Yoga is an ever growing trend and with that comes an interesting addition to the existing yogic culture. Yogi’s aspire to being open and accepting, non-judgmental and kind . That is what the practice through the body ultimately try to teach us, but let’s be real….we’re just human. There are certain things going on in yoga classes these days that are simply unbearable and its time to name them with the hope of eradicating them altogether. So yes – Yoga is about acceptance and non-attachment – and yes, this article is ethically out of line. So bite me.

1. Runners shorts

Runners shorts are made for running and their main purpose: ventilation. You don’t need that much ventilation in the crotch during yoga class. Honestly. I know its hard to find good yoga pants, (for men especially), but really? Consider for a moment the teachers view of your privates while you’re lying down, and your fellow yogi’s view behind you in downdog split. Nasty.

2. Tights thinning around the crotch

Sometimes yoga is your entry back into physical movement after a long time of sitting on the couch, and no one expects you to arrive first time round with the perfect kit. It is sometimes a problem though when you turn up with the spandex you wore in the 80’s because that’s the last time you bought exercise gear. They tend to thin…mostly around the crotch and bum area. (What is it with inappropriate gear and the crotch?).

Tip: before coming to class – turn your back on the mirror and fold forward – look at your reflection through your legs….this simple exercise should help you decide if this is appropriate attire or not.

3. Doing your own thing

Any teacher worth her salt takes time to think about what it is the class will focus on and the sequences are planned accordingly. You might be really experienced and love yoga, know all the postures and have a very strong self-practice. Awesome. Now take your self-practice somewhere where you can practice it by yourself – and refrain from doing your own thing in the group class, confusing everyone else in the room who always seem to be one breath behind the strong ‘self-practicers’. You’re breeding confusion amongst your fellow yogis and a little bit of resentment in your teacher.

4. Sweating out your lunch

Yoga class is a place to sweat and when you’re attending full classes it may be worth considering how much garlic, alcohol and nicotine you take in before coming to yoga. Yes – we inhale it….and, yes, it reeks.

5. Coming in late and loud

Yoga is a special time of day in which you are the only one that matters. Its already so hard to switch off and let everything else go just for that hour and we always use the first few moments in class to set the stage for the rest of the practice – free from worries or concerns. Life happens and yes – sometimes, every now and again, maybe, once, maybe even twice, but definitely not regularly – you MIGHT be a minute or two late. It’s distracting for everyone. More so when you arrive late, throwing your gear around with no consideration for the silence we are all so desperately trying to cultivate. Really? Do it for yourself and do it for all the poor souls longing for these moments of peace and quiet. Come on time and when on the odd occasion, you don’t – arrive quietly.

6. Socks

Yes – they smell. Yes – take them off. Barefoot is best.

7. ‘Pedicuresque’ tasks in forward folds

Forward folds at the front of the mat is so restful for most. Apparently, however, when you fold easily from the hips with hands dangling around on the floor, you might find it a tad boring. And so you take this time to inspect your toes and use either use your nails to scrape away the toe jam between the toes (granted we are grateful you took your socks off) and/or cleaning your toenails with your fingernails. Definite no- no and super gross. It’s okay to glance and decide that perhaps it is time for a pedicure….but please then aim to get back to your breathing and folding, please!

8. Passing Gas

Passing gas in class is something that occurs, more often than you think so when this happens to you – no problem. It’s something that actually shows your practice is working for you, so don’t stress about it. Close your eyes – pretend it didn’t happen. What is a definite no-no here is this: the teacher passing gas and blaming it on the unsuspecting dude in the front row doing his best with his foot behind his head. Now THAT…is just WRONG.

Physiotherapists and Chiropractors have full waiting rooms for those who can no longer live with the pain and yet the problem never really gets resolved through that avenue either. Regular physio and chiro visits become a highly expensive treatment strategy for back pain. The issue is that while physios and chiros do a great job to relieve pain, it is only through recognising the underlying cause of back pain in the first place (i.e. not that this joint is pressing against that nerve and hence the pain – I’m talking what in your life style has caused this nerve to get in the way of that joint) and then systematically and regularly doing the work to maintain spinal adjustments and health, that back pain may become a thing of the past – as so many yoga students now find. Yoga couldn’t replace physios or chiros, but it certainly has a huge role to play in spinal health as millions of yogis the world over will profess.

