Reasons not to practise yoga

What’s the difference between a reason, and an excuse?

A reason is “a cause, explanation, or justification for an action or event”. In other words, a reason should explain why something is the way that it is. However, a lot of the time, what we think are ‘reasons’ are probably ‘excuses’. An excuse is an “attempt to lessen the blame” and often means that we don’t take the right responsibility or any accountability for the situation. Here are some reasons I’ve heard (or given myself) to not practice yoga. Are they really reasons, or excuses?

 “I’m too tired!” = Excuse

Yoga asana, like any exercise, can put demands on your body and mind that may be tiring. But asana can also help to restore energy, and allow for more effective rest. Tiredness is not a reason – it’s an excuse! You can still practise yoga!

“I have an acute injury or illness.” = Reason

Our bodies do need time to heal and repair after illness or injury. Although it varies from person to person and injury/illness, certain asana may not be appropriate or even prevent healing from that specific injury or illness. Always check with a doctor that you are medically OK to do any form of exercise, yoga included. While this is a good reason to temporarily stop or to modify asana, it’s not a reason to stop yoga altogether. You can still practise yoga!

“Yoga is for women!” (some men) = Excuse

Some cultures socialise men and women into expected patterns of behavior, to the extent that this excuse, perhaps is more of a way of masking insecurity, when at the root, the excuse is “I’m afraid I will be emasculated if I am not the best/strongest person in a room full of women”. Get over yourself! Yoga is for everyone, and everyone can learn something, get stronger, and get better. Modern yoga is derived from teachings handed down by men. You only compete with yourself and your ego.

“I’m menstruating.” (women) = Reason

Different people have different ideas on this topic. I have had some teachers who say that when you have your period, you should do restorative asana only; others might say continue with all asana as usual but ‘take it easy’; some say avoid practice on the first day; still others say to avoid yoga altogether. This can be quite personal and there are many articles and opinions available if you search online. It is important to know what is happening to the body and make adjustments accordingly.

I think this article summarises it quite well and explains both pranic and physical rationales: avoid inversions, asana that put stress on abdominal/pelvic region, and bandhas (extract below).

“In a yoga practice there are certain asanas that should be avoided during menstruation. The main type of asanas are inversions… The reasoning for this is that when we practice inversions one type of prana, known as apana, which normally flows in the downward direction from the manipur chakra (naval centre) to mooladhar chakra (cervix), is reversed…Another reason is that during inversions the uterus is pulled towards the head and causes the broad ligaments to be over stretched which cause partial collapse of the veins, leaving open arteries to continue pumping blood. This can lead to vascular congestion and increased menstrual bleeding…

Secondly, any very strong asanas particularly strong backbends, twists, arm balances and standing positions that put a lot of stress on the abdominal and pelvic region should be avoided, especially if the woman is going through a lot of pain at the time… If the pelvic region is causing spasm and pain why cause more contraction and pressure to the area. Also these positions need more physical strength and exertion which can be lacking during this time and can be depleted further by the practice…

Thirdly, bandhas should be avoided for similar reasons. On a pranic level they move the apana upwards instead of down and physically they add more contraction to an already tight region and in the case of uddiyan bandha increasing the heat which can lead to heavier bleeding.”

Menstruation is a reason to modify or postpone yoga, but not to stop altogether!

“I’m not flexible!” = Excuse

This is like saying, I can’t have a bath because I’m not clean! Think about it: we take baths to become cleaner. We practise yoga to improve flexibility. We all have different flexibility levels in different parts of the body. Some can bend forwards effortlessly (not me); others can bend backwards (also not me); others have flexible hips or shoulders or can twist their spines. Asana practice will help to build flexibility and mobility in joints and muscles. If anything, this is a reason to do yoga, not avoid it!

“I’ve just eaten a huge meal.” = Reason

Although there are many asana that help massage and improve the digestive organs, like many other forms of exercise, it can be uncomfortable or even impossible to practise asana when your belly is full. You need some time to give the body a chance to process the food, so that you can put your energy towards practice rather than to digestion (and this article explains a bit more about the physiology). I personally prefer practising yoga in the morning, before breakfast, or at least 2 hours after eating.

But as you can see – this reason, along with the others listed, are not reasons to never do yoga, or to stop yoga entirely. They are reasons to wait, modify, or stop temporarily the practice. There is no reason not to do yoga!

Stamina, Strength, Flexibility

In our first YTT lesson, we learned that yoga improves not only flexibility; we work on stamina, strength, and of course stretching. Since starting YTT in July, I have noticed improvement in all three of these ways, in body and in mind.

Stamina is defined in the Oxford English dictionary as The ability to sustain prolonged physical or mental effort.”

I used to struggle to do a headstand. As soon as I felt a small wobble, I would bring my legs down and I could barely hold the pose for 3 breaths. Now, even after an hour of practice, I can comfortably hold headstands for 10 breaths, overcome the wobbles and breathe more calmly. I will continue to build my headstand stamina to 12, 15, 20, 30 breaths…

The past year has been challenging for me personally and professionally, but with every challenge – particularly since starting YTT – I have surprised myself, at how I have been able to work through difficult situations to ‘bounce back’ quickly with solutions. I’ve also noticed greater persistence; for example, I’ve stuck to a daily gratitude practice. My mental stamina has definitely improved with practice.

