After many years developing my own personal practice and experiencing many of the ups and downs and frustrations that yoga practitioners experience, whether it be injury related to yoga practice, or more commonly, pain that starts to surface by putting additional demands on the body through movement, I’ve come to realise how important a focus on practicing in a sustainable way, and one that promotes longevity is. There are some key mental and physical attributes that can lead towards a more stable practice that lends itself to longevity. Longevity is a powerful target to have in your relationship with your body as it requires that firstly, you really tune in to what your are experiencing moment to moment and practice in a way that has a steady, consistent pattern of transformation without force. One of the major causes of injury in yoga is using force to move into a posture or transition, rather than a slow, steady simmer, so to speak. So this brings us to the first key principle for longevity in yoga practice…
1. Go Slow ~ Especially when trying to learn something new, when there are strong sensations of resistance in the body, slow down and connect to your breath. Long, slow deep, rhythmic breaths help to calm the nervous system and naturally open the body’s flexibility. When we are in a rush, we tend to make mistakes, and we tend to lose connection with the breath, which can create an agitated state of mind. Have you ever experienced a yoga class or practice, where you left feeling more agitated than before? Often this has to do with how your breathing and moving too fast. There will be a time when going fast is useful, but not until you can do this in a calm and controlled way
2. Be Patient ~ This relates to going slower in movement, but relates more to the mind. Going slower, means taking on a mindset that you are on the path to longevity and liberation of your body and mind’s wound up patterns. THIS TAKES TIME AND CANNOT BE RUSHED. Be compassionate with yourself, but consistent and change will come. Adopt a mindset of patience and you will be amazed how much more you start to enjoy your practice and what results you get because you are motivated to show up.
3. Cultivate Strength and Steadiness in every pose ~ No matter how simple the pose or transition, find the strength of your body within the pose to support the position from the ground up. For example, when in Virabhadrasana B (Warrior Two), send energy down through the front heel of your foot as you draw up through the shin and thigh bones to draw the head of the thigh bone into the body to stabilise the pelvis and creates a sense of buoyancy in the hips. Keep the outer edge of the back foot sealed to the ground, whilst engaging the quadriceps muscles of the back leg, lifting the knee and hugging the buttock or gluteal muscles to the pelvic bone. By doing this, you should feel the inside edge of the foot gently lift away from the ground like a diaphragm being engaged. Soften the shoulders and radiate outwards from the heart whilst lifting from the back ribs and gently draw the navel in towards the spine to maintain the core. Lengthen the arms from the centre of the heart to the fingertips and beyond, soft gaze, breathe deeply and slowly. This is just one example of cueing that could help to create strength and steadiness in Warrior Two, but this really should happen in every pose in different ways depending on the pose. Think of each pose as having a balance between strength and stability coupled with softness and length.
4. Create Space (Elongation) whilst staying connected to the Root of the pose ~ There are many yoga postures and transitions that have the capability to strengthen the area around your joints, whilst opening up muscles and connective tissues for greater flexibility. This is not as easy as it sounds, however, and this is why often times people who try yoga and have a lot of flexibility naturally, don’t feel they get much out of yoga or they get injured because they have gone to their maximum range of motion without any strength or stability in the position. When we collapse into positions without first creating elongation (space between joints) and then stability (engaging the muscles around joints involved with the movement) we tend to stress the joints in an unhealthy way that overtime, can lead to wearing out cartilage or other parts of our joints, or straining the muscles through over stretching. One of the most common yoga, dance or gymnastics related injuries is tearing the hamstring attachment at the sitting bone in a forward bend because of not engaging the muscles around the joints enough and adding a pull onto an already vulnerable joint. So how do we prevent injuries like that from happening? During the set up of a pose, use the inhale breath to create elongation of the body (often times it’s the spine) whilst stabilising whatever the root of the pose is. Generally this will be the pelvic floor and lower belly area, but it’s also the whole body really getting a sense of grounding and rooting down into the Earth. Once the length is established, use the exhalation to contract gently around the joints, engaging the muscles of the core and major joints involved in the pose as you go deeper and soften into it. I often imagine the way waves move coming to the shore. The incoming wave expands becoming bigger whilst having a firm connection to the origin of the wave in the depths of the ocean and the outgoing wave contracts, taking with it debris from the shore and shrinking back into it’s origins.
Virabhradrasana B (Warrior Two) ~ A marriage of strength and stability with softness and expansion
Dandasana or Staff Pose ~ This is a great pose to practice elongation of the spine, whilst staying connected to the root of the pose through the sitting bones of the hips, backs of legs and heels anchoring or pressing down. Strong leg muscles contract to help connect the quadricep muscles to draw upwards towards the pelvic floor, initiating a lift upwards from the basin of the pelvic floor upwards through the spine. The lower belly gently pulls inward to facilitate the upward expansion of the spine.
5. Develop healthy habits that support your overall longevity and practice ~ Here are a few of the habits that can help your yoga practice feel good and stay strong. NUTRITION…SO IMPORTANT…if you want to be light, you need to eat light. Don’t over eat! Dieticians and health practitioners advise to eat till your 3/4 full because that’s optimum quantity of food. Many people eat too much and too often. I don’t mean to say you should starve yourself at all, (this is even worse!) but try to eat at regular intervals until your about 3/4 full and you’ll likely digest your food more efficiently and feel better. In terms of what you eat, think of your food as fuel for your cells that bring PRANA (life force) into your body. You want meals that are balanced, vibrant, taste good and don’t leave you feeling heavy and tired after eating. I change things up seasonally…when it’s cold, I eat more warm, cooked foods; if it’s hot out, I tend to eat lighter, more salads. And drink lots of water to hydrate your cells! The other big thing with habits is SLEEP, making sure you get to bed early enough that waking up in the morning is easy. This is so important as sleep effects the way every system functions and in particular our brain’s cognitive ability. Have you ever noticed if you don’t get enough sleep, you wake up the next day in a fog, almost like a hangover? This is because that time we set aside to rejuvenate and heal our bodies whilst sleeping is vital to be strong and vibrant the next day. A big habit I bring in is making sure I prioritise at least 8 hours of decent sleep and I notice this makes a big difference in my practice and energy throughout the day. Everyone is a little different with how much sleep they need, so you will need to gauge this, but the key is to make sure you prioritise it and not take shortcuts.
I hope these tips help you on your path and keep practicing!!! Love, Michelle