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Navasana ( Boat Pose ) - Issues and solutions

List of some of the issues that can be relevant for practising this pose:

Navasana Pose Potential Problem Areas Image
            · Balance

            · Neck and Upper Trunk

            · Abdomen and Lower Trunk

            · Hips and Legs

            Pregnancy






Balance

This is a balance pose – but one where one’s centre of balance and head are fairly close to the ground. This makes it much safer than standing balances. It is rare for the balance aspect of this pose to be problematic – and, where it is so, this usually has more to do with lack of muscle strength than other reasons for poor balance. Hence, modifications that reduce the strength needed for the pose (such as having legs bent instead of straight) usually make the balance aspect of the pose feel much easier. If necessary, it is OK to place hands on a support beside one – but there is then a risk that one will use the support to hold one up, rather than merely stabilize one’s balance - where this happens, one loses some of the strengthening aspect of the pose.


Neck and Upper Trunk

Ideally, in this pose, the spine retains its long shape in sitting as one moves into the pose – so, in theory, the spinal joints stay in a healthy, comfortable position. However, doing this requires significant strength in the upper back – without this, there is a tendency for the upper back and neck to round as one holds the pose. Practising upper back strengthening poses (such as cobra without any weight taken in the arms) will, over time, reduce these sort of difficulties – and, for those with an already rounded back, will help improve spinal shape and posture.

Similarly, the neck remains in a fairly neutral position in the pose – maintaining this and taking the weight of the head requires the front neck muscles to be strong. Isometric neck exercises (for example lying on one’s front and pressing one’s forehead into the yoga mat) are an efficient way to develop neck strength.

Another issue is that this pose requires static contraction of some muscles, and doing this tends to raise blood pressure and make the heart work harder. However, it is large muscles that are being held in contraction (and this effect is greater when small muscles are held in contraction), so, unless one’s heart is already compromised or one already has high blood pressure, this is unlikely to cause problems. Where it might do so, one can enter and exit the pose without holding it – this reduces the strengthening aspect of the pose, but also greatly reduces any risk of blood pressure rises or strain on the heart.


Abdomen and Lower Trunk

For most people, the key limiting factor with this pose is lack of strength (and stamina) in the abdominal muscles. The abdominal strength required can be greatly reduced by having knees bent instead of straight – however it is quite common for students to find the pose difficult even with this modification. Developing abdominal strength via other exercises will in time make the pose accessible.

Here is an example of an abdominal strengthening exercise that I like:
Easy Version – Start by lying on your back with knees at chest and arms by side. Inhaling, take feet to floor (legs stay bent) and arms through the air to the floor over head. Exhaling, bring knees to chest and arms through the air to the floor by one’s side. This movement is done while allowing the lower back to change shape. If concentration / co-ordination is difficult, the arm movements can be omitted. Legs can also be moved singly if moving both the legs together is difficult (this is sometimes necessary for students to make this exercise easier).
Abdominal strengthening version – Same movement of the limbs as above – but this time one makes sure the lower back stays pressed against the floor throughout. Some students only find this possible if they take only one foot to the floor, while keeping the knee of the other leg close to the chest.
Harder version – This version is one to try when the previous one has become easy (with both legs moving). In this case, the movement of the legs when inhaling alternates between taking the feet to the floor, as in the previous exercise, and straightening the legs over the head, whilst keeping knees as close to the chest as one can (hips are allowed to lift off the floor). On the following exhalation, the knees bend and come to the chest and hips return to the floor. The arm movements are as in the previous exercise, or can be omitted.

Given the amount of abdominal contraction in this pose, it is obviously not one to try if one has had a recent abdominal operation – taking time to gently increase abdominal muscle strength after the area has healed is essential before trying the pose.


Hips and Legs

The hip flexor muscles have to work to hold the legs in position – this is usually not noticed, as the work of the abdominal muscles is rather more attention-grabbing. Bending the legs reduces the work of the hip flexor muscles as well as those of the abdominal muscles – and, in this position, hip flexor muscles are usually easy able to hold leg position.

With the legs straight, the quadriceps femoris muscles are strongly engaged in holding the legs straight, which can become tiring for them. A solution that retains most of the abdominal strengthening aspect of the pose is to move the legs between a bent and straight legs posture (with the breath) while in the pose –taking this approach will also help increase the strength and stamina of the quadriceps femoris muscles.


Pregnancy

Practising yoga in the first trimester is considered by most yoga teachers to be contra-indicated. The only explanation I have heard for this is that in the first trimester there is a fairly high tendency for spontaneous miscarriage and this could in principle be exacerbated by yoga (although, as far as I know, there is no evidence for this). Possibly a mid-wife or an expert pregnancy yoga teacher might be able to give a better explanation.

In this posture, the abdomen is very strongly contracted – and, if this causes a feeling of the uterus being uncomfortably squeezed, this is obviously not a good idea. Maintaining good abdominal strength and tone is really important throughout pregnancy (both for the childbirth and for speedy return of body shape after the child is born). But in choosing (and practising) exercises to help with this, it is best to be advised by an experienced mid-wife or a yoga teacher with experience (and training) of teaching pregnant ladies.

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