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YogaDork Ed: When a Pose Hurts Instead of Heals

in YD News, YogaDork Ed

By Jill Miller, Creator of Yoga Tune Up

Pain, numbness, tingling? Do any of these describe the feelings you have when you come out of an asana? Please heed these warnings! Not all yoga poses are safe for all people. Just follow expert yoga teacher Patricia Sullivan’s story in the October 2010 issue of Yoga Journal. She painfully details a journey of denial in which her headstand caused (yes, caused) crippling nerve pain that eventually culminated in her falling asleep at the wheel and driving off the road into a lagoon.

At last Patricia had a doctor examine her and they found “extensive damage, including a reversed cervical curve, disk degeneration, and bony deposits that were partially blocking nerve outlets.” By her own admission, “my longing to excel both in my asana practice and as an asana teacher had led me to ignore my body’s signals and cries for relief.”

Asana addictions

Patricia had to relearn how to use her entire body and come to terms with her mind, heart and ego. The benefits of headstand were so powerful that they seemed to outweigh the daily pain she suffered. Like an addict “jonesing” for a hit of headstand, she could not see past the benefits to the negatives it wrought on her body. But until she literally “bottomed out” in the lagoon, she was unwilling to give up her “monkey.”

She is definitely not alone in this journey; I have been addicted to poses that damaged my body. A love of “drop backs” into the wheel pose from standing upright destabilized one of my spinal vertebrae six years ago. I happily NEVER do them anymore. Before I destabilized my back, I could not imagine practicing without finishing up with my coveted “drop backs.” How ironic that the “drop backs” caused my back to drop!

This Drop-Back Variation strengthens rather than weakens my back.

In surveying my last Yoga Tune Up teacher trainees, several raised their hands when I asked the question, Has yoga hurt you? Two of them admitted that constant ringing in their ears has been caused by excessive time spent in shoulderstand and plow poses. They rationalized the EXACT same way as Patricia … the “benefits” outweighed the “negative effects.” Another admits that despite constant sciatic pain, he cannot give up doing long held forward bends.

What are we doing to ourselves if yoga hurts?
With yoga’s enormous popularity, injuries are occurring more than ever. If we hope to enjoy a pain free lifelong practice, then we must take some precautions. All teachers and practitioners must educate themselves about what the poses are doing physically to a body. So many “traditional” poses cause extreme joint torque, shearing and weakening of soft tissues, and their effects need to be understood through a biomechanical lens.

As yoga teachers, we need to responsibly analyze the positional peculiarities on a student-by-student basis and be truthful with our students if we feel a pose is inappropriate for them. As students, we need to listen to our body’s signals and not push past a point that continues to give us unresolved pain. We need to take an honest look at the poses that still cause pain while we are in them, and reach out to professionals who can help us to understand what we are actually doing to ourselves.

There are multiple Yoga Therapy schools (including my own, Yoga Tune Up) that have been gaining in popularity over the past two decades. These schools of conscious movement vary in the types of practices they offer — some are more meditative in focus, others more biomechanically based, but all offer a home for practitioners to build new approaches towards practicing yoga. The International Association of Yoga Therapists is an organization that exists to help create a greater discourse about the therapeutic applications of yoga in the world.

What to do if yoga hurts:

1) Admit you are in pain
2) Seek out a healthcare professional; get the x-rays or MRI if needed!
3) Follow the healthcare professional’s protocol
4) Seek out a qualified Yoga Therapist
5) Listen carefully to your body as you build a new practice, and refrain from doing any pose that your body is not prepared for.

Patricia has completely revamped her approach to headstand. Yes she does still practice headstand, but she has created multiple variations (pictured in the Oct. 2010 issue of Yoga Journal) where her head never touches the ground. BRAVO!

I practice loads of creative core work called Core Integration to keep my spine happy and strong.
And my students (now licensed YTU Teachers) have discontinued their shoulderstand practice and have fallen in love with a safe alternative, Viparita Karani Mudra.

What will you do? Let me know your story…


Jill Miller, Creator of Yoga Tune Up is our first expert in the YogaDork Ed Dept. Read more about her here.



19 comments… add one
  • Jill, that was beautiful!! I know exactly where you’re coming from. I came into the practice of Yoga as a Body Builder. My “No Pain, No Gain”, “Train through Pain” gym attitude instantly transferred into my practice of Yoga which eventually brought up a myriad of old injuries that never got addressed.

    When I started doing Yoga I was instantly drawn in by the Ashtanga Vinyasa practice because not only did it help me relax and tune in but also because of it’s impressive athletic movements. There was still that part of me that wanted to impress others and myself with the Asanas that I could prod my body into just like I used the size of my Chest and Biceps to do the same. I spent about a year or so practicing in pain, never willing to admit that my aggressive and “mindless” practice was doing more damage than good. And then one day, while doing something that I’ve done a million times before (Wide-gripped Chins) my Body started to send me loud warning signs that I ignored and the “POP” there goes my shoulder.

    It’s taken me a long time to recover and I’m still not quite back to 100%. But the benefits my injury are numerous. A “True” increased sense of awareness, a tool box full of movements, variations and modifications that I can use to keep my body moving in a healthy way and what I think is the most important benefit, a real appreciation for the wisdom that my body possesses.

    It’s so interesting that even people who teach Yoga have such a hard time letting go of this “Absolute” Yoga Asana practice. How willing we are to move in pain just to get into a pose. My new philosophy stolen from Sarah Powers, “We don’t use our bodies to get into these poses. We use these poses to get into our bodies.”

    I want to thank you personally for the information and the wisdom that you shared with myself and De La Sol Yoga when you were here.

