Yoga in a nutshell: ‘Why am I shit at yoga?’ and how to get better at it
”Hang on, she’s got her head on the floor over there, why can’t I?”
“Every week I hate it when she says ‘and fold forward’. I don’t move an inch.”
It’s hard not to look around the class and see what other students are doing (or not doing) and compare yourself. It’s human nature. But what you see on the surface isn’t all that’s going on. There are a thousand different reasons why someone else might ‘look’ better than you in a particular pose, but does it really matter? If someone’s got their head on the floor but inside they’re thinking about what to have for lunch, are they actually practising yoga? If you’ve moved two inches but you’re concentrating on your breath and trying to feel what’s going on inside then you’re the one actually practising aren’t you? Keep this in mind and I’ll also go through why someone else might be able to and you can’t.
Reasons why you’re not very good at yoga
Some people are just naturally more damn flexible. Some students have just got hips for yoga sent from the Gods. (I certainly haven’t. I spent my childhood years running and swimming, not at dance lessons. It’s taken me years, of patience (read exasperation), to get my outer hips to move and I’m practising for hours a week.)
Flexible hips (or any other part of the body) can make a pose look amazing but unless there’s strength and body awareness to go with it, flexibility can be a curse. It’s very easy to injure yourself because you can push too far very quickly. If you’re as stiff as a board it can protect your body and avoid injury.
Humans come in different shapes and sizers. Shocker!
Humans are not all built the same. You are unique and the yoga pose should suit your body not try and pretzel your body into a pose that doesn’t work for you. What’s the pose for? What are you doing it for? If the purpose of yoga is to use the breath to join mind, body and spirit to lift you into another realm of experience and consciousness, your knees touching the ground ain’t gonna stop you getting into yoga heaven. It’s not a tick box at the Pearly Gates!
(Take a look at the images to see how much difference there can be in one person’s femur shape to another. That alone will obviously have a big impact on the shape of your pose.)
The pictures above come from ‘Your Body Your Yoga’ by Bernie Clark. It’s a great book that explains all about human variation and what poses are good for what sort of body types.
Last Friday Sam said to me she actually had pain in her right hip when sitting cross legged. She’s had physio on it several times and this has helped but it’s still painful if she tries to push her bent leg down towards the floor. She wants to do it but it’s not moving. If it’s painful - it’s really best to stop doing it. There might be a physical reason why it doesn’t want to budge. It’s certainly not from want of trying! It also might just wreck her knee and then what? Hobble down six flights of stairs at the end? Not a very relaxing weekend to look forward to! (Her physio suspects her hip bone is shaped differently on that side. An X-ray would confirm it and if it’s the hip bone making contact with Sam’s pelvis then it’s bone on bone and it’s not going to move any more, however much pressure she puts on that knee.) This week Sam just stuck her right leg out in front and kept the left crossed. When she folded forward she felt the stretch in her lower back and not the wincing pain in her leg. Win!
A yoga teacher can give cues and guidance about what limbs you should be moving and feeling in a pose but you are the captain of the ship. Only you know if your knee twinges when you move it to the right like that; your back complains if you push up in high cobra. If it doesn’t suit you then don’t do it. There’s usually an alternative to get round your experience.
People who’ve not done yoga before think it’s sitting about cross-legged and humming a bit. Piece o’ cake mate. Well, actually getting into and staying seated cross-legged or in lotus in the same position for a while is quite hard work! Way back in ye olde yoga times the whole point of the physical practice was to condition the body and mind to enable you sit for hours (yes, hours) in meditation.
So, it comes as a bit of a surprise to many that it takes quite a lot of strength to hold various yoga poses. Because they can be static as well (holding for a few breaths) it’s different (not better or worse, just different) from many other physical classes like HIIT or body pump where you’re constantly moving in and out of positions.
So, apart from your skeleton, what is it that might be stopping you from going further in a pose?
