This is a re-post of one of the most read blog posts I have written in the past 5-years. This originally appeared in the blog in February 2009. It’s a great reminder as we start the new year for a healthy and safe way to approach your practice.
Both new yoga students and more experienced yoga students, at some point in a class or practice, may wonder if they are doing a particular pose correctly. Many students wish that instructors would just come over and correct their pose or hope that, in time, they’ll start to get it right. Most new students are sure they can’t possibly be doing yoga right and many experienced students have developed poor alignment habits that feel right, but are blocking them from deepening their asana practice.
This is why we all, regardless of experience level, need to continue to take classes, workshops and find instructors that provide encouragement and assistance in deepening our practice at all levels. Even the Masters have a guru.
A well-trained instructor has studied principles of alignment and guides from their tradition in methods for breathing, moving during and between poses and various modifications for asanas. It is their job to verbally instruct students and make physical adjustments that keep students moving towards these ideal alignments and to encourage students to deepen their pose while maintaining safety.
All this being said, I maintain that there is never a “right” way to do a pose. If you are a perfectionist with a deep commitment to making sure that you do everything right, then this idea might drive you crazy. The key to your asana practice is coming to terms with the idea that it isn’t how a pose looks that matters, it’s how it FEELS. In a culture and society that makes appearance a significant priority, this might be an uncomfortable truth. This is why we practice—–first, we shake our commitments up and then we work honestly with our physical reality. Having the support and guidance of a fabulous instructor and a community of other students cheering us on is very important.
Yoga Matrika provides a lot of props that you can use to help poses feel better–cork wedges, bolsters, blankets, straps, cork blocks and meditation cushions. We use these props to extend our reach and grasp and open the body in gentle and supported ways. If you don’t know how to use a prop, just ask your instructor or watch experienced students to see where they place their block, blanket or bolster to support their pose. Using props isn’t cheating! When you use a prop it means that you deeply understand the alignment principles of a pose, feel that your body needs additional space to apply those alignment principles and that you are in touch with how you feel in your body.
Many of us carry stress in a habitual way in our bodies and have created patterns of movement that are adaptations to this stress. For example, many people lead with their chins—-sticking their chin out and causing stress in the upper back and neck. Many of us feel a rise in our shoulders with stress and have daily life-tasks that cause us to round in the upper back and shoulders. Most of us sit in chairs all day long or spend time waiting for buses with a heavy backpack dangling from one shoulder or the other. These adaptations manifest themselves in our yoga poses too! The challenge is to identify these places where we hold stress and allow the alignment principles of asana (poses) to help us open and release. When this happens during practice, many students have an “ahhhhhhhhh” moment and most students feel more grounded, balanced and even after a class.
Here is a guide to getting it “right”:
1) Each and every time you practice, you have a different body to work with. Accept that “improvment” and “mastery” are not linear in yoga. On Monday, you might be able to touch your toes. On Thursday, you may feel tight and not be able to even look at your toes. Being in touch with these feelings and changes is an important part of yoga. It’s not about deepening the pose over time, it’s about working with the pose at THIS time.
2) If something hurts, then you really are doing it “wrong.” Yoga requires effort and skill, but there should NEVER be pain involved. No pain during your practice and no pain after your practice. If you are the type of person who tends to “over do it,” then my recommendation is that you try to do every pose in a practice to 75% of your ability. See how you feel the next day.
3) Let your breath be your guide. During your practice, check in with your breathing pattern. If you feel out of breath or are holding your breath, this is a sign that you are pushing yourself through your asana practice. Slow down, exhale deeply and allow a fresh inhalation to guide your pace.
4) Ask yourself often: “Does this feel delicious?” If the answer is yes, then you are doing it RIGHT. If the answer is no, then move around a little to shift your pose or focus or breathing pattern and see if you can move into a sweet spot. There are no rules and asana are not static. Sometimes even a slight shift in weight or a bend in a knee or releasing your jaw can make a big difference.
5) Accept the learning curve! There is a learning curve. When you start anything new, it takes time to get a feel for it. This applies equally to basket weaving, piano lessons, swimming and yoga—–anything new feels new, unfamiliar, and strange. Sometimes this feeling can last a while. Sometimes it comes back after a long time gone. As you continue to make a commitment to your practice and roll out your mat more often, the flow and patterns and names of asanas and instruction cues will start to become more and more familiar. You will gain confidence. You will feel FABULOUS after your class.
When you take a group class, it is your responsibility to modify your practice in a way that works for you. During class, if you need to slow things down while everyone is speeding up, then you should always feel free to come into child’s pose to lie down or sit down and breathe. At Yoga Matrika, you will notice that many students are modifying their practice and not everyone is doing the same thing at the same pace at the same time. A group class isn’t a coordinated event like underwater ballet. Instructors provide suggestions, guidance, information—but YOUR body and YOUR breath determine what happens on your mat.