With summer in full swing, farmers markets are overflowing with delicious produce and fresh cut flowers. What could be better than a farmers market find that is both food and flower? Nothing, clearly. So when I locked eyes on the beautiful and edible zucchini flowers last weekend, I knew immediately I had to have them. […]
Be Safe in the Wild World of Yoga: Modifying for Injury/Conditions and Know When NOT to Listen to Your Yoga Teacher
Injury and Condition Modification Guide
By Jasmine Chehrazi, E-RYT 500, Certified Yoga Therapist
Whether you have low back pain, are pregnant, are bipolar or have any other injury or condition, even if you are cleared to practice yoga by your health care professional there are some things you need to keep in mind when practicing in a group yoga class at Yoga District or any studio:
1. Listen to your self: Do not do any movements or practices that hurt or make you feel strained, regardless of what any teacher says to you or the class. If you can’t maintain steady breathing in a pose, that’s a pretty good signal to change something.
2. Accept the limits of group instruction: Group classes are not appropriate settings for you to receive customized, therapeutic advice on how to treat your injury/condition with yoga. So if you have an injury/condition, try a private yoga therapy session instead.
3. Avoid areas of pain: If you have a physical ailment in a certain area of the body, you may wish to avoid poses that involve that area entirely during group yoga classes. Instead, try focusing on poses that help strengthen and stretch surrounding areas. For example, if you have knee pain, you may benefit from strengthening and stretching the quads, hamstrings and other nearby muscles to help possibly relieve pressure on the knee joint. Or if you have back pain, you may benefit from engaging the abdominal muscles and stretching the hips and shoulders.
4. Ease out, decrease duration and increase repetition: Don’t go as “deeply” into a pose. For instance, in a forward fold try to focus on lengthening the spine rather than folding deeply into the bend. You can also choose to hold any pose for a shorter period of time, regardless of what the teacher cues. You may also benefit more by repeating a posture a few times, holding it for just a breath or two each time you repeat it.
5. Evenly distribute weight and try padding: Decrease pressure on any one part of the body by distributing weight more evenly to more points, and consider using a blanket for padding. For instance, in lunge pose, ground the back knee to distribute weight more evenly and, if desired, place a blanket under the back knee (see picture above right).
6. Find a safe resting pose: Some instructors offer child’s pose (see picture below right) as a resting pose but if this puts too much pressure on your hips, neck, ankles, knees, or any other part of the body, just pick any other comfortable, sustainable position you like. You should feel free to return to your resting pose at any time during a group yoga class, no matter what the teacher says. A successful practice is a safe one!
Here are some general ideas about modifying types of yoga poses, but please remember none of this constitutes medical advice and that you are practicing at your own risk:
– Back issues: Consider slightly bending your knees in all forward folding poses, engaging your abdominal and seat muscles throughout your practice, and keeping an elongated spine. Entirely avoid or avoid undue depth in back bends, forward folds or any other poses that could agitate the back.
– Knee issues: Avoid “locking” the knee joint, try to engage the muscles around the knee, and always keep each of your knees pointing in the same direction as the second and third toes of each foot. Try bending the ankle to 90 degrees to engage muscles around the knee, preventing unnecessary knee pressure. In standing poses, you can keep the back knee straight or on the ground (perhaps with a blanket cushioning the knee). The front knee in standing poses can be straight (but not “locked”), softly/slightly bent, or bent directly above your ankle (and never beyond the ankle), but always tracking with the second and third toes.
– Prenatal: Avoid laying on the back or stomach but laying on the left side is appropriate for many. Widen the distance between the feet and point the toes out about 45 degrees when standing or when doing a forward fold. The hormone “relaxin” is secreted during pregnancy and can increase your flexibility, so ensure you remain in control while stretching and avoid over-stretching. In twisting poses, ensure nothing (including your leg or legs) is in the way of the abdomen, and try to keep the naval pointing forward by twisting from the chest upwards. You may wish to gently engage the abdominals and focus on hip opening poses and breathing. Avoid balancing poses if you are prone to dizziness. If nauseous, avoid any posture in which the head is lower than the heart.
– Arthritis: Move slowly, focus on range of motion instead of speed of motion, and consider avoiding the more fast-paced types of yoga including “vinyasa” / “flow” classes. Try Gentle Yoga, Alignment-Focus Yoga, Restorative Yoga and other nicely paced classes.
– Menstruating: Avoid inversions where the hips are above the heart. Please take this seriously, as some link cervical cancer to reversal of menstrual flow (which could happen when you’re upsidedown in headstand and other inversions). Consider replacing downward facing dog with table position (on hands and knees), and consider replacing shoulderstand or headstand with “legs up the wall” pose. Hip openers and restorative practices may be particularly soothing.
– High blood pressure (unmedicated or under-medicated): Consider avoiding all inversions (any pose where the head is lower than the heart), avoid holding your breath, pause whenever your breathing is not steady and slow, and avoid fast changes in elevation in relation to the heart and head (don’t quickly move from laying down to standing up).
– Headaches or migraines: Explore the same practices described for high blood pressure above.
