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I’ve been practicing yoga for close to 15 years, and even before I started practicing, I was constantly surrounded by people doing yoga.
Let me explain. My mother is what you might call an early adopter of Western yoga. She started teaching lessons in our home in the mid-’90s. Before there was Lululemon, Swell water bottles, and eco-friendly mats, there were suburban mothers in sweatpants Savasaning in my living room.
Instead of yoga mats, they practiced on quilted moving pads. It was not uncommon for my friends to sleep over only to wake up to the sight of my mom and some strangers doing headstands in our family room or backbends over our piano bench.
I imagine this was strange for my friends in the same way it’s strange to realize other families use a different percent milk than you’re used to: eye-opening, yes, but not all that unsettling. (Also, 1 percent for life.)
I avoided yoga through high school, probably because I was a teenager and it was something my mom was trying to get me to do. But I picked it up in college when I was no longer playing sports and needed an outlet for my energy.
I quickly fell in love with the practice — it made me feel stronger and calmer, and I started sleeping better. Now I try to get to yoga at least twice a week and do an online video on the days when I can’t make it out (read: when it’s under 30 degrees).
I was in my favorite class recently when the teacher said, “OK, friends, breathe into your left hip. Breathe all the way into your little toe.” I’ve heard variations of this cue at least 50 times, but this time it struck me in a new, more irritating way. What does that actually mean? How exactly does one breathe into their toes?
I’m not typically one to accept something as truth without understanding why. I was the kid who urgently needed to know why the sky was blue and why humans had belly buttons before I could carry on with business as usual.
So I started thinking about the many things I hear in yoga without understanding why they’re true. I did what anyone would do and went on a quest to find answers to my most pressing yoga questions. After much research and interviews with four yoga teachers, I’m sharing my findings below.
I asked Lauren Larry, founder of Sunny Sankalpa Yoga, what it means when a teacher says to breathe into your toe or your hip or any body part that’s not a lung.
“This is actually a descriptor that I found confusing as a yoga student,” Larry says. “When you ‘breathe’ into a part of your body, picture the body part and relax the muscles around it.”
“As you bring awareness to that area of the body, contract and release the muscle you’re focusing on. Bring awareness to the body part mentioned in your inhale, and release tension on the muscles on your exhale. When you release tension in that muscle, you’re ‘breathing’ into the muscle.”
Ann Swanson, MS, certified yoga therapist and author of “Science of Yoga,” adds, “This is just a visualization to help bring your awareness to the area, increasing interoception, or internal body awareness. You cannot actually ‘breathe into’ a body part except your lungs. For that reason, I prefer to add ‘imagine’ before a cue like that.”
Breathing into a part of your body other than your lungs is impossible, but by bringing awareness to a certain part of your body, you can send energy to it.
Andrea Trank, founder of Heaven Lane Creations, which provides customized yoga lessons and lifestyle coaching, says, “Energetically, when you breathe into an area, you are sending energy, attention, and possibly healing to this area. When you are moving as you do in yoga, with breath awareness, you are helping to circulate freshly oxygenated blood to all parts of your body involved in the practice.”
I often feel panicky (definitely not the feeling yoga is intended to evoke) when teachers instruct the class to “set an intention.” From this anxiety comes a certain level of snark, and my intention can end up being something as thoughtless as “just let me make it through this class.”
I realized this anxious feeling arises because I’m not clear on what it means to set an intention and I worry I’m the only one doing it “wrong.” I remember feeling this way in math class when we were learning proofs — I had such trouble grasping the concept that I didn’t even know what questions to ask to get a clearer understanding.
Ever been there? Yeah, it sucks. So what exactly does it mean to set an intention?
“I often start a yoga class by asking my students if they want to set an ‘intention’ for their practice.” Trank says. “It could be for yourself, a friend in need. or something that is needed by the world. It allows your practice to be more than just a physical asana practice. It becomes a spiritual practice as well.”
Ali Owens, a certified yoga instructor and contributor to the yogawakeup app, tells her students that setting an intention can be a powerful way to bring meaning to your practice, whether by connecting with your breath or adding more love and joy to your life.
Setting an intention can be as simple as focusing on one word during your practice. Some people may focus on “ease” or “peace” or “love.”
The Sanskrit name for intention is “Sankalpa.” “This is the deepest desire of your heart. It’s more than a goal of nailing a headstand,” Larry says. “It’s the embodiment of what you would like to manifest in life. It’s a word, a phrase, or even an emotion you would like to embody.”
She continues, “Find something you want in the big picture of your life, like grace under fire or forgiveness. When you pick your intention, come back to it during class. You’ll notice your classes have a new meaning.”
One word seems manageable to me!
I used to lip-sync in classes that began with chanting, just like I used to mouth the words to “Happy Birthday” every time it was a coworker’s birthday. (I say “used to” here because I work from home now and my dog doesn’t care that I’m tone-deaf.)
