A successful yoga practice requires you to listen to your body so that you can comprehend just what is going on inside. When you tune into and feel those tight neck and shoulder muscles or tight hamstrings before even starting to stretch, you instinctively know how far you should stretch within the posture. There will be good days and bad days as regards flexibility. We have all had those moments when the thought of bending and stretching anywhere is less than inspiring.
Learning to understand your body is the key to progressing and ensures that you will not push your body too far. Yoga is about nurturing and providing balance. It’s not about pulling muscles through over-zealous practice sessions. If you have gotten into bad habits, trying to rush your way through the sequence of postures to appease your conscience, then make a mental note right now to stop, and to listen to your body. Each posture has an amazing set of benefits; do you even know them all? When you understand the benefits, you can focus on these and on the feelings experienced as you move into the hold and then relax.
We all talk about being mindful these days but the art of mindfulness is paramount to a successful yoga session. Some of the poses are complicated and they all require correct alignment. It can be the smallest movements that are performed correctly which is the most beneficial rather than an extensive stretch that is not. You can’t cheat flexibility; you have to work at it by relaxing into it, which may sound like a contradiction of terms. When you move into a posture, you can feel the stretch and use the breath to release any tension from your body. Hold the posture, breathing steadily and then on the next out breath, release the body and feel yourself extending with very little effort. When you bend, stretch and release the right way, yoga comes naturally as will progression.
Let’s use this beautiful posture – as an example. Known in simple terms as the Big Toe Stretch. It has a wide range of benefits including:
- Strengthening the thigh muscles and stretching out those typically tightened hamstrings and calf muscles.
- Improving digestion
- Helping to calm the brain and to also help ease feelings of anxiety and stress and to improve headaches
- Eases menopausal symptoms
- Helps to stimulate the liver and kidney organs
Understanding the benefits of each posture or sequence will help you to achieve more. In Padangusthasana, when you are at your maximum position with your back elongated and head towards your shins, just remember that the most important aspect is working within your body so that you can achieve a greater stretch naturally. Do not sacrifice the alignment just so you can struggle to reach towards your shins with your head, instead elongate the back and lower gently. Think more about stretching forward with the chest and then the head as a final movement. Feel the stretch all the way through the back of your body. Your muscles may tighten as you reach the full position and this is where you hold the posture, breathing into it. When you are ready, relax and feel yourself let go of the tension. We all want to bend our bodies into the maximum position, and having these goals enable us to keep our practice true, but no-one wants to damage or strain muscles by forcing it. The true benefits come from turning the attention inwards and listening instinctively.