It occurred to me that my body is an interesting and fairly well-controlled scientific experiment. What happens if you practise Ashtanga for 30-90 mins daily for 10+ years and then switch suddenly to another very different style? Since training as a Forrest teacher, my daily practice is a similar duration each day. I haven't moved house or changed job. My lifestyle is otherwise almost exactly the same, except that the new element is my Forrest Yoga practice instead of my vinyasa practice. Obviously I can't prove causation, but I've observed quite a few interesting shifts.
In September 2017, I began my first yoga teacher training course in a style I'd only tried twice before: Forrest Yoga. Before that I'd practised Ashtanga (and Jivamukti which is based on Ashtanga) with a spot of Iyengar thrown into the mix. I started learning yoga in Stevenage in 2003. I felt that yoga would be a good thing to start but there were no teachers in town. So I taught myself from a book and this was the start of my self-practice routine. A few years down the line, my daily yoga sequence was something I took care to learn by heart, because I knew I wouldn't be able to live without it. That was one of the things that appealed to me about Ashtanga: it's easy to learn because you do the same moves each day.
Hamstrings: Forrest Yoga doesn't protect you from your own stupidity
Nomad's pose is great for exercising self-compassion when stretching the hamstrings.
Four days into my Forrest teacher training I was over the moon - I was delighted to have found a practice which didn't immediately tear my hamstrings. Somewhere along the line during my Ashtanga practice I pulled both of those useful muscles and kept re-injuring them. It was, if I'm honest, an ego thing because I couldn't accept it if my stomach wasn't on my thighs in a forward bend by half way through class. So I would just go as deep as I could and often not realise that I'd re-injured myself till the next day.
On the fifth day of our training, Ana Forrest led a particularly deep lunge class and I managed to pull my left hamstring. Still, four days was pretty good. Four months into my FY practice and I have learned that it's my own foolishness that creates hamstring injuries. It's still possible to injure myself, but I know exactly where I should stop and which poses (splits, duh!) are danger zones, should I choose to heed them. The Forrest way gently coaxes my hamstrings to life at the start of practice and ensures that the second posture of the day is not a deep forward bend as it is in the Ashtanga Primary Series. The Forrest system is not created solely around a forward-back vinyasa movement but instead links together different movements on different days such as backbends, standing poses or inversions. Additionally, I've learned that quad strengthening poses such as Camel against the wall and Bridge pose variations are ways to actively heal my hamstrings so I don't have to wait so long before my hammies are ready for more action.
Forrest Yoga and Hypermobility
Here's the biggest benefit I've received from Forrest Yoga: it's made me LESS flexible. Seriously, that's a good thing.
It's measurable because I can't get as deep into poses like backbends, twists and pigeons as I could four months ago. I think I'm stronger - I have some newly forming abdominal muscles that make it harder to go so far into backbends.
I've never been diagnosed with hypermobility but it's an obvious issue for me and my whole family, with joints popping out frequently, and freakish bendiness. That's what attracts many bendy people to yoga - they feel they're "good at" it. But being bendier than average can cause problems (see also this article about yoga and hypermobility). During pregnancy I could hardly walk because the joints were so loose in my feet that they flattened painfully with each step. Throughout my adult life I've had to wear orthotic inserts in my shoes because of pain in the foot arches. Knee pain tended to be an immediate issue if my feet were off balance too, and lower back pain would result from walking or standing for a few hours.
One enormous win is that I no longer have any arch pain in my feet... and I can walk in the exact same shoes as before, without the arch supports in, without pain. There were many nights when I noticed foot pain from just walking around normally. This is not the case any more and the only thing that I can attribute it to is my Forrest practice. I'm not sure why this should be. My feet are a little less mobile than they were, as in the Ashtanga sequence there is a lot of rolling over the toes. In Forrest we're encouraged to spread and lift the toes, building strength in the arches and strengthening the knees.
I used to need these arch supports in ALL my shoes, all the time, or terrible foot pain.
Importantly, I've been getting much less lower back pain. A common benefit of Forrest Yoga, relief from lower back pain is generally attributed to the abdominal muscle strengthening work in the Forrest system. Greater strength in the abdominals and repeated "tucking the tailbone" towards the feet reduces excessive curve in the lumbar (lower) spine and allows the joints to stack on top of each other in a more supportive way so the muscles don't have to work so hard when walking and standing in daily life. My super-deep Ashtanga practice used to leave me with an achy lower back, and now I know why.
An alternative reason for the pain-free feet could be the change to the curve in my lumbar spine, so I'm not putting so much weight onto the front of my feet when standing. I'm literally more laid-back!
Another issue I (and many other hypermobile people) have is RSI (repetitive strain injury) in the wrists. My wrists really feel healthier despite my continued phone use, and I'll admit I haven't been that assiduous with the excellent Forrest Yoga Wrist Stretches. Nor do I practice inversions and hand balances every single day. So why do my wrists feel better? I wonder if there is a deeper shift in joint health which has facilitated the above changes.
Even my hip joints feel morestable.
My quest for a Relaxed Neck
It hasn't been only a bed of roses. The biggest niggle that remains is that my neck has not improved since starting Forrest Yoga. I appreciate and enjoy the neck release poses, but they have not reduced neck pain. I used to get a pleasant sensation of realignment in the neck vertebrae when turning the neck in poses such as Triangle or seated twists. In Forrest, the neck is not rotated in any poses, and I feel I'm storing more tension in the neck than before. On the other hand I know the intense and long shoulderstands I used to do in Ashtanga were injuring me, especially as I was encouraged to jiggle my shoulder position until vertical, pushing the cervical vertebrae out of alignment. I'm interested to continue working with the Forrest Yoga neck releases to see if an improvement takes place over a longer term, or if I need to change something about what I'm doing in the practice. Certainly I wouldn't be "breaking the rules" if I did, as Forrest Yoga is a system designed to promote self-healing and refinement of the intuition, not obedience to someone else's ideas.
On another note, there have been subtle shifts in my energy patterns. When I returned from Berlin, I found it difficult to meditate in the same zone-out/ecstatic way that I had done before. My coursemates also reported that they felt more "embodied" after the training, and this has continued to be true for me. In response to our questioning during the training, Ana Forrest explained the way she has altered the practice from the classical approach, changing and reducing the use of long bandha holds to avoid stuckness in energy lines moving through the entire body including arms and legs. I've really experienced this to be true: I'm more connected to my limbs in meditation and more aware of my body's position in space..I wasn't expecting these changes when I turned up at Eden Studios, Berlin in late August this year. I was looking for something new to add to my practice but I didn't realise quite how many differences there would be. Forrest Yoga has been a rewarding journey full of pleasant surprises, and I look forward to what the next four months, four years and hopefully four decades will bring. Hannah Floyd teaches yoga in Cambridge, UK. She runs a class titled Rhythm, Spirit, Healing and also teaches Forrest at Camyoga.