Yoga: an ever-evolving 5,000-year-old practice that brings peace, joy, and overall health to so many. But, as yoga’s popularity sky-rockets, is every yogi student getting proper instruction? The short answer is no.
Unfortunately, too many of us do not receive adequate training in yoga fundamentals. We hear about yoga, go to the studio down the block, choose the class that best fits our busy schedule, and just go with it, hoping we don’t look too out-of-place.
While it is a blessing that yoga is so easily available, it is important to understand that there are many intricacies to each pose, and we often don’t receive this information in studio settings.
However, mastering these simple adjustments will keep your body safe, and moreover, will give you the most out of your yoga practice.
Remember, just because a pose looks right, doesn’t mean we are doing it right. And the longer we do it wrong, the more strain we put on our bodies, overtime causing injuries.
That’s why I’ve created a simple Asana Breakdown of four fundamental poses in your yoga practice.
Here I identify common mistakes so that you can become aware of these imbalances, correct them, and have a safe and fulfilling practice.
Tadasana (Mountain Pose):
Getting into the pose: Stand at the top of your mat, feet together, toes touching, heels about an inch apart. The outside of your feet should be parallel with the sides of your mat. Place your arms at your sides, palms facing forward. Push down through all 4 corners of your feet and all 10 toes to lift up higher. Engage the legs and the belly, roll your shoulders down your spine, stand up tall.
Common Mistake: Allowing your ribcage to relax and fall open, which creates an energy break in your belly and your spine. Overtime, this will cause back pain and may become a habitual standing position.
Adjustment: Pinch the ribs inward and back toward your spine. This creates a strong core and long-standing position.
Common Mistake: Locking out your knees. This can damage the knee joint as well as hinder healthy blood flow throughout the whole body.
Adjustment: Instead, keep a slight bend in the knees, while still engaging your legs. This protects* the knee joints but still provides* a solid base for the rest of the body.
Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward Facing Dog):
Getting into the pose: Start on all fours, with your hands underneath your shoulders and your knees hip-width distance apart. Push into your hands and straighten your legs, lifting the knees off the floor and your hips to the sky. Gaze toward your shins.
Common Mistake: Arm positioning. It is common to rotate your arms so that your elbows are rotating upward toward the sky, instead of downward toward the mat. This causes extreme tension in the shoulders and wrists, and over time, can damage the joints.
Adjustment: With your hands still on the mat, rotate your elbows down toward the mat, squeezing your triceps toward each other. This should also pull your shoulders away from your ears. Engage your upper arm muscles to take some of the weight out of the wrist and shoulder joints.
Common Mistake: Allowing all your weight to be in the palms of the hands. When there is too much weight in the palms, it causes strain on the wrist joint, and will eventually damage the wrist and the muscles around the area.
Adjustment: Distribute the weight that is in your hands evenly throughout all ten fingers, as well as the entire palm. You may even want to try Hasta Bandha, where by pressing down through all ten fingers evenly, you actually create a small arch in the palm. This releases some of the tension in the hands and wrists and protects* the joints.
Common Mistake: Fully straightening the legs when you may not have the flexibility yet.
Adjustment: If you have tight hamstrings and/or calf muscles, it is better* to keep a bend the knees in downward dog, and overtime works them straight. This will ensure that your body is ready for the full pose and that you are also practicing it correctly and safely.
Chaturanga Dandasana (Four-Limbed Staff Pose):
Getting into the pose: Come to a high plank position. With your legs and belly engaged, shift your body forward and lower yourself down toward your mat, keeping your elbows squeezing in toward your torso. Hover here for a moment.
Common mistake: Going too far down. Your chaturanga should not bring you all the way down to the mat. This is damaging to the wrist and shoulder joints and puts a lot of strain on the lower back. Over time, these areas will become damaged and weak.
Adjustment: You should stop* lowering yourself when your arms form a 90-degree angle to the floor. Make sure that your belly, legs, ribs, and arms are all engaged. If you can’t get to a 90-degree angle, don’t worry! Go as far down as your body allows you to go while keeping proper alignment in the best of your body.
Urdhva Mukha Svanasana: (Upward Facing Dog)
Getting into the pose: Commonly, we come into the upward dog from chaturanga. From your chaturanga, push into all ten fingers and palms, straighten your arms, flip your toes, so the tops of your feet are on the mat, engage the legs and core, and slightly bend backward while looking toward the sky.
Common mistake: Resting your hips on the mat in your backbend. Not only is this not the proper way to practice the pose, but also, when your hips are on the mat, it forces your shoulders to rise because there is not enough room for your body to expand.
Further, it creates an energy block in the lower back and makes it difficult to keep your legs active.
Adjustment: Engage your legs so much and push so strongly through your hands and arms, such that your hips lift off the mat. This will keep the shoulders moving down the spine, keep an aligned back, and provide enough space for a deep front body and chest stretch.
While these are only a few fundamental positions that may cause injury if done incorrectly, all yoga poses should be learned properly and practiced with great concentration and care.
A good rule of thumb when practicing yoga is best explained through Patanjali’s yoga sutras, more specifically, Sutra 2.46. Here, Patanjali says that each asana should be a balance between effort and ease*.
In other words, yoga should not be easy – we must work hard in order to improve* our practice. However, you should not be straining yourself so much that you are in pain or extreme discomfort.
If you do find yourself in an overwhelmingly uncomfortable pose, simply come out of the posture, take a rest, and ask your teacher for adjustments. Don’t feel embarrassed. Yoga is for everyone, and we all want to share the gift with one another, no judgments attached.
While it may seem daunting, and possibly even excessive, to attempt proper alignment in every pose, it is important to remember that yoga is a practice, and it is better* to slowly achieve a great practice, than to get injured trying to be perfect.
The truth is, none of us are perfect. We must simply work a little bit harder every day, gradually gaining strength, flexibility, higher spirituality, connection, heightened self-awareness, joy and peace, and whatever other gifts may come through yoga.
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