If you want to learn how to cultivate the quality of strength in your yoga practice and not hurt your back, knees & elbows then you are in the right place.
The observation that Patanjali doesn't say a lot about asana in the Yoga Sutras leads me to believe what is said must be important.
Sthira Sukham Asanam
Asana should have the qualities of steadiness & ease.
In my experience of 14 years with a daily asana practice the ease comes after the steadiness.
The ability to relax and breathe comes after the strength & foundation. In particular the legs. Hanuman legs.
Hanuman symbolizes the qualities we are looking for perfectly but both Hanuman and the Yoga Sutras need to be "updated" so to speak so they are useful for the modern yoga practitioner.
I had to figure this out the hard way. By getting hurt. A lot.
I'm writing this from personal experience from when I was looking for ways to heal myself from debilitating back pain, then knee pain in both knees
I tell the whole story in the first email series I wrote here.
The short version is that I had lost my whole practice and was at a point where I could barely get out of bed and was doing my practice on my knees.
One of the ways I was able to get back to full practice was by using a Mysore Rug from the beginning of the series just as Mark Darby had recommended to me some years before.
As you read this post try to understand the principle of Step 1 first.
Then use the principle to apply the technique which in this case is an isometric contraction when you use a yoga rug in Sun Salutations & standing postures.
You also don't need to buy one of my yoga rugs to do this.
(Although I've gone to great effort to make the most environmentally & highest quality rugs possible with excellent Amazon reviews and you also get free digital access to Strength and Grace if your purchase on the website)
this principle is more about removing than adding in.
Ready to learn how to build strength? Here we go.
How's Your Sun Salutation D?
"The dose makes the poison" - Paracelsus
Before we get to the how we need to go over a concept known as Hormesis. Let me illustrate it with an example from my own life.
More than 5 years ago I added in a second batch of Sun Salutations.
After practice when I got home I would get as naked as possible then lay on the grass for a sunbath in my backyard.
The biggest reason I started doing this was because if feels good. I've learned to trust that instinct.
Vancouver is cloudy and rainy almost all winter. When the sun starts shining in the spring and you feel it on your skin it's like drinking cold mountain spring water when you are dying of thirst. You just soak it in with every cell in your body.
Now I usually just lay out for about 20 minutes. I do 10 mins or so one side and then 10 or so on the other. I get my small dose of Vitamin D from the Sun and then my dose of Vitamin G from the Earth.
I place myself in right in between Heaven and Earth. The best place to be.
One day as I walked back into the house my roommate said to me "aren't you worried you'll get cancer?"
I said, "I'm doing this is so I don't get cancer".
More simply. So I don't get burned.
By implementing the principle of hormesis in the spring after a long dark winter I give myself some headroom for the coming hot summer months.
Each day I take a small beneficial dose of sun so when I am faced with a larger dose I'm prepared. Since I spent so much time indoors all winter the lack of sun has made my skin very white. It's unprepared. To be safe I have to keep the beginning doses low by 1. starting in the spring and 2. doing it in the morning when the sun isn't too hot.
3. and most important
When I am in the sun I have to be present and trust my feeling.
Does my skin feel like it's getting burned? Get out of the sun.
If I do this correctly by slowly exposing myself to this natural stressor by the time summer rolls in and the dose is higher I have the natural base and protection that I need to be outside.
The people who burn in the sun are the ones who never took the low dose in the beginning. They were white as ghosts and then go out in mid-August at noon and get burned. There was no hormesis and they weren't being present to what was happening to their body.
For these people, sunscreen is a good idea. They need the protection. Do I want to spray chemicals on my skin? In general, I prefer to do things more naturally.
Hormesis: is a biological phenomenon whereby a beneficial effect (improved health, stress tolerance, growth or longevity) results from exposure to low doses of an agent that is otherwise toxic or lethal when given at higher doses. - Wikipedia.com
In the West, the most common approach is just avoid any type of stress altogether in the pursuit of comfort. Rather than helping us get stronger it instead results in us being weaker and unprepared.
Don't Fall For The Worst Case Scenario
What is the worst cast scenario?
When there is the opposite of Hormesis. Since there is no actual word for it let's just call it "the Western Lifestyle".
This is the basic principle that runs through my entire email series Strong Foundations
In the never-ending pursuit of making our lives more comfortable, we are sold the newest technology to be added into our lives. Unknowingly something natural gets pushed out. A new man-made force that you need to purchase replaces a natural force that you had for free.