Here are a few of the reasons why everyone with any form of back pain should attempt yoga as a way to relieve the pain and address the issues for a healthy spine in the longer run:

1. Relaxation – the role of tension/stress in pain

Our days are busy and we tend to run from one point to the next in an attempt to meet competing demands. We often operate on autopilot just in getting everything done and often have very little knowledge or awareness of the tension that sits in our bodies. This tension may sit here for years without being released. It eventually manifests in pain – and very often in back pain specifically. Not even when we sleep do we relax fully and release tension. There is therefore a huge role for very purposeful relaxation in releasing tension in the body – and in so doing beginning to release the source of pain. Stress and tension in the body has a far reaching impact on health – but just bringing it to the spine we become aware of its role in the following:

Tension in the spine prevents movement and therefore causes stagnation in the spine. Muscles lock around the vertebrae (in a protective way) but it means the spine becomes rigid where flexibility is needed. It results in poor posture, a lack of nourishment to joints which needs compression and release to fill up on the good stuff and the constant holding on in the muscles eventually causes pain.

The lack of movement where movement is needed causes other parts of the body to compensate and work harder or in a different way to ensure what needs doing gets done regardless of the rigidity in the spine, and these compensations causes tension, fatigue and misalignments in other parts of the body. This in turn also causes pain.

Rigidity in the spine makes the spine vulnerable to sudden movements, shocks or jolts – which if this then occurs in normal day-to-day life, makes the spine more vulnerable to more serious injury. A spine that has space between the vertebrae, lubricated and nourished joints and has a good level of flexibility can withstand much more of what it may be exposed to on a daily basis.

Yoga incorporates purposeful relaxation and stress release and gives you and your body the break it so desperately needs. Even doing this for a few minutes a day during practice makes an unbelievable difference.

2. Strengthening vs Releasing Tension in Movement/Exercise

When people are given advice on exercising to relieve back pain, they are often told that the core needs to be strengthened. So they may well set out to the gym to do more strength training. However – it is really important to know that before any strength work is done in relieving back pain – tension has to be released. Otherwise you will end up building strength around tension – more likely in the wrong places too – leading to even more misalignment and ultimately more pain and injury.

It is so important to release tension first – and in a tension free spine begin to strengthen that place of space and natural movement – rather than strengthening what you don’t want and are trying to get rid of. Strength training is great in its own time. But never ever strengthen tension.

Yoga incorporates both releasing and strength based movements – in the right proportions to the correct parts of the body to ensure a safe release and purposeful building in strength.

3. Flexibility vs Stability

Different parts of the spine require different levels of stability and flexibility. The lower back is a stable part of the spine, requiring less flexibility and more strength for stability. However – a really stiff lower back is not what you want either. It creates huge issues in limiting movement and brings the pelvis and hips out of alignment. The Thoracic or Middle back requires much more flexibility and limited strength to fulfil its function. It is the area where most of the movement occurs and importantly – the space to breathe! The Cervical spine requires a good balance of stability and flexibility. It supports the head and nervous system and a stiff neck adversely affects both brain and body. You really need the neck to be free of tension.

So it is very important to with a varied yoga practice address the different elements of what the spine needs – releasing tension but then improving flexibility where needed and building strength where that will support the spine – in the right proportions and in the right places.

4. Impact of core, hips, shoulders and hamstrings in back pain

We often hear that core is a big issue in lower back pain. A weak core most definitely impacts the spine as it puts additional pressure on the spine in various movements and also simply in poor posture. A strong core supports the spine in all its activity, so it definitely is true that you need to have a strong core. But strengthening your ‘abs’ by doing crunches isn’t strengthening your core. Your core involves the entire centre of your body – front and back – and if you simply focus strength on the front part of the body (abs) you are again putting strain on your back as the back part of the core can’t hold itself up against the front. So proper core exercises incorporating both the front and back body is essential in maintaining spinal health.

The core strength that you build in Yoga is unequalled and builds a solid and protective base from which your spine can fulfil its functions without having to over-exert itself and hold the core up when it was never meant to do that. A strong core lightens the load on the spine.

Tight hips and hamstrings are also culprits in back pain – especially lower back pain. So opening the hips and bringing length to the hamstrings will give more mobility to the lower back – and release pain.

Tight shoulders also impacts pain in the back – especially upper back and neck pain. We carry so much tension in the shoulders and neck and poor posture, sedentary lifestyle and imbalances in how we work out causes slouching shoulders and pressure on the upper back and neck.

You can already begin to see that addressing back issues and achieving full spinal health requires more than a massage and adjustments in your back alone. All body parts are connected. You will not achieve ongoing spinal health if your hips and hamstrings etc aren’t being cared for too.

