Peep into any of the thousands of yoga classes across the globe and you will find that students are donning more than just yoga outfits. In addition to the latest leggings and tank tops by ZobhaGaiam and Alo, you’ll also find students of every age, both male and female, sporting a different kind of accessory. These, however, are not made from lycra, mala beads or precious metals, but rather from an overzealous nervous system.

Glance around the room after the teacher calls out “Twisted Half Moon” (Pavritta Ardha Chandrasana) and you’ll see students with arms akimbo, clenched toes, fingers curled and faces contorted beyond recognition. These students are “accessorizing” their poses with parts of their body that don’t actually need to be involved.

An unconscious mind overflows

There is a neurological phenomenon known as “overflow.” Simply put, the brain thinks it needs more help than it actually does to accomplish a task and sends messages throughout the body to recruit muscular contraction far from the locus of stability. So when this happens in a pose, it is essentially excess nervous energy, as if these other body parts were worried and felt that they too needed to contribute to the pose.

You see this in daily life a lot — a person biting their lip when they step onto the dance floor, the guy at the gym who scrunches his eyebrows with every bicep curl, the fifth grader in the spelling bee who clenches her fists and seems to blink uncontrollably while spelling her word.

How to “de-accessorize” your pose

 

Overflow represents an unnecessary overexertion during a task. It can often be eradicated, but first you must become aware of where this occurs and attempt to preemptively block the tension from creeping into the body in the first place. Here’s a three-step solution for shedding your unnecessary yoga accessories:

First: Become aware of which body parts tend to think they need to be working. I used to raise my right shoulder towards my neck in almost every yoga pose, as if I were talking on my cell phone.

Second: Communicate to that body part that its “assistance” is not necessary (thank you very much!), then give it another task, such as “relax.” I conditioned myself to “send a breath” to my shoulder before I entered or exited a pose so that the shoulder minded its own business.

Third: Drive awareness to the part(s) of the body that actually do need to stabilize in order for the pose to be safe, secure and solid. Be aware that the brain may continue its efforts of overflow and that you’ll probably notice some new accessorizing. Soon after my shoulder stopped rising, I started pressing my tongue into my upper palate. That was definitely a new one for me!

Overflow is like the carnival game “Whac-A-Mole.” As soon as you strike one mole back into its hole, another mole pops up somewhere else! Your brain will seek and find any open conduit to distract itself with tension at its perimeterrather than stabilizing a pose at its core. Just remember, the more places the body disperses that accessorizing energy, the more energy you’re pulling away from the main balancing musculature.

Practice de-accessorizing your poses by infusing your practice with relaxation and awareness as a prelude to your movements. This will reduce your overflow, and deepen your practice too. Then you’ll have enough energy to go shopping for those other kinds of accessories!

So, how do you accessorize your pose?

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[Reprinted with permission from GaiamLife.]

Jill Miller

Jill Miller, C-IAYT, ERYT is the co-founder of Tune Up Fitness Worldwide and creator of the self-care fitness formats Yoga Tune Up® and The Roll Model® Method. With more than 30 years of study in anatomy and movement, she is a pioneer in forging relevant links between the worlds of fitness, yoga, massage, athletics and pain management. She is known as the Teacher’s Teacher and has trained thousands of movement educators, clinicians, and manual therapists to incorporate her paradigm shifting self-care fitness programming into athletic and medical facility programs internationally. She has crafted original programs for 24 Hour Fitness, Equinox, YogaWorks, and numerous professional sports teams. She and her team of 500+ trainers help you to live better in your body with an emphasis on proprioception, mobility, breath mechanics and recovery. She has presented case studies at the Fascia Research Congress and International Association of Yoga Therapy conferences. She has the rare ability to translate complex physiological and biomechanical information into accessible, relevant moves that help her students transform pain, dysfunction and injury into robust fitness. Jill is the anatomy columnist for Yoga Journal Magazine and has been featured in Shape, Men’s Journal, Good Housekeeping, Women’s Health, Yoga Journal, Self, and on the Today Show and Good Morning America. Jill is regularly featured on the Oprah Winfrey Network. She is the creator of dozens of DVD’s including Treat While You Train with Kelly Starrett DPT and is the author of the internationally bestselling book The Roll Model: A Step by Step Guide to Erase Pain, Improve Mobility and Live Better in your Body. Based in Los Angeles, CA, she is a wife and mother of two small children and is currently writing her second book.

