Are you addicted to crack? Cracking your joints, I mean! There were years during my 20s when I could not fathom getting through my early-morning yoga practice without popping my shoulders, low back, hips and neck. I was popping and cracking my way through the day like a one-woman band.

Usually these fast internal whacks felt great, a rush that temporarily relieved aches and pains. What I didn’t know at the time was that all that cracking was not only emblematic of my body’s instability, but it was accelerating my own tissue breakdown.

Denial is not a river in Egypt

I have always gone “all-in,” no matter what the physical practice. Yoga was always my mainstay and baseline, but on top of that practice (which I started at age 11) I was also a dancer, runner, skier (horrible skier), water aerobics instructor and rock climber. But yoga had always been my security blanket and my salvation. It was the way I knew that my body was balanced and set (or so I thought) to be able to do everything else I loved.

In my 20s, I was hard-core about my yoga practice. I’d get out of bed for my daily 7am-9am Astanga yoga practice. I was relentless and would not miss a day, even when I was sick or hadn’t slept enough the night before. At the time, I thought my devotion was sacrament and that my dedication to my practice was my righteous purpose. I turned down dates and family functions so that I could show up on the mat.

Yes, that is my FOOT on top of my HEAD.

But all of this — what I now call my “fanatic” phase — was de-stabilizing my joints and causing me to constantly pop and crack, both voluntarily and involuntarily. I’m not sure why I thought it was “normal” to wake up in the morning, unable to fully straighten my knees. It would take me about 20 steps of hobbling towards the bathroom before they would comply.

During an intimate evening with my boyfriend, my neck finally “went out.” I could not turn it and was in insane amounts of pain. My whole body retreated into a vacuum, engulfed with searing pain and silence. My boyfriend pulled away as I disappeared inside my fear and despair. A mammoth fight erupted, which was actually a great excuse for me to leave this two-year relationship that was volatile and riddled with unhealthy dynamics (caused in large part by my addiction to exercise/yoga).

But my neck problems were only the tip of the iceberg of the physical and emotional instability that was literally stretching me to the point of breaking down.

Diagnosis: repetitive stress

I had heard of “Repetitive Stress Syndrome.” It’s something that cashiers get from overusing their wrists all day. When I was told I had the same thing, but all over my body, I was baffled. How could yoga be causing repetitive stress? I couldn’t wrap my head around it … wasn’t yoga supposed to be therapeutic and healthy for anyone? Weren’t yoga poses the equivalent of a body vitamin? Don’t yoga poses ease stress and help with pain, disease and all manner of healing? I pored through my library of yoga books that championed the healing effects of poses and practices. Interesting, none of them listed Repetitive Stress Syndrome.

I did all types of yoga practices: the meditations, the yantras (imagery), pranayama (breath exercises), japa (verbal repetition) — heck, I even did the eye exercises! And of course, there were the poses. I sure did love doing hours and hours of poses. Well, too much of a good thing turned out to be a very badthing for me. Poses are not pills. They can be more potent and toxic than a drug when taken in excess, and I had overdosed.

I had to reckon with the consequences of over-exercising, a new insidious form of bulimia. My eating-disordered past had come back to haunt me in a different form. I had not cleared my need for body control, and I was punishing myself with yoga.

Turning point

With the help of a gifted physical therapist, I learned how I had weakened my body with my yoga practice. All of that clicking and popping was the result of overstretched tendons and connective tissues unable to find points of center or balance throughout my joints. I would have to literally pull myself together if I wanted to heal.

Adding strength training to my practice

This was a profound metaphor for my soul and psyche. I did not have to push myself so hard, punishing myself with hours of practice a day. It was hostile and showed a lack of respect for myself. I needed to learn to work with myself rather than against. Years of habits were overthrown, and I adopted massive changes in my physical practice and daily schedule. For one, my physical therapist started me on a strength-training program, and I vowed to stop cracking my neck and shoulders. It worked.

Thirteen years later, I continue to explore strength and stability as a major part of my daily practice. Looking for ways to hold myself, rather than turning into runny jello. Yoga is all about balance between strength and flexibility at every level. I had stretched myself to pieces and had become so flexible that I was no longer strong. I now practice for 30-60 minutes, instead of hours. I take days off. And I incorporate my own self-massage techniques to keep my tissues happy and to keep me out of the doctor’s office.

If you are a “crack” addict, find yourself constantly uncomfortable, or are in the process of addiction recovery, have hope! It is possible to rid yourself of unhealthy body habits and address the underlying mental forces that drove you there in the first place.

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[Reprinted with permission from Gaiam Life.]

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Stephanie

It takes deep awareness and a strong resolve to let go off old anchors and patterns that hold us down or in this case, break you down. I enjoy learning more about how YTU and the therapy balls work in concert with every day movement and activity. These are tools that compliment one’s lifestyle and inspire curiosity and incentive to want to change to enhance rather than completely avoid the activities that have binded us in the past. Cheers to the next evolution!

Denitsa Lilova

How interesting to connect habitual tendency which even give a moment of pleasure with stress which appear in the mind as a result. thank you for the way you presented that one can reflect same time on this and many similar phenomenas!

