6 Principles for a Sustainable Practice

If you found me through social media, you probably came across my account via my #overachieversguidetoyoga tutorials which were designed to help yogis struggle less (i.e., to stop overachieving, because it isn’t serving you) and find more ease in their practice.

My teachings are very much about cultivating exploration, inquiry, balance, and space and rejecting the notion that achieving certain shapes and going deeper is always better. Because unless you are auditioning for Cirque du Soleil, deeper is certainly NOT better… and in time such an intense approach will only shorten your future on the mat.

I sat down this month and thought about whether there are certain principles that I believe always can be applied in the asana practice, to offer you as a resource. Note that these are principles, not rules. That means that they are meant to guide and inform your movement, the point being that with these principles in mind, you will be empowered to stay safe and bend stronger in your beautiful, unique body for many, many years to come. Sustainability isn’t just for the environment–it’s for your yoga, too!

Allow these principles to empower you to experience wholeness and happiness in your practice, and love for all your body can do. Let’s dive in!

  • Knees & Toes on track.

Old school yoga alignment is a stickler for keeping the bent knee pointing forward right over the second toe in Warrior II, inner edge of the foot parallel to the long side of your mat. It’s all very specific. That’s a lot of specific foot positions to remember for every pose, and it lends to an increasingly neurotic practice. You can relax.

The newest schools of thought encourage practitioners to play with different angles of the foot, depending on your unique bony structure and hip rotation. Feel it out! So long as your feet are firmly planted, stable, and lending to a rooting sensation, you are fine. But as you feel it out, keep the principle of knees & toes on track in mind: if your knees and toes are turning in or out in opposite directions (whether your leg is straight or bent), this puts your knee at risk of rotation in a way it wasn’t designed to rotate.

Avoid cranky or injured knees by making sure you always have knees and toes pointed in the same direction. So long as that’s happening, you can play with different angles and explore different ranges of movement and angles of stability. Explore!

  • Hips & Shoulders.

Hip and shoulders frame the spine and are the main levers of the spine, helping us to fold forward, bend backward, twist, and side bend. Generally speaking, working to keep shoulders over hips and hips over shoulders when in an upright position against gravity (perpendicular to the floor), will allow for breathing space and keep you balanced in effort and ease.

For backbends in an upright position, like Eka Pada Rajakapotasana (King Pigeon Pose) keeping shoulders over the hips as you backbend in between those two points will provide stability and balance in the effort. When the shoulders shift too far back, you are more likely to strain the low back. For inverted postures (going upside down), aligning hips over the shoulders will make sure you can support the movement with your core strength through stacking of these major joints.

This general principle is probably one that is broken the most and that’s okay–it’s not a rule. It will help you cultivate stability within your unique flexibility however, and so keeping this in mind will help you in your practice over time.

  • Spacious Spine.

You can’t go to a yoga class without being cued to breathe at least a bajillion times. Well, duh: this is a breathing practice! So try this out for a moment: sit down and let yourself just crumble a bit with what you know is bad posture. Take 5 deep breaths. How does that feel? Probably not so amazing. Then, try those 5 breaths while sitting up super tall and long through your spine with your shoulders down. How does that feel? Awesomely inspiring (pun intended)? Yes!

Spacious spine is important whether you are forward bending to round a bit (think crow pose, cat pose, etc.), or backbending, twisting, or just neutral. Spacious spine = spacious breath, and we are always aiming to put breath first.

Every time you practice and come into a posture, ask yourself if your spine is as long as possible on the front or back or sides, and if your breath reflects that assessment. This inquiry alone can drastically change and sustain your practice!

  • Whole body integration.

If you have ever experienced a light-bulb moment (when everything in your body and head clicks with understanding) in plank pose for the first time, feeling strongly sustainable in it, you may have noticed you had to turn on your legs and arms and well, everything, for that to happen. Or maybe, you have felt this in chair pose! When all hands are on deck, our sails are full and the ship can move forward more freely. It’s still work, and we are still breathing (this isn’t about engagement to the point of rigidity), but everything is working together in your body as you express the posture.