5. Metaphysical Causes of Back Pain

Back pain originates – on the surface – from an injury or an accident. On a metaphysical level we believe that back pain is just another way in which your body is trying to communicate other imbalances in your body that requires your attention. From and Elemental point of view (assuming the body is energy made up of the five elements – earth, water, air, fire, and space/ether) – any spinal issues or injuries point to an imbalance in the water element in the body. Water imbalances indicates difficulties in allowing time or space to become still, to reflect on and acquire knowledge of the true self. It’s an inability to truly connect with one’s own feelings and actually feeling quite overwhelmed by them – and so either withdrawing or becoming preoccupied. People with water imbalances try to please others and tend to follow (go with the flow) what others think and feel, rather than understanding the values of boundaries and feeling confident in one’s own potential as well as limitations. This plays out overcompensating behaviours such as someone being either being quite overwhelming, extravagant, authoritarian, driven and disciplined and often critical of self and others – to the opposite end of someone being withdrawn and apprehensive, lacking in will-power and self-esteem and harbouring lots of feelings of unfounded guilt.

There is real value in looking at back pain from a physical as well as metaphysical (emotional) point of view and it may well mean the difference between resolving the pain issue once and for all or having to live with some degree of pain until your body finds a different and possibly more powerful (painful) way of communicating imbalances and things that aren’t working well to you.

Yoga offers the space for the body to come into its own and learn and process the lessons – sometimes even on a subconscious level. There is eternal wisdom inside your body and with yoga – you’re not trying to get into poses – you’re trying to use poses to get into your body – use it to its full capacity and allow the wisdom in your body to do what it does best – heal itself.

I’ve always said that one of the most valuable lesson from travelling is beginning to understand that there really is space for (many) more than one way of thinking, doing and being. What one culture accepts as paramount for survival, is completely irrelevant in another – rendering our ideas of what we ‘have to do’, ‘have to have’ or how we ‘have to be’ completely subjective and open for scrutiny. There are very few of our absolute beliefs that – if we let them go – will have us DIE. We hold onto them because they are valuable to us, define who we are, and give us a sense of identity. But when push comes to shove – they’re not really a matter of life and death. Others live and survive perfectly happily without them. Which means that while they are important to US – they’re not ‘universal’. ..and so in essence – they’re not ‘right’ or ‘wrong’: they’re just ours.

Travelling and becoming immersed in other cultures bring this idea home quite strongly. And without having to question or abandon one’s own belief systems or ideas – it just allows a sense of openness and acceptance around the fact that not everyone thinks, acts or believes as we do – and that’s okay. They’re not wrong – we’re not right. We’re just different. And on this beautiful earth – there is space for all of us. You might find what others do offensive – it still doesn’t make you right. Build a bridge – and get over it.

In the yoga community we ‘pride’ ourselves in our philosophy of openness, acceptance and non-judgment. We claim to not be attached to ideas and emotions on our path to ‘enlightenment’. That is unless, of course, someone tells us that they hate yoga…or prefer one style over another. It also doesn’t count when people question our vegetarian, paleo or vegan diets. Oh and we also become quite dogmatic about organic and non-organic, or the question about whether is yoga a religion or not – then we really get our backs up and you will hear a word or two about being offended and a be prepared for a pretty well worded argument as to why how we see it is RIGHT.

So in this philosophy which is really all about connection and oneness – we have also allowed our need to grab on and hold on, very rigidly so, onto a new set of beliefs – when all we perhaps wanted was to get out of the dogma around other beliefs we were brought up with. The notion of becoming dogmatic over things is rife everywhere – we become dogmatic about raising children, political parties, education, sports, potjiekos and so much more.

Disagreement is one thing. Failure to accept that someone might be different than ourselves, and making them wrong for it, is another. Disagreement keeps open the possibility of connection. Belittling and judgment shut that down.
In yoga, when we chant ‘om’ – it is to bring us back home to the idea of connectedness. The fact that we are all connected, to each other, to the earth, to God. Yet what we do by judging and drawing parameters around what and who is right and who is wrong – is bring separation.

So as yogis, and as humans, we need to begin to become present enough, so that we can identify when we are jumping on the dogma train and the demon of self-righteousness is lurking. To be blunt – it makes us nasty and insulting. It creates barriers, NOT bridges.

We practice yoga to practice becoming present. It’s a way of learning how to connect with ourselves in a different and meaningful way. We practice seeing ourselves for what we are with all our self-imposed limitations, the beliefs we hold that don’t serve us and hold us back, and the ways in which we feed unhealthy patterns and habits in our lives. It prepares us then to begin to connect with others: the yoga teacher, the other yogis in the room, the family members who think yoga are pretzel like postures, the co-workers who have no idea where its come from but who appreciates the calmer, more open, accepting, and non-judgmental you.

This is important because connectedness is what we really need. That is what really matters in your life, in PE, this country and the world. That is what we’re here for. Diets, political systems, cultural values and beliefs aside – we need to be connected to each other to be safe, to be happy, and to make the world the place it was intended to be.

So let’s drop the idea of being ‘right’ and pointing out the others’ ‘wrongs’. Our energy is best spent working at connectedness rather than winning a debate or argument. That is truly living the yoga philosophy.

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