Off-the-mat habits that may be affecting your yoga practice

I spent a long time thinking my yoga practice was mostly contained to my mat. I remember hearing that you shouldn’t eat a few hours before practicing, but I figured that was some ancient tradition that had little to do with me and my ravenous hunger. I drank some water, but not much, since I, like a camel, can apparently subsist on very little water during the day. I slept if I felt like it, stayed up late if I felt like it, and went to class. When I felt dizzy, light-headed, nauseous, or sluggish, I assumed it was because if the rigor of the class. As it turns out, much of my discomfort was entirely avoidable — if I was willing to change some off-the-mat habits.

Below, I discuss a few symptoms I have experienced and some of the changes I made to alleviate those symptoms. Big caveat: I am not a doctor. What follows are observations from my personal practice and some basic research. But hopefully you’ll learn from my observations and use them to tune in to your own practice.

If you feel dizzy and light-headed…
…You could be experiencing dehydration. Ideally, you should be drinking a half an ounce to a full ounce of water for every pound you weigh. That means a 200-pound person would drink 100 to 200 ounces of water a day. Aim for the higher end if you engage in vigorous exercise, do hot yoga, sweat a bit, or live in an arid climate. Be sure to spread your intake throughout the day.

If you feel nauseated, sluggish, or bloated…
…You may need to take stock of your pre-class eating habits or you just may need to go to the bathroom.

Heavy meals before yoga can make you feel like there’s a rock in your belly in mountain pose, or that you’re going to lose your lunch in inversions. As mentioned earlier, traditional wisdom has suggested practicing on an empty stomach — that means giving yourself three to four hours after a meal and two or three hours after a snack. I find that if I wait that long without eating, I feel hungry during practice. As such, I might eat a handful of nuts before practicing to stave off hunger without being uncomfortably full. After practicing, I’ll eat a good snack or meal, depending on the time of day.

If you always feel bloated during yoga, consider whether you’re sensitive to dairy, beans, or other foods; abdominal discomfort may also mean that you just need to go to the bathroom. Yoga feels best when practiced on a relatively neutral stomach, an empty bladder, and relieved bowels. I know, I know: you don’t want to talk about going number two, or you don’t like using public restrooms, or whatever the case may be. But, yoga is much more comfortable when you’re not worrying about alignment and holding in your bodily fluids.

As much as possible, shift toward foods that don’t bother your stomach, and that do give you energy. For me, that meant avoiding beef altogether, avoiding most dairy, and eating more fruits and veggies. See what works for you.

In the meantime, move mindfully in inversions and twisting postures when you’re having belly woes. And for goodness sakes, go to the bathroom.

If you feel tired and weak…
…You may need more sleep or vitamins.

There was a period of about five months early last year where I battled exhaustion, mild sleep deprivation, and an onslaught of colds and sicknesses that seemed omnipresent among our family.

My exhaustion and weakness made it difficult to hold many poses, and sometimes to just make it through a class. Getting seven or eight hours of sleep certainly helped, as did taking iron, folic acid, and electrolytes. The combination allowed my body to recuperate and regain strength over time.

While I waited for my strength to return, I used my knees in chaturanga or skipped the pose altogether, I took child’s pose when I felt tired, or I just treated myself to a more restorative practice overall. I tried not to exert more energy than necessary so I could save my energy for getting well.

If you feel more wobbly than usual in balancing poses…
…You may have congestion.

In some ways, balancing poses can be the most frustrating because the progress isn’t always linear. Some days we feel totally stable in eagle pose, and other days we’re wobbling all over the place. When I have a cold, allergies, or some other disruption to my sinuses, I can count on balance being a greater challenge. To compensate, I’ll move more slowly in balancing postures or I’ll use a wall as a prop to facilitate stability.

You may be able to prevent the congestion the first place by getting rest, taking vitamins, using a neti pot, and washing your hands frequently to avoid colds.

If you have a sore muscle and your alignment in the poses seem fine…
…Consider whether your purse or bag may be causing the soreness.

Last winter, my left shoulder was bugging the heck out of me. Thinking the problem may have been my alignment in weight-bearing postures, I began to avoid arm balances and chaturangas. When the problem didn’t improve, I asked my friend and fellow yogi to help me troubleshoot. She figured that my pain was actually due to huge knots in my upper back and in my pectoral muscle. After a couple of days, I found the cause: my computer bag. I had been carrying a a messenger-type bag, bearing the weight of my laptop and miscellaneous work papers on my left shoulder for months. I switched to a backpack to distribute the weight more evenly and felt a difference in my practice and off the mat almost immediately. To further smooth out the kinks, I used a racquet ball to massage the knots in my back and chest. I gradually reincorporated the arm balances back into my practice and haven’t experienced the pain again.

You may have to take a similarly super-sleuth approach if you have a nagging discomfort or pain. Talk it through with your yoga instructor, physical therapist, doctor, or appropriate medical professional. Until you find the cause, play it safe and avoid postures that involve taxing the joint or muscles in question.

As you consider your body’s needs, remember to listen to your body. As cliched as this yoga aphorism is, I’m finding the more I practice and listen, the more in tune I am with my physical body. The body is an excellent teacher: Pay attention to the subtle physical cues your body is giving you. The rewards can be great!


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