Nov. 29, 2017

What is a sustainable yoga practice?

It is so exciting to see more and more people embracing an evolved approach to yoga asana. You don't have to completely change the way you practice, but sometimes it is enough to fill in the missing pieces so that you are creating sustainability in your body instead of wear and tear.

I adore teaching, and I have had the fortune to teach and run a variety of yoga teacher trainings. My passion for teaching revolves around getting people excited and curious about the body and movement. And within that,  sharing my perspective and experience of a sustainable way of practicing yoga. I'm finding in the trainings that there are those who like me, had been feeling like something needed to change in their practice. They felt both in their own body and those of their students that something was missing. That as much as yoga is promoted as a healing practice for everyone, in their experience, it wasn't actually doing that and in many cases creating more injury. 

That has been my journey for many years. In fact, I had to go outside the yoga paradigm to get a more well-rounded and integrated understanding of human movement so that I could be a more effective teacher of yoga

As a result of my continuing education and studies, I've been integrating this knowledge back into yoga asana. And what a difference it has made. The body we have in our everyday life is the body we bring onto the yoga mat. And for the large majority of people, we are bringing tight shoulders, shortened and weak pectoralis muscles, low back instability, overly dominant quadriceps and underdeveloped backsides (glutes, hamstrings, tight calves) among other things into our practice.

Many of the traditional ways of practicing yoga can create an over-emphasis on certain movements that don't always reach the places where we need to move. Different cues such as tucking the tailbone will add to an already unstable low back, practicing arm balances (even downward dog!) without addressing hand and forearm tension and mobility, and backbending that is really rib thrusting are all common practices in many yoga classes.

Yet what is so exciting, is that I'm seeing more and more people embracing an evolved approach to yoga asana. You don't have to completely change the way you practice, but sometimes it is enough to fill in the missing pieces so that you are creating sustainability in your body instead of wear and tear. The more I've shifted my practice and teaching along with the more teachers I teach,  it is so wonderful to see people eating up this information. And I don't have to convince them, the proof is in the difference of how people feel in their bodies. 

So what is a sustainable yoga practice? Check out the Sustainable Yoga Series as an example of how to update your yoga asanas to promote structural integrity and prevent wear and tear and injuries. I've also compiled a few different approaches and principles to play around with in your own practice and teaching. Yoga has so much healing potential for people on all levels of who we are. Adding these sustainable elements is filling in the missing pieces, augmenting an already powerful practice. A sustainable yoga practice first requires an understanding of what a sustainable body is. Read this for a more in-depth perspective of a sustainable body.

Diversity in Movement

As humans, we have the potential to move in a wide variety of ways. Yet most of us spend most of our movements in the sagittal plane. It's that forward and back movement, such as walking, running, hiking, and so on. You will see even in a yoga practice that many of our postures are practiced in the sagittal plane. When we can get out of the sagittal plane and move in all directions, you get more movement to more parts of you. And more movement to more parts of you means more circulation and more circulation means more nutrients delivered which means a healthier you!  Do you do mostly passive stretches? How about adding more active stretches into your practice. Move in as many ways, with a different type of muscle work to maintain a diverse movement experience to as much of you as possible. Quick Tip: Next time you lift your arms in front of you or out to the side in a yoga pose, try changing the angle, even slightly to get movement into other muscle tissues. 

Frequency of Movement

It is common to unroll your mat and practice for a set amount of time either daily or for most people, a few times a week. While any time you can get on your mat is great, if you only wait until then to do your "movement" then you are missing out on keeping your bodymind fed throughout the day. This is especially true if you are sedentary for most of the day, at a computer or job that doesn't require a whole lot of movement. The more we can move, (and move in diverse ways) the better it is. Experiment with doing little movements more often throughout the day. You'll find it adds up to a whole lot more. Quick Tip: Even something as simple as a neck roll or shoulder stretch every half an hour you are on the computer can make a big difference.

Know Your Boundaries

This is super important and for many people, sometimes the hardest to incorporate. In movement, we often create compensation patterns because when we move past our boundaries, other body parts will "help" out, and this can create that wear and tear. For example, to lift my arms all the way up to the ceiling, if my shoulders are tight, I'll recruit the ribcage to help bring my arms the rest of the way. If I was minding my boundaries, I would only bring my arms as high as I can without letting the ribs do the rest of the work. And it is in that spot where my arms stop moving and my ribs stay down is where I need to stay to eventually get more mobility back into my shoulders. Click Here for a video tutorial of this. Quick Tip: Next time you are going to do a forward bend, put your hands on your pelvis and only bend as far down as you feel your pelvis can tilt down. Not letting your spine go past that movement of your pelvis.

Restore & Support

This may be the most important part of a sustainable yoga practice. Why? Because in our busy culture where we are plugged into devices, lead busy lives with constant stimulus and stress, slowing down and doing less is so much more. There are many ways to restore and support your bodymind. Take 10 minutes a day to do a restorative yoga pose.  Unplug. Go outside. Walk more. Spend time with people who make you happy. And so on and so on. Quick Tip:  Learn what muscles in your body you chronically hold tension and stress and periodically check in throughout the day and give them permission to relax.

When you can put these four pillars into practice, they are such a helpful lens in which to make educated and informed decisions about how you move. If you want to learn more about a sustainable yoga practice, join one of the live 2 day immersions. Find a workshop near you. 

Or join our Sustainable Studio where you can experience how these four pillars are integrated into a supportive and nourishing yoga practice for the long term. Check it out here.

Brea Johnson
Brea Johnson

Brea Johnson has been teaching yoga and movement since 2003 and is the founder and lead teacher of Heart + Bones Yoga. With a focus on a functional and sustainable approach to yoga, Brea is known for providing a safe foundation of healthy movement while remaining focused on the heart of the yogic teachings.