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Angela

Such a wonderful way to explain letting go of the muscles we don’t need to be using. So many new ideas to help in classes. No, your neck does not need to help you bend forward. Wo-hoo!

Eileen Riordan O'Sullivan

Eureka moment to so many of us to that accessorise our Yoga asana, and also manage to carry the same habit into our daily living, completely unaware that we are doing so, sometimes it can be an obvious puckering of lips, grimacing or tic, but, it also may be knotting of our belly, clutching at our buttocks or holding that becomes “normal”. Doing a internal “check in” can really be a helpful practise to bring a sense of mindfulness to our practice & life.

Lorraine

This runs true for the new practitioner to the more experienced yogi. Sometimes the mind stuff want to add accessories to the pose so being mindful helps. Sometimes while holding a pose we feel the need to accessorize instead of being still, which is more challenging. I also think that sometimes I get aught up with all the cues given that I end up working the pose more than it is needed instead of just relaxing into the pose. I like the reference that “the more places the body disperses that accessorizing energy, the more energy you’re pulling away from… Read more »

Ayla Barker

My favourite example of this “accessorizing” is raising the eyebrows in cobra or up dog and creating wrinkles in the forehead. I think that these moments of “accessorizing” give teachers the opportunity to lighten up the atmosphere, crack a joke, and create a personal connection. My favourite is “raising your eyebrows isn’t going to lift you any higher, just give you wrinkles.” More fun and personal than just a simple “soften the face.” It’s important to remind students of their habits because it’s very likely that they are not conscious of them.

Maya Gil-Cantu

I have definitely been “accessorizing” my pose and seen my students do the same. However I never knew it was a neurological phenomenon known as “overflow.” That is such an amazing fact and it has totally changed the way I am now thinking about my personal practice. Thank you for the three step solution, I plan on starting to work on those the next time I am on my mat.

Donna

Several of my favorite teachers use the cue, “relax your jaw” once we are set into a pose. I’m always surprised to find that some other part of my body is trying to help! I like the phrase ‘de-accessorize your pose’ as a reminder and will use it in my practice to try to become more aware of when I am trying to use unnecessary body parts in a pose.

Barb Voss

Great article! Though I am aware of myself moving into overflow during my practice, I have never thought about systematically trying to limit those actions or about the energy I might utilize more effectively. Thanks for the reminder that every awareness can present an opportunity for change!

Lisa Salvucci

I have several men in my class who always seem to be straining to either get into or hold poses. Other than saying “try to relax” I’m never sure what to suggest. Thank you for giving me new ideas on helping students deal with the overflow and accessorizing of poses.

Kim

I really appreciate this artical about this phenomenon of accessorizing our poses. I have found Jill’s personal responses to her experiences to be true for me as well. I first have to let go of the accessory and then deeply focus on what I am trying to work. With practice, it becomes easier. Now, the trick is to take it into my teaching and help my students recognize when they are wasting their precious energy and communicate with the clarity and ease as Jill does!

marianne bateman

I used to bite down on my tongue when I danced on pointe shoes, some how that focused my attention away from how much my feet hurt! My practice used to be much the same…when I was starting out I viewed yoga as a competitive sport rather than the healing, therapeutic art it eventually became for me. The awareness of “overflow” first came when I watched some of my students and peers sweating and straining to achieve postures that they just were not ready to do. The best piece of advice I can offer anyone is that each individual receives… Read more »

bo

Way back in acting school I had a movement (or maybe it was voice?) point out how “helpful” our jaws could be. We would spend 20 minutes each day just working on getting our jaws to relax (definetly voice) so we could use our vocal apperatus more efficiently. The trend was we would get one body part warmed up and relaxed and then move on to the next which was when the first body part would get super involved and over worked trying to “help.” I have been aware of overflow ever since. A very interesting phenomenom to be sure.

jackie

Accessorizing is a nice way to put it, when its more of a habit its more like the everyday outfit. (I know this from experience) I will keep this in mind as I step into poses.

thanks

Marie Mbouni

I loved this article! Especially because I now realize how much I accessorize my poses with my trapezius! I particularly like the detailed, fun and simple approach to solving the problem! I think the first step is to be aware of the habit, then we can correct it.
Thank you!

