by Kara-Leah Grant, Musings from the Mat
Matthew Remski is currently researching asana-related injuries in an attempt to understand what we are actually doing with yoga, and how we can know the value or safety of the postures we practice.
After taking the time to read his first article on the subject – What Are We Actually Doing in Asana – I found myself asking questions about my practice and the pain I sometimes experience in yoga.
In particular, Matthew says:
I would like to explore the liminal space where self-help seems to meet, mysteriously, with self-harm, felt and then symbolized by pain, first considered as a sign of progress, but eventually understood as injury.
I saw myself in that paragraph.
So often when I experience pain during class, I re-frame that pain as evidence that healing is taking place – that my body is opening up and letting go of old patterns and that old injuries are coming to the surface and being released.
But is that true? Or is just another unconscious belief?
I started yoga already injured, and with limited mobility. I’d already had one spinal fusion, and was on a fast track to a second – I had intense sciatic pain down my right leg, half of my right foot was numb and I was walking with a limp.
Within a year or so of starting yoga – a mixture of Bikram and Vinyasa – my symptoms had largely disappeared, although it took several years to regain full feeling back in my foot. It seemed yoga had healed me, where nothing else had worked.
The last year though, things have been different.
Eighteen months ago, carrying my 2.5 year old on my hip while doing a tour of Anahata Yoga Retreat - up and down uneven tracks – I aggravated my sciatic for the first time in years.
Since then, I’ve done about twenty Bikram Yoga classes and I have been in pain through all of them. I start the class pain free, but by the time we’re into the first posture – Half-Moon sidebends, back bend and forward bend – I’m in agony.
This is in contrast to my home practice where I’ve mostly been pain-free.
In Bikram, I move slowly and with mindfulness, but it appears that the standing pranayama, which includes looking back with the neck, seems to trigger something in my spine. The backbending series at the beginning of the floor series is difficult. Now I’m in serious pain – my back’s seized up and all I want to do is a long, slow child with a gentle adjustment from a teacher to release my spine.
How do I frame this experience? That the yoga is working. That something in my psyche is afraid of letting go and is holding on super-tight creating the pain.
ie. That the pain is my fault for being the way I am – it’s me getting in the way of the yoga working.
How do I justify this pseudo-science belief?
Well… if I have sufficient time in Half-Tortoise Pose and Rabbit Pose, my spine begins to soften and release.
However, setting up for Camel is torture – my back just wants to seize up. At home when I practice, I can effortlessly lift up into Bridge posture – what’s the difference between Camel Pose and Bridge? The shape is the same, but Camel asks us to trust and let go – to bend back and reach back while trusting we’ll be supported.
This is why I’ve rationalised my back pain during Bikram Classes as largely psyche-created.
That, and because by the time the class finished and I take a nice long savasana, perhaps with a few gentle spine-releasing postures, I walk out of class feeling amazing and pain-free.
Yes, after Bikram, within five minutes, all the pain I experience during class completely disappears.
Pain during class. Pain-free after. Must be me holding on right? Me resisting the practice right?
But after reading Matthew’s article, I’m no longer so sure. Maybe I’ve got it wrong. Maybe the practice is causing difficulties in my body and I’m injuring myself by continuing to attend.
Note, while I’m going through the practice, there isn’t consistent pain, or sciatic, or shooting sensations. Rather, there’s a heaviness in my lower back and a sensation of seizing up or contracting. For the entire class I’ll sometimes chant a silent matra of :
‘It’s safe to let go’, ‘It’s safe to let go’, ‘Let go damn it!’
This past week I’ve done three Bikram classes, and I’m about to go to my fourth. It’s the most asana I’ve done in a long time – my daily home yoga practice is usually far more gentle. I don’t feel like going to this fourth class – I can feel resistance and I don’t want to experience the pain.
I note these two things – I know that usually mat resistance comes before a break-through. As for not experiencing the pain, I’m going to be as gentle as I possibly can during the practice and see if I can avoid going into the pain to start with.
