Awaken the Body’s Intelligence – Yoga in Cold Places, on Planes and when Adding on

I had a query from a student who usually practices in a hot, tropical climate with temperatures of around 30 degrees Celsius (86 Fahrenheit). She travelled to a cold place and her body seized up when having to practice at 5 degrees Celsius (40 Fahrenheit). After a long international flight with prolonged sitting her body developed a lot of painful sensations, including pain at the hamstring insertions, at the sacrum and the sit bones. To top it she experimented with new advanced postures such as Vishvamitrasana, which may have contributed or increased the problems. What to do now?

My advice would be to first decrease the amount and intensity of the practice to a point where it again becomes manageable. The worst thing you can do is to desperately cling to a level of practice that is not currently sustainable and then be down about it. During my several decades of practice I had various phases where I had to cut back to doing simply primary series or even just half or two thirds of it. There is nothing wrong with that. On the contrary we should welcome it as an opportunity to rebuild our practice from the bottom up. And even if such a period takes 6 months, a year or longer, it should not be seen as a setback but as an opportunity to grow and learn. So this would be the first step, reduce your practice to a level that is suitable for a body that has developed pain or symptoms of dysfunction.

Secondly, let me advise you against trying out or experimenting with advanced postures. The best way of tackling a new posture is when you can perform your already established practice and even on your worst day you still have a lot of extra energy. In other words your whole practice should be a breeze. In our present case, adding advanced postures immediately after or before long-range travel is a no-go.

I would also advise against trying out or experimenting with several new postures at the same time. One thing I had to use a lot in yoga is differential diagnosis. That means I felt a certain effect in my body and it usually was never straight forward to feel where it came from. If you’ve tried out a whole heap of new postures how can you say where the problem came from? It’s difficult enough if you have done only one new posture. Even then you still have to analyse which part of the posture, which of its aspects and actions caused or contributed to the present problem. One of the problems you mention is hamstring pain and you also named Vishvamitrasana. Vishvamitrasana often causes hamstring pain when one tries to straighten the upper leg too forcefully.

It’s a tricky posture and when learning it the trick is “to not try to look too good too quickly”. This by the way is a rule that fits all of the advanced postures and probably even all yoga postures. When being new to them don’t try too hard. I know this sounds boring but there is a saying from the aviation industry, which I’m here re-coining for yoga. “There are old yogis and bold yogis but there are no old, bold yogis.” Hope the pilots don’t mind that I’m pinching their saying.

I must say that since long time ago I took to the yogic way (and purged all naughty activities from my life such as three-day raves) intercontinental flights are the most harmful thing that I now get up to (sounds again boring I know). They require a lot of skillful management. Apart from drinking ample water and not consuming heaps of food that you are not used to, it is essential that you get up (unless you are sleeping) each hour or so and walk around. Airplane seats force us to sit in an unnatural position with our backs shaped like turtles. This is so that the airlines can squeeze in an extra 4 or 5 rows per plane but it’s not a good position to sit in for a long time. I have seen people getting off these flights in a state of pain even without trying out Vishvamitrasana or changing climate zones.

It is no surprise then to come off a long flight with pain at the sacrum, the sit bones and hamstrings. Try sitting at home in your office chair for 12 hours. I bet you would come off it in a state of pain and your office chair is a whole lot better than an airline seat. If pain symptoms persist this may be due to the fact that your core stabilizers such as the psoas, intertransverarii, etc., had become so fatigued by having to hold this unnatural position for such a long flight that they seized up (this is a very colloquial term but should suffice for this article). This can then lead to the so-called subluxating of a vertebrae (it’s now in a less than optimal position) or to a fixation of one of the many joints such as the sacro-illiac joints (means their range of movement has strongly decreased). All of these symptoms may go after a while or they may not. If they don’t, go to a musculo-skeletal specialist and have yourself adjusted. Saves a lot of time and discomfort.

Even if you feel great when getting off a flight don’t assume you are. To be blunt, after a 25-hour flight it takes me up to a week to get my body back. That means for the first few days it’ll be the Primary Series only and only once my body signals me to go further, will I gear up. And please wait for the body to give that signal and not the mind.

Finally, let’s have a look at the changing of climate zones and how it influences your practice. The most holistic way of changing a climate zone is, believe it or not, by walking to your destination. We were nomads for hundreds of thousands of years and our fastest mode of long-range transport was the bullock cart. So, changing climate zones at bullock cart speed is something that our body had ample time to adjust to and is really good at. Anything faster than that will play havoc with your whole system. Imagine the stresses that your body is exposed to if it suddenly steps out of a plane into a climate 30 degrees Celsius colder and has to now do Hanumanasana like on every balmy morning before. If you had an extra large fridge at home you could simulate the experience by sitting in your fridge for half a day and then start your practice. Can you just imagine for a moment how stiff you would be?

Seen from an Ayurvedic perspective colder climate zones bring to the fore the kapha inherent in your body whereas hotter climate zones aggravate it’s pitta. In your case by travelling to a cold place your kapha suddenly surged up. This means that a body that just a day ago could move with the grace of a ballerina will now behave more like the already mentioned bullock. It’s natural and you can’t blame it for that.

If being accustomed to high temperatures, we suddenly find ourselves having to practice inside of a fridge we need to let go of all we thought we knew about our body. It’ll move differently, feel differently, and its range of movement will be severely curtailed by all the extra kapha. But there are of course good news: endurance and strength for example will be up. For the first few days then after a change of climate zone it will be like starting your practice anew. Allow yourself to be a complete beginner again and start to collect new data appropriate to this new situation. The set of data you used to navigate your body through an asana practice in a sun-drenched tropical country is not usable in arctic surrounds. Once you have made the jump from climate zone to climate zone a few times your body will actually remember to different sets of data and return much more quickly to the right setting. It is amazing how adaptable it is.

Important then is that you don’t have a fixed idea in your mind how much your body should be able to perform or how deep into each posture your body should be able to go. You “should” do nothing. Notice that it is the mind that has ideas how far the body “should” go. And because the mind is incapable to adjust itself to the new temperature (nor is the body) it pushes the body beyond its capacity and thus injures it. The body then signals pain but the mind says, “No, you SHOULD be able to do this posture. Therefore DO IT.” Those in the know call this the tyranny of the mind over the body. By practicing movement from the body and allowing for the needs of the body the body can be kept in a healthy state. But this is a process that yoga allows us to gradually engage in. A big part of asana practice is then to awaken the body’s own intelligence. This means that when you practice you practice from your body, from its proprioception, by owning the body, rather than from practicing from ideas that you have in your mind how the body should be and move. And for this to happen the mind has to step aside.

About Gregor Maehle

Gregor Maehle started his yogic practices over 38 years ago. For almost two decades he yearly travelled to India where he studied with various yogic and tantric masters. Gregor spent 14 months in Mysore, India, and in 1997 was authorized to teach Ashtanga Yoga by K. Pattabhi Jois. Since then he has branched out into research of the anatomical alignment of postures and the higher limbs of Yoga. He obtained his anatomical knowledge through a Health Practitioner degree and has also studied History, Philosophy and Comparative Religion. Gregor lived many years as a recluse, studying Sanskrit, yogic scripture and practising yogic techniques. He has published a series of textbooks on all major aspects of yoga. His mission is to re-integrate ashtanga vinyasa practice into the larger framework of Patanjali’s eight-limbed yoga in the spirit of T. Krishnamacharya. He offers trainings, retreats and workshops worldwide.
Posted in Anatomy/Rehabilitation, Asana, Ashtanga Yoga.

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