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Lest Not Birthrights Be Forsaken – Yoga and the Pain Index

in YD News, YogOpinions

By J. Brown

The other day I was at Staples printing up some new student cards. A woman standing next to me noticed that I was doing something for a yoga center. She told me that she loved yoga and was curious if I worked there and asked what kind of yoga they practice. After learning I was the director and that we have a therapeutic orientation, she asked me if I could recommend some poses to help a situation with her lower back.

“I have this thing in my lower back.”
“A thing? You mean pain?”
“No. Not really pain.”
“OK. Well, do you feel this thing consistently or just during certain activities?”
“I feel it all the time. Last night it was really bad.”
“Really bad? That sounds like pain.”

Upon further inquiry, I learned that she attends power vinyasa yoga classes three times a week and runs avidly. She seemed confused that I was asking about her life. She just wanted to know some poses that would stretch out her back. The problem is that, in many instances, more stretching or strengthening does not make pain go away – especially if we’re not admitting to the pain we have until it reaches a critical mass that can no longer be avoided. When pain is chronic or enigmatic, a reevaluation of habitual activities and priorities is often the key to turning it around.

Recent statistics show the number of adults with chronic low back pain is on the rise. Doctors recommend three courses of action: (1) Lifestyle change, (2) Medication or (3) Surgery. When diagnostic testing reveals no definitive cause, treatment is based largely on the patient accurately describing the intensity of pain on a scale from 1 to 10.

If the pain is deemed manageable enough not to warrant surgery, then doctors will commonly prescribe medication to manage symptoms and recommend “staying active within the limits of your pain and avoiding activities that worsen pain.” The dilemma that many of us face is that we are not always so good at making an honest assessment of how we feel. Is my pain a 2 or 3 or an 8 or 9? I don’t know. It hurts. Staying within the limits of our pain is kind of hard if we don’t know what the limits are.

Last month, I asked: Is Your Yoga Safe? I suggested that the key to making yoga safe was not so much about alignment or anatomy but rather the responsiveness and adaptability of the teacher. It occurs to me that the sensitivity and awareness that a teacher employs to ensure safety in a yoga class is the same sensitivity and awareness that yoga practice is intended to teach the student.

Ultimately, every person has the capacity to know for themselves whether their pain is a 2 or an 8, if a particular yoga class is appropriate or not, and much more. The sensitivity and awareness with which we assess our pain, and make safe use of yoga practice, foster the facility by which we make good determinations for ourselves in a broader sense.

There are few models or vehicles available for developing the facility by which we know best for ourselves. Honestly, we’re not always getting it from our parents, churches, or doctors. And cultural mores tend in the exact opposite direction. Even yoga classes, despite their intended purpose, are often falling short.

One thing is for sure, if we just barrel through an overbearing work load with little attention to the subtleties of our experience, be it in a yoga class or life, there is simply no room to develop the capacity to know what we feel, much less chart our best course. And if we do not know for ourselves what we feel and what course to take, then by default these most important determinations will be made by something or someone else.

Recently, a friend confided in me about some personal upheaval in her life. She is questioning her religion, her marriage, and even her sexuality. She told me about a time earlier in her life where she might have previously asked these questions but instead deferred to others. Now that she has grown to recognize that her life does not reflect the inner truth she feels, some hard choices need to be made.

Certainly, there are many factors that shape the course of our pain and lives. But when our given capacity for self-determination is relinquished, whether by default or not, a most essential birthright has been forsaken. We must make every effort to forgo this tragedy.


J. Brown is a yoga teacher, writer and founder of Abhyasa Yoga Center in Brooklyn, NY.  His writing has been featured in Yoga Therapy in Practice, Yoga Therapy Today and the International Journal of Yoga Therapy.  Visit his website at yogijbrown.com.


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7 comments… add one
  • Good post. Thanks. For me, it raises the excellent question: As a yoga teacher, just exactly what am I teaching?

  • Chris

    Very, very funny intro. A very typical encounter when someone finds out you are into yoga. OMG you do yoga? I loooove yoga!

    And then you find out they really don’t know wtf they are talking about. This woman couldn’t even tell you if it was pain or not. This tells me something; That she has little body awareness.

    Besides my rant its a very nice article! Some real good points in there.


  • Chris

    I’ve also got to say I hate when people ask me what “type” of yoga I do. To which I generally reply there is no such thing as a type of yoga.

  • JeffreyD

    Huh? Some yogas are exercise, some yogas are meditating and chanting, some yogas are in a hot room with smelly sweaty people. There’s huge differences between the different kinds.

  • I really enjoyed this article as a way to think about pain, something I must confront on a daily basis as a doula. Thanks for the interesting perspective.

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