This new technology has easily seen but often small benefits. What is not seen until later as a result of the lack of nature - is the larger negative consequences.
In our practice, this is what happens when you use props such as extra grip to practice on when you don't need it. There is no low dose of hormesis because the technology has made everything so comfortable (Small Benefit).
The extra grip allows you to not use muscles you would need to without it. The result is you don't develop that strength. Then when you get the higher dose and need those muscles you aren't prepared and end up walking away with a sore back. (Big Negative)
To implement hormesis in yoga, add in a healthy small dose of challenge in the beginning so the body can adapt slowly and safely with the result of growing stronger.
Too high of a dose is not going to help us but too little isn't either. It's that spot right in between where Hormesis takes place.
This spot is going to change for each person depending on many factors. Factors like your age, what you've done in your body till you started yoga, how long you have been doing yoga, what is happening in your life, where you live, what postures your teacher has given you, and on and on.
Just as in the example of the sun you will need to be present and trust your feeling.
My Theory On Crunched Backs
I hesitate to write this because I'm not sure if I'm right. I only know what I've seen and then what I've experienced so as you read this know that it is a personal anecdote.
Often you see people in postures like Kapotasana or Backbends with their legs splayed out. Butt is super clenched and usually the face as result. Looks painful. You know what I mean?
So in the example of backbends, the heels and thighs turn out compressing the back of the body. When this happens at that point they lost the integrity of the posture. They lost the quality. Or as the Greeks referred to it Arete which means bringing excellence to everything you do.
When you have the strength to keep the thighs inwardly rotated it stops compression and makes room for Vayu (God/Breath). The deeper the backbend the more this ability is needed.
Why wait till Kapotasana to work on this? Start in the beginning. Bring Arete to the beginning of series so you can recognize it down the road when the dose is higher.
When I removed the new technology and brought nature in the result was I got stronger and was prepared to handle the higher asana doses when I got them.
Let me show you how I did it.
Adjusting Grip To Create Hormesis & Build Strength
To be clear in the examples I am talking about here I am referring to using a Mysore Rug over top of a Yoga Mat. I prefer it for a number of reasons which I talk about here.
My goal was to have the strength to practice Primary series on the Mysore Rug from beginning to end. At first, this wasn't possible since some asana's were too difficult.
I had to adjust the grip by using the methods below so the dose was at the right spot for me each day.
The "dose" of how challenging it is to grip the surface you practice on will depend on 3 main factors.
1. The actual surface - For example a Mysore Rug or Sticky Mat
2. How damp that surface is
3. Which postures you are doing and the strength required to do them.
Let's look at each one on its own.
1. Mysore Yoga Rug or Sticky Mat
Without considering factors 2 and 3 a cotton yoga rug will have less grip than a sticky mat. (I won't even talk about microfiber yoga towels since they are the worst thing ever but for a different reason)
When I say less I don't mean none. Just less than a sticky mat with Extra Grip. What your body does as a result of this Extra grip is obvious immediately.
With a sticky mat, it's possible to do a downward dog something like this
See how she is collapsing into the shoulders? The support of the “extra grip” makes it possible. Is there Hormesis? Nope.
When you try downward dog on a rug you will find that you have to use some strength to keep the hands and feet together because there isn't extra grip.
Which muscles are working when I use a Mysore Rug you ask? The right ones.
Just by removing the extra grip and switching to a yoga rug you will increase the challenge. If you find the asana too difficult just remove the rug and use the extra grip of the sticky mat till you get stronger.
Still, it's kind of a pain to keep taking the rug on and off so is there something we can do in between rug and no rug to affect the level of dose?
2. How Moisture Affects Grip On A Rug Or A Sticky Mat
Unlike the sticky mat, a rug gets more grip when it has moisture on it. This moisture can come either from your own sweat, the humidity of where you are practicing or from a spray bottle.
Doesn’t matter where the moisture comes from just know this is how it works.
Want more grip? Add some water (or sweat)
When I'm in India I sweat just waiting to practice so the lack of moisture for grip is never an issue.
When I'm in Jasper Canada I might get half way through seated without sweating so if I feel the dose is too strong with a dry then I spray some water where the hands and feet go.
Often I find a big challenge in Prasarita Padottanasana. If I haven't started sweating and I find it's too difficult I just spray some water where the feet go. Instantly there is more grip and it's possible.