To Strengthen is to “Make or become stronger.”

How do I know my body is getting stronger? One way is seeing improvement in jumping back from bakasana (crow pose) to chaturanga. It takes strength and control – from isometric contraction of the legs in crow pose, engaging the core, and all the while the arms hold the weight of the entire body as the hips and legs move up in the air and back. I couldn’t do this before YTT; I accomplished this for the first time in a YTT session!

One of the yama is satya – truthfulness, or living one’s truth. To me, this is not just about being honest; it’s also about staying true to oneself, not being swayed or affected by external views that aren’t one’s own truth. I like to ask advice from many people, and so it has also been easy for me to be swayed by others’ views. But this year I have learned to be stronger, how to better weigh up others’ advice, and come to what I think are more ‘truthful’ ideas, and ways of looking at people and the world.

The dictionary offers several definitions for the word stretch.

  1. “Straighten or extend one’s body or a part of one’s body to its full length.”

Before I started yoga, I could not touch my toes. With my own tight hamstrings, I marvelled at those superhumans, who can completely fold in half, chest to thighs, in forward folds like paschimottanasana. Although I could reach my toes when I began YTT, I was nowhere near ‘fold in half’ flexibility. But, during a YTT session, for the first time I could feel my chest/belly on my thighs during a forward fold. Yes, my classmate was assisting me at the time, but it was clear that my flexibility has improved significantly!

  1. “Make great demands on the capacity or resources of.”

In YTT, we were introduced to many topics I had never thought about, let alone studied before. Chakras, aura, and other metaphysical topics were particularly challenging for me. In the same way one might stretch hamstrings or do ‘hip opening’ poses, I too had to stretch and open my mind, to try to understand and appreciate the ideas. I’m grateful that I had these prompts to make my mind more flexible.

  1. Cause (someone) to make maximum use of their talents or abilities.”

For me, that is what the YTT journey has been all about.

Beating jet lag

You have a great voice to put people to sleep.
Not exactly my idea of a compliment, but given the context, I’ll take it!

My friend was commenting after I guided him through yoga nidra, it helped him to relax – so much so that he wanted a recording to play at bedtime.

Yoga nidra, also known as dynamic sleep, is where the body relaxes deeply while the mind remains alert. Step by step, one relaxes physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. Guided instructions prompt us to physically prepare the body, then the breath, and the mind, followed by physical, mental, and spiritual relaxation exercises, before being re-awakened.

These guided exercises focus on different parts of the body and specific breathing, which helps to balance the nervous system. As our brains shift from an awakened state to a more relaxed state, serotonin is released, which calms us down even further. Our bodies get the chance to restore themselves, and the stress hormone cortisol is removed.

Given the effect on our bodies and minds, it’s no surprise that yoga nidra has been found in prior studies to help stabilise blood sugar levels, alleviate depression and anxiety, and combat PTSD. Since learning more about it, I’ve been more consciously using some of the techniques recently – to manage jet lag.

I travel frequently for my “day job”, across time zones, including long haul flights… in economy class. I applied some of the relaxation techniques while flying- allowing my body to fully relax first, then my mind, and the next thing I knew I was sound asleep during the flight. Despite a 7 hour time difference, I arrived rested enough to go straight to practise yoga with friends!

When I woke up in the middle of the night in the new time zone, I again used yoga nidra techniques to relax my body. For the first time since learning about yoga nidra in YTT, I became aware and could identify that my mind was alert, while my body was deeply relaxed.

They say that one 30-minute practice of yoga nidra equals approximately two hours of deep sleep. I can attest that despite the changes in time zone and missed hours of sleep on the way, I had one of the most energised, yet restful business trips yet!

Breathe

This has been a period of ‘firsts’: I gave my first yoga lesson, and my friend had her first ever yoga lesson from me. She said afterwards: “I realized I don’t really know how to breathe.” Such a simple, yet profound statement, made me think about why breathing is so important.

One of the 8 limbs of ashtanga yoga is Pranayama, which is sometimes translated as ‘extension of prana’ (breath / life force) or ‘breath control’. Different Pranayama and breathing techniques can be used for different reasons, and with different benefits.

Some benefits are immediately felt, for example with sheetali / sheetkari breathing – sucking air through the tongue or teeth to help cool the body. You can immediately feel the cooling effect of evaporation, as air passes over your tongue.

Other benefits can be observed over time. For example, a study has shown that daily Pranayama practice resulted in statistically significant reduction of both systolic and diastolic blood pressure over a period of 6 weeks.

Other benefits may be even more subtle. A recent study has shown that breathing has a direct effect on the levels of noradrenaline in the brain, a natural chemical messenger, which “If produced at the right levels, helps the brain grow new connections, like a brain fertiliser. The way we breathe, in other words, directly affects the chemistry of our brains in a way that can enhance our attention and improve our brain health.”

Some people – swimmers, singers, actors – train specifically in how to control their breathing, in order to get the most out of their performance. The physiological benefits of Pranayama on the body are already well understood. But when considered as one of the limbs of yoga, it could be said that Pranayama helps us to get the most out of our lives.

I was grateful that I could help my friend become more aware of her breathing. And I hope she will not only learn ‘how to breathe’, but also reap the benefits.