When Yoga Hurts Instead of Heals

Jill Miller by Jill Miller | November 4th, 2010 | 12 Comments
topic: Fitness, Yoga

Woman doing a painful yoga posePain, 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, Veeparita Korani Mudra.

What will you do?


  1. How do I find a Yoga therapist? I am leary to jumping back into yoga classes at the gym due to neck injury and status post neck surgery. I finished physical therapy but I need additional guidance!

    Jill Zinas RN BSN | November 4th, 2010 | Comment Permalink
  2. Hi i do practice yoga but now my problem is i have back pain on the lumba spine so i want to know which exercise will be right for me to heel the spine.

    I really apriciate your help with the tips offered to us they work for me.

    Emmanuel | November 4th, 2010 | Comment Permalink
  3. please heed these wise words. YTU has been amazing in teaching me not only how to heal myself but to anticipate that threshold and injury and creatively adapting your body to a more suited posture or exercise. JM rocks.

    JT | November 4th, 2010 | Comment Permalink
  4. Hey Jill!

    Great blog! This past Teacher Training with you has transformed the way I feel in my body. Your clear reasoning gave us all the much needed direction needed to revamp the way we habitually work our bodies. As a 58 year old woman with a passion for exploring my inner workings, I bow to your profound gift of body awareness and your commitment to helping people understand, appreciate and change their own bodies. Thank you Jill.

    Aura Carr | November 5th, 2010 | Comment Permalink
  5. Hi Jill!

    Thank you for a wonderful blog.
    I can’t agree enough with the common sense that says-if something hurts,don’t do it.Be it swimming,cycling,running or Yoga.

    After all,why shall we?
    Yoga teaches us to understand our bodies and enhance our awareness,yet so many times our ego kicks extravagantly in and instead offering ourselves healing and nurturing we end up torn apart.

    YTU constantly remids us that moving intelligently and within pain-free range of motion is the key in transforming our physical being.
    Jill you are the wonderful reminder for all of us to do us.

    Dagmar | November 5th, 2010 | Comment Permalink
  6. Hi Jill and Emmanuel….check out the link I posted to the International Association of Yoga Therapists…perhaps you can find someone local, you can actually search by region: http://www.iayt.org/site_Vx2/profile/search.aspx

    You can also seek out a qualified Yoga Tune Up teacher whom I have personally trained to help with some of your above mentioned issues:
    There are more than 85 YTU Teachers worldwide…
    and dozens of Yoga Tune Up videos and Self Care products as well.

    Jill Miller | November 5th, 2010 | Comment Permalink
  7. I have been teaching for a short six years. And my number one aspect is safety. There is no reason to teach these poses such as headstands, wheel, etc, that even the most fittest person might be able to do. There is so many yoga poses that have safer variations and benefits. For example, I don’t even teach UpDog, because there is too much risk with low back, hip, shoulders, and neck. When a safer pose would be a supported cobra, or locust. Followed by childs pose. And still can get most of the same benefits. There are too many people with shoulder, back, or knee injuries. As Iyengar says, “If there are accidents in yoga, it is not the fault of the yoga, but of the aggressiveness of the pupil who does it.” And don’t do the pose for the sake of the pose. Yoga is so much more than poses.
    I am very passionate about safety. Take care, and listen to your body.
    Namaste’ Wendy

    Wendy | November 5th, 2010 | Comment Permalink
  8. If yoga hurts, it is not being taught / learned properly. I have been doing yoga since I was 16 (now in my 50’s) and I learned on my own from a great book by Swami Vishnudevananda and the way it was explained was that you always take a pose to the point where it just begins to hurt and then back off. So you’re always just where you can feel the stretch but it never hurts, and you never even get muscle soreness afterwards in this way. And you still progress, if you do it regularly. If it hurts that means you are not doing it correctly. This should always be taught and reinforced. Our Western attitude of “no pain, no gain” does not apply and only causes these types of injuries.

    Nancy | November 9th, 2010 | Comment Permalink
  9. It’s very nice blog. Thanks for expressing your thoughts.

    Meditatie vakantie | November 12th, 2010 | Comment Permalink
  10. thanks for the helpful tips here with this story.i love yoga but my left knee health comes first.so does the rest of my body ‘ s health!

    laurie | November 16th, 2010 | Comment Permalink
  11. Hi Jill, I was in your anatomy workshop last weekend and realized (I think) where my shoulder/arm pain was coming from. I really felt my body and tried to assess exactly where it hurt. It was kind of a dull pain deep in my mid upper arm and then sort of mid scapula area. I started thinking what is it that I am doing that would irritate it so much and then I heard you say it. Too many chattarangas (and not enough strength to do them). I backed off doing & teaching them this week. Still sore but less so and hoping thats it. I’m looking at asanas and my body a little differently now. Thank you.

    Lynnie G | February 4th, 2011 | Comment Permalink
  12. Great article and well written. I think that is about education of study of our own bodes to figure out what is right for us. It is not the poses. It is doing poses that were not meant for us. We have to make sure we don’t throw the baby out with the bath water.

    Shanna | August 5th, 2011 | Comment Permalink

Post a Comment

If you want to show your picture with your comment, go get a gravatar!