Tension or compression
For yoga beginners it’s normal to hit tension in the body which stops you moving further in a pose. This tension can be caused by several things: tight muscles and tendons, inflexible fascia, ligaments and joint capsules. It’s possible to improve this with continued practice. Your standing forward fold improves over the months and one day in class you can touch your toes! Eventually your practice will be stopped by compression - soft tissue against tissue, then bone on tissue and eventually bone on bone. Once you get to bone on bone that’s it; you’re not going to move any further (unless you go in for drastic Victorian rib removal surgery).
You might have an injury you’re nursing now or an old one. Obviously a current one should be treated with care. That doesn’t mean you need a 3’ exclusion zone around you but you need to be mindful. Be gentle and slow - no flinging yourself around. Also pay attention to sensations hours after the class, even a couple of days later. It might take this long for something to show up.
With injuries, most of the time, you need to keep the area mobile. It takes stress for the body to mend itself properly - for the stem cells to get to work on reconstructing the lost or damaged tissue. With no stress at all the stem cells sit there twiddling their tiny thumbs. With movement and pressure those stem cells sense it. Light stress and that stem cell gets busy and becomes a nerve cell. A bit more stress and it becomes a fat cell. Even more stress produces a muscle cell and top notch stress makes bone (if it’s needed there).
With an old injury, for example a broken ankle from years ago, it will probably move very differently from its pre-broken state. It might be the way it set at the time or scarring around the area. With yoga there’s still a chance it can improve, though you might not get back the full range of motion it once had. Try not to be scared of it or think it’s never going to move. Don’t give up because you might surprise yourself.
Holding your breath
I can see you in the back row going purple! Sometimes a yoga class can be similar to learning to drive, mirror, signal, manoeuvre… You’re so busy thinking, “Right, move my arm this way, leg over there” that you forget to breathe. Try and give yourself time to move into a pose and then breathe. This will help.
The nervous system also plays a big part in how much we move. Our sympathetic nervous system (SNS) is commonly referred to as our fight or flight response (increased heart rate, cortisol release, higher blood pressure, etc.) but can also trigger a freeze reaction. The nervous system interacts with our fascia and muscles. If we put stress on the body the fascia (mainly) can sense the stress applied and the body reacts by increasing or decreasing the tonus (or rigidity) of the muscle.
The nervous system is very closely controlled by the vagus nerve. This nerve exits from the base of the skull and ‘wanders’ all the way down to the abdomen. It carries sensory information from the body to the nervous system and can switch the parasympathetic (rest and digest) system on and off. By focusing on the breath and controlling it we can calm the body down. Inhaling increases the heart rate, exhaling decreases it. By controlling the breath we can tell the body we are safe and calm. It then responds and relaxes. See, I don’t just mention the breath for fun! This is why yoga works - it increases vagal tone (further reading on this below).
It’s not uncommon for women especially to focus more on cardio than on strength exercises because they are concerned about their weight. Or, if they practice a sport it generally means moving specific muscles over and over and doesn’t train top to toe, eg running, cycling think quads. On top of that women generally speaking have poor upper body strength. Plus, if you’re the wrong side of 40 you’ll start to naturally lose muscle mass if you don’t do something about it (sarcopenia). Another thing women have to add to that ‘you’re joking?’ list.
So, how do you get better at yoga?
It comes as no surprise that if you don’t practice you don’t progress. However, you do what you can. Once a week can make a massive difference so don’t think you need to up your game to several hours a day and start wearing white robes!
If you can’t make it to more than one class a week or you have to miss one occasionally I have a 10 Minute Maintenance video for you (you won’t even need a mat).
Become more aware of your body
Pay attention to what your body is telling you. At the edge of your capability lurks injury - but also the chance of growth. Feeling tweaks of pain or discomfort are warning signs. Try not fear your edge though. Move into a pose and notice how it feels. Use the breath to see if the fear (maybe mental rather than physical) recedes. You might have a little room to manoeuvre, to play your edge and go a little further. Or, you might just need to breath where you are.
