Your yoga practice is perfect exactly as it is. And of course, it could do with some improvement!
One of the reasons that we keep going to class is to “get better” at the many practices of yoga. For most of us this focuses on those strange and (deliberately) awkward beasts we call postures (or asana in Sanskrit). Much more than simply making shapes with our body, asana practice and the act of repeatedly practising not only the shapes themselves but the transitions from one to another and sequences of postures, brings positive changes to our body, energy, mind and more.
We all know that yoga isn’t a competition, not even with yourself, but most of us have some hope or expectation of getting better as time goes on. As with any movement skill, our mind-body gradually learns more effective and efficient ways of getting in and out of these postures, and staying there for longer periods, and this in turn leads to subtle changes in how we feel and the stability of our mind.
Yet sometimes, the gap between what we can do and what we cannot just seems too far. We’ve all had that moment when the teacher casually says to move on to our most-dreaded posture, and our heart sinks. It’s not even a difficult posture, it’s just one that we simply cannot do at that time. The mind stops dead, and we wonder whether to fake something similar, or just curl up in child’s pose and hope that the next posture will be easier. You’ll be pleased to know that it’s not quite so black and white, and most postures have some shades of grey along the way to help you get there safely.
Your physical safety is the first priority in any yoga posture. Yoga isn’t just mindless movement, and in fact it’s the conscious (or mindful) attitude that really makes it yoga practice. We should always move in such a way that we are paying attention to the sensations in our body, to get a better idea of what we are capable of doing and what could end up going quite wrong.
That doesn’t mean that we never play close to the edge of our abilities. Progress comes from bringing in an element of challenge to our muscles and joint structures, and to our nervous systems and all other parts of the human system. But it’s when we develop this embodied awareness, a sense of what is really going on for us inside, that the positive effects of yoga truly kick in and we shift from a simple exercise effect into whole-system evolution.
There are some days that your body isn’t ready for much challenge, and others when it feels like you could walk through fire (metaphorically). It’s always important that you match the type and intensity of your practice to what your body needs right here and now. At a simple level, our Five Elements classes are designed to allow you to do just that. Need something fast and powerful? Try Fire Power or Air Time. Feel a real urge to slow down and take good care? Space Time or Earth Chill are more likely to float your boat. Somewhere in the middle for slow-moving strength work? Water Flow is the way to go.
Playing The Edge
Once you’ve chosen the right class, the next shift to make is to remember that every instruction from the teacher is actually just a suggestion.
For all our skill and capabilities, in a group class even the best of yoga teachers have very little idea about what’s going on inside the body (and the mind) of a room full of students during practice. You’re the only person who feels what’s going on inside your body, so you’re the one that knows best if something is good for you or not. In other words, remember that you always have complete permission to do what’s best for you in class at that time, including the fine yogic alternative of doing nothing (i.e. rest).
That’s why you’ll often hear our teachers suggesting alternative postures, or slightly different variations or modifications. Modifications can be as simple as a different hand position or a bend in the knees, or a completely different posture that has a similar effect on the body but can be accessed more easily. These options offer the greatest variety to a group of students with different needs and abilities, so please choose wisely rather than always opting for the hardest posture there is (our default mode).
It’s wise to work on easier variations for a few weeks, but how do you know when it’s time to progress? The current posture you’re working on doesn’t need to be perfect, as there’s no such thing in reality. But as you practice the same posture regularly, you’ll notice that your mind and your body become more steady and comfortable. When it feels like you are inhabiting that posture with a sense of confidence, even if there’s a little wobble or effort required, it’s a good sign to up the challenge a little.
The Adjustment Bureau
From our school days through to work, we are quite used to people correcting what we do. Although I’ve already said that there’s no aim for perfection in yoga, many yoga students enjoy the sense of being shown “correct” technique through hands-on physical adjustments. And for sure, a skilful adjustment delivered in the right way can bring about a subtle body shift that makes a big difference in comfort, safety or intensity,
But there’s great debate in yoga circles, not only about how to adjust but also whether it is safe or even helpful in the first place. So every yoga teacher makes their own decisions about whether they offer hands-on adjustments, and many choose to instruct and adjust in non-physical ways. This might seem unusual if you’re used to classes with lots of adjustments, but it’s every bit as important to respect as the student’s right to not be adjusted.
And that right, known as permission, is an all-important first step in any hands-on adjustment. You might hear our teachers ask who’s happy with adjustments at the start of a class, or they might ask as they approach to help. Just remember that you can always say no, and your teacher won’t be offended as there are so many good reasons why someone wouldn’t give permission. At the end of the day it’s about how comfortable you feel, and whether it would be helpful or harmful to you, and the power rest entirely with you.
Adjustments can be very different depending on the posture and the circumstances. Some are very light touches, where a hand is used to soften your body into the posture. Others are stronger, adding bodyweight in specific directions and “explaining” the movement by experiencing it directly. Whatever the method, try to feel in to your body and understand what is going on so that next time you can do the same without external help. If you can do that, you’ll have had a truly self-empowering adjustment to help you better understand that posture.
Props For The Props
Another option for changing the effect of any given yoga posture is the use of props. These are what we affectionately term the yoga gear such as blankets, blocks, bolsters and straps that can be used in a number of different ways to modify your practice.
Props can be used in so many different ways, to increase or decrease the challenge in a given posture, to make a posture safer or to increase your comfort while you stay in that posture. Placement of the props can often change that effect completely. A blanket under your knees can make a seated forward bend easier, but place it under your heels and you’ll find it that same posture becomes more difficult.
Self-empowerment is also important with props, and we should always be mindful of reducing our reliance on them over time where possible. If we always use the same prop in the same way, we’ll always get the same result on our busy and mind. Props empower our practice when we move or change them to make the posture slightly more challenging, and gradually over time we can become capable of the full posture without props.
The MAP To Success
It takes time and regular effort to make progress in yoga, but with Modifications, Adjustments and Props (did you see what I did there?) you’ll get there safely and with confidence in your own abilities. You’ll learn a lot about the different options over months and years of practice, and remember that you can ask your teacher for advice on specific postures after class.
We’re all yoga geeks and love discussing the intricacies of practice, so don’t be shy in asking!
Words by Scott Rennie