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 Patricia 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. The benefits of headstand 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 benefits to 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 six years ago. I happily NEVER do them anymore. Before I 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!

This drop back variation strengthens my back.

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 caused by yoga, he cannot give up doing long held forward bends.

What are we doing to ourselves if yoga hurts?

With yoga’s enormous popularity, 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 students, when yoga hurts we need to listen to our bodies 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.

There are multiple Yoga Therapy schools (including my own, Yoga Tune Up®) that have been gaining in popularity over the past two decades. These schools of conscious movement vary in the types of practices they offer — some are more meditative in focus, others more biomechanically based, but all offer a home for practitioners to build new approaches towards practicing yoga. The International Association of Yoga Therapists is an organization that exists to help create a greater discourse about the therapeutic applications of yoga in the world.

What to do if yoga hurts

  1. Admit you are in pain
  2. Seek out a healthcare professional; get the x-rays or MRI if needed!
  3. Follow the healthcare professional’s 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 (pictured in the Oct. 2010 issue of Yoga Journal) where her head never touches the ground. BRAVO!

I practice loads of creative core work called Core Integration to keep my spine happy and strong.

And my students (now licensed YTU Teachers) have discontinued their shoulderstand practice and have fallen in love with a safe alternative, Veeparita Korani Mudra.

What will you do?

Find a Yoga Tune Up class or workshop near you.

Learn about Yoga Tune Up® Teacher Training.

Check out our solutions for reducing pain.

[Article reprinted with permission from Gaiam Life.]

Jill Miller

Jill Miller, C-IAYT, ERYT is the co-founder of Tune Up Fitness Worldwide and creator of the self-care fitness formats Yoga Tune Up® and The Roll Model® Method. With more than 30 years of study in anatomy and movement, she is a pioneer in forging relevant links between the worlds of fitness, yoga, massage, athletics and pain management. She is known as the Teacher’s Teacher and has trained thousands of movement educators, clinicians, and manual therapists to incorporate her paradigm shifting self-care fitness programming into athletic and medical facility programs internationally. She has crafted original programs for 24 Hour Fitness, Equinox, YogaWorks, and numerous professional sports teams. She and her team of 500+ trainers help you to live better in your body with an emphasis on proprioception, mobility, breath mechanics and recovery. She has presented case studies at the Fascia Research Congress and International Association of Yoga Therapy conferences. She has the rare ability to translate