In catastrophes and medical emergencies, caregivers rely on a process called triage. Stemming from the early 1800’s, triage is a method of prioritizing the care of many people based on the severity of injuries and conditions. Triage allows doctors to make very difficult decisions in the moment, so they can do the most good.

If you’re a regular practitioner, you’ve undoubtedly have had times where you cannot practice as much as you would like. It happens to me: my summer has been very busy. I taught a summer intensive and a few weekends of my 300-hour training, and my wife and I bought and sold houses and moved. While it’s all good news, I couldn’t always practice to the extent I wish.

Often times yogis think that a yoga practice has to be a certain way: It needs a sun salutation or a final relaxation, for instance. Especially if somebody is disciplined enough to practice on their own, I don’t find this to be helpful. It doesn’t foster our own intuition about our needs. Combine this with being short on time, and we may not practice at all.

Use Triage Whenever You Need It

Triage Yoga can be used when we only have 10 or 20 minutes in our day for yoga. It allows us to prioritize our needs and do the most good for ourselves. I’ve outlined a simple method to access the satya (truth) of how we’re feeling, to create a helpful yoga practice in the moment.

Begin your Triage Yoga practice by asking one or a few questions:

  • Is there a body part that will continue to feel uncomfortable if I don’t give it attention?
  • Is there any part of my system I have difficulty sensing?
  • What have I done (or haven’t done) in the past 24 hours?
  • What is my current energy level?
  • What is my mental or emotional speed right now?

Let’s review the intention behind each of these questions one-at-a-time, so your Triage Yoga practice can benefit you the most.

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Is there a body part that will continue to feel uncomfortable if I don’t give it attention?

The first question is a physical question, Does your low back feel achy? Are your hamstrings and calves tight? Achiness or unease can prevent us from continuing our lives, whether we’re about to go to work, to sleep, or even relax.

If a body part is achy, your Triage Yoga practice will almost write itself. For low back achiness, explore side bends, twists, and supported backbends. A few single-legged and double-legged forward folds like Downward Facing Dog and Pyramid may be in order for tight hamstrings and calves.

Is there any part of my system I have difficulty sensing?

If nothing stands out as needing immediate relief, we can ask the next question while lying comfortably on our back. Scan your body for sensation. You’re connected to a part of your body when you can sense it. From a triage standpoint, this is great! It may need a little work, but is not our highest priority.

But let’s say you have trouble sensing your shoulders and mid-back, a situation called “sensory motor amnesia.” This means we need our practice to include shoulders and mid-back, in order to self-connect and feel whole.

What can we practice to cultivate a physical awareness? Your Triage Yoga practice could include strength-building exercises like Bridge Pose and Locust can bring vitality to our back body, while twists, deep breathing, and arm positions like Cow-Face and Eagle can release tension, allowing blood and lymph to flow.

What have I done (or haven’t done) in the past 24 hours?

If no specific physical sensation is determining your practice, your Triage Yoga practice can be determined intellectually. The Yoga Sutras contain a concept called pratipaksha bhavanam, which means “cultivating the opposite.” This concept brings dynamics to your day.

Have you been sitting at chairs all day? Get up! Have you been on your feet all day. Get down! Have you been still? Fifteen minutes of movement may be in order. If you’ve been doing harder physical work, your body may be craving a relaxed stillness.

What is my current energy level?

This is actually two questions: How are you right now, and where would you like to be?

Are you buzzing with energy and it’s 8am? You can cultivate and expand that energy with poses like the Warriors, Chair, and Boat. But what if it’s 8 at night? Perhaps you can diffuse your buzz with slow breathwork and more Yin poses, preparing for sleep.

One helpful distinction I make is between when I feel exhausted and when I’ve been stagnant. If I’m exhausted, my Triage Yoga incorporates lymphatic practices and supported inversions to restore my system. I need something quite different when I feel lazy and stagnant: Poses that build heat, movement, and deep breath.

What is my mental or emotional speed right now?

Life contains twists and turns that make us feel every which way, good and bad. Is my mind racing about something? I may need to do a few sun salutations to match my brain speed, then slow it down with supported postures and meditation.

If I feel mentally dull, I design my Triage practice to make me focus: One legged, arm, and inverted balance postures force me to pay attention. A few stability practices like Plank and Side Plank also cultivates focus for me.

Set a timer for 10-20 minutes. You can use these questions as a starting point, or ask any question you feel appropriate. Then listen and practice.