Everywhere we turn, we hear all about the benefits of yoga. Yoga for anxiety, yoga for back pain, yoga for weight loss, etc. etc. Everyone should be doing yoga all the time, so it seems. But what happens when yoga hurts—when we walk out of class with that slight tweak in our knee, or sore wrists, or searing pain down our back? Is yoga really as ubiquitously healing as they claim?
I can talk firsthand about yoga injuries—as I began to zealously prepare for the Pavones Yoga Center’s Teacher Training, I was pushing through two hot power classes a day, plus running, surfing, and biking: all things that are good for you when you are listening to your body. However, I cared only about my ego, about being a “good yogi”, which, three months before the teacher training, led me to my doctors office. I collapsed in tears when she told me I had a stress injury in my hip that might take up to 4 weeks of complete rest to recover. Four weeks without my body? Four weeks without being able to practice? I was devastated. Little did I know, that now, over a year later, and I still have significant pain in my SI joint attributed to my overly ego-driven yoga practice. And it’s not just me. Everytime I do a chattaranga, I think back to a teacher who would constantly remind us of the dangers: years of a strong ashtanga practice led to a ripped rotator cuff for him. As a teacher, I now spend lots of time thinking about how to keep my students safe, and where these injuries are coming from in the first place. From what I can tell, injuries come from 3 main places:
1). Lack of knowledge in student: Sometimes we get hurt because we just don’t know better. For example, I used to love making that nice swoopy transition from chattaranga to upward dog, until I learned the strain and stress that puts on your shoulders—no good! There are lots of books, videos, magazines, and workshops that can help students arm themselves with the knowledge of good practice techniques.
2). Lack of knowledge in teacher (and/or teaching style): While there are many, many accomplished yoga teachers out there, there are many more fresh out of a 200 hr training, sometimes of dubious quality, that in their excitement to teach may lead you astray. Whether the forget to give the correct alignment cues, or whether their personal style is that of the drill sergeant, shaming you into pushing it that much further, our teachers greatly influence the type of practice we engage in. Sometimes, a teacher may even— in an attempt to be supportive— adjust your body beyond its comfort zone. Be sure that you are comfortable and trust in your teacher, especially if you are just beginning your yoga study.
3). Ego: When our ego gets in the way and we try to wrench ourselves into a shape that resembles the cover of Yoga Journal, injuries happen. For me, I thought that I should just push harder and farther when things hurt… no pain, no gain, right? However I’ve learned, no pain IS gain. The hardest lesson for me was not cultivating the strength and determination to stay in a posture, but rather to know when to come out. I often commend students who choose to modify postures and sequences, as I know the courage it takes to come into child’s pose when everyone around you is charging into headstands. It takes strength to believe in yourself, and to recognize what serves you, and what to leave behind.
So while not all injuries are preventable, I do believe that most can be avoided. Learning more about the postures and adaptations, choosing our teachers wisely, and bringing in a sense svadhyaya, or self-study of our own internal landscape, we can begin to practice safely, and, hopefully, stay injury free.