When You’ve Gone Too Hard – what to do to sort yourself out when you’ve over done it in your practice

Firstly, I’d like to make it known, that not only hot headed, pitta type Ashtangi’s are the ones that occasionally find they have gone too hard. It can happen to any yoga practitioner- it’s happened to me from vinyasa classes, and definitely from Iyengar classes. Even from Yin self practice. Definitely from group Mysore practice.

Luckily, it’s less likely as you mature, mellow and grow out of your ego a bit. So, read on, whatever kind of yoga floats your boat/ navasana. This post is very much related to the last post “Effort in Yoga”

So the signs are there… maybe immediately after savasana, maybe a few hours after, or later that evening, even the next morning if you didn’t sleep well…. you feel like crap, or a bit like crap, or kind of awesome and light at the same time as feeling completely crap and about to fall apart at the seams.

Yep, you’ve overdone it.

In your practice that morning ( or whenever- some people actually practice at other times of the day, apparently, and to good effect… apparently):

You did a ‘new‘ pose.

Or you did a pose you don’t usually do.

You applied maximum effort in every single pose, pushing yourself to your limit (not me, not for some years now)

Or you did something incorrectly. Perhaps you played around with letting the buttocks go in backbend instead of your usual tightening- as you’ve heard conflicting ideas. Perhaps you doubted yourself, what you know about yourself.

Or you played around with sequencing without following yoga law and perhaps, if you are honest, that sequencing wasn’t the greatest (headstand in the first 15 mins beginning of class, anyone???… it happens, I’ve seen it! )

Or you did 108 backbends (shish!!!)

Or even 5.

Or you went ‘really deep

You forgot to engage your bandhas.

You over engaged your bandhas.

You over breathed (see Simon Borg Olivier on this topic- he’s the man)

Or you got an amazing adjustment in class. Or a shitty one (it happens)

You sweat a great deal ( doesn’t happen to me at all, I get a little jealous sometimes )

You practiced in a very, very hot room ( personally I’m not into artificially heating the body in yoga, though I know a lot of people just love it)

Or you didn’t do savasana at all or for long enough (don’t quote me on this, but isn’t it meant to be 5 mins savasana for every 30 mins of asana practice?)

Or perhaps you finished off your practice with some sex (perhaps not so common in class but in home practice, if you are both yogi’s, all those pheromones floating around….)

Whatever it was, you feel Jittery and Over stimulated. Tired- no, utterly wrecked, unable to do anything. Completely Distracted. Emotional. Off balance, Weird in your spine. Headachy. Spacey. Ravenous. Nauseous. Unable to translate concepts into words. Twitching in your eyes. Fluttering in your heart. You go outside to hang the laundry out and can barely lift your arms over your head…. and your heart pounds like it never usually does from just simple effort.

Any or all of the above ‘mistakes’ to some extent or another.

You’ve over done it. You naughty boy. Bad lady!!

Perhaps I’ve made it sound a bit dramatic. All these things above are not inherently bad in themselves ( well, not doing savasana is bad!!!! ) but they can all set you up for:

nervous system over stimulation ( jittery, spacey, weird in your spine, eye twitches, sensitivity to light and noise )

or muscle exhaustion ( pain and exhaustion, weakness ),

dehydration ( headache, nausea, muscle pain, cramps , cravings),

temporary blood pressure issues ( pounding heart, unable to catch your breath, feeling like your heart is beating behind your eyes),

feeling unmotivated – any of the above mistakes, but especially over effort, perhaps trying over and over to ‘nail’ a challenging pose. It is well known know that motivation/ willpower has a finite scope- we only have a certain amount of energy each day to do things. Use it all up getting out of bed at the cracker, in the dark and cold and going gung-ho doing your morning practice… and you may well be set to waste the rest of your day. Maybe that’s fine sometimes… but if it’s a pattern then something has got to give. If you want to contribute to, you know, the external world.

being utterly ravenous (over breathing does this, in yoga and in sport and other physical activities. It seems to be about the bodies need to return to homeostasis ) Often thirst is also mistaken for hunger, or poor food choices are made, which compounds the situation.

cranky, irritable and decidedly un-yogi ( over pushing AND over breathing, too deep and too fast, increasing adrenaline and cortisol in the body makes for a ‘hot head’– ready for some argy bargy. )

Traditionally, the aim in Yoga was always to increase the length of our breaths in each direction, slooooow inhales and even longer exhales- in order to decrease the amount of breaths we take. ( In Yogic belief, we are born with a certain amount of breaths and we want to learn to breath less in order to extend our lifespan ) SO MANY PEOPLE are over-breathing with their deep, FAST, forced breaths- in effect hyperventilating, and over doing it!

