Be Kind & Align: A Journey to Honoring Your Body

It's getting worse as I type this. It's been getting worse all day. 

I stop intermittently to stretch my throbbing wrist and go through my list of shoulds. I should learn my wrist anatomy better (is that bump a bone or something scary?). I should go to the doctor/chiropractor/acupuncturist/physical therapist/massage therapist. I should know the difference between muscle pain and bone pain. I should stop typing immediately. I should never type again. I should Google something about this. But no matter what, I'm going to hot power yoga tonight. 
Something is wrong with my right wrist, and everything I do seems to make it worse, including yoga: especially yoga. Flexing causes it the most pain, and in yoga, we can spend a lot of time bearing a lot of weight on flexed wrists in plank, side plank, wild thing, chaturanga, up dog, the list goes on.  To opt out may seem to have the trappings of weakness. As a yoga teacher, when I go to another instructor’s yoga class, I have it in my head that I should be able to do all of the poses (including those chaturangas) pretty much flawlessly; if the others in class see me skipping stuff, won’t they think I’m an incompetent teacher? 

I grew up playing competitive sports, and I've spent a lot of time injured. Push yourself, no limits, sweat is weakness leaving the body, skin grows back but points don't, you'll pass out before you die, #noexcuses, just five more reps, "you're killing me, Smalls!" In the name of Victory and Potential, my coaches pushed me. By the end of middle school, my bones were already knocking together, and I spent a lot of time in physical therapy. What I didn’t know then is that some injuries never fully go away, especially if they’re not treated with care and given adequate healing time. 

An anecdote for illustration: When I was twelve (the hip-widening years of puberty), I slipped on a pom-pom while cheerleading and broke my tailbone. I refused to sit on a donut and went right into soccer season not long after. I didn’t know then the importance of respecting my body, and my negligence led to a chronically uneven sacroiliac joint and a noticeably shorter left leg. 

I wish I had known to sit down instead of push through pain, but rest was not part of my sports culture. I wish someone had told me to let myself heal fully or risk never healing, that bodies are different and I should learn about and listen to mine so I could take care of it instead of push beyond its limits--to sit on the darn donut or have a sideways back and a short leg for all eternity.

Almost for as long as I’ve been injured, I’ve been doing yoga. When I began taking yoga classes at 15, I approached my new practice with the attitude of an athlete determined to push past my limits, to get everything “right,” and to win. Who cares how rounded my back is and how dangerously I’m pulling on my hamstrings? I’m touching my toes, y’all! I’m bendy, and I immediately took to yoga because I thought I was good at it. But being good at it was not why I stuck with it--as I began going to class more and wanting to learn more about yoga, being the best took a back seat to FEELING my best. For the first time in my life, I was learning to move my body and listen to it at the same time. I was learning that a good workout doesn’t have to include pain. I was learning to respect myself instead of beat myself up. 

Over the years, healing, balance, self-knowledge, and self-compassion have become the foundations of my yoga practice, as well as the way I teach. I truly believe that yoga is supposed to heal the body by cleansing, strengthening, stretching, and aligning it…and it is impossible to heal our bodies if we are always fighting against them by pushing too hard, practicing with poor alignment, and competing with our fellow practitioners. 

We yoga teachers talk a lot about alignment. Practically everything we say in class is geared toward making sure that everyone is safely making the same general shape with their bodies. We call those shapes (or postures) “asanas,” and each asana has its own set of alignment cues. In Warrior I, for example, we step wide, turn the back foot in 45 degrees, straighten the back leg, bend the front, square the hips and shoulders forward, and lift the arms. Based on these cues, even those who have never practiced yoga before could work their way into a recognizable Warrior I. But, as you might have guessed, there’s more to it than that. You might then hear us tell you to pull your navel toward your spine, roll the shoulder blades down your back, internally rotate your arms, stay strong in the back leg, open the chest, keep the front knee centered over the ankle, and take the gaze up toward the ceiling. That’s a lot of stuff! For those new to yoga, all of these alignment instructions can be overwhelming.

However, if you are new to yoga, the best piece of advice I can give you is to spend some time getting to know basic anatomy and alignment fundamentals. Not only will doing to keep you from getting injured, it will get you in touch with your body in a new way. Here are a few things that delving into alignment can give you:

1)    A safe practice. Knowing which muscles to use when and where to put your bones will keep your from over-stretching, tweaking, pulling, and even tearing your soft tissue, as well as keeping your joints from over-extending, locking, and grinding. Yoga should always be a therapeutic practice, and learning appropriate alignment will make sure you don’t eventually hurt yourself on your road to healing.
2)    A new relationship with your body. Yoga gives us an opportunity to create balance in our bodies. As you practice good alignment mindfully, you may notice new places in your body that are unbalanced, tight, or weak. Using this knowledge in a non-judgmental way, you can use yoga poses to find balance and strength where it once was lacking. 
3)    Something to build on. Once you start practicing and understanding basic postures in your body, you will learn what it feels like to become aligned. Yoga postures build on each other, so even just learning to stand straight and appropriately in tadasana (mountain pose) will help you immeasurably when you move onto standing on your head!
4)    Better body mechanics off the mat. Knowing how to move your body in yoga helps you move your body better all the time. For example, understanding the importance of rolling your shoulder blades down your spine in down dog will teach you to have this same good posture as you go about your day. You’ll find yourself adjusting your stance, modifying your walk, and sitting taller—you’ll be practicing yoga ALL THE TIME. 
5)    A means of modifying. Going to a new yoga class that you’re not sure about? Knowing appropriate alignment for your body can help you modify postures to better suit your physical needs. 
6)    Gains on gains on gains. Although practicing good alignment may not let you go “as deep” into certain poses, you will be safely developing the required tools. The more appropriate your movement and postures are, the more significant your physical gains will be because you will develop the strength, balance, and flexibility necessary for safely advancing into postures. Take the time to respect and listen to your body, and it will reward you.

Although it is tempting for me to push my wrist through all of those chaturangas, I know better by now. I drop to my knees in plank to avoid putting too much weight on it, and I opt for cobra instead of up dog. The thing is, I’m committed to my practice. I want it to be sustainable, and I don’t want to have to take time off. In order to do that, I have learned, despite those negative voices in my head, when to take a chill pill. I don’t practice through the pain; I use what I know about alignment to modify poses so they are appropriate to MY body. Learning when to stop has been one of the most difficult aspects of my practice, a lesson that I’m continually learning, and something I really want to pass on to everyone. So here is my exhortation for you: spend time delving into alignment, spend time getting to know your body, and be as loving, respectful, and careful with yourself as you would be to your best friend. 

I would love to answer your questions, so send them my way! I will also be teaching an alignment workshop at Bristol Yoga on Saturday, August 29th from 3:00-5:00pm. I’m planning a fun afternoon for us, so sign up and be in touch!