Mindfulness is a practice everyone is talking about these days. To put it in simple terms it is the act of being present and it can spill over into your whole life if you start to practice it throughout your day. Eating, talking with a friend, driving and exercising are all experiences that can be enhanced by mindfulness.
Yoga has always been an activity that touts the benefits of mindfulness. But being mindful in yoga doesn’t just have to do with the fact that it increases your enjoyment of it. Being mindful in yoga also prevents injuries.
This week I sat down with one of my yoga teachers and good friend, Justine Duran. We discussed something I don’t believe is talked about enough in mainstream yoga, which is how to have an injury free practice.
Justine started her life as a yogi when she was 20 years old. After battling drug and alcohol addiction in her teens she went through a year of heavy detoxing and found yoga.
She found the benefits in her practice immediately. She started sleeping better, feeling like herself again and most importantly was becoming more present.
Yoga made such an impact on her in fact that she signed up for her teacher training only two weeks into practicing.
The “aha” moment went something like this – She was in a class one day being led by a teacher she hated. The teacher was going on and on about the principals of yoga and Justine was thinking shut up and get to the next pose already.
As the teacher came over to adjust Justine in pigeon pose he said something profound that finally resonated with her. It triggered something in her brain and she began to sob realizing that she had been resisting his words up until that point. What the teacher was saying actually made sense. She had hated him because she didn’t want to hear what was most likely true, that she was being driven by her ego and not her heart.
As she squirmed out of denial she realized that this work spoke to her and she wanted to learn more. Not only that but she realized in that moment what she wanted to do with her life.
She wanted to connect with people on a deeper level. Like this teacher had just done with her.
So, like anyone who has just discovered their passion Justine jumped in head first. She took the teacher training in New York and then continued down a path of practicing every day.
She moved to Arizona where she fell into a routine of what she calls the 8’s. Every single day she would run, practice yoga and study yoga for 8 hours, work 8 hours and then sleep 8 hours, making her life an ongoing infinity loop.
Her body throbbed constantly, but her head was very clear.
Justine moved around a lot. New York, to Tucson, to Los Angelos, to Portland, to San Francisco often back tracking and doing the same city twice.
Once she landed in San Francisco she found a yoga teacher in the Richmond district that taught Ashtanga. She was going religiously six days a week. She was very flexible, focused and fearless powering through arm balances, deep stretches and handstands like they were no big deal.
And then she got injured.
She had gone from zero to sixty and back down to zero in about 7 years. She couldn’t practice yoga basically at all. All she could do was teach. Depression set in and Justine was now faced with having to re-examine her lifestyle. She was angry. She had worked so hard at her practice and on her body and now she could barely move.
What could have caused this injury she wondered?
Rehabilitation started with the discovery of a new float spa called Reboot, which offered water filled pods for floating in. The buoyant salt water relaxed her body and offered an ideal space for meditation. It was while “floating” that she started to reflect on her injury and wonder, what was she practicing so hard for?
Living and teaching yoga in San Francisco made her feel the need to have a strong social media presence. She had been flooding her instagram and Facebook feeds with yoga poses that the general public could only dream of getting into.
Was she practicing really hard just so she could post these images of herself she thought?
Even after the injury happened she was still posting these photos. Justine said, ” I would lay there on pain pills posting photos of myself doing yoga basically “fooling” everyone that, that was my current life”.
She started to resent yoga, for what people thought it should be and what she thought they expected from her. She felt the pressure of having to teach these strong powerful classes when her body wasn’t even strong enough.
It made her realize, most people’s bodies are not built to do all of these advanced poses. But people want them anyway and end up forcing themselves into them.
It was an internal battle for her. Does she give people what they want potentially facilitating a room full of injured students or does she learn from her own experience, slow her class way down and teach students what their bodies need logically?
She realized what she had been doing up until this point was fueling people’s (and her own) ego instead of fueling their consciousness.
As one of Justine’s students I witnessed the change in her classes. There was a shift all of the sudden. We hadn’t practiced handstands in weeks.
How to have an injury free yoga practice
There are four things Justine emphasizes now in her classes to promote an injury free practice..
Breath, alignment, strength and consistency.
She explains that a slow, deep and steady breath throughout your entire practice is crucial. “Breathing deep in a posture gets oxygen to travel throughout your entire body. It frees blockages and eliminates stress that has become manifested in certain parts of the body, like tightness in the shoulders, for example.
The breath should be paced and calculated, connecting with each movement in a mindful way. You are not moving on to the next posture because the teacher is cueing you to, you are doing it because your breath is telling you it is time to move forward. The teacher is just a guide, your breath dictates where and when you go”, she says.
For me, setting an intention for mindfulness at the beginning of my practice helps me focus on this. When I get distracted, which is inevitable, I gently bring my attention back to my breath.
