This Joint Is Jumping — Getting Comfortable in an Unstable Body

Jill Miller by Jill Miller | March 13th, 2013 | 6 Comments
topic: Fitness, Yoga

yoga

Are you addicted to crack? Cracking your joints, I mean! There were years during my 20s when I could not fathom getting through my early-morning yoga practice without popping my shoulders, low back, hips and neck. I was popping and cracking my way through the day like a one-woman band.

Usually these fast internal whacks felt great, a rush that temporarily relieved aches and pains. What I didn’t know at the time was that all that cracking was not only emblematic of my body’s instability, but it was accelerating my own tissue breakdown.

Denial is not a river in Egypt

I have always gone “all-in,” no matter what the physical practice. Yoga was always my mainstay and baseline, but on top of that practice (which I started at age 11) I was also a dancer, runner, skier (horrible skier), water aerobics instructor and rock climber. But yoga had always been my security blanket and my salvation. It was the way I knew that my body was balanced and set (or so I thought) to be able to do everything else I loved.

King Pigeon Pose

Yes, that is my FOOT on top of my HEAD.

In my 20s, I was hard-core about my yoga practice. I’d get out of bed for my daily 7am-9am Astanga yoga practice. I was relentless and would not miss a day, even when I was sick or hadn’t slept enough the night before. At the time, I thought my devotion was sacrament and that my dedication to my practice was my righteous purpose. I turned down dates and family functions so that I could show up on the mat.

But all of this — what I now call my “fanatic” phase — was de-stabilizing my joints and causing me to constantly pop and crack, both voluntarily and involuntarily. I’m not sure why I thought it was “normal” to wake up in the morning, unable to fully straighten my knees. It would take me about 20 steps of hobbling towards the bathroom before they would comply.

During an intimate evening with my boyfriend, my neck finally “went out.” I could not turn it and was in insane amounts of pain. My whole body retreated into a vacuum, engulfed with searing pain and silence. My boyfriend pulled away as I disappeared inside my fear and despair. A mammoth fight erupted, which was actually a great excuse for me to leave this two-year relationship that was volatile and riddled with unhealthy dynamics (caused in large part by my addiction to exercise/yoga).

But my neck problems were only the tip of the iceberg of the physical and emotional instability that was literally stretching me to the point of breaking down.

Diagnosis: repetitive stress

I had heard of “Repetitive Stress Syndrome.” It’s something that cashiers get from overusing their wrists all day. When I was told I had the same thing, but all over my body, I was baffled. How could yoga be causing repetitive stress? I couldn’t wrap my head around it … wasn’t yoga supposed to be therapeutic and healthy for anyone? Weren’t yoga poses the equivalent of a body vitamin? Don’t yoga poses ease stress and help with pain, disease and all manner of healing? I pored through my library of yoga books that championed the healing effects of poses and practices. Interesting, none of them listed Repetitive Stress Syndrome.

I did all types of yoga practices: the meditations, the yantras (imagery), pranayama (breath exercises), japa (verbal repetition) — heck, I even did the eye exercises! And of course, there were the poses. I sure did love doing hours and hours of poses. Well, too much of a good thing turned out to be a very bad thing for me. Poses are not pills. They can be more potent and toxic than a drug when taken in excess, and I had overdosed.

I had to reckon with the consequences of over-exercising, a new insidious form of bulimia. My eating-disordered past had come back to haunt me in a different form. I had not cleared my need for body control, and I was punishing myself with yoga.

Turning point

strength training

Adding strength training to my practice has given me stability and has eradicated my once-constant joint popping.

With the help of a gifted physical therapist, I learned how I had weakened my body with my yoga practice. All of that clicking and popping was the result of overstretched tendons and connective tissues unable to find points of center or balance throughout my joints. I would have to literally pull myself together if I wanted to heal.

This was a profound metaphor for my soul and psyche. I did not have to push myself so hard, punishing myself with hours of practice a day. It was hostile and showed a lack of respect for myself. I needed to learn to work with myself rather than against. Years of habits were overthrown, and I adopted massive changes in my physical practice and daily schedule. For one, my physical therapist started me on a strength-training program, and I vowed to stop cracking my neck and shoulders. It worked.

