As part of my dedication to 31 days of continual practice, I decided to do a number of instagram yoga challenges.
It’s a fun way to be introduced to new asanas I’ve never practiced before, and it gives me a focus – poses to do each day and motivation to get on my mat to take the photos for each day’s challenges!
One of the challenges I’m doing – and really enjoying – is #splitsbandits by @cyogalab. I’m working on my front splits (or hanumanasana) at the moment, so it’s a perfect choice for me. It’s introducing me to new (and tricksy) poses – like the one above, which is viparita shalabhasana entry. Or, upside-down locust.
Until I tried this, I’d never done any chin-standing poses… and honestly, I think this was my first and last time.
Why? Because I did not feel safe.
I attempted this pose twice only, and held it for mere moments before gently lowering down.
I did not at all like the sensation through my neck or shoulders in this pose (my left shoulder is a little bit sore at the moment, and this pose didn’t feel good in that joint).
I’ve actually injured my throat in the past doing yoga. It was just over a year ago, and I was in a yoga class when the teacher instructed us to do shoulderstand (salamba sarvangasana).
Now, I’ve been doing shoulderstand since I was a little kid! I have no idea where I learnt it, but I used to love shoulderstanding when I was little, and have practised it on my own off and on ever since. However, no-one had ever actually TAUGHT me to do shoulderstand safely.
This particular time, I was in a quite strong, straight shoulderstand… and I suddenly felt something ‘give’ in the side of my throat. There was no pain, more like a squishing sensation. It was not pleasant, though, so I immediately came out of the pose. I wasn’t sure what had happened, and nothing actually hurt, so I didn’t say anything to the teacher.
However, in the days that followed, I realised that I had developed a ‘clicking’ sensation in the side of my throat when I swallowed. It wasn’t painful, but it was disturbing. I never did have it diagnosed, but my theory is that something moved from its proper position – such as the hyoid or some of my throat cartilage.
This clicking continued for the next 9 months or so. It’s mostly gone now, but I will notice it (very slightly) sometimes when I swallow in an awkward position.
I have since learnt how to perform shoulderstand with props in my yoga teacher training course, and while I’ve generally avoided it since my injury, I now know how to practice it safely should I desire to. And, more importantly, how to teach safe practice of this pose to my future students. Rest assured I will never teach the un-supported version, due to my own experience.
Since this injury, I’ve been hyper-aware of the health of my neck. I am very cautious performing any pose that requires the neck be hyper-extended or hyper-flexed (I practice modified fish pose on a block, for example). I rarely practice headstand, and when I do, I’m resting almost no weight on my head. I don’t do full tripod headstand for this reason, though I do practice a modified version with my knees on my upper arms.
I also recently injured my lower back practising urdhva dhanurasana – upward facing bow or wheel pose. This was both totally my fault and not my fault at all. I have been taught how to safely perform this asana.
However, I also have a 1 1/2cm leg length discrepancy, which I modify for by always wearing a lift in my left shoe (so, when you see photos of my wearing my vibram shoes while practising yoga, this is why!).
However, I went up on to my toes in my wheel, and just pushed a bit too far, which threw my pelvis out of alignment. Hence the injury, or so my osteopath tells me!
I’m still in the long tail of recovery from that at the moment. But, it was instructive. I learnt that my ego can get in the way of safe practice if I let it. And that this is something I need to be mindful of.
I actually think these injuries are a blessing to me as a future yoga teacher.
They have taught me in a very visceral way that yoga can both heal and hurt. If you aren’t safe – if you push too far – or if you practice a pose without knowing the safe alignment, then yoga can do you more harm than good.
Also, I firmly believe that the only person who knows for sure what feels okay in a person’s body is that person. As my teachers have been telling me – ‘you adapt the pose to the person, not the person to the pose’.
YOU know what feels okay within your own body – and what doesn’t. Don’t ever perform a pose that feels unsafe within your body – no matter what a teacher might be instructing you to do.
That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t challenge yourself – but it does mean that you need to learn the difference between discomfort and pain. Some discomfort in yoga is normal, and useful – but pain is not.
Whenever you practice a challenging asana, always ask yourself ‘do I feel safe’?
If you don’t – don’t do the pose.
If the thought of ‘giving up’ makes you squirm, examine that. This is the true practice of yoga – coming up against our habitual thoughts, beliefs, and patterns, and examining them for truth.
Why do you feel you need to practice this pose?
Is it because it will truly be of benefit to your mind and body?
Or is it because your ego is telling you it will look cool, and you ‘should’ be able to do it if someone else can?
Making shapes with the body is super-fun, and can be a wonderful way of learning more about yourself, through the focus and discipline it takes to attain the poses.
But making one particular shape is not going to make you more enlightened. It’s not going to make you a better person. And it just might hurt you if you’re pushing beyond what is safe for your body.
You are your own best teacher – trust the inner wisdom of what your body is telling you.
So, for me, I won’t be practising any form of chin-stand again in the foreseeable future. Because it doesn’t feel safe to me.
But I will continue to marvel at the skill other yogis demonstrate in this and other poses that I choose not to practice! Because every body is different, and what is safe for me and them will always differ.