The stress placed on the body during practice can be good for you. It’s through stress that the body starts to move or strengthen. It’s over-stressing that causes the problem. This is why it’s important to try and pay attention to what your body is telling you. Little tweaks you feel shouldn’t be ignored. They are the start of a bigger problem if you continually feel little tweaks. One week it becomes a big tweak and then it’s off to the doctor’s. As a general rule if it’s discomfort that you can breathe through, tugging or pulling is the kind of stress you can put up with and you need so you can progress. Burning or sharp pain is a sign you should back off. You have to use your own common sense. If your eyes are watering or you’re holding your breath because it’s horrific you’ve gone too far. Pain doesn’t lead to gain in yoga, it just means another chiropractor bill and weeks off resting.
Engage those muscles
More body awareness and using your muscles properly builds strength. Try not to flop from one pose to another use your strength and focus on what’s working. It’s much, much harder but this will increase your strength and you’ll be caning those poses in no time. It’ll help your balance as well. The more you can engage the longer you can hold it, the more opportunity to breathe while you’re there, opens the body (so starting to get more flexible with longer holds), leads to better resistance and so denser bones. The list goes on in an upward spiral…
On another note, muscle use more calories up than fat so you’re doing yourself a favour there too.
If you don’t breathe you’re not going anywhere! On the inhale think expansion or lengthening. On the exhale either relaxing, surrendering or even moving deeper. Also, the longer you can hold a pose the more you’ll work into the muscle and then into connective tissue. Holding poses for longer is the key to improving your flexibility. You’ve gotta hang out in it man.
From my experience and my friend Emma (who has an amazingly flexible back and hips) there are two poses that are key to opening up the body and you’ll find working on these two will help most other poses unlock for you.
This is the first picture shown below. From all fours walk your hands forward so they’re quite a way in front of your shoulders. Start to stick your bum into the air (arching your back). Slowly start to bring your chest towards the floor. If you’re shoulders feel extra tight, widen your hands. Breathe here and see how it feels. You should NOT force your shoulders. When you first begin (especially if you’ve not warmed up or haven’t done this pose often) you’ll be quite high off the floor and you’ll feel it in the shoulders. As you breathe you might (only might, we’re not forcing remember) you may be able to start to bring your chest lower. Eventually the forehead touches the floor and then from there you begin to look forwards and chin to the floor, then chest. Eventually you arch the back more and open the chest. Wherever you get to try and take at least 5 slow breaths and come out with control - lift the chest and push into the hands. Do not be surprised if you need to stay up high and breathe there! This pose does wonders for your shoulder flexibility, opening the chest and back.
The second two pictures show pancake splits (basically folding forward with wide legs). Start with the legs comfortably wide. You may need to keep your legs bent to start with. See if you can lean forward, even an inch. Breathe here. Maybe a little pulse (I mean little) to see if you can gently push that chest forward a bit. At first you might have quite a rounded back. Eventually you want a flat back and to fold down with the chest on the floor. You can sit on a block/book to lift the hips up higher. This pose is doing loads - lower back, hips, hamstrings. The full monty.
Remember why you’re practising yoga in the first place
Maybe you’re not shit, maybe it’s that the yoga pose you’re ‘struggling’ with isn’t your forte. We might all be human but we’re all different. She’s good at backbends, another’s got more flexible legs. At the end of the day does it matter? No. Are you breathing while you’re in the pose? Yes. Does it hurt? No. Good. Keep going.
Yoga goes way beyond the physical. We all need reminding sometimes - yoga is the union of the body, mind and spirit to reach a higher level of consciousness. Yoga doesn’t care that you can’t touch your toes, it’s getting on your mat and breathing that counts.
Next time you make it on to your mat pat yourself on the back (if you can reach!).
How Yoga Works Yoga International article on the vagus nerve, how it works and how toning it is important for health
Why Yoga Works Mindfulness Health & Psychotherapy article on why yoga works
Info on the vagus nerve by YogaHub
NutritionFacts.org video How to Strengthen the Mind-Body Connection shows breathing techniques improve various medical conditions. “Practicing slow breathing a few minutes a day may have lasting beneficial effects on a number “of medical and emotional disorders,” including asthma, irritable bowel syndrome, fibromyalgia, and depression…”
Reference notes were taken from Bernie Clark’s excellent book: