Have you ever found yourself wanting to take your yoga poses to the next level? It’s common to feel like you’ve hit a plateau at some point, while at the same time knowing you don’t want to push yourself too far and risk injury. This presents a challenge for yogis of all levels, since every body is different. However, there are simple ways for you to go deeper into your yoga poses safely, no matter what your current level of flexibility and strength might be.
Below are 6 helpful tips to help you find that sweet spot where you can safely and comfortably push yourself to the next level in any yoga pose.
1. Know Your Body
Paying attention to how your body feels before, during, and after your practice is paramount to a safe yoga practice. We all have different strengths and limits to our practice. If it hurts, back off from that particular pose, or go into it a little slower.
No one knows your body better than you do. If you’re an avid runner, you might notice your hamstrings are particularly tight. Be mindful that you might have to keep a slight bend in your knees during your standing forward fold.
If you sit all day for work, you might have more back pain and need extra decompression in the lumbar spine. If you have constant back pain, you will have to pay more attention to activating your core throughout the practice in order to support your spine.
2. Refine Your Warm-Ups
If you have an end goal or “peak pose” in mind, it’s important to warm your body up accordingly. It’s not impossible to go straight into a full wheel as soon as you leave the office, but it isn’t safe or beneficial to your body.
Have you ever been in class where you left saying, “Wow I didn’t know I could do that!”? More than likely, your instructor has created a sequence to warm up specific parts of your body to make it easier to reach a pose with ease and comfort.
Itching to get into your wheel pose after a long day of sitting? Start to stretch out the spine with cat/cows, warming the body up for upward dog, camel, and then pressing up into your wheel pose. Warming up your body is important, and should be taken seriously in order to progress in your practice while also staying safe.
3. Refine Your Counter Poses
Why do yoga instructors love child’s pose so much? Because it allows your body to neutralize and decompress your spine while relaxing mind and body. This is the same reason why after an upward facing dog or cobra, a downward dog usually follows.
Sometimes when too much pressure is applied to a specific part of the body, it tightens up making it harder for us to reach a pose. For example, after a series of planks, you might need to stretch and roll your wrists around to decompress before getting into your crow pose.
This is why paying attention to how each pose makes your body feel is a good way to know when you can go further vs. when you need to back off.
4. Use Props
Yoga props are great for transitioning into a deeper pose. Two common props you will often see used in your yoga classes are blocks and straps. These are also great to keep at home for your personal yoga practice.
There are so many ways to incorporate blocks into your practice. Yoga blocks work great for standing poses (like triangle pose for example) where you want to go a little deeper, but you can’t quite touch the ground (yet). Being able to place your hand on a block gives you support while allowing you to get deeper into the pose safely.
Yoga straps are great for deepening your stretches. A good example is in a seated forward fold. When you can’t reach your toes, using a strap allows you to pull yourself into a deeper stretch.
Straps are also great to use as a progression tool. Not even close to getting your dancer’s pose down? Let’s try it with a strap! Starting in Mountain pose, transfer all your weight to your left foot and bend your right knee. Now, wrap your strap around the front of your right foot or ankle.
Practice dancer’s pose by pulling up on your strap, raising your right leg behind you. As you hinge your body forward, continue reaching your left hand forward to stabilize yourself. When you find your balance, use your right hand to pull on the strap, raising your leg higher as you progress.
5. Take Cues from Others
We all learn differently. If you’re stuck on something, try approaching it from a different angle. Try different resources such as asking a friend or a teacher how they learned. There’s also a wealth of Youtube videos on anything you want to learn. Sometimes it’s as simple as switching up your approach, or using a different muscle that can make a world of a difference.
For example, I had a student in my class that was getting frustrated with her crow pose. She explained that after countless attempts she just couldn’t get her crow off the ground. I realized that she was afraid of landing on her face – a very valid fear.
We laid a blanket down and I asked her to “kiss the blanket” as she was getting into her crow. All of a sudden leaning forward far enough wasn’t about smashing her face anymore, but more about “kissing a blanket.” As her perception changed, her fear diminished. As she leaned forward towards the blanket, her body evenly distributed her weight on her hands and she found her perfect balance!
6. Use the Conscious Breath
You must hear this all the time! Why? When we inhale, we give ourselves more energy (prana, or life force), and as we exhale we create more space. You will often hear breathing cues throughout your class for this reason.
A good yoga pose to try conscious breathing with is a seated forward fold. As you inhale, straighten your spine, raise your arms in the air, and as you exhale slightly fold forward. With each inhale straighten, and with each exhale fold a little deeper. You can keep getting deeper in the same pose, rising back up and doing it again by following the breath.
You’ll notice right away why yoga teachers put such a big emphasis on timing inhales and exhales. If you tried getting deeper into your forward fold with opposite breaths, you’ll notice that it makes it more difficult.