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How to Avoid Stretching Too Far

Published in the February/ March 2016 issue of Sweat Equity Magazine.

Nobody can argue the benefits of a consistent yoga practice. Increased strength and flexibility, peace of mind and mental calm, and less angst over the “little things” that once were so bothersome are just a few. The more people that experience what yoga has to offer, the more mainstream it becomes. The more mainstream it becomes, the larger the class sizes and (quite often) the less personal attention available for each student.

So what does all of this mean? It means the onus is ever more on the student him- or herself to navigate the sometimes-murky waters of “playing the edge”—without going too far. Read below to learn when it’s time to back off or go “slow speed ahead.”

Injuries in Yoga Can Occur

Due to yoga’s reputation as a healing modality and stress-reduction technique, some people assume that it won’t cause injury. This isn’t necessarily true. As with any movement practice, some risk factor is present.Heck, there’s a potential for injury walking outside your front door, but that doesn’t keep us holed up in the house! When practiced with respect and within the mindfulness-based context in which yoga was born, the risk of strained muscles and torn ligaments can be dramatically reduced, if not avoided altogether.

Here’s How:

1. Ditch the Slogans

First things first: we must clarify the difference between “yoga as a workout” and “yoga as introspection.” The truth is, it is both.That being said, it is first and foremost an exercise in focus and concentration. Everything else, including the long, lean muscles, defined arms, and toned abdominals, is a byproduct of the practice. Therefore, mottos like “no pain, no gain,” and “go hard or go home,” are best left at the gym.

2. Discomfort is Not Painful

Most of our life, knowingly or not, we strive to avoid things that cause pain. It’s a basic human instinct and one that serves our survival needs well. That being said, all personal growth requires some discomfort, be it intellectual, physical, or spiritual. The challenge is knowing the difference between tolerable discomfort and genuine physical pain. If you find yourself “in pain” while practicing, chances are you’ve gone too far.

How to Discern Between Growth and Pain

1. Your Breath

Paying attention to the pace of your breath is the quickest way to ensure you’re within your “pain-free range.” You should maintain a fluid and even ratio of inhale to exhale throughout the duration of your practice. Short, sharp breaths, or holding the breath, are sure signs you need to ease up.

2. Facial Expressions

Every so often, bring your attention to the muscles of your face and jaw. Are you clenching your teeth? Are your brows furrowed and forehead wrinkled with intense effort? Keeping your gaze soft and a subtle smile at the corners of the mouth helps ensure a mindful practice.

3. Dull is Good. Sharp is Not.

Knowing when to stretch further and when to hold back can be tricky.First, consider tips #1 and #2, above. If you opt to go further, do so slowly. Every additional inch allows the muscles to recalibrate to the more intense stretch. If the intensity does not gently subside within a breath or two, you’ve gone too far.

Not only does stretching beyond a reasonable edge put you at risk of injury, but it counters your goal of increased flexibility! Stretching too far, too fast, invokes a defense mechanism called the stretch reflex. Instead of lengthening, you actually cause the muscle to contract and shorten.

Yoga is a lifelong journey. By cultivating a practice that supports your body where it’s at while encouraging progressive growth, you will enjoy a practice of health, healing, and longevity.

Slow and steady is the yogi’s rule!

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