Author: Bethany Pinto, Certified Yoga Instructor, RYT 200®
Practicing yoga on a daily basis can be very beneficial to your overall health and well-being. Studies show a link between regular yoga practice and a significantly lowered risk of heart disease and diabetes. Many people in the West have adopted yoga as a way to construct long, lean muscles because the asanas (poses performed during practice) require you to hold your body in position for several breaths, creating an isometric contraction for some muscles while stretching and lengthening others.
If you've ever gone to a yoga class at a gym or studio and found yourself sitting out halfway through because you've developed a leg or arm cramp from holding a pose for so long, you are not alone. This happens to both newbies and experienced yogis alike. If you take a class that is not suited toward your experience level or is a style that does not fit your needs, or if you let your ego bully your body (i.e. you push yourself), you may be setting yourself up for pain or injury.
Here are 5 tips to avoid muscle cramps in your practice:
1. Drink plenty of water before, during and after your practice. It's very important to be well hydrated since our bodies are comprised of at least 60% water. Our muscles alone are made up of 75% water. In yoga, you are placing your spine and limbs in positions that were designed thousands of years ago by yogis to help naturally rid the body of toxins. By keeping the water supply plentiful, you'll allow the muscles to remain supple as well as help flush out the toxins that are released during practice.
2. Warm up first! Whether you are practicing at home or taking a class, begin with some poses that will create warmth (i.e., get the blood moving) in the large muscles of your body.
While standing in Tadasana (Mountain Pose), inhale and sweep your arms out to the sides and up above your head, then exhale them back down. Repeat this exercise 2 or 3 times, moving with your breath.
Take a wide step to the side so your legs are more than hip width apart, place your hands on your hips and inhale, lifting your chest up as you bend your back slightly. Then, exhale hinging at your hips with your legs straight as you lower your chest toward the floor. Breathe for a couple of breaths, then bend your knees as you exhale into a squat, inhale and straighten them again. Repeat the squats for 2 or 3 more breaths. Straighten your legs and flatten your back, inhale and raise your torso back up to standing.
These are just two suggestions for warm ups before your practice. You can also do a series of poses called Sun Salutations that are an excellent way to prepare your muscles for a safe, cramp-free practice.
3. Listen to your body. Yes, it is beneficial to hold poses for several breaths (sometimes as long as 5 minutes). But remember, this is like holding a barbell up for an extended period of time instead of just doing a set of curls. There is definitely a chance of cramping here. While it is good to breathe and challenge yourself to stay in the moment, if you need to come out of a pose, certainly do so! If you do feel a cramp, stop and relax the muscle and breathe deeply, gently rubbing the spot until it subsides.
4. Increase your intake of electrolytes. A deficiency of such minerals as potassium and magnesium significantly contributes to muscle cramping and spasms. When taken on a consistent basis (rather than as a drug you'd take for immediate results), these nutritional supplements may help prevent their occurrence. Magnesium is often used in recovery after strength training. It is very important for skeletal muscle health, and not getting enough can lead to severe muscle spasms and tension. Good food sources of magnesium are black beans, raw broccoli, halibut, pumpkin seeds and cooked spinach. Also consider drinking a low sugar sports drink or coconut water before, during and after your practice to replenish this and other important electrolytes like sodium and potassium.
5. If you were not able to avoid a muscle cramp, there are some natural herbs you can take that are known to relax muscles and may relieve the pain. The root of the cramp bark plant has powerful muscle relaxant effects, and in large doses (30-60 drops every 2 or 3 hours) can ease acute muscle pain or spasms due to a cramp. Be careful not to take it with aspirin or to exceed the recommended dosage, as side effects such as mild nausea, vomiting or diarrhea may occur. Cramp bark is also known to ease menstrual cramps.
Kava kava is another very good muscle relaxant. It is extracted from a root found in the islands of the South Pacific and it is traditionally used as a ceremonial drink in that region. Kava is an effective herbal muscle relaxant and anesthetic. It can be chewed or taken in drop or pill form. It is used most often as a treatment for anxiety.
If you take the precautions outlined here, you are sure to enjoy a safe and rewarding yoga practice that will allow you to return to the mat each day cramp-free.