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.”
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!
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!
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?