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Overdoing It: Practicing Yoga Too Much
Tapas: it’s the third Niyama (the second limb of yoga). It can guide us to be more consistent with our practice and other things that serve us. Yoga has the most benefit if done consistently, but could we be practicing yoga too much? Modern biomechanics and exercise science show more clearly that it’s possible to over-exert our bodies with physical activity.
Moreover, approaching yoga with a tunnel-vision goal of faster, longer, harder, and stronger isn’t aligned with yogic ideals of balance and non-attachment—and sometimes also not aligned with Ahimsa (non-harming). Additionally, overemphasizing the physical aspect of yoga can come at the expense of its more subtle, mental, and spiritual aspects. But we never have to get stuck there. We can always start making different choices. With the physical practice itself, yoga offers ways to modify and rest our bodies when needed, when we’re moving away from balance.
Why Our Muscles Need Rest: Practicing Yoga Too Much
Even if someone is coming from a mindset of advancing their fitness, they’d do well not to wave off rest as unimportant. Research is increasingly demonstrating that periodic physical rest (for example, a rest day every five days) is necessary for increasing muscular strength and endurance—not to mention repair (easing soreness and improving function, which is important for optimal performance).
You might have even noticed this dynamic at work. On the day following strenuous physical activity (with yoga or otherwise), you’re less nimble on your feet and maybe even feel less physically integrated. Perhaps your body just feels plain tired. Why might that be? Muscular use (stretching and contraction) causes microtears in our muscles. Not taking time to repair, particularly over extended periods, is never conducive to fitness, health, or wellness goals (1).
More than that, researchers have even found evidence pointing to a strange phenomenon. Those who engage in extreme aerobic exercise (long-distance running, cycling, and the like) show some of the same biological markers as those experiencing heart complications (2). More research needs to be done to know more about what’s happening there. Yet we know enough to be sure that more isn’t always better. Less can be more. Balance is the thing.
Yoga Philosophy and Rest: Important Principles Guiding Us
That kind of balance isn’t necessarily an easy thing to find or maintain. Many people struggle with it. They might go hard at physical activity for a time, start to feel deflated, and then give up. Yet yoga practice itself has some perspectives and tools that can help. Ahimsa (non-harming) is a start. We can start with the understanding that doing too much, too fast, can actually be counterproductive, even harmful. If Ahimsa guides us, we’ll avoid harm from overdoing it with our physical activity.
Svadhyaya (self-study) can lead us to better understand why we’re motivated to overexert ourselves. Does it have to do with our self-image, wanting to fit in, or even vanity? Satya (truthfulness) can help us be honest with ourselves about whether or not those motivations serve us and if it’s who we want to be. We’ll most likely find that shaming or judging ourselves (or anyone else) isn’t the most effective approach, nor does it feel good.
Rather, when we look at the situation objectively and with compassion (toward ourselves and others), we can focus our energies on the kinds of changes that we want to see. Or we might find that where we are serves us just fine! That’s non-attachment or Aparigraha: releasing the negative emotional weight and practical inflexibility within a certain situation. That can help us through all of the above by allowing us to be more adaptable and open-minded—not to mention simply feel better along the way.
Modifying Asana for Balance: Practicing Yoga Too Much
In that vein of mental (and practical) adaptability, it doesn’t have to be all-or-nothing; it doesn’t have to be asana or no asana on a particular day. How can that be? Well, we can modify our yoga poses in various ways. Let’s say we’ve been to yoga several times a particular week and also took a long run. Yet we promised a friend we’d go to class with them, so we go. Instead of doing another set of Sun Salutations (Surya Namaskar), we can take Child’s Pose (Balasana). We can use props to help us feel more supported and less exerted through our practice.
If we’re in Triangle Pose (Trikonasana) and our instructor cues Half-Moon Pose (Ardha Chandrasana), we could stay in Child’s Pose. There are no “yoga police” making sure that we do all of the balances, or anything else, that our instructor may cue! Nor is there any checking that we do all Four-Limbed Staff Pose (Chaturanga Dandasana) to Upward-Facing Dog Pose (Urdhva Mukha Svanasana) flows; we can always drop to our belly and do Cobra Pose (Bhujangasana) (pictured above) instead, or even go straight to Downward Facing Dog Pose (Adho Mukha Svanasana).
