I’ve only injured myself once in 38 years of yoga practice. It happened when a teaching colleague told me my Headstand (Sirsasana) was incorrect because I was putting more weight on my arms than on my head.
I was a novice student, only four years into my yoga practice. I knew my neck was not very strong due to a whiplash injury, but I decided to trust the teacher instead of my own intuition. I equalized the weight between my head and arms and stayed in Headstand for about five minutes. It didn’t feel very good at the time, but I was more concerned with doing it “right” than with how it felt.
For six months after that “correct” Headstand, I experienced constant headaches, stabbing on the inside of my left scapula and neck pain. After lots of acupuncture, chiropractic and deep tissue treatments—and six months of not doing any headstands or shoulderstands—things got back to normal.
Perhaps the teacher could have worded her comment differently, less judgmentally. But the truth is, it is my reaction to her comment that caused the injury. Being a novice yogi, I was still very much concerned with accomplishing poses, and doing them “right.” I ignored the cues my body was giving me in favor of doing what I thought would impress the teacher.
As a teacher, I learned from this experience that the most important thing I can do is to empower my students to trust themselves. We can’t know exactly what’s going on in another person’s body. We can observe and see where a student’s alignment lacks continuity—where they might be stretching or pushing harder in one area than another. But we can’t feel what a student is feeling.
For this reason, we need to teach our students the most useful tool for their safety and for their continuing evolution as yoga practitioners: mindfulness. How do we do this? Well, first, we have to practice mindfulness ourselves—as a daily discipline, with intention and commitment. It’s not as easy as it sounds.
The fallback position for most of us is for our minds to be off in past or future thinking. This is not bad or wrong; it’s just what our minds have always done. The momentum is very strong. And here’s reality: If our minds are focused on what we think a pose “should” be instead of what is actually true in our own bodies in this moment’s pose, we are more likely to hurt ourselves.
Mindful Yoga: Asana is a Process
One way I like to teach and practice mindful yoga, is to teach each pose as a process rather than a set form. Instead of thinking of the picture-perfect Yoga Journal cover pose as the asana, my asana actually starts with the seed of the pose—the intention to move into a pose. As I teach and practice, I’m aware of each movement associated with setting up our bodies to move into a pose, the actual moment-to-moment process of moving into it. Once students are in the pose, I invite them to be aware of the constant, fluid changes in the body as a pose is “held,” and the moment-to-moment process of moving our of the pose. Then, I take a moment in a neutral position—Tadasana (Mountain Pose), Dandasana (Seated Staff Pose), Savasana (Relaxation Pose), depending on whether the previous pose was standing, sitting or lying down—to feel what happened.
No part of this process is more important than any other part. In mindful yoga practice, each moment of each asana is an opportunity for full expression, no matter what part of the asana we are practicing—beginning, middle or end. In this way, students learn to feel—and more importantly, trust—their own experiences, and to begin to let go of the idea of a pose as a form that needs to be “nailed.”