Thirteen years later, I continue to explore strength and stability as a major part of my daily practice. Looking for ways to hold myself, rather than turning into runny jello. Yoga is all about balance between strength and flexibility at every level. I had stretched myself to pieces and had become so flexible that I was no longer strong. I now practice for 30-60 minutes, instead of hours. I take days off. And I incorporate my own self-massage techniques to keep my tissues happy and to keep me out of the doctor’s office.

If you are a “crack” addict, find yourself constantly uncomfortable, or are in the process of addiction recovery, have hope! It is possible to rid yourself of unhealthy body habits and address the underlying mental forces that drove you there in the first place.

Comments

  1. Great to see a well respected yoga teacher/educator being open and honest about overly aggressive practice and what can happen to the body from too much of a good thing. Takes much more than a strong asana practice to truly be practicing!
    Well done- thank you Jill. Namaste

    jodie | March 14th, 2013 | Comment Permalink
  2. I love this post! Thank you for putting this out there. I too have had a similar path. After close to 20 years of practicing I felt I was becoming too flexible and therefore unstable in my joints. I remember my first teacher trainer telling the group that we had to have a daily practice. I remember countless yoga classes focused on an unbridled pursuit if flexibility.

    Most recently I also have incorporated strength training to my repertoire and it has made a huge difference in my practice- which is no longer daily. I feel so much stronger and integrated. And because this is where I am in my practice it’s also how I teach.

    Ariana Rabinovitch | March 14th, 2013 | Comment Permalink
  3. I was browsing and reading various yoga related articles when I stumbled across your article. It caught my attention as it did not paint yoga in its usual answer-to-all-of-life’s-problems light which you typically find when you read about yoga on the web. Don’t get me wrong. I love yoga and it has changed my life. But as with all things in life, where there is light there is also a shadow.

    Jill, your article stood out as it addressed a real topic of how even a good thing, like yoga, can be abused, hid behind and used as a crutch. This is true for anything in life. If taken to a “fanatic” state it ceases to retain any resemblance of what it used to be. At that point it is typically broken down to a one-dimension caricature of itself and loses any personable qualities. I appreciate how your article spoke to me about the importance of balance and how the problems yoga can help us face could also twist it into a weapon against ourselves if we let it. There is a lot here that I think can be gleamed and that I just touch on a small takeaway. I pray that your practice has continued to fulfill you, that you have left behind the “crack” addiction and are successfully addressing whatever fueled the need in the first place. Thank you for such a great and valuable share.

    Marina Mukandala | March 15th, 2013 | Comment Permalink
  4. Thank you for your raw honestly! And for the shout-out to physical therapists. I am a yoga teacher and a doctor of physical therapy. I received my degree and became a physical therapist after sustaining injuries from over-reliance on my flexibility as a yoga teacher in my early 20s. These stories are extremely common! I am passionate about getting students and patients stable and back on track. Good yoga *can* do that.

    Ariele | March 19th, 2013 | Comment Permalink
  5. What a wonderful article with so many tips to educate and enlighten Yoga teachers as well as students. I never thought too much of a good thing could be bad but now I believe it. Jill Miller never ceases to amaze her students. Thank you!

    Freda | June 11th, 2013 | Comment Permalink
  6. [...] This Joint is Jumping… WOW. I suppose like all things in life, too much of a good thing can turn out very, very bad. I’ve always been aware of the workout “freaks” but never really thought yoga would be part of that due to all the overwhelming health benefits. A quote in the article really jumped out from the page for me, “Poses are not pills. They can be more potent and toxic than a drug when taken in excess, and I had overdosed.” I always assumed some poses were easy because I was such a good student- lol however, the article made me realize that those easy poses are the ones we have to pay attention to the most. Yoga is all about respecting our bodies. She says, ”I would have to literally pull myself together if I wanted to heal.” This article was so informative in learning how to practice safely.  Share this:TwitterFacebookGoogleLike this:Like Loading… [...]

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