We could even head into Relaxation Pose (Savasana) a few minutes earlier than our fellow practitioners (taking care to counterbalance poses as might be necessary, of course. If we need assistance there, our teachers are great resources. These are ways in which we can embody the deeper truths of yoga. Each time we make a choice on our mat—and we do have the agency to make our own choices, let’s be sure to remember! It’s a chance to practice Ahimsa or Satya or Aparigraha. There is absolutely nothing wrong with striving toward physical fitness. Yet yoga practice can be so much deeper and richer.
All in all, you might have some questions about structuring your yoga asana practice. How often to practice yoga? How long to practice yoga? How much yoga is too much? There are general guidelines for that out there in the world. Yet your body, mind, and spirit might very well be your best guide—if you listen and respond to what they have to say.
So Much More Than Asana: Yoga Outside of Asana
Indeed, physical poses are just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. You may very well have heard that before—even many, many times—and it’s becoming cliché to you. But it’s very much true. When it comes to how we can spend time with this practice, it goes far beyond poses. There’s the wide world of Pranayama (breathwork) and meditation, for starters.
Even beyond that, yoga texts contain a whole other universe of knowledge and potential mental/emotional/spiritual growth. Have you read The Bhagavad Gita, the Upanishads, or the Yoga Sutras themselves? If not, there’s absolutely no judgment from this writer! Perhaps these texts could feel a little inaccessible and erudite for you. No problem: master teachers from Judith Hanson Lasater to Richard Miller to Rodney Yee have written books for more of a 21st-century audience. That could be a great jumping-off point for the classic texts; perhaps you’ll feel ready for them someday.
Let’s say that you’re in yoga class every day of the week. You realize, at some point, that it might better serve you to take a couple of those days to delve into non-physical yoga components. You could use that one to two hours you invest in class to read a yoga book. Maybe you even involve yoga friends, reading along with them. You could maybe even start a yoga book club! You’re still getting plenty of asana and its benefits, but you’re not overdoing it.
In addition, you’re nurturing your mind and spirit. Maybe you even start to see yoga catalyzing positive changes in yourself and, subsequently, in your life. Yoga is about approaching our well-being holistically, meaning with all that we are as people, far beyond just our physical body. Beyond that, rest from physical activity is necessary for advancing fitness. On multiple levels, it’s an essential ingredient for balance and reaching our potential as a whole, integrated people. Will you brush it off or make it a priority? It’s in your hands.
Kathryn Boland is an RCYT and R-DMT (Registered Dance/Movement Therapist). She is originally from Rhode Island, attended George Washington University (Washington, DC) for an undergraduate degree in Dance (where she first encountered yoga), and Lesley University for an MA in Clinical Mental Health Counseling, Expressive Therapies: Dance/Movement Therapy. She has taught yoga to diverse populations in varied locations. As a dancer, she has always loved to keep moving and flowing in practicing more active Vinyasa-style forms. Her interests have recently evolved to include Yin and therapeutic yoga, and aligning those forms with Laban Movement Analysis to serve the needs of various groups (such as Alzheimer’s Disease patients, children diagnosed with ADHD, PTSD-afflicted veterans - all of which are demographically expanding). She believes in finding the opportunity within every adversity and doing all that she can to help others live with a bit more breath and flow!
1). Schwellnus, Martin et al. "How much is too much? (Part 2) International Olympic Committee consensus statement on load in sports and risk of illness". Br J Sports Med, 2016 September. <https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27535991/>.
2) Rao, P., Hutter, A. M., & Baggish, A. L. (2018). The Limits of Cardiac Performance: Can Too Much Exercise Damage the Heart? The American Journal of Medicine, 131(11), 1279-1284. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.amjmed.2018.05.037