My leg muscles almost always start to shake when I hold uttanasana. Standing, folded forward, pressing my feet into the mat to encourage my legs to straighten a little more and my tailbone to move closer to the ceiling, my legs inevitably start to wobble.
In uttkatasana (chair pose) that wobbling is even more pronounced, and usually accompanied by a burning in my thighs. Uttkatasana and I have a love-hate relationship.
I often have students ask me quietly and sheepishly after class what’s happening to them when they get the shakes in class. The first thing I tell them is that this shakiness is not uncommon. It happens to almost everyone at some point. For me it’s in uttanasana and uttkatasana; for others it could be the warrior poses. Usually, it seems to be poses asking for strength from the muscles.
Yoga Journal has an excellent explanation for what’s going on anatomically.
Muscles are made up of many fibers. When a muscle is used, not all the fibers contract at the same time. Some rest while the others work, and then they trade places. When the muscles are really challenged, the changeovers can get a little ragged.
A little bit of shaking is okay — it’s a sign that you’re challenging yourself — but really shaking could be a sign to take it a little easier. Use the breath to decide how much shake is too much shake. If you’re shaking but you can still breathe slowly and fairly calmly, then you’re probably okay. But once the shaking starts to affect your ability to keep the breath slow it’s time to back off a little. And remember that point will be different for everyone — and will probably depend on the pose.
If you’d like to read the rest of the Yoga Journal article, you can do so here.
A few days ago, my friend Sam posted this essay about his impending move away from Adelaide. He’s moving to Sydney (which means I’ll see more of him — hurrah!) sometime in February.
Although it’s about different places, the essay quite aptly describes my own struggle to figure out where to call home. I’ve lived in Sydney now for as long as I lived in Melbourne. In between the two, I lived in Canberra for a few short months. Growing up, I called Forbes, a small town in Central West New South Wales, home.
In a way, all of these places are still home for me. It’s like they contain different versions of me — almost as if, visiting, I might run into myself. And in a way I miss all of these places. Or maybe I just miss those versions of me. Nostalgia is a funny thing.
When it comes time for me to bid Sydney farewell, I’m not sure how I’ll feel about home.
This is cross-posted on my writing blog.
Last week the New York Times ran a story entitled ‘How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body’. A number of different people sent it my way, asking for comment. To be perfectly honest, my initial response was to roll my eyes. Of course you can hurt yourself doing yoga — just as you can hurt yourself running, walking, rolling over in bed. To move at all is to risk injury to a certain extent.
The problem, I think, lies less within the system of physical yoga practices and more in the expectation that’s placed upon them. Yes, yoga asana can improve your wellbeing, it can make you feel amazing, but it isn’t going to fix everything. And yes, it may in fact cause some injury. But yoga is not just the physical poses. It’s about finding balance between opposing forces — sometimes those forces are just within the physical body, but more often they’re in the interplay between our physicality and our thoughts and emotions. We think or feel we should be able to do something — or that we shouldn’t — and sometimes that’s in direct opposition to the abilities of our physical body. Our ego rears its ugly head; sometimes pushing us further than we should go, sometimes holding us back.
That’s part of the practice though, as far as I’m concerned. When you’re on a yoga mat, it’s just as much about testing and observing your own ego as it is about watching how your body works. The two are, really, inextricably linked.
The very first part of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras (one of the seminal ‘how to’ yoga texts) says, ‘yogash chitta vritti nirodahah’, which translates as ‘yoga is calming the fluctuations of the mind’. Some people interpret this as ridding oneself of ego, but I find it more helpful (albeit more complicated) to think of it as stepping away from the ego (and the body) in order to witness their activities. And it’s in the witnessing that the calmness lies. The ego itself is not a problem; blindly following it can be.
All that said, as a teacher, I do worry about my students injuring themselves, and it’s a very real possibility that they will. It’s absolutely vital that I keep learning more about human anatomy and physiology so I can create a space that’s as safe as possible for my students to practice in.
