Knowing Your Limits: honouring your body in your practice

If you regularly attend classes you’ve probably come across teachers who use the term ‘Yoga Pain’, it took me a while to understand this and it’s something I’ve found crucial to my progress. My personal take on yoga pain is that burn/stretch you feel when you push yourself that little bit further in a pose, my main points of feeling it are shoulders in poses such as puppy pose and ham strings in forward folds.

When I use the term push yourself, please don’t think I mean force your body further than feels natural and comfortable, that’s how we get injured (I’ll come back to this). What I’m actually referring to is the acknowledgment in your body that you’re doing it right.

For me, when I first started going to classes, though I found them thoroughly enjoyable, looking back now I can see I wasn’t engaging properly. I remember the breakthrough moment I had a few classes in when I followed the teachers que and felt the muscle engage, it was then I had the realisation that yoga is so much more than ‘just breathing’.

Yoga is supposed to hurt. Bear with me, I’ll elaborate on that. When we talk about ‘yoga’ in the western world we’re largely referring to the physical aspect of yoga practiced through a variety of asanas (postures). This is the easiest to translate, discuss and practice which is why we often focus here. For the purpose of this post when I refer to yoga, I am indeed referring just to the physical asanas.

A good example of this is practicing a posture such as Paschimottanasana also referred to as a seated forward fold, (legs straight ahead of you, maybe a bend in the knee if you need, spine straight and hands on the shins or around the feet). Now when I was new to yoga I would have a slight bend in the knee as advised by the teacher due to my shockingly tight hamstrings, I’d have my hands on my lower shins and I’d sort of hang there. One day I pushed myself a little and felt the pull on my hamstrings, and this was my lightbulb moment where internally I sort of went ‘Ohhhhhh – is this how it’s meant to feel?’.

Once I’d had the realisation that you should actually be able to feel the stretch you’re in, I started to see progress, bit by bit my hamstrings/hips/shoulders opened. Now I might be writing this and you’re reading it thinking what a fool I am for ever having not realised this, but I’m guessing (hoping) that I’m not the only one who suffered from the ignorant bliss of a cushy comfy yoga class before reality set in.

So many people I speak to about yoga maybe in work or among friends or family who have never tried it, genuinely think it’s just breathing and stretching, and I guess this means I used to as well!

But it’s so much more than that. For me, that burny feeling you get when you’re pushing yourself that little but further, padding out your feet in down dog to get the stretch through opposite hamstrings, putting the weight into the ball of your feet in asanas such as Prasarita Padottanasana and engaging your thighs that feeling is just my absolute favourite. It grounds me, it reminds me I’m in my favourite place (on my mat) and its spurs me on.

Depending on where you have flexibility and where you might be a little more naturally tight, you may come across the term I touched on earlier, yoga pain. It’s that point where you can stretch just a tiny bit more, and it engages your muscles to the point of being mildly uncomfortable but it isn’t actually ‘painful’. As we practice more we must be careful with our bodies, take care of them, nourish them and honour them.

Some days you can headstand, some days you can’t. Some days your arms will happily hold you in balances, planks, side planks, and other days it’s like your arms are mocking you for even thinking you could try it. Such is life. But finding the point of which you feel your yoga pain, honouring when you should pull it back and feeling when you have a little more give, for me, is essential to my physical progression.

Now let’s reflect a little here on honouring our bodies. Everyone I speak to who practices regularly seems to be, at some point, annoyingly injured in some way, usually due to not honouring our bodies. I’m currently on a short rest from practice. I caused a mild strain to a chest muscle in around September by pushing further than I should have without my alignment being quite right during a twist. I rested it and went back to practice and it seemed fine, but I hadn’t rested for more than a day or two and then counted ‘resting’ as doing everything apart from those postures. Because of this it re-occurred last week and was incredibly painful.

I iced it, took 3 full days off, and then did 2 gentle practices across 2 days, avoiding going into anything that engaged that muscle (I could feel it as soon as I started to and pulled straight back) and then had an appointment with a specialist. I was advised I had my shoulder in the wrong alignment which caused this, so it was partly down to posture and partly down to pushing myself a bit too far. He sorted my alignment and advised to take a few more full days of rest. I’m listening to my body and allowing 5 days. This is huge for me, I usually practice 6 days a week, sometimes more than once in a day and this is really hard to do but I know I need it. I have too much to look forward to this year that not healing this injury properly could destroy.

Find that balance in your practice, between avoiding any sharp or sudden pains, and feeling the stretch or ‘yoga pain’ at the level that feels right for you that day. It’s all about the journey not the end goal after all.