Steps Toward a Pain Free Yoga Practice

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I’m reading a book right now called Hell Bent.*  It’s an insightful, sometimes funny, sometimes horrifying look at competitive yoga.  One of the interesting points the book brought up is the idea that pain in yoga could be a good thing.  The author argues that working through pain is his personal route to transcendence, and that while it doesn’t work for everyone, it’s not something that other people should be scornful of just because it’s not their own personal experience.  My visceral reaction to this was horror.  I couldn’t believe that someone was advocating for pain in yoga.  I would never do that, I thought.  I believe in honoring my body.

Then I realized that I was lying to myself. 

Lately I’ve been struggling with a knee injury.  When I should have been changing my practice so as not to make the injury hurt more, instead I was working harder to try and get through the pain.  I didn’t consciously think about it, but somewhere in the recesses of my brain I thought that I needed to push through, to not admit defeat.  There was a disconnect between what I thought of yoga and what I actually practiced.  All of a sudden yoga felt like a struggle, not a release.

Finally, I had had enough.  I decided I was going to take an entire yoga practice and dedicate it to doing whatever I had to do so that there would be no knee pain whatsoever.  This is what I learned:

  1. It’s hard!  Modifying every single pose to relieve knee pressure while still receiving the benefits of the pose requires a lot of thought, and a lot of trial and error.  Sometimes your pose might look very different from everyone around you as you search for an alternate way to engage a muscle or body part.
  2. It makes you vulnerable.  One of the most difficult things for me was that people would be able to see that I was doing something different from everyone else.  After the class, some people asked me about it, and each time that I admitted what was going on with me, it got a little easier.
  3. It helped me understand how my body works when I practice yoga.  When you remove a major body part from your poses, all of a sudden you become very aware of how the rest of your body works.  I learned so much about what parts of my body want to support weight, what does and does not want to stretch and twist, and how I can take the weight off my knee and distribute it elsewhere.


So to recap, my personal attempt at a pain free practice wasn’t easy.  It was challenging and a little scary.  It made me vulnerable.  However, it also made me aware of my body in a new way.  But enough about me.  How can you make honoring your body a more active part of your practice? 

Here are a few ideas:

  1. Learn to be aware of yourself in a new way.  You might be focused on attempting some ideal version of your yoga poses.  Experiment with taking stock of every part of your body that engages to create your pose.  What’s tense?  What holds your weight?  What muscles are engaged?  Is there any pressure or tension or pain?  Locate exactly what hurts.
  2. Start experimenting.  Once you’ve identified areas that don’t feel great in certain poses, start exploring ways to relieve that pressure or discomfort.  Maybe this just means a gentler, kinder version of a pose, without those very enticing modifications that make it more challenging.  Maybe it means trying something totally different with whatever part of you hurts.
  3. Remind yourself that honoring your body is not a cop-out.  It’s not giving up or admitting defeat or being lazy.  Try to think of it as a positive thing, instead of a negative.  You’re deepening your practice and learning how your body works to better suit your yoga practice.
  4. Tell someone.  Whether it’s your yoga instructor or a supportive friend, you don’t have to feel like you’re all alone.  You’ll find that many people struggle with similar challenges in their personal practices, and you might get some great tips.  Plus, letting your teacher know about an injury is always a good idea.  I should also note, none of these tips should be taken more seriously than your doctor, and if you have pain that’s the first person you should talk to!

I hope that if you are one of the many people who finds yourself posing through the pain, these ideas will inspire you to try something new.  Remember, learning to honor your body is a process, and you’re surrounded by people who support you!


* Hell Bent: Obsession, Pain, and the Search for Something Like Transcendence in Competitive Yoga — Benjamin Lorr

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