Michele

I love the 3 step plan! I’ve been consciously working on it and think I’ve been making progress with the constant face scrunching during the more challenging poses. It has taken me quite awhile just to figure out HOW to relax the space between my eyebrows but sending breath seems to help.

Hilary

Great reminder of mindfulness. Sometimes letting go can be the hardest things for our bodies to do. Our nervous system is so programmed to be on call on the time, that it is harder for it to relax and take a break than not. For myself the most challenging part is recognizing it. So much of it happens subconsciously. I was clenching my teeth so intensely that I had a sharp headaches and my gums were crying. It went on for so long that my gums have receded. Once I realized what I was doing, I began practicing facial relaxation… Read more »

Elisa

Great article! Something us yogis pass by some days but this will be in my mind as I enter any posture from now on. One of my teachers always says ‘relax your eyebrows; eyebrows don’t do yoga’ and I think that this article definitely put this statement into perspective for me. Sometimes we get so caught up in getting INTO the posture that we don’t even think about what’s absolutely necessary/unnecessary to get there. This concept really shifts that unawareness of those body parts flinging around into clarity.

Cheryl

I recently did a private and was “called out” for biting my lip. I was concentrating on getting into a pose. I know I have that habit but hadn’t even realized it crept into my yoga practice! I am aware; however, of rolling my shoulders in for protection due to an injury and protecting my neck. This “accessory” takes a lot of concentration to let go of. I work on it in every pose. This article was very ineresting, and as I sit here I am realizing even more accessories that I bring to my mat. When my teacher approaches… Read more »

Amy

I enjoyed this article. I was made aware by an instructor recently how I always bring my lower lip into balancing postures by biting it. I will try now to “deaccessorize!”

Dolores Little

So true! I see the over-accessorizing in myself and my students. The best advice – don’t take it so seriously; it’s only yoga:)

Kat Burke

I certainly relate to the Whack A Mole situation. When I first began practicing, my shoulders were constantly up by my ears. (Not just on the mat, but walking down the street, sitting at my desk, watching TV on the couch etc.) I became aware of this only through yoga. It took a while for me to realize that I needed shoulder adjustments not just in class, but in life. Of course, once I began to pay attention to my ever up-reaching shoulders, I began to notice why I was going this, I was stuffed with so much stress and… Read more »

caroline b.

This reminds me a lot of the “signal to noise” analogy used in business. We often become so distracted by the noise that we lose our ability to focus on the signal– the place from which real and impactful change can be made. The beauty of actual accessories– blocks, straps, blankets– is that they are perfect tools for turning down noise. For instance, it can take years and years for students to connect comfortably with poses like ardha chandrasana. The intention of the movement is to incorporate balance, lengthening, and hip adduction– components that can cause “accessorizing” even on their… Read more »

JoAnne Firth

This is interesting perspective to read about – I relate and find it so simply true!! All the more reason to keep commitment to a practice week to week… The more we can calm the mind and steady the breath, the less we “accessorize” our poses and consistently regain focus with intention.

Kathleen

Thank you for outlining this three-step process to de-accessorizing! I find myself clenching my jaw during yoga class and also throughout my workday. I will concentrate on getting rid of this “accessory” in class to see how it affects my asana and my work outside of yoga class. It will be also be interesting to watch for these accessories in friends during class and see if how these cues help others deepen their practice.. Thank you!

Claiborne

It’s amazing to realize how big a grip the nervous system has on us, which has its pluses and minuses. We need our nervous system to keep us attuned to the inner and outer worlds and everything they present. But it also seems that it doesn’t always know how to shut off extraneous actions, as you mention. I recall having it pointed out to me that I tend to claw my hands while teaching. My first guess on why I do this would be that I spent the majority of my pre-yoga existence being quite tense and guess that this… Read more »