In fact that word, ‘practice’, is a really important part of how I plan and conduct my classes — and how I think when I’m on the yoga mat for myself. It’s in taking our practice — practising, in other words — slowly but surely that we learn about ourselves. Slowing down enough to notice the breath, and to notice the physical sensations in the body is at the heart of a physical yoga practice. The body gives warning signals if you’re coming too close to injury; it tells you to back off by giving off the ‘pain’ message loud enough that your breath becomes laboured. But you need to be moving slowly enough to notice those signs — and to have practise recognising them.
In no way am I suggesting that yoga injuries are all the fault of the student — it’s a shared responsibility between student and teacher. What I am saying is that, as yoga teacher Bernadette Birney points out, yoga is a therapy and the risks are similar to the risks in any other type of therapy, physical or otherwise. It’s perfectly valid to be concerned about those risks and an excellent idea to talk about them. Slowing down will help, but my advice to anyone concerned about the risks is to talk to your teacher/s about them. Tell your teacher/s about your injuries, and about anything that doesn’t feel quite right, even if it’s not exactly painful. I’m certainly interested in building a relationship with my students so they can get the most out of my classes, and I think you’d be hard pressed to find a teacher who isn’t.
I should also add that yoga teaching in itself is a yoga practice. I certainly do not have my ego all figured out — if I did, I wouldn’t be interested enough in yoga to be teaching it. Keep this in mind if you talk to your teacher, just like you would if you were talking to your doctor or other healthcare professional about a treatment. Your yoga teacher is a person too, and they are not infallible. Chances are they’ve also had injuries — I know I’ve had my fair share, some from yoga, some not. Injury can actually be a fantastic opportunity for learning how your body does (or doesn’t!) work, and to observe your internal response to the injury. Of course, I’m not suggesting that we should all injure ourselves in the name of learning. But human bodies break sometimes, and they definitely wear out. We will not necessarily be able to do things today just because we were able to yesterday, injury or not, and, at least in part, the physical yoga practices are designed to help us find that elusive sense of calm regardless.
This is cross-posted on my writing blog.
“We could say that meditation doesn’t have a reason or doesn’t have a purpose. In this respect it’s unlike almost all other things we do except perhaps making music and dancing. When we make music we don’t do it in order to reach a certain point, such as the end of the composition. If that were the purpose of music then obviously the fastest players would be the best. Also, when we are dancing we are not aiming to arrive at a particular place on the floor as in a journey. When we dance, the journey itself is the point, as when we play music the playing itself is the point. And exactly the same thing is true in meditation. Meditation is the discovery that the point of life is always arrived at in the immediate moment.”
On days when I’m working from home, writing, like today, I have to make a conscious effort to move away from my computer and get outside into Sydney’s beautiful weather. Sometimes I head into my backyard and practice a few quick half sun salutes. Sometimes I just let myself sit and look at the plants that I’ve tended, and that seem to have grown as if by some miracle. This is my favourite corner at the moment. A nasturtium gone mad, broccoli flowering, and a little bay tree surrounded by all the colour.
As part of my research into urban agriculture (for something I’m writing), I’ve just stumbled across The Lexicon of Sustainability. Lots of fascinating people doing a huge variety of different and interesting things to find and produce food.
This is their ‘About’ video. And the last sentence really struck me: “Your words can change the world.”
The idea is to try and explain some of the terms we see bandied around — ‘sustainbility’, ‘organic’, ‘locavore’ — in a way that’s accessible, and lovely to look at. I have to say that I’ve often found that this kind of information is not presented in a way that makes you want to keep looking at it. Which I’ve always thought is counter-productive. The Lexicon, however, manage to be informative and beautiful at the same time.
Take a better look here.
I have a feeling I might end up playing around here for hours…
This is cross-posted over at my writing blog, avocadoandlemon.