3.15.2014

Ashtangi Self-Care: 5 Ways to Support your Practice


Ashtanga gets a bum rap for being an injurious practice.  I've definitely had my share of injuries on the mat and off, and while I don't believe Ashtanga to be inherently more dangerous than any other athletic endeavor, it does seem to be the case that this demanding daily practice draws a certain type of person.  Call them "type-A," intense, or just plain crazy, ashtangis who go all-in tend to expect a lot from themselves in every area of life without leaving any room for rest.

Unfortunately for these particularly driven folks, if not approached in a healthy, balanced way, the rigor of the Ashtanga method can provide a platform for self destruction, eventually resulting in fatigue, burnout, or even physical and psychological harm.  Fortunately, however, there are some simple things that we everyday practitioners can do to support our daily practice, prevent burnout, and restore balance to our lives.

1.  Castor Oil Massage

Weekly castor oil self-massage can do wonders for sore muscles, tweaked joints, and all those random aches and pains.  It can also help to remove excess heat and ama (the ayurvedic term for digestive sludge, the product of inadequate digestion) from the body, leaving you cooler, calmer, and cleaner from the inside out.

Castor oil is pressed from the seeds of the Castor plant (ricinus communis) which are also used to make the poison Ricin.  The presence of mildly toxic ricinoleic acid in castor oil, which the oil transports through the skin, stimulates an inflammation response -- the body's natural healing mechanism -- which increases blood flow and cellular regeneration in the affected areas.

Be sure to use high quality cold pressed, cold processed oil for your castor oil bath.  Follow the instructions for dry brushing and oil massage:  prepare the skin with vigorous brushing, then massage the oil through the skin from head to toe in long, firm circular strokes.  But instead of washing the oil off right away, lie down on a towel (preferably one you don't intend to use for any other purpose) and allow the oil to soak deeper into the tissues of the body.  Start with just 5 minutes of soak time and gradually work up to 20, 30, or even 45 minutes over the course of several weeks.  When you're ready, wash the oil off in a hot shower. 

2.  Foam Roller & Trigger Point Release

It is easy to convince ourselves that yoga is all we need, especially if we do it every day, but for many of us with persistent soreness or joint problems, our bodies vehemently disagree.  To this end, professional massage is wonderful, but the effects are short-lived.  Since few among us have the time or money to see a massage therapist every time we feel a kink, foam rollers and massage balls are great options.

A basic, firm foam roller is fabulous for massaging tight quadriceps, calf muscles, IT bands, and sides.  For trigger point release in the hips and back, use a tennis ball, your body weight, and breath to untangle knots and tension.  A golf ball or similarly sized massage ball works well for releasing hands, feet, forearms, and face.  

Just a few minutes a day on problem areas can make all the difference in your practice.  Immediately after practice when the muscles are warm and soft is the best time for massage, but before bed or any time on an empty stomach is good, too.  It is best not to do deep massage work during menstruation, but if you need to release a knot, it is my opinion that a bit of upper body trigger point release would be just fine.

(For more information on how to use your foam roller and massage balls, see my post on self-massage.)

3.  Epsom Salt Baths

Though the science behind why epsom salt baths work is murky, there is loads of anecdotal evidence that epsom salt baths alleviate muscle tension, soreness, and reduce joint inflammation.  One theory is that they provide the body with a boost of magnesium, an important mineral in muscular and nervous system functioning that can be difficult to absorb adequately through diet.

You can find epsom salt for cheap at your local health food store or pharmacy.  Just put 1-2 cups in a warm bath and soak for 15-30 minutes.  Feel free to add 10-20 drops of any essential oils that you like, and a tablespoon or two of bentonite clay if you know that your water supply is thick with heavy metals.  

I find epsom salt baths to be particularly helpful the night before my practice, as the warm water gently releases muscles and frees the joints without diminishing energy or muscular force.  

4.  Electrolyte Supplements

Electrolytes are essential minerals that regulate many important systems in the body, from nerve and muscle function to blood pressure and tissue regeneration.  Normally, we ingest electrolytes through our diet, particularly from fruits and vegetables grown in mineral-rich soil.  The kidneys and endocrine system regulate electrolyte levels, but when we sweat -- and we ashtangis tend to sweat a lot -- we lose electrolytes at a rate faster than the body can regulate effectively.

Coconut water is an increasingly popular choice among yogis for restoring electrolyte balance after practice, but if you leave puddles around your mat like I do, coconut water alone isn't going to cut it.  I take an all-natural, sugar-free powdered electrolyte supplement almost every day, and the difference it has made on my endurance is pronounced.

I like Hammer Endurolytes powder, but there are other options out there.  Just steer clear of sweetened, artificially flavored or colored sports drinks.  And for pete's sake, don't even think about drinking a 5-Hour Energy or Redbull... not even as a last resort.

5.  Rest

I know you think that if you miss one day of practice, all your hard work goes down the drain, but you're wrong.  Adequate rest is absolutely essential to a healthy, sustainable practice.  Rest on Saturdays.  Rest on moon days.  Take short practice when you need to.  There is nothing about the Ashtanga method that says you must do a full sequence every day.  On the contrary, a more-is-better attitude can be a great impingement to your progress.

And ladies, by all means, rest during your monthly holiday.  Your body requires rest.  If you give your body what it needs, it will give you what you want.  You want to be stronger?  You want to better backbends?  You want liberation?  Work hard, and then rest.

Final Thoughts

I share these restorative practices with you because it breaks my heart to know that this method that has been such a powerful force of healing in my own life can also cause such injury, distress, and pain.  Help me to share this practice by treating your own body with respect and by treating your practice as the precious thing it is.

I'll leave you with wise words from two of my favorite balanced ashtangis:
"Learn, also, to not practice." -- Matthew Sweeney
"When in doubt, take a nap." -- Kimberly Flynn


8 comments:

  1. good advice! I use a massage ball which has been amazing for me. I keep meaning to get a foam roller, and try out your video!

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    1. Yes, massage ball are great! The foam roller is essential though, I find, for kneading out those quads, calves, and sides. Foam rolling my quads, especially, has been so therapeutic for my knees.

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  2. Love this! My hunny has been talking up castor oil recently. Apparently it's great for goopy dogs eyes, too! I've known I need to be massaging myself more. Now I have no excuse! Is there a brand of organic castor oil you'd recommend? I'm already keen on the epsom salt baths and rest days. I need to get a foam roller! Not to mention a tennis ball to put under my butt right now... And I just had no idea about the electrolyte supplement. I will try it and see how I feel! Thank you so much for this great post!

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    1. Hi Fern. I like Home Health castor oil, linked to in the article above. It is high quality, effective, and has never turned rancid even after months on my bathroom shelf. Definitely get a foam roller and massage ball. Not fun on tight muscles, but so useful.

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  3. Fantastic blog. Looking forward for more posts like this.

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  4. I love your blog! I really like this post, I can be so hard on myself sometimes not resting and taking care of the body. I did ashtanga for a long time and then went into more vinyasa flow and restorative hatha due to injuries but these tips are really great!

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