December 2nd, 2010

When Yoga Hurts Instead Of Heals

By Jill Miller, ERYT, 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 she 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. Headstand’s benefits 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 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 6 years ago. I happily NEVER do them any more. Before I had 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, more 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 a student, 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.

1) Admit you are in pain
2) Seek out a health care professional, get the x-rays or MRI if needed!
3) Follow the health care professionals 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 where her head never touches the ground (see YJ issue). BRAVO!

What will you do?

When Yoga Hurts Instead of Heals

9 Response(s) to When Yoga Hurts Instead of Heals

On January 22nd, 2011 at 12:21 am, Julia Westbrook said:

In reading so many of these blogs, I could not connect until I read this. I know little yoga and have not practiced for some years and am facing many painful days. Rather than accept the probability of back surgery, when I saw the latest x-rays, I thought immediately of yoga. And then realized the enormity of the undertaking.I know it is possible, but that I also must be very careful. This blog gives me hope and reinforces my decision. Thank you.

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