Saturday, March 30, 2013

Perspective - Safe Yoga for a Lifelong Practice

by Liz Lyons, RYT200

We are repeatedly told in asana practice (the physical practice of yoga) to “honor our bodies.” Because every body is different, preventing yoga injury means different things to different people at different stages. I have been practicing hot vinyasa yoga regularly for 15 years and hope to practice asana for the rest of my life. I turned 50 this year and, because of yoga, feel strong and healthy. Yet, some days my shoulders hurt. And my left knee, well, it’s just not exactly right. My lower back…kind of achy most mornings. A friend with whom I have practiced for many years wakes up every day with a painful hip. Yoga injuries? Maybe. I have come to believe that 15 years of a regular rigorous physical practice has taken a toll on my body, just as any long-term rigorous physical activity would.

Because yoga is often sold as the fountain of youth, keeping you flexible, strong and balanced into old age, it is important to understand the possibility that a regular rigorous asana practice, such as vinyasa, can, over the long term, leave you with chronic aches and pains. I am told there is little research on the long-term effects of a rigorous physical yoga practice. The good news is that yoga provides its own solutions. As with any long journey, sometimes you need to alter your route. 

My own path may be instructive. It was love at first sight when I stepped on a yoga mat as a new mother, seeking nothing more than an hour of solitude. Soon my body was craving daily the hot, fast, flowing practice and was doing things it never could before. With an almost daily practice, I could soon do the trickiest arm balances, hold the most powerful warrior poses, twist into the pretzely-ist postures. It was like an out-of-body experience; I had never even done a headstand as a kid—whose body was this? As I built strength and flexibility, my practice gave me a sense of confidence in my body. That confidence led to a powerful realization that, if I could re-make my body when I was fast approaching middle age, all of life was open to me. 

Other life lessons showed up unbidden: the more ease and confidence with which I approached my practice, the more my body absorbed the poses. If I could mindfully allow my legs to shake with exhaustion in a long-held warrior, could I not find unexpected strength in other parts of my life? If I could sit with discomfort in, say, pigeon, could I not sit with discomfort off my mat, knowing it would pass? If I could stand calmly in tree and will my body not to fall over, could I not stand calmly in other challenging life circumstances and will myself not to waver? My physical practice became a reflection of my internal life. I learned to listen to the lessons my body was teaching me.

And so, for a decade and a half, I have been joyfully practicing hot vinyasa flow yoga, with its challenging poses and quick pace. I have cheerfully done tens of thousands of chaturangas. Umpteen upward dogs. Tons of trees. I rarely declined an offered arm balance or inversion. 

And now, at 50, with my aches and pains (minor, thankfully), it is time to use the gift yoga has given me. It is time to listen anew to this new body. My challenge is to step back, to slow down, to allow my body not to do what I spent so long teaching it to do. 

Now, when I take a vinyasa class, I often - gasp! - take chaturanga on my knees. Some upward dogs become cobras. I have no more use for crow. Some days a careful headstand feels good; some days, no way. I do not jump, ever. You will find me in child’s pose when I am tired. Before each posture, I check in to see whether my body wants the posture or if my ego is telling me to take it. When my ego calls -  and it does call (“hey, my crow is better than that 25-year-old’s crow next to me”) - I gently let it go. My priority has moved from physical challenge to safety. This has opened up new experiences for me. I enjoy and value Iyengar, yin, restorative and other types of physical yoga. I work more on the breath and meditation limbs of yoga.

All those years of building a strong, intense, rigorous practice have led me here: I am now building a gentle, mindful, slow, safe asana practice, protecting my new, older, creakier body. I feel no less strong and no less empowered. Once again, on a different leg of my journey, my physical practice is becoming a reflection of my internal life and I am learning to listen to the lessons my body is teaching me.


Liz took her first yoga class right as she was turning 40. At first, it was the serenity of being alone on her mat that hooked her. Soon, the many other gifts of yoga made themselves known and she has been dedicated to her practice for 10 years. Liz completed her 200-hour training at Yoga District in Washington, D.C. in 2012. She completed training with Core Power Yoga and was recently certified by the Veterans Yoga Project to teach yoga to individuals with Post-Traumatic Stress. Liz has taken numerous workshops with yoga teachers from all over the country to try to deepen her understanding of both the physical postures and the more spiritual aspects of a whole yoga practice. Liz hopes to create a place for her students to discover whatever it is that might speak to them about yoga. She currently teaches at CorePower Yoga Studio in Bethesda, Maryland.

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