Finding Your Yoga

I am still buzzing from a transformative weekend workshop on hip anatomy with Lara Heimann, founder of YogaStream. Lara is a physical therapist as well as a phenomenal yoga teacher who has developed a style of yoga focused on functional anatomy and helping align our bodies to move most optimally. Optimal movement yields optimal health. When we move our bodies with proper alignment, we are more resilient to injury and we create a stronger, more stable foundation from which to continue to build our practice on and off the mat.

For me, this is a primary focus of my personal practice. As an athlete and someone getting older – as we all do, like it or not – my goal is to continue to be able to bike, run, hike, swim and play with my kids while still feeling energized and strong. I so often hear from my friends and family about soreness and fatigue from their activities, followed by a comment about getting older and “that’s just the way it is.” This is not true! All of us have the ability at any age to refine and rebuild our bodies to reduce the risk of injury and move more comfortably.

Yes, as we age, many of us accumulate injuries that never fully heal or that are triggered, sometimes unexpectedly, by our activities. I have a hamstring pull, for example, that developed during a season that I was training for a 10K. I had run several races during the weeks leading up to the event, but it was during a parent-child soccer game with my son that I suddenly pushed too hard. I sprinted several times during the game and when I came off the field my hamstring felt immobile. Regardless of how many miles I had run, the sprinting action of going from stillness to motion much more quickly than my standard gradual speed increase, was enough to push my hamstring over the edge.

That injury plagued me for years, reducing my desire to run and making me more hesitant to push myself in other areas. I worked with a personal trainer to try to “rehab” the hamstring but the prescribed approach didn’t yield any long-term benefits. Yoga was effective to a degree, but I found that I was actually overworking my hamstrings in several poses in an effort to increase my flexibility, when in fact, I should have been more focused on my hip, pelvis and low back mobility. It took working with a teacher, like Lara, for me to understand this.

Thus, there are two important lessons I want to emphasize here. One, when we partake in activities like running, biking or climbing for example, our bodies adapt to the repetitive movement patterns needed to endure those sports. However, we tend to lose mobility and resilience when we try to use our bodies outside of those patterns. This is why cross-training is so important for athletes. But these patterns apply to everyday life as well. When we spend our days sitting at a desk or performing certain repetitive tasks at work or school, our musculature structure adapts to those patterns and makes it harder for us to do things elsewhere. To that point, when someone groans about injury or reduced ability in their daily activities as a result of age, it is often more a result of the increasing number of years they have spent settling their body into less than optimal movement patterns than just a matter of getting older. This is reversible!

The second point to note is that yoga is an excellent way of reconnecting with the body to bring ourselves in more optimal alignment and move most efficiently and energetically through our lives. However, yoga, like any other activity, can leave you prone to injury from pushing too hard or from approaching poses without a clear understanding of which muscles to activate to support the posture. For example, many students come to yoga with a preconceived idea of how a shape should look in order to feel “successful.” In downward facing dog, students are often striving to straighten their legs and sacrificing their shoulders and muscles in the back in an effort to overstretch their hamstrings. The point of the pose is not to tear your hamstrings or over-rotate your shoulders trying to get your heals on the ground! Proper cuing from a yoga teacher will help guide you to a more comfortable dog that brings your spine into alignment while you gradually lengthen the hamstrings, working over time to reduce the bend in your knees.

Above all, students should understand that yoga is a very personal practice. The philosophical side of the practice teaches us that we need to leave our egos off the mat, turn inward and listen to what our body’s need and want in the moment. When we can tune out the noise and tune in to our own energy, we will find that our bodies are eager and willing to heal, rebuild and strengthen us from the inside out.