There’s been a lot of attention paid to the recent New York Times article, “How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body.” I’ll admit that I ignored it until days later when I noticed that it popped up on the most emailed list in my New York Times reader. When I finally read through the story, one of the most noticeable aspects was that the author selected the most panic-inducing studies he could find—and they were all from the early ‘70s.
There were several other ways in which I felt the article generally missed the mark, but I won’t go into all of them. I’ll simply say this: Reading this article and noticing how much attention it got in the mainstream media gave me an opportunity to reflect on why I think yoga is so important despite the fact that, like any other physical endeavor, it can lead to injury. (And I’ll be the first to admit that I weathered a few yoga injuries in my early days of practicing.)
So, here goes: after years of soaking in the teachings about how much to externally rotate my thigh and where to place my big toe, the most valuable lesson we can learn from yoga is that we can use the tools to create inner harmony. In other words, instead of getting up and doing a sequence to Forearm Balance five days in a row, you can go to your mat with the intention to create a practice that balances whatever state you’re in at that particular moment on that particular day.
If you’re full of energy and you want to open your upper back, do the aforementioned Forearm Balance practice. But if you’re drained or feeling a bit frayed around the edges, try staying low to the ground in your practice, perhaps focusing on hip openers like a diamond-shaped Baddha Konasana or a supported Pigeon Pose.
Savasana, the final relaxation pose, is critical in any practice, but it’s especially important to give yourself lots of time in the pose if you’re fatigued. A long relaxation at the end of practice has the power to refresh your energy and help you integrate all the work you’ve just done. If you stay in the pose for 15 minutes or more, you can induce the relaxation response, which lowers stress hormones and increases feelings of calm. In Light on Yoga, BKS Iyengar says this about Savasana: “The stresses of modern civilisation [sic] are a strain on the nerves for which Savasana is the best antidote.”
What’s that you say? You don’t find Savasana particularly relaxing unless you’ve sweated and snorted your way through an exhausting practice? That’s OK. You might not always have those deep, easy, peaceful Savasanas because relaxation isn’t something we’re taught to do in Western culture. It takes practice, just like any other pose. Stay with it, don’t skip the pose! And, with practice, it will become easier to drop in.
I love to riff on Erich Schiffman’s approach to Savasana, which is, in essence a three-part process:
First, relax your body.
In order to fully relax, you need to find the sweet spot of the pose that’s comfortable for you, which means that it’s important to take your time and mindfully set up the pose. If you tend to cool down quickly, cover yourself with a blanket and put on your socks. If your back feels sensitive as you lie back, place a bolster or a folded blanket under your knees.
Once you’ve gotten yourself into position, allow yourself to take up as much space as possible. If you have a neighbor close by and you can’t bring your arms 45 degrees away from your body, you can bend your elbows and place your hands on your torso.
Second, notice how you feel
Bring your awareness to the top of your head and begin to scan through your whole body, noticing where there is tension. Invite yourself to let it go, to relax, and to enjoy the feeling of relaxing.
Third, feel the bliss
Schiffman says that, “As you relax, you will expand. You will begin to feel big, huge, spacious.” This expansive feeling can feel wonderful as it overtakes your entire being. Your thoughts begin to fade into the background and you experience openness, peace, ease. You might even have moments of joy or emotion well up in you. However you are feeling, surrender, surrender, surrender into the experience.
Come out of the pose slowly and gently, rolling onto one side and resting there for as long as you need to before you come up. Open your eyes, keeping your vision unfocused and wide. Enjoy the feelings of inner harmony you’ve cultivated.
An editor at Yoga Journal for nearly a decade, Andrea Ferretti has had the honor of writing about and learning from some of the best yoga teachers in the West. She has been greatly influenced by Sarah Powers, Sally Kempton, Cyndi Lee, and her husband, Jason Crandell. For more of her personal writing, visit her blog, Mindful Living.