Yoga can give beginners more ouch than om moments, especially when it comes to the plough pose. By Estelle Low
The yoga pose beginners should beware of. Photo: Wavebreak Media LTD/LightWave/Corbis
It happened again, last week. I was trying to get into the perfect plough pose, and hang on for the 40 slow counts (equivalent to two excruciating minutes) my instructor was chanting. Meditation music was playing in the background. The ambience was tranquil — the perfect setting for me to zone out while giving my back and hamstrings a good stretch. But why wasn’t I feeling it?
My fists were tight, damp balls along my body, paralysed from fear of my body crumbling onto the floor. Don’t topple. Hang in there. Look at the rest — they’re all doing fine. Dammit, this has got to be one of the most painful poses created, I swore to myself. Still, I was set on holding it for as long as my instructor counted. No pain, no gain, right?
The next day, I woke up with a throbbing ache in the base of my neck. It hurt whenever I turned my head slightly in any direction. This pain was all too familiar. Over the last eight months since I started attending yoga classes, I’ve experienced it — in varying degrees — three times. Not a good sign at all.
So what went wrong? My form.
Apparently, I’m not engaging the right muscles for the plough pose, where legs are straightened overhead with toes touching ground. Done properly, this pose stretches the shoulders, back and hamstrings, relieves tension in the neck and throat. It’s also supposed to boost blood circulation in the brain, helping to calm the mind. Of course, my mind has never been calm in this pose, thanks to the fear of breaking my neck. I often roll backwards too much and end up putting my body weight on my neck instead of the shoulders and upper back.
Before you judge me for sitting through this folly, let me say that it’s not easy to tell when my weight is on my shoulders and not the neck. For the record, the University of New Mexico considers the plough pose a high-risk exercise that places pressure on the neck and spine, increasing the risk of spraining neck ligaments and damaging the spinal disc. Ouch.
To beat that, I’ve to remind myself to go easy each time I attempt the pose. Don’t over-extend the lower body, or roll backwards excessively just so that my toes can touch the floor. Control, and activate more core muscles. According to the American Council on Exercise, a safe modification would be to place a chair behind me and rest my toes on the chair instead of the floor.
It’s tough to hold back, especially for someone with a competitive streak like me. But then, yoga is a journey of self-discovery — getting to know my strengths and limits and embracing them — isn’t it? For now, my goal is to stay free of neck pain for the next six months at least. And I shall be content to abide by this pearl of wisdom from my instructor: “Yoga is a personal practice. It is not a competition. Just know your limits and do your best.”