    Thanks again Jill

    • Steven, thanks so much for this story! So many will continue to benefit from all of us revealing our “tissue truths.”

    • Shoulder injuries stink! I have been practicing yoga for 20+ yrs and teaching for 9. I injured myself in shoulderstand due to the lack of space in my my neck area so I am super cautious in teaching it. Actually, I never teach shoulder stands and only with my long time clients do I teach head or hand stand but with a LOT of prep.. Never head on floor! 🙂
      Have you seen this article with Dr Loren Fishnman? He is a Yoga Therapist and a Doctor.
      He is known as the Shoulder Cuff Guy and rightfully so. Amazing teacher and knows yoga injuries.
      Knowledge is key when working with students… Never stops sharing and learning… Thnxks!

  • So happy to see this! It’s about time we start being open and honest about who should be doing what. As teachers and students, this path of honesty is what will help all of us reap the benefits of Yoga.

  • so very glad you’re doing these series of articles on yogadork where so many people can see them

    just this week i had looked up a poem i’d written in the early 90’s, “athletic trainer” which i’d written for someone via “interviewing” them, i had no real knowledge of the field

    looking at the poem 17 years and with just the info my wife & i’ve gotten from our afaa group fitness cert, and, well, it was a mind opener/reminder of where we’ve moved from info-wise

    your articles are a HUGE benefit, thank you 😉

  • kat

    Iyengar yoga is also a great style to study. Students are encouraged to work with their bodies, not against them and poses are frequently modified with props so people can gain the benefit of the pose without the injury. Mr. Iyengar can be credited for creating most of the common yoga props out there today and he invented them for therapeutic purposes.

  • Interesting, because I don’t teach shoulderstand–ever! I always hated teaching Ashtanga because of the pressure to do shoulderstand. I think it’s a very advanced pose and almost no one knows how to be safe in it.

    Other problematic ones: Upward dog, people rushing and throwing their head back, and crunching their lower backs to “look like they’re in it”. Safety is paramount.

  • Great article Jill! Being of a Type A personality and one who has practiced Ashtanga, I have and sometimes still do tend to push myself into poses even after the pain signal is there. In my case, I feel that it definitely tends to be one of an ego mindset so much more than just the benefits of the pose. Since studying with you, my practice has shifted to not just being more gentle with myself and listening to my body more, but also of being okay with not doing a particular “fancy” pose. I will still attempt, but with so much more awareness and making sure my body is physically ready. I realize that the pose does not define me or make me a better yogi. I do too love that quote from Sarah Powers!

  • This is such an important topic.

    Our society is all “achieve, achieve, achieve”, and we’re so competitive, if only with ourselves.

    There are certain poses (like wheel) that I haven’t done in a long time because of injury and as much as I miss them, I value my body’s ability to function effectively more.

    And there’s something I learned only just last night – I haven’t done headstand for a few months, again because of injury. But I popped into a quick sirsasana last night before the class I was to teach and was a little surprised to discover that I felt stronger than ever in this pose.

    Why? Well, because I’ve been doing a lot of yoga that works my core.

    I suspect that a lot of times people force themselves into poses their body just isn’t ready for yet, simply because they want to be able to say they can do them. This “pursuit of asana” is what gets us in trouble, rather than the poses themselves…

    My 2c worth anyway.

  • wonderful post, jill! wow, i have so much to say about this… i haven’t practiced asana for 6 months because of a back condition (degenerative disc). i don’t believe yoga is the cause of my condition (it’s the result of genes and a sedentary childhood, i think), but it took me 3 years to admit that yoga doesn’t help. i miss many aspects of practicing, but my back feels great (especially since i’ve started swimming). i’m going to use your tips to ease myself back into a practice that is suited for my body. thanks!

  • Thanks for raising this important issue Jill. Thanks also for the IAYT plug as the past president of the board. Practicing Ahimsa not only keeps us personally safe, but will limit regulation and our freedom to develop our own standards vs have standards forced on us.
    Keep up the great writing!

  • Thank you Jill for bringing up this important issue. As Sutra 2.46 translates to “Asana is a steady, comfortable posture”, may our students remember this and tune deeper into their awareness rather than tune out and power through. Peace, Lori

  • Such an insightful article. A great example of how even little pain signals are important and if ignored can lead to debilitating problems. Hopefully Yogis begin to understand that the pain that is troubling them in a particular pose may eventually knock them out of their practice completely. Keep spreading the good word!

  • Hi Jill! Excellent blog post and so true. I remember reading Patricia’s yoga journal article with interest.

    I was recently diagnosed with spondololithesis. I didn’t have back pain but I had mild hip pain for years – many years. Because it was intermittent, worse when I sit (and I don’t sit that much!), and dull, I thought it was normal. This year for my new years resolution I decided to get to the bottom of it. After many visits and long session at a PT for months, with little results, I had an MRI. The spondo, between L4 and S1 is between a stage 1 and stage 2 (my L5 has slide forward about 20%).

    I don’t know when I did this or if yoga was the cause, but the only cure for this is a spinal fusion. So I’m working with exercises now that strengthen the area to avoid surgery.

  • Andrea

    Thanks so much for being so clear about how not to injure ourselves. Seems like it is so much easier to follow these instruction in our personal practice than in a class. Cheers!

  • Powerful story! Nothing is more important than safety in a yoga class – and one challenge for teachers is how manage this when each individual body is so different.
    I definitely agree that we need to advise students when we don’t think they should be practicing a particular pose. As teachers, we need to find the right balance between taking responsibility for our students’ safety, and educating them so they’re able to make their own decisions regarding safe practice for their bodies.

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