Yoga is rewarding and fulfilling as just one practice can help you meet multiple objectives. It is a very accessible form of movement; it helps improve balance, which is linked to our cognitive function and reduces the risk of future injuries. More importantly, it helps you manage stress, anxiety and improves your quality of sleep and life. However, many misunderstandings around yoga can either make your practice inadequate or can be harmful to the body. Here are six critical traps you must avoid if you are starting or maintaining your yoga practice:
1) No warm-up
Warm-up is essential for waking up the muscles, improving circulation and getting both the cardiovascular and neuromuscular systems aligned to what you are going to do. You also want to prepare the mind and awaken the prana when it comes to Yoga. So, a great way to begin your practice is by getting on the mat and sitting or standing in silence, taking your attention to your breath. Take at least five breaths to centre yourself and begin with sun salutations. It would be even better to do joint activation exercises or sukshma vyayama before that.
2) Moving through postures mindlessly
Your yoga practice is not about your posture. It is about your attention — the quality of your attention decides the quality of your practice. Set an intention to maintain awareness of your breath throughout the practice. But also remember that it is natural for attention to drift and the mind to wander. All you have to do is to repeatedly come back to the present moment, to your breath, and to the experience of holding a posture. If, for any reason, you are distracted, then add some single-leg balance poses at the beginning of your practice. They will help centre the mind as they reduce the influence of vata dosha (often the cause of anxious thoughts). Single leg balances include postures like tree pose, warrior III, eagle pose, etc.
3) Continuing through pain
There's no one universally accurate alignment for yoga poses. Everyone is unique, and that's why, how their body shapes up in a yoga pose will be unique too. What may work for your joints may not work for others. Therefore, always listen to your body and believe in its intuitive capabilities. Do not overrule your judgement or push through pain — unless you are under the supervision of an expert teacher or therapist. If something doesn't feel right — stop and ask your teacher. Equally, don't be in a rush to be super flexible or strong.
4) Skipping pranayama and meditation
Try to spend at least five minutes doing yogic breathing exercises after your yoga asana practice. There's a tendency to put a lot of effort and energy into yoga postures while ignoring the subtler aspects of yoga. To put it simply, it's like going to the ATM to withdraw money and leaving without collecting the dispensed cash. With asana practice, you simply unlock the potential of yoga. With pranayama and meditation, you finally 'collect' the benefits. Plan your routine such that you reserve 20% of your total practice time for these mindfulness activities. So, for a 60 min session, allocate at least 12 minutes for pranayama, meditation and shavasana. And over time, you can increase it to 30 minutes of asana and 30 minutes of meditation or whatever works best for you.
5) Holding breath forcefully
People make two common mistakes during pranayama practice: One, starting breath retention without first correcting their breathing pattern; two, overdoing breath retention to the point of breathlessness. First and foremost, one must learn correct belly breathing, or more accurately, diaphragmatic breathing. If you are mainly using the chest to breathe, you are not fully activating the lungs. And if you start retaining the breath with this incorrect pattern, you will only reinforce it.
Secondly, pranayama is not the same as breath retention training for scuba divers. You are not in a competition to hold your breath for the most prolonged period. Instead, you are trying to find a calm and spiritually conducive state of mind — that is why you only hold your breath till your 'first urge to breathe'. If you push it too far, your next few breaths will be rapid and disturbed and you will not be able to find a sustained period of focussed, undisturbed attention.
6) Putting too much effort
This can sound counterintuitive in our modern-day world, where we constantly push ourselves and test our limits with our 'go-getter' personalities. As a result, when we come to our yoga practice, we judge ourselves for not being flexible enough. We may berate ourselves for not achieving a pose despite months of training. We may even be overjoyed or excited when we finally achieve a posture. We transfer this attitude into our pranayama and meditation as well. We push ourselves to hold our breath longer. We feel inadequate if our breath cannot follow a pattern, or we may feel like we're not good enough if we keep getting distracted in meditation. And I want you to change that when you get on the mat — it will be the best thing you will do for yourself. Because until you give up this attitude of excessive effort, you will not experience stillness in your yoga practice. Instead, replace judgement with observation, curiosity, acceptance, and kindness towards yourself as you practice. This change in perspective will transform your yoga from a bodily fitness activity to a mindfulness experience. And that is when you will unlock your true potential with the power of yoga.
(The writer is a Yoga and Ayurveda Lifestyle Specialist and the founder of Yoganama)