When I first started practicing yoga, the system I practiced taught a specific set of poses that we were promised would work every part of the body. While the system did indeed stretch us in many different directions, I now understand that even this system did not reach into every corner of my body and shouldn’t be relied upon to do so.
Repeating the same movements again and again, whether you are swinging a tennis racquet, running or doing certain poses, can provide strength and flexibility in certain areas of the body while ignoring others. Some activities additionally favor a certain side of the body, as I can see in my soccer-playing husband who has one calf visibly larger than the other.
In addition, when done without proper awareness of body mechanics and posture, we may carry our unbalanced postural tendencies into our yoga practice and, thus, the postures end up reinforcing this same imbalance. For example, if we tend to overarch our lower back or jut our ribs forward in everyday living, we will likely carry these tendencies into our yoga practice, reinforcing the tight hip flexors and shoulders we are trying to relax. If we have more chronic imbalances, as from scoliosis (most of us have some degree of curvature in our spine) or hypermobile joint syndrome (where one is very flexible in their joints), we may favor certain movements over others and further exacerbate the issue.
So what are we to do? First of all, the answer is NOT to stop doing your yoga! Rather, the answer is to use your practice as a mirror to understand a little more about your own body and as a map (credit to my teacher, Sandra Kozak for this timeless metaphor) to teach you how to bring balance to it. Any small or ignored space of the body that goes unused, as when you do the same poses every day, can get locked into a negative pattern or habit. We might also call this a samskara, the Sanskrit word for groove. These unused areas create grooves in our body that can become the source of an injury or even chronic pain over time.
Yoga is typically taught with a focus on symmetry. We do the right side and then the left, supposedly holding each for the same length of time. Unfortunately, our bodies are not symmetrical , due to both how we are born and patterns of use. For example, you probably carry your bag on one shoulder more than the other, causing that shoulder to be held higher. Just look in the mirror for yourself! A more functional approach would be to include a variety of movement in our practice that is likewise asymmetrical and even imbalanced.
What would that look like? Here are a few ways to tweak your practice to get into the small and underused areas of the body.
- Include dynamic movement in your practice. For example, when you go into Virbadrasana II, begin by flowing with your breath in and out of the pose in a small range of motion. Feel for where the resistance is and try to relax deeper into this area on each exhale.
- Pick an area of the body in any pose and try to find all sides of that area. For example, you might start with your shoulders. As you hold a pose with extended arms, see if you can find the stretch on the front of your shoulders by rolling them backward. Then roll them forward and feel the stretch on the back side. See if you can balance the space equally on both sides of the shoulder.
- Use the breath to open up underused areas. For example, send the breath into each side of the ribs: front, then right and left side and then the back of the ribs. Feel how this change in focus changes the experience of the pose.
- When holding a pose, back off your usual intensity about 25% and see how it feels. Can you relax more? Can you breathe more fully? Wait for the body to feel relaxed before going deeper again.
- Look for the “awkward” in a pose. This means to do a pose slightly differently and look for a new sensation or new area of sensation. This does not mean to look for something more intense, but rather to try to resist following your usual tendencies and to make new and more positive samskaras, or grooves, in the body.
Inviting this type of movement awareness into your practice will ensure that you do “yoga” in your yoga. That means that you are uniting mind with body by staying present in the moment and paying attention to everything you are doing and feeling. You may just find that your practice begins to feel less like exercise and more like a moving meditation. I look forward to seeing you on the mat again soon!
Moving into stillness,