Normally as we go through our practice the sweat should start to develop. This will make the rug damp and result in more grip. The amount of sweat and when it starts will depend on:
1. The Environment & Shala
If where you practice is humid and full of other practitioners then you will probably sweat more & earlier in your practice. If it's dry then less. I practice in both Jasper and Vancouver and the difference is noticeable.
Jasper is high up in the mountains, much drier and I often practice on my own so my rugs stays pretty dry almost the whole time.
In Vancouver where it can be very humid plus Ashtanga Yoga Vancouver is usually heaving with people there is much more moisture in the air. You walk in at 6:00 am and the windows are already covered in steam.
2. The Individual
Some sweat more some sweat less. Sharath has told some people in Mysore to bring two rugs to class just to switch when the first one gets drenched. Other people just need one. Again how much you sweat and how that sweat affects your practice surface will depend on you. If you find the rug too dry because you aren't sweating add some water. If you find your sticky mat too slippery because you are sweating. Add a rug.
3. The Difficulty of postures.
Some asanas require more grip than others. Prasarita Padottanasana with the legs spread apart is easier with grip than without while Pada Hastasana it doesn't really matter. (Although it does feel nicer on the hands to have cotton instead of rubber or plastic)
I can't really comment on other methods of yoga since I'm not aware of how the sequence of postures work but this does bring us to the 3rd factor on grip.
This factor has more to do with the timing of when you would want more grip.
3. What Is the Sequence of Asanas You Do?
Who's your teacher?
In the Ashtanga Primary Series and many other types of yoga we start with the Sun Salutations, then do standing postures, then the seated postures followed by backbends.
Generally the asanas start out easier and get progressively more challenging. Key word here being progressively.
As long as we have been doing beginning asanas correctly we should be able to handle the higher doses.
It's when we start taking a dose that's too high, too early where the problems start.
Who should decide the asana dose? Our teacher should.
I want to be clear in that I'm talking about yoga sadhana here. Not gymnastics, not movement, not dance. Not anything that may look similar but isn't.
I often see people taking self administered high asana doses. It's like going into summer sun directly from indoor winter. The body hasn't had time to prepare.
Doing asanas we aren't ready for can be dangerous. Having a teacher to keep your ego from sabotaging your body for the sake of Instagram likes is essential.
In Ashtanga our teacher decides when we get the next asana. You build slowly and with the ingredients of experience, time and breath the body changes. When your teacher sees that everything is there so you can learn the next asana then you get it.
You might go years without getting the next one. We accept this and work with what we have. Have you perfected Sun Salutations? Me neither. Start there.
Nowadays you get the scenario of new yoga practitioners seeing others on Social Media doing advanced asanas and they want to try them to. What they don't realize is that the person they see has been practicing for 17 years and has done all the asana's before the one they posted. It's not realistic for a person to sit at a desk for 25 years then want to do Kapotasana.
Where a yoga rug comes into the picture here is that since the beginning postures are less challenging (not less important) then not having extra grip is not as big of an issue.
As the asanas increase in difficulty and especially when you start doing all the jump backs and jump throughs the sweat will dampen the rug and give you some grip.
The extra grip from sweat comes in when you need it not when you don't. A sticky mat works opposite. Extra grip in the beginning and more slippery in the end.
Before I get into the last point I want to mention one more factor that will affect grip on a Mysore Rug which is when you wash it.
How Washing Affects Grip On A Mysore Rug
We don't really wash yoga mats in the washer and you definitely shouldn't be washing Microfiber Yoga Towels so this is unique to the Mysore Rug.
I've found that after its first wash it has less grip than after 1 practice. I think it is because of the soap but it could also be the lack of sweat. If the rug doesn't get drenched I will use it for a couple practices without washing and it usually will have more grip after that first practice. Just something for you to be aware of.
As I mentioned you don't need to use one of my Mysore Rugs but if you do want to see them and why they are the best, you can do so here.
I've just touched on some of the insights I've gained from practice, teaching, going through injury and just living life. I hope that it helps you and if you have any questions or need clarity on anything please write me at firstname.lastname@example.org. This post will be updated as I answer those questions. If you want to learn more about living a natural life that creates strength through yoga and lifestyle sign up for my Strong Foundations Email Series. I am also teaching and living in Jasper Alberta Canada if you want to come practice here. By Clint Griffiths