I’m really curious about my experience and about what’s going on.
Can I practice Bikram yoga in such a way that my back doesn’t seize up? What’s causing it to seize up?
I could talk to the Bikram teachers about my experience, but I doubt very much they would be able to shed any light on what I’m experiencing.
And therein lies the crux of modern yoga practice – our teachers, the very people meant to guide us over this intense and fraught terrain of mind/body – sometimes don’t have the training or knowledge of the mind/body to know what’s going on for us.
Compounding this is my recent experience in an Astanga class. I wasn’t asked, nor disclosed any injuries or issues and allowed myself to be adjusted in Marichyasana D. I should’ve realised it was too much for my body and not allowed the teacher to help me into the posture.
As he took me in, I winced in pain – my right hip hurt like hell.
It hurts! I said
I don’t remember his response as he continued to work with me – was it:
That means it’s working. It’s meant to hurt. Breathe through it.
Or somethig similar? I know he didn’t back off, ask me about the area or discontinue with the adjustment and I didn’t stop him.
Again, I rationalised it in my head – this is good, I’m finally breaking through all those hip issues I’ve been having.
Yet post class, my sciatic flared up the worst it’s been in years, and it’s stayed that way for weeks now.
Paradoxically, after a week of Bikram, it’s getting somewhat better again, despite the pain I’m experiencing in class.
And therein lies the conundrum when it comes to pain in yoga class and yoga injuries. Is it good healing pain or bad injury pain? Is there even such a thing as good healing pain? Or is the yoga hurting us and are we rationalising it away?
I did that fourth Bikram yoga class, and took time to speak to the teacher beforehand. He was attentive and suggested some minor modifications I could make so as to not aggravate my spine and hip.
I felt supported and listened to. It was a good sign.
In the first breathing exercise, which includes standing in Mountain Pose and tilting the head all the way back to look at the wall behind, I cut myself some serious slack.
Instead of focusing on looking as far back as I could, I allowed myself to just gaze up at the ceiling and stay attuned to my form.
For the first time in a long time, I exited that breath work without any sense of pain or back seizing. So far so good.
I maintained the same softly, softly approach for the rest of class. Unfortunately, the very first asana, Half-Moon, includes standing side bends and a backbend, followed by a forward bend. The side bends put me straight back into agony, despite focusing intensely on form and avoiding depth completely.
The pain persisted for most of the rest of the class. Possibly not as bad, but still there. As always, it was gone within ten minutes of leaving the hot room.
Oh the hot room… post class I came home and did some research into my specific symptoms. Generally, I just say I’ve got “lower back issues”, but given that it’s mostly focused on my right hip, it’s like I’m experiencing something to do with my SI joint on the right side. It’s likely that joint is inflamed.
And serious heat like in a Bikram Class? That’s not going to do my hip any favours…
So maybe it’s not the yoga itself – which does seem to help my body – but the heat of the class causing the in-class flare ups.
My detective work continued when the next day I went to my first Mysore-style Astanga class since the latest sciatic flare up.
First thing I noticed?
Even after sixty minutes plus of yoga, my back hadn’t seized up and I wasn’t in any pain. In fact, I was largely pain free, all the way through class.
Towards the end of countless jump backs (more like inch-backs for me), my lower back was beginning to make it’s presence known in upward dog. It felt more like a lack of strength through the core though than pain per se.
Plus, this time I made sure to tell the teacher when he supported me in standing leg extension that I was experiencing issues in my right hip. He looked down at it.
Give me three sessions, we’ll sort it out.
And he was off to adjust someone else.
Three sessions huh? Tempted to write him off as deluded I was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.
Post-class, I felt more stiff than I do coming out of a Bikram class, and my body more worked. However, by the next afternoon, my hip felt better than it had in months.