This is not what Yoga is about, feeling like this! Yoga is about restoring the body, supporting it. Purifying it and making it ready for meditation. For union. For self, as in SELF realisation. Loss of ego. You know the score.

Effort is fabulous, and doing tapas is vital to yoga practice. A strong practice is great for many people. But going over board in any form of Yoga is not tapas. It’s not sattvic and it is not a practice of ahimsa, either.

aside: Here is a quick definition of tapas, from yoga journal. Thanks Yoga Journal, my motivation is running out 🙂

  1. The word “tapas” comes from the Sanskrit verb “tap” which means “to burn.” The traditional interpretation of tapas is “fiery discipline,” the fiercely focused, constant, intense commitment necessary to burn off the impediments that keep us from being in the true state of yoga (union with the universe).

You can still be doing tapas without messing with your homeostasis, baby!

Ok, so I could go on at length. Ok, so I have already…

BUT what can we do when we have found, oh dear, that we have gone too hard. What can bring us back to equilibrium?

These things have worked for me in the past- back when I used to push it too hard in a younger, more pitta dominated time ( and when I could spend all day practicing then flopping around lazily post practice- and back when I wasn’t a parent and I didn’t see the direct consequence of being cranky/exhausted/overstimulated etc etc. Nothing is quite as irritating as the noise of children, even happy delightful ones, when you are fried/not in balance. )

Go back and do savasana… for at least 15 minutes. With blankets and eye bag even if it is warm. Go back to bed if you feel really crappy- if you have the lifestyle for it!

savasana

Drink more water… warm to hot, never cold. Dehydration takes a while to resolve.

Eat warm food, grounding food such as oats, buckwheat bread, eggs, soup. Root vegetables. Not salads. Not spicy curries. Not raw food. Not cold food. Not processed food. No crackers.                                               A little fruit could help- dates and figs are great if your digestion can cope- just one or two. Warm, cooked apples with cinnamon and a fat source like butter or ghee or coconut oil, unrefrigerated perfectly ripe mango, banana… no sour fruits or citrus. No yoghurt either until you feel in balance again.

buckwheat chia bread

Eat GHEEghee is good! I have studied pranayama several times with O.P Tiwari of the Kaivalydham and he always tells me to ‘eat more ghee’. prescribing 4 TBs a day for my needs- not easy to consume that much but I do my best. I make it every week and use it in everything. Here it is solid, being winter both outside and inside the house, but if you melt it, it’s easier to eat.

ghee

Rub your feet with ghee before going to bed and put socks on, if you feel overstimulated and are worried that sleep might not be yours ( upward moving energy poses and practices can do this- hence not doing headstand, uddiyana bandha practices or even backbends in the evening)

Give yourself a foot massage– again, with oils.

Put socks on- cold feet can really mess with the body after practice.

put some socks on

Drink some milk if milk is your thing. I can’t drink it so homemade, warm almond milk with spices and honey is a good one too.

Go for a quiet, slow walk, barefoot great if it warm enough. Keep your chest and throat and lower back WARM.

Go get some shiatsu. Tell your practitioner what you’ve gone and done to yourself.

Do some Alternate nostril breathing for at least 5 minutes. More is better. Without kumbhaka ( retention of breath ) is advised if you are new to it.

Do Shitali pranayam if you are irritated and cranky. It is a fabulous panacea for over heated, over stimulated post practice yogi’s.

Legs up the Wall pose ( Vipariti Karani) – what a magic pose over over stimulation. Or Legs Up the Couch pose if you find yourself without a wall to lean on. Having your legs above your heart does wonders for the nervous system. Stay for 10 minutes, keeping warm.

legs up the couch pose

Take a warm bath with magnesium salts – especially if you are feeling it in the muscles.

Hide. Choose your activities. Going to the Southern Hemispheres largest mall for some ill advised retail therapy might not be the right thing to do right now (or ever?)

Ok, so say you’ve jumped in your car and are headed to work and you realise you have over done it. The ideas above might not be an option, right? Perfect thing for you to do would be to hum. humming is the way forward. Inhale long, quiet, slow breaths, exhale while humming- long, slow and completely. Inhale, repeat. For at least 5 minutes. Humming quietens down the over stimulated sympathetic nervous system and feeds the parasympathetic nervous system. Chanting Aum could do it, but try any humming- along to music if you like. When you hum for some time, taking care NOT to over inhale, you will notice the benefits. It helps you concentrate, too.