– Low blood pressure: Avoid going from an inversion (any pose where the head is lower than the heart) to an upright position quickly, or at all. For instance, move from standing forward fold to standing slowly, or avoid the inversion of standing forward fold by replacing it with half forward fold (see picture right), keeping the torso parallel to the ground.
– Sinus pressure / congestion: Try the same practices explored for low blood pressure. Consider a supported inversion such as downward facing dog with a block under the forehead, or supported bridge pose. Avoid classes with quick transitions between inversions and upright positions, such as some vinyasa flow classes.
– Wrist pain: Avoid weight bearing on the wrists entirely. You can practice poses like downward facing dog, plank, and cobra by placing the elbows and forearms on the ground with the palms facing down (see picture below right).
– Neck pain: Keep your head neutral / in line with the spine and avoid collapsing into the neck by engaging the neck muscles gently. Avoid turning your head while the neck is weight bearing, or avoid turning it entirely. For instance, in triangle pose you could keep your gaze downward or straight ahead rather than upward. Consider avoiding poses in which you could accidentally put pressure on the neck such as bridge, shoulderstand, fish and plow.
– Anxiety: Engage a vigorous practice, but avoid overly fast-paced movements and fast-paced breathing exercises if they agitate you. Focus on the exhales when concentrating on the breath. Be careful with backbends – approach them slowly, hold them for short periods of time when you’re first getting used to them, and perhaps try supported backbends to start. Explore yoga classes that feature set sequences if knowing what comes next puts you at ease.
– Depression: Engage a vigorous practice, avoiding overly slow-paced classes. Try light, well-paced classes such as vinyasa flow styles. Consider engaging backbends, and focus on your inhales when concentrating on the breath. Avoid holding savasana (pictured right, the resting pose at the end of most yoga classes) longer than ten minutes, and practice savasana with the eyes slightly open, yet restful, if this is an aide.
Remember that these are just broad ideas you might try out at your own risk. Please feel free to share your experiences applying any of these practices or ideas by commenting below.
This information is part of the Yoga District teacher training manual and may not be copied or distributed without permission. (c) Yoga District 2014
I don’t know what it is about summer, but all I want to cook these days is food with spicy, Latin American flavors. Perhaps I just want to embrace the sweltering heat and fire up my body’s natural cooling system–a.k.a. get my sweat on. As a result, I’ve become mildly obsessed with trying out different […]
Growing up in a half-Italian household, there was no shortage of ricotta stuffed shells, eggplant parmesan, and creamy pasta dishes at family gatherings. You’d think I’d be naturally endowed with the ability to digest all that deliciousness. Sadly, like so many others, over the years I have lost the ability to properly digest lactose (a.k.a. I […]
By Elizabeth Kanter
What happens in your body when you get stressed out?
• Where do you feel sensation?
• What is the quality of your breath?
• How does your energy feel?
• What is going on in your mind and your thoughts?
Under stress, vicious cycles of all kinds can take hold – inactivity or overworking, overeating or under-nourishing, isolation or distraction, sleep deprivation or oversleeping, substance abuse or digital addictions. Coping behaviors can lead to even more stress. So how do we break the cycle?
We all have bad habits and good habits. Habits are just an accumulation of repeated thoughts and activities. Thoughts repeated become patterns… patterns repeated become behaviors… behaviors repeated can become personalities… and personalities repeated can become reality. In other words, our thoughts shape and can become our reality.
Repetition of thoughts and actions starts to create grooves, or samskaras, in our lives. Once you’re in a groove, it’ easier to stay there than to get out of that groove and into another one. Cars on the road or water on the ground follows the same pattern: staying in a smoothly worn path or channel is simply a lot easier to do than climbing up and out. Inertia and momentum are at work here.
So how does yoga and yoga philosophy figure into all of this? The first step is awareness. We can start by simply noticing what it feels like when we are stressed out – what are the sensations in body, breath, and mind. And the quality of awareness is non-judging. We simply observe.
Why is awareness so important? It’s nearly impossible to shift and change out of patterns that we don’t think are working for us if we don’t even know what they are!
Yoga asana is an amazing place to start practicing this awareness. Can we simply notice and observe what’s happening in a pose (as long as there’s no pain) without judgment? Without striving? Without clinging or pushing away what’s actually happening? When we can simply be with what IS rather than resisting it or wanting it to be otherwise, there’s less of an internal struggle, less resistance. We can reduce the extra layers of pain, suffering, and stress that we add on top of whatever it is that’s already going on.
The more we practice awareness in the safe space of a yoga class, on the mat, the easier and more familiar it becomes to carry that witnessing, observational quality off the mat into our day to day lives…. to not get so caught up in believing everything that is going on in our thoughts.
And that’s in itself is the definition of yoga: the stilling of the turnings or the mind, or citta vritti nirodha. We give the mind something to focus on so that instead of running around, it can calm down.
• When we focus solely on our bodies and breath in asana, we give our minds something to focus on and keep coming back to in order to stay present in the moment.
• When we practice breathing or pranayama, we keep our brains occupied with the quality and direction of our vital life force moving in and out.