Justine helps in this department too. She gives cues for breath work throughout the class. This has become a quality I have now come to look for in a teacher’s style.
Justine says, “alignment is so important, I don’t see the purpose of getting past downward facing dog if you can’t even do that properly. You should be thinking about every posture you do very carefully before moving on to the next.
It’s not aerobics even if it may feel like it sometimes. If you know how to use your body and understand the breath and how to engage your bandhas you can create so much warmth in your body that you can be completely drenched in sweat and just be standing in one place. People don’t realize that. They think they need a faster more physical practice to reap the benefits of yoga.
Basically they are just trying to get a work out and are missing the whole point of what yoga really is. If you want cardio, go get cardio, and use yoga for what it is meant for.”
Practicing in front of a mirror can help you with alignment. Look at yourself in the posture and pick it apart. Make sure bones are stacking properly and that you aren’t hyperextending. The more you do the posture that way the more you will build muscle memory around it and it will eventually become second nature.
Flexibility without strength can cause injuries.
Justine says it is best to always keep a slight bend of the knees, especially in forward folds.
Justine urges, “just because you are flexible and can stretch deep doesn’t mean you should. It’s almost better if you are a bit tight because it forces you to come into postures with restriction. When you are flexible and don’t have adequate muscle support you can end up going too far. You can build towards flexibility you can not undo hyper flexibility and hyper mobility.
People tend to see other students in class going deep into certain postures and they think that’s how that posture should look for them, so they end up pushing themselves into it.
Being hyper flexible myself is what led me to getting my back injury. I had flexibility but not enough strength so it left my joints vulnerable. People with very flexible spines and not enough glutes muscle often end up injuring their backs. They end up jamming their discs in back bends. Squats are a great way to build up your glutes muscles.”
I would also add to Justine’s point that every pose should be active even if it’s a seemingly passive pose. Engaging your muscles protects your joints and helps to prevent injuries.
Justine recommends to, “either be consistent or don’t. Don’t go once every other month and think you can just pick up where you left off. It doesn’t work that way. Each practice builds upon the next, every day is different, you don’t really know what your body is capable of unless you practice on a regular basis. Repetition is important. If you don’t practice often things are too random and the body loses muscle memory.”
A sustainable healthy yoga practice
I asked Justine what she felt a healthy yoga practice looked like. She said. “you can’t go wrong if you stick with the basics. When I started getting back into my practice after healing my back injury I started by doing just five sun salutation surya namaskar A’s and a five minute meditation each day.
After about a month of that I added in five surya namaskar B’s. Even though my body knew what came next I didn’t push myself. I stopped there because I knew that if I started to push again I would just re-injur myself.
Sticking with the foundation of doing five surya namaskar A’s and five sure namaskar B’s is really all you need. The rest is glitz and glamour.
If you did this short practice everyday five days a week you would know so much about your practice.
You would see patterns like which foot you always step back with first or which way you cross your legs. Knowing this is important because then you can mindfully change it up next time in order to balance yourself out.
Since you only have a goal each day of completing these basic sun salutations you will be more apt to try and do them perfectly instead of rushing through them to get to the other postures.
Pace yourself and focus on each movement with mindfulness. Once you have mastered sun salutations you can move on and start doing other poses to the best of your ability. You will always learn something from each sun salutation.”
Realizing and accepting that Justine no longer has to push herself has been liberating, she admits.
She is now back practicing Ashtanga yoga but only does about 40% of the poses that she used to hop right into. She goes three times a week and just practices meditation on the other days. She knows what her body used to be and what it is now and she accepts it.
On the subject of yoga and longevity. I asked, “how do you get to be that 80 year old lady in the class who is still practicing yoga every week?” She said, “that woman knows how to breathe fully and she doesn’t have 900 poses in her practice. Maybe she has 10, that’s the key to longevity.”
Justine’s yoga philosophy
Justine begs of her students to, “be honest with yourself, try not to be driven by the things you see and what others can do. Observe and learn how to know yourself. It’s not about knowing someone else’s body and trying to match yours with theirs. Drop your ego.”
She ended our interview joking, “it’s so simple! I can’t wait until yoga is not “cool” anymore.”
Justine Duran dedicates her life to her yoga practice, friendships and the attempt of life balancing. She believes in an independent home practice and consistency, and with that the ability to find true observation of the self. She is currently studying to be an alcohol and substance abuse counselor with a goal to eventually own a retreat center for suffering recovering addicts. She currently teaches vinyasa yoga at both OMpower in San Francisco and in private one on one sessions. You can follow her at yikes yoga on instagram.
Sarah Burchard is the author of The Healthy Locavore, a natural foods chef and experience host whose writing focuses on cooking, holistic health, supporting community and eating locally grown and made foods.