still walk when you're old:

  • never sink down and relax into a stretch (for example a low lunge/anjaneyasana) just letting gravity pull you further and further. It may even feel good, but tendons and ligaments (they live near the joints) shouldn’t be stretched

 

  • protect your ligaments by moving into poses with muscle engagement. Most of the time you don't need to think about it because OF COURSE you're going to use your muscles in order to place yourself into a posture or position. But I’m talking about poses where you use hands to pull yourself (seated twists for example), or your use momentum to fling yourself (moving quickly through a transition without control), or perhaps where gravity pulls you (e.g. low lunge).

 

  • when you move into an asana, move back out of it the SAME way you came into it, and do so with control. For example, if you can fold your back in half and drop into wheel, great. But can you come back up to standing? If not, only drop back as far as you're able to come back up again. Then you know you've got the strength to match the flexibility (sometimes even moreso, if you're fighting gravity. BOOM.)

 

  • Move slowly. It takes more strength to move slowly when it comes to postural yoga 

 

  • to break bad habits, go just 50% into an asana and then take note of your core, back, glutes, quads, and check if they’re relaxed, and if you can engage them more. If so, engage them, and THEN move deeper 

 

  • take note of where you use your hands to pull yourself into postures (such as twists) and see how much you can do it hands-free 

 

  • do actual strength-based practice; if all you do is yin or restorative yoga, look for a power yoga or rocket class 

 

Also, if you're a naturally flexible person or perhaps due to your background you just have very lengthened muscles but no strength, this doesn't necessarily mean you're going to be super flexible in ALL areas of the body.

By that I mean that if all your life one area has done all the bending, then you may well be tight (yes tight!) in other areas.

For example, a common area is the lower back doing all the bending and the hip flexors and thoracic spine becoming very immobile. 

Take note as you move if one area of the body is doing all the bending. 

Remember, the hardest work may well be for your ego. 

 

And to finish off: some good news!

Being already flexible ISN'T A BAD THING. This is because you already have a wider range of motion in which to build strength. Whatever position you can already move into is one where you can build strength in! You don't lose have to flexibility by increasing strength. Use your stretchability! 

You're basically a superhuman in training. Add strength to your flexibility and you will be AH-MAZED at what you can do.

 

Now go eat some spaghetti.