I’ve gotten over this self-consciousness in yoga class, but I still sometimes feel silly letting the oms fly. So why is chanting beneficial?
“Elongated exhales of chanting stimulate the rest, digest, and rejuvenate part of the nervous system,” Swanson says. “With the long exhales, your vagus nerve gives your heart a signal to slow down and lower the pressure.”
It turns out that chanting “om” can actually switch your brain into relaxation mode.
“I have read that chanting the mantra ‘om’ will lead to vagus nerve stimulation, which activates the parasympathetic nervous system, or rest and relaxation mode,” Owens says.
I’ve had a few teachers who have offered alternative poses during the inversion part of class for anyone who is on their cycle. I always find this to be a bit of an awkward announcement that I have my period, much like the time I accidentally dropped three tampons in the middle of a crowded Starbucks and then walked out.
Is it true that for 1 week each month, I should pass on the headstand?
“There is no known medical reason to not do inversions while on your period. Currently, there is not convincing evidence that it would cause endometriosis or any health issues,” Swanson says.
She continues, “It may just simply be uncomfortable, especially if you are not used to inversions. According to yoga philosophy, going upside down may affect the natural downward flow that should happen during menstruation (apana vayu), but even with that, we can’t be sure if the subtle energy works that way because we have no way to measure it.”
Owens adds, “When we invert, we send energy and blood upwards towards your heart and head, which can be great for circulation but counterproductive during your cycle. I have also found in my own personal practice that I feel a lack of willingness and sometimes ability to engage the muscles necessary to support my inversion practice.”
There’s really no evidence that any harm will come from inverting during your period — the larger concern is that it just may not feel great.
As Trank says, “I think the key is not to follow fast rules but to pay close attention to your body and be mindful of how each of the poses feel.” Do what feels right for you and your body each day.
The vast majority of the yoga teachers with whom I practice preface Tree Pose (Vrksasana) by saying the foot should be brought above or below the knee but should never rest directly on it. But I’ve also had a teacher say it didn’t matter if your foot was on your knee. What to believe?!
“The knee joint is mainly supposed to extend and flex like the opening and closing of a door,” Swanson says. “Putting sideways pressure on it could damage the joint structures like ligaments and meniscus.”
She continues, “For a healthy person with no issues, there is likely no damage from simply bringing your foot to your knee. However, if you have arthritis or a previous injury, it isn’t worth the risk.”
Almost every teacher I spoke with for this piece used the analogy of a knee bending in two directions like a door. Maybe it’s something they teach you in yoga school, or maybe it just makes a lot of sense.
To put a foot to your knee would encourage it to bend out of its normal rotation, which can cause knee injuries down the line. Tree Pose can also present other issues, as Swanson points out.
“Many people try to bring their foot way above the knee, which causes your hips to misalign,” she says. “A safer version of the tree and actually somewhat more challenging for balance would be to have your foot alongside your calf. This requires more effort to balance than the leg way up high, which creates a corkscrew effect.”
I often find myself close to dosing during Savasana, especially if it’s an evening class. Or, worse (and this happens during midday classes), I’m anxious for Savasana to end so I can get on with my day. When I’m practicing at home, I never include this step.
I reasoned that if I learned what Savasana was doing for my mental and physical health, I may be able to think of it as more than a precursor to a nap or something impeding me from getting to the nonessential errands and manicure I have planned post-class.
But Larry explains that the “work” of yoga begins with Savasana.
“After the pranayama (breathing) and asana (postures), our bodies need to settle into themselves. Savasana isn’t a ‘nap time,’ it’s a connection of mind, body, and spirit. Your body receives much-needed rest, and the yoga teacher guides your mind into stillness so you can connect fully.”
She continues, “You’ll notice your mind wants to be busy, but if you focus on your breathing, your mind will settle into stillness. It takes a lot of practice and dedication to get to that point.”
Savasana can be even more important than the active practice.
“Commonly known as Corpse Pose, it is a chance to mentally, physically, and spiritually consolidate all you have learned in your yoga practice that day,” Trank says. “It is a difficult pose because you are resting yet alert. If you skip Savasana, often your yoga practice feels incomplete.”
Yoga has come a long way since my living room in the early ’90s. There’s now drunk yoga, acro yoga, and even goat or puppy yoga. And as Francis Bacon said, knowledge is power. Learning more about the yoga cues you hear will only deepen your practice and improve your form.
The instructors I talked to all emphasized how important it is to listen to and trust your body before you follow any hard and fast rules. Now that all my yoga questions are answered, I’ll finally have time to figure out why men have nipples. Stay tuned!
Grace Gallagher is a writer living in Portland, Oregon. All of her work can be found at www.gracelgallagher.com.