• When we sit to practice concentration or meditation, no matter how briefly, we can start by concentrating single-pointedly on following the breath, or silently repeating a mantra – a word or phrase, or on a powerful image.
Once we have the ability to find a little bit of calm in our own heads, it’s easier to recognize thoughts and feelings without being swept away with them and without identifying with them. We can get to know our own patterns and simultaneously discover that those thought and emotion patterns are not who we are – they’re simply how we have become accustomed to reacting to a kind of stressful situation.
When we can notice our reactions without getting wrapped up in them, we can actually be more connected to the moment and what’s actually happening right now. And then we can notice more skillfully what are the conditions that are causing us stress – and eliciting strong thoughts and feelings. Some of these conditions we might even be creating ourselves!
But many stress triggers will be beyond our control. So instead of fighting or fleeing from stressful situations, we can start to learn to flow with that stress… to stay present to whatever is arising – without struggle – and simply do the best we can given all the current circumstances. We can’t control what happens to us in the world, but with patience, awareness, nonjudgmental awareness, and mindfulness, we can start to learn how to cultivate more pure presence and less stories and layers of reaction. We can be more and more in the moment.
While many yogic practices help us to look at our negative thought patterns and allow us the opportunity to notice them and weed them little by little out of the fertile garden of our being, we also have to do more than just pull weeds if we want to grow beautiful and delicious plants! We also have to plant seeds and water them even as we keep diligently weeding.
During yoga class, when your teacher invites to think of something you are grateful for, or encourages you to call to mind someone for whom you feel compassion, or offers you the opportunity to set an intention or a sankalpa, these are all opportunities to build and strengthen a new habit of looking for the good, for the beautiful or the shri. These positive things are always there, we just might have to shift what we are looking for. It’s not to say that we should deny or ignore the darkness or melancholy, the anger or fear, the jealousy or negativity, that we pretend everything is hunky dory. But when we reflect on how a challenging pose or a challenging experience offers us the opportunity to get stronger or to grow, how simply observing our thoughts with kindness can help us be more loving towards ourselves in a way that simply no one else can, we may be a little more inclined to remember that the sun is there somewhere behind the clouds even when we are in the eye of the storm or weathering the darkest of days.
Awareness, breath, movement, and meditation are all practices we can do on the mat and in the studio…. But really they’re all preparation for how to surf the stresses and storms of day to day life with less suffering and more steadiness and ease.
Written by Elizabeth Kanter, a DC yoga therapist teaching stress relieving classes at Yoga District yoga studios in Washington DC.
Over the last 12 days, I’ve broken down my Daily Dozen Yoga Poses for Post-Athletic Recovery. If you’ve been following along with the daily poses, it’s now time to string them together. The whole sequence should take you between 20-25 minutes, holding each pose for 10 deep breaths. If you can work these stretches into […]
Step-by-Step: Lay flat on your back, legs long with head resting heavy on the mat. Draw your knees in toward your chest, bent, and cross your right leg over left. Reach for your ankles or feet with each hand (right hand grabs left foot, left hand grabs right foot). Gently pull the feet toward your […]
Step-by-Step: Lay flat on your back, legs long. Head is heavy, face is relaxed. Plant your left foot flat on the mat, knee bent. Make sure you can just barely reach your left heel with your left fingertips. Bend your right leg, placing right ankle on top of left knee. Flex the right foot. Reach […]
Step-by-Step: Start in a seated position, legs long, tall spine. Bend your left leg, bringing left knee to mat, left heel to outside of right hip. Bend your right leg up and over the left leg, right ankle hooks outside left knee (sole of right foot presses into the floor). Bring your right hand behind […]
Step-by-Step: From Downward Facing Dog, start by sending your right leg up and back. Shift forward, stacking shoulders over wrists and bring the right knee to the floor behind the right wrist. Work to bring the right foot as close to the left wrist as it will go. Pressing into the mat, distribute your weight […]
The diverse family of DC yoga teachers at Yoga District are dedicated to making yoga accessible to everyone through a huge variety of yoga class types, from vinyasa flow to restorative and beyond. Most Yoga District teachers are graduates of Yoga District’s nationally-attended 200 hour teacher training program. All Yoga District classes focus on coordinating breath with body movement to promote flexibility, strength, and peace of mind. We strongly believe in yoga as therapy, so catch one of our classes whenever you need a healthy dose of self-care.
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The Yoga District 200 and 500 hour teacher training certification programs, registered by the Yoga Alliance are unique in their emphasis on diversity of teaching styles studied, personal attention, and trauma sensitive yoga. It's no coincidence that Yoga District is regularly voted the leading studio in the nation's capital, and that most of its classes are taught by graduates of its training program. As a full time yoga school, small group trainings are led up to eight times a year by a dedicated faculty including Jasmine Chehrazi, contributor to the Harvard Karma Yoga Project teacher training, teacher training faculty at George Washington University, Yoga Alliance Standards Committee Advisory Board Member, Yoga Activist Founder, and Yoga Service Council Advisory Board Member. So take your practice and community involvement to the next level by joining a training. There's a reason why our graduates call the training "transformative."
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