On public transport? Think humming might not cut it with your fellow passengers? Inhale very very very slowly, through the nose into the belly and only lightly up into the chest, ( yes, abandon bandhas for this, people) and exhale even more slowly, making sure to relax the belly on the next inhale. For as long as it takes.n’t reach for coffee, tea, chai or chocolate. But… don’t forget to eat! But then  also, don’t go overboard trying to replace that weird feeling with food.

Oh, one more thing. Get off the computer. Doesn’t help a bit.

Any others I’ve missed? Let me know in the comments.

Effort in Yoga, how much is too much, how much is too little?

Deep surrender in dragonfly, the effort is in the surrender. Note that I am dagging out in trackie dacks and keeping warm in home practice with ample clothes, practicing on a warm carpet and in front of the fire. All highly conducive to letting go.

Deep surrender in dragonfly, the effort is in the surrender. Note that I am dagging out in trackie dacks and keeping warm in home practice with ample clothes, practicing on a warm carpet and in front of the fire. All highly conducive to letting go.

As a teacher, I see a range of types of people coming to class to learn and practice yoga, and within that many variations in body types, and mind/ personality types. It’s a wonderful thing that keep us yoga instructors on our toes and far from being bored and complacent. No two body/mind/spirit combinations are the same.
There is always a wide range of effort in class, from person to person and from week to week, from season to season and from one type of class to another. Hence it is worth posing the question- how much effort is the right amount?
How do we know when to just allow the shape of the pose to do its work, easing into it without activating the muscles, or when to work against the shape of the pose to press and push deeper?

Obviously, the type of yoga you are practicing makes a great difference on a basic level- in an Ashtanga or Vinyasa class effort is seemingly key, while in a Yin class it seems it is all about letting go.

However it goes deeper than that. The intensity and therefore benefit of a yoga posture can be enhanced by conscious activation of the muscles surrounding the joints that are being worked in any given pose. Engaging or tensing the muscles towards the bones with effort protects the joints and allows the practitioner to move in and out of the pose safely.

Think of the hamstrings for instance- when stretching the hamstrings, a purposeful ‘engagement’ of the front thigh muscle ( the reciprocal part of the body to the hammies ) perhaps through pushing into the big toes or consciously pulling up through the arch of the foot, maybe also micro bending the knee- will activate the quadriceps and in turn protect the hamstrings from over stretching. The hamstrings will then in turn, after a few breaths, be able to move deeper and more slowly into the stretch without the threat of sudden, damaging over-stretching in the origin or insertion points of the muscle.

This action demonstrates how the muscles serve to activate the reflexes of reciprocal action, and the reflexes of relaxation- if you tense the muscles towards the joint being worked and hold them there, the muscles will after a time let go, allowing greater depth in the asana without the danger of letting go and surrender. Ok, I kind of repeated myself there but you get to drift.

This type of activation also increases the heart rate for many people and encourages deeper breathing, creating heat, which helps with flexibility.

How much should we be tensing the muscles towards and around the joints though, and when do you and don’t you tense them?

Key to this question is- how does your head and neck feel? Is your jaw and tongue able to stay soft and your forehead smooth when practicing poses. Is your face red? If there is tension in the face and head, you may be trying too hard. Many beginner Ashtanga students find themselves using the face too much to do a pose that has nothing to do with the head, tongue cleaved to the roof of the mouth, and that intense set jaw and stare… this is not yoga!
You may also find you can not move into the pose very much at all if the muscular effort is too intense. Shaking or quivering is another manifestation of over doing it. Not so much the quivering of a muscle that you are not used to using, but an internal quivering, signalling nervous system over stimulation. Often you won’t realise this until after the practice, whilst resting in savasana.
Over breathing- basically hyper ventilating with breaths too deep and too close together- is another major sign of over effort. Sure we need to do it sometime to manage oxygen levels in something causing exertion ( think of pushing a wheelbarrow full of wood up a hill ), but a whole yoga practice like this ??? That lends itself to nervous system irritation and in the longterm over sensitisation. not really yoga at all. In savasana or meditation at the end of your practice, see if there is any subtle pulsing or flickering in the eyes or behind the eyelids, like a mini strobe light effect. If there is, you have likely over doe it with the effort that day- and need to pull back a bit tomorrow.

You should be conscious and present in your own practice, whether in a class setting or at home, and use this mindfulness- this concentration- to see and feel and know what your body is doing in any given pose on any given day. Some poses may require more effort than others, others more surrender.

If you move too fast into a pose or a vinyasa without muscle co-activation, where the muscles are working together to protect the joint, the danger is that you will compromise the joint or muscle by moving too deeply into the weaker OR more flexible muscles of the area, without using the more stiff regions. Damage can result, and in the long term- even without damage- muscular imbalances may be formed which are hard to undo.