Whether you are in a balancing posture, a seated twist, or mountain pose, if your whole body is not all-in, you will experience greater fatigue, shallower breathing, and generally it just doesn’t feel so good. When we integrate every piece of the action, from muscles to alignment to breath, our practice feels lighter, and more balanced.

  • Active before Passive.

Practicing to increase your flexibility? Great! So many people come to yoga for that. Here’s what many don’t realize, however: to cultivate flexibility safely, you must also cultivate strength. When one is out of balance from the other, we experience limited range of motion (“tightness”) or too much range of motion (hyper mobility–which is unstable).

A fantastic rule of thumb and way to work toward both strength and flexibility is to be able to move into the shapes you want to move into actively before you explore them passively (although really, lean toward working actively to be super safe–we often get lazy when going into passive flexibility). What do I mean by this? So many times we use a prop to force our way into a particular shape (I’ve been guilty of this too!).

For example, dancer pose with the overhead grip: a strap is great to get that foot drawn up higher and work on opening your shoulders to eventually get toes to hands. But working to lift your leg up behind you as high as possible and your arms up and overhead as far back as possible to backbend by the strength of your limbs and back muscles alone? That is the active path. It is HARD, but more sustainable.

Active shapes will also tell you if the “full expression” of that posture is even meant to work in your body. If not, the strength you build on the way will serve you anyway, and you won’t have cranked yourself into a shape just to be in the shape at the risk of your joints, in the meantime. Not as satisfying to the ego, but I promise.. that’s a win.

  • Strength at End Range. 

Until recently, the M.O. of most asana practitioners was to keep building strength and flexibility to support an increasingly “advanced” asana practice (that is, a practice where practice postures and transitions that are more physically challenging) and keep at it. There isn’t really an end game because it’s a practice, but also because certain lineages provide increasingly crazy shapes and variations to explore, so that there is always somewhere further to go.

This isn’t sustainable, unless you are doing a couple things: active work over passive (mentioned previously) and cultivating strength at your end range of motion. The fact is, most asana practitioners don’t have this. My favorite example is that is a person has the flexibility to go down into splits, they should also have the strength to slide/pull back up from where they started, in reverse (think about that for a second). Basically, you should be as strong as you are flexible, in equal parts. Right now, traditional asana lineages don’t support this–but that doesn’t mean you can’t incorporate it!

Here are the biomechanics pieces at work: when we practice for a certain number of years, at first we are working through the tightness and weakness of soft tissue (mainly muscles) to get into many of the postures and holds. We use the floor to push and lift our body weight around, and that is enough for a time. Eventually it isn’t enough–we adapt to our own weight and continue practicing toward flexibility while the cultivation of strength gets left behind unless we are adding weights, specific prop work, and different movements that really don’t come from the asana practice.

Increased flexibility without more strength is a receipt for injury over time. So, when you are working to increase your flexibility, work the movement actively and fine-tune your range of motion by building strength as close as possible to your “deepest” range and build progressively from there. You will be amazed at how supported your body will feel over time!

As your practice spans into years, you may experience seasons of intensity and sweetness in asana, and perhaps you remain on the sweet side or you are forever taken by intensity. Regardless, the purpose of this practice will unfold: equanimity in your body, your breath, and finally your mind. Patience, compassion, and peace for yourself and others. As you walk this path (which so many of us begin with asana) I hope those deeper lessons unfold for you.

Notice something missing from this list? Comment below! I would love to hear from you.

3 thoughts on “6 Principles for a Sustainable Practice

  1. Thank you so much for this article! I’ve always really appreciated the thought you put behind your philosophy, and how clearly you’re able to articulate it. Strength at end range is a new concept to me, but makes so much sense! Thank you, Cat, for this article.

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  2. Great article! Love the idea of strength at end of range – I say ‘idea’ because I also need to work with this much more! Really inspiring, thanks Cat xx

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