I went back for two more sessions within the week, each time going slightly further in the Astanga sequence, until yesterday when my teacher again took me up to Marichyasana D.
This time I felt far more prepared and open to be adjusted partially into the posture. The sciatic pain I’d been having while sitting and working at the computer had all but disappeared again.
Peter was slow and patient, showing me in detail how to release the hip and soften my torso before even thinking about going anywhere near the bind.
Did it hurt? Yes – but not the kind of pain I experienced last time. This felt like a masseuse working into long-knotted muscles – only in my case, it was the pressure of my left ankle and foot working against my right hip.
I noticed psychologically I wanted to tense up and hold myself against the pressure. I wanted to stop breathing. I wanted to run.
With Peter there, reminding me to soften and breath I allowed myself to feel supported and dropped myself inside the posture. A day later, my sciatic has definitely receded. Peter’s claim at sorting it out within three sessions wasn’t so farfetched.
However, this doesn’t mean that the yoga has healed my injury as such. It means the symptoms have abated.
Did the yoga cause the recent flare-up? Or was it healing the flare-up from 18 months ago? I don’t know.
What I do know is that the entire episode has reminded me how easily we allow ourselves to fall into damaging belief systems, and how vigilant we have to be when it comes to our bodies.
I came to yoga physically fragile, and through persistent and conscious practice I’ve made an enormous difference to my physical well-being. I’m not crippled, nor in a wheelchair, as one person predicted looking at me at 25. Nor have I had the inevitable second back operation another claimed I’d need.
However, if I’m not cautious and totally aware, always paying close attention, I can all too easily overdo it and stress out my spine and hips.
Other students, who came to class physically fit and healthy may paradoxically be worse off than I am. They don’t expect to injure themselves and may not be as conscious or vigilant as they work with teachers or move through classes. Nor are they likely to have the level or awareness or alignment know-how I do.
In casual conversation before teaching a class yesterday afternoon, one of my students mentioned she’d just been at a retreat with a woman who’d come back from India thoroughly disillusioned.
Her Astanga teacher had dislocated her shoulder in an adjustment. I cringed.
This woman was young and her teacher is venerated. Was there a moment in the adjustment when she could have asked him to stop?
If it had been me in the same situation, would I have been any different from her? I’d like to think so, but the reality is, probably not.
Yoga is a complex practice that affects so much more than just our muscles and ligaments.
Its power to affect our nervous system and our psyche is extraordinary. Our own desire to achieve complex postures, or please teachers we admire and look up to, or heal long-standing issues can sometimes override our own common sense.
Ultimately, pain is the body’s feedback system. Injury means we’ve gone too far. It means that something has gone wrong.
The key for all of use, beginners and experienced practitioners alike, is to stay alert and aware during class, always tuning into what’s going on in our body and trusting the signals that it’s giving us. If we don’t, the price we pay can be high.
Subtle beliefs like the one I’ve unearthed in my own psyche – that old injuries surface in class and hurt when they do, and it’s just a part of the healing process – could be doing us more damage than we realise.
I heard stories of crippling injuries, poor self-regard leading to the failure to establish boundaries, and of course incompetent teaching ranging from the negligent to the invasive to the abusive….
Between these extremes, the subtler ideas and feelings that are the target of this study (so far as I imagine it) began to emerge. Alongside stories of positive growth, subjects told me about asana-related injuries they kept secret, blamed themselves for, and obsessed over as symbols of a kind of original sin.
Subjects told me of how they either internalized the aggressive attitudes of instructors more interested in the presumed rules of practice than its effects, or how they used yoga to reify their pre-existing attitudes of bodily ambivalence.
My story of injury and awareness is only one small wave in the ocean, however Matthew is collecting many stories, and from these stories will pull together common experiences and themes.
It’s an exciting piece of work and I look forward to reading more from him in coming months.
If you have your own story of yoga injury you’d like to share with Matthew, you can email him here. Or to just share with YLB readers, you can also comment down below.