Generally, if you are cold or stiff, tired, unmotivated and/or distracted, a little extra effort in the muscles is all you need to get you back on track and bring greater benefits to your practice.
Some teachers will ask you to ramp up the breath in order to do this- I suggest in order to nourish and protect your sympathetic nervous system ( the one responsible for flight and fight/adrenal stimulation) that the effort comes from the muscles and you don’t force the breath into an unnatural depth or speed. There are far too many people out there that are over doing the breath and are on the path to yoga burnout/ nervous system burnout. Extreme hunger after practice can also be a sign that you have been over breathing/ hyper ventilating.

How about Yin yoga then, the yoga of sweet, sweet surrender?
This advice can also be incorporated into a Yin style practice without being completely contradictory.

First of all, in a Yin practice, you are not building heat through the breath, or through muscle activation or through vinyasa, or through effort. So, the key is to be warm– practicing in a warm room or sunny spot out of the wind, with plenty of clothes on, even socks!
As the body remains cool, and therefore somewhat stiff, there can be a danger to the joints, tendons and muscles if going into poses too quickly and too deeply. Luckily Yin yoga is about patience and staying in the pose for minutes, and seeks to use the reflex of relaxation by doing this. The bodily reflex of relaxation takes around a minute ( give or take) to kick in, and a few deep slow breaths can help it occur. Then you may feel your body soften and let go.
But you have to keep it real and be honest with yourself- not push in any way or expect to get into poses with the depth that you may in a more Yan style practice. Yin changes every single time you practice. Keeping your eyes closed or focus soft, and keeping the breathing natural and tidal helps you keep from grasping or trying too hard.

However, muscle activations can be used to benefit Yin yoga too.
Take for example drogon-fly pose- or the wide legged, seated forward bend known as Upavishta Konasana A in Ashtanga yoga. In Yin yoga you hold this for 5 minutes, and since it is not asking you to balance or make a muscular effort, it is a true Yin posture- as Yin as you can get- especially if your body is open enough to lie on the floor between your feet.

However, on coming into this pose when the body is cool, you may find yourself too stiff to move forward, and too stiff to let go. The muscles of the hips, the hip flexors and extensors, tend to hold on tightly in many people and require more than mindful ‘asking’ of your body/mind to let go. Tensing these muscles while in the first minute or so of the pose, activating towards the hip joints and increasing heat in the area, can help move you deeper into the pose once you let go and the blood flows back into the area. Surrender is then able to happen more safely and completely.

Say you have moved into a Yin yoga pose but feel unsafe- like you have gone too far and are stretching the muscles or tendons beyond what they are ready for? Thats is another time that the effort of muscle activation is beneficial. Say you have a pain in the knee… Immediately engaging the muscles towards the knee, in effect locking it and not allowing it go any further, will protect it. You can then either stay in an engaged form of the Yin pose, or move a little out of it until your knee feels good and then let go of the muscles again.
And if there is a sense of over stretching the lower back? Use the muscle activations of the abdomen- especially good to use when coming in and out of asanas, by imaging a wide 80’s style belt around your belly between the navel and the hip bones, and consciously pulling this belt in from all directions, as if cinching the belt in. This will protect the lower back within the pose, or until you move back to a depth more safely available to you.

How do you know, in any form of physical yoga, if you have not used enough effort? Well, first up, you don’t feel radially different than you did when you first rolled out your mat.
Did your mind wander while practicing, and get caught up in mundane worldly problems or issues? Another sign that you could have applied more effort.
Or, you may find you can’t relax in savasana ( this can also be due to over breathing and over stimulation of the nervous system- be mindful and work out for yourself whether its from over or under effort ).
Or perhaps you don’t feel it in your muscles at all later that day or the next day. We are working the muscles and joints, some sensation is likely, and a useful gauge of how the effort involved.
Or perhaps your practice is going backwards, not forwards? Often in yoga we make effort abut reach a plateau. I believe this to be normal, it can last a long time, and that’s fine. But if in regular practice you feel you are going backwards- physically and in concentration- then maybe more effort could be a useful tool.

All of these signs are good markers to work out for yourself what kind of effort you should apply to yoga practice, so that you neither damage your joints and muscles or your nervous system, or just waste time on the mat faffing around getting distracted and stagnating.

What are your thoughts? Where are you at right now and what do you feel affects your effort in practice the most?