Erica Tharp

This is one of those Ah-ha posts. I pop and crack as I move or even getting a hug from my husband, I always have. There are points where my knees hurts during the firs few steps out of bed. Not aging, it’s me causing this determination. Thank you for this. Lots to fix on my end.

Kelly

Thank you for the honesty of this post. As they say: how you are on your mat is how you are off your mat. And, of course, vice versa. The micro-universe of our mat makes it easier to see our habits, for better or worse, and hopefully to begin to make mini-changes that reverberate into our lives off the mat.

Steven Custodio

This post can be a wake up call for many, I’ve always said that yoga and strength training was a perfect balance and if you can add ball rolling to it, well you just gave your body some extra love. I always fight with myself to take a day off specially since I often feel like my shoulders are always tired, which is a sign of overtraining so taking a day off and maybe treat yourself with a bull body ball rolling, well let’s just say your body will greatly appreciate it and you may get one of the best… Read more »

Tessa Watson

Thank you for sharing your experience Jill. It gives me even greater appreciation for your methods and mindfulness practices.

Isabelle Cote

I love the “work with myself” slogan ! I am my best partner ! Respect and love is so what I read in between all those words. And humility and self love… the aroma of this article, inspiring me. 🙂

Regina

It really is all about balance. After having back issues, I was so upset because I lost all my range of motion. Yoga gave me back my range of motion and yin yoga gave me even more. I actually hit a point of too much more. Now over time I not only teach balancing your body to others. I walk the talk too.

Alisa Murray

Thank you so much for sharing your experiences, Jill. It’s all about balance, and it’s so easy for any of us to take something we love too far, not recognizing that it’s no longer self-care, but an attempt to have control when life so often seems out of control.

Dandy

Too much of anything can be bad and we do tend to think if it’s something “healthy” it’s ok…but health is mostly about finding balance…and that applies to all things! Thanks for sharing these words of wisdom!

Laurel Crane

Love this, I’m still coming to terms with letting go my constant desire to practice vinyasa, but I picked up strength training and power lifting to balance out my hypermobility a few years ago and have seen significant change.

Deb

I love this article. Thank you

Cintia Hongay

My dad used to give me a “bear hug” when I was a kid that will crack my back (it did feel good, though), a practice he kept well into my teenage years and early twenties… I often ask my husband to do that… and I do go to a chiropractor that cracks and pops my back and neck… Hmmm… I guess I should think deeply about it now that I know better.

Genea Crum

Thank you Jill for sharing this personal story. I am in the thick of “Repetitive Stress Syndrome”. Just last year I started having horrible low back and neck pain for this very reason. NO one had ever warned me that being overly flexible/stretched was a bad thing. I am currently working on building up more strength and tone to restabilize my body. Many of the yoga tune up moves have been very helpful. This is such important information!!!

Kate Colette

At first I thought that this was going to be a great article for some of my clients who love to crack..and then I realized that I needed this information too! I thought that I had ceased cracking my body years ago, but then it occurred to me that I interlace and crack my fingers multiple times a day when I stretch my arms up over my head. My future hands thank you for calling this to my attention now, who knows what damage a few more decades of this practice may have done?!?

Lauren Reese

This article really speaks to my! As a Yogi who has spent the past few years going ‘deeper’ I have found myself Left with little strength and tons of mobility and flexibility! I am currently working to find my balance between strength and flexibility!

Miao Zhang

This is such profound article for me! I am going to share this with my fellow teachers and this is definitely a reminder of trusting how you feel and the red flags your body is giving you. I practice often but not to the same extent as Jill’s early ages, and I already have constant discomfort and tightness around my neck shoulder and upper back area and I always thought I was doing the right thing in poses. Could it be the correctness of the poses that caused me the pain? It really got me thinking. If the body is… Read more »

Wendy Rancourt

I too am a reformed hypermobile person. I am resolved to stop cracking, bu it is so ingrained I will have to exercise much willpower. Fortunately I have a lot. I used it for many years to drive myself into the ground, but I chose not to do that any more. Thanks Jill!

Juliet Hewitt

Thanks for sharing your personal story. I have found myself in a similar place having started you to help heal pain from scoliosis and finding much of what I was practicing was making me hurt worse. Strength training and tune up balls have helped me tremendously.

Jen Wheaton

I have cracked my shoulders multiple times a day for many years….flexing my shoulders, externally rotating, and extending my arms overhead will do it every time! Loudly. Lately, I’ve been trying to bring my attention to the times when I feel the impulse to crack my shoulders….typically, during periods of increased stress either at work or in my personal life, or after a physically stressful practice. I think the key for me is the stress, or rather, my posture during times of stress and propensity to internally rotate my shoulders and leading to a calling for them to be cracked… Read more »

Jessica Haims

This article hits home for me in many ways…my yoga practice (and my ego!) has lead to severe injuries in my spine to the point I couldn’t get up and down stairs for a week because my nerves were affected by the disc injury. The raw honesty of listening to the body and allowing the body to heal itself is so important not only as a student but as teacher, we must practice what we preach. I also was not aware of the damage of cracking and it’s something I will have to work hard on giving up! Reading that… Read more »