Just a backbend


There was a time, a short time, where I could grasp my fingers to my ankles in Urdhva Dhanurasana. Mysore, 2003 during my time at AYRI in my early 30’s. Between the adjustments from Guruji and Sharath, I would have gone this deep 5 or 6 times, but more often just touching my fingertips to my heels. Super flexible people around me going all the way, every day, perhaps several times. A well known Japanese yogi had his hands on the back of his thighs and his head pretty much touching his backside.. in backbend!!! The look of concentration and vulnerability on his face remains with me. On those surreal days in Mysore I would feel quite nutty for the rest of the day… ungrounded, dizzy… not quite on the earth. Deep backbends are a lot for the nervous system to handle.

And then, upon my return to Australia, with a winter, a brand new mortgage to pay- and real life- deep backbends were to be never again.

Within a few months of returning home I was pregnant with my first child ( pregnancy being the only time in my 25+ years of daily practice of various traditions of yoga where I have had days off- and plenty of them). He wasn’t a sleeper, that first baby, practice became maintenance only, and even though practice was daily, it was nothing on what was possible before. Back in those self centered days when I didn’t have responsibilities …. and wasn’t utterly, unfathomably exhausted.

After recovering my sleep, strength and sanity… getting back to drop-backs and coming back up, along came my second child. In there were 5 or so years in total of breast-feeding my children into toddlerhood (all that rounding of the shoulders greatly reducing my shoulder flexibility), the years of never, ever getting to a Mysore class for adjustment or advice from a senior teacher (how can one get to a class at 6am when you haven’t got to sleep until 4am?), some big life shake ups requiring mental strength and moral fibre and all those kinds of things that get in the way of physical progression. That get in the way of maintaining deep backbends.

At first I missed them dearly, along with the thrill of achievement, the whacked out feeling after such an intense curve of the spine… I even hankered after those side effects.
But whenever I expanded my practice back into deep backbend territory my body would tell me otherwise. Urdhva Dhanurasana exacerbated my carpal tunnel syndrome more than any other repetitive strain- and in my daily life I had quite a few of them adding to the condition.

The extreme flexion of the wrists required to be stable in UD irritated my wrist nerves so that often I was in extraordinary pain at night- I couldn’t sleep- my fingers tingling and going numb, my hands in claws. But the next morning on the mat I would, more often than not, find myself doing a basic backbend sequence anyway.

Yes, I ignored it, as you do with things that only happen at night and barely effect you by day… occasionally dropping the backbends for months at a time but pretty much ignoring the CTS for 10 years. Until I found myself dropping cups and plates by day with increasing nerve damage causing loss of sensation in my fingers. Every night a full nights sleep was impossible for the pain… even with the kids now sleeping.

It was the surgery that shifted things for me… many yogis will tell you, injury is a great teacher. For me, accepting that an injury had occurred at all was the hardest part. When I got nerve conduction tests done ( on the 4th separate time I was given a referral script from my doctor ) he told me I had severe carpal tunnel, unusual for my body type
( most carpal tunnel syndrome occurs in obese patients ), and asked me how I could have left it for so long. I didn’t have an answer.

I remember waking up from surgery- a very simple procedure- and straight away being able to feel my middle finger again. A traditional Ashtanga practice was out for months. I discovered Matthew Sweeney’s Chandra Moon sequence which was a saviour, adapting it to keep weight off my hands. I used blocks with grip bars in them to keep the wrists straight. (I still practice the moon sequence series regularly to mix things up with my Ashtanga practice, relieve the standing series boredom of a long term practitioner, shift some of that physical repetition on the joints and muscles, and to work fully into all areas of the hips).

After surgery it took more than 18 months to be able to support weight in the hands in such intense flexion. Most back-bending practice was from the knees ( Ushtrasana, Laghu Varjasana etc). I re-discovered bridge pose from my early Hatha yoga days- such a wonderful, simple pose as one can choose which areas of the spine to move into.

Then, back to trying Urdhva Dhanurasana.. Slowly, I could reach my fingers to the floor beside my ears- using a rolled up mat to reduce the angle of wrist flexion- and push up, feeling weak and oh so stiff, feeling awkward and old and nothing like I had back in Mysore, 2003.

Gradually I began to realise what a great pose Urdhva Dhanurasana is- practiced as it is, a simple wheel. Old school, no frills… a nice arc with a gentle evenness, the vertebrae working towards equilibrium. The feet and hands planted strongly, open through the chest and lungs, deeply centered through the abdominals, the groins rotating to allow movement in the sacrum.

Done this way, the wheel is grounding. None of that mad, untethered, spaciness that deep backbends can cause. Sure, it gets you a little high, a nice rush of joy to start the day… but nothing that prevents me from coming in from my morning practice to make the kids lunch, negotiating homework, shoes and socks and getting them off to school.

So that is how I practice backbends now- and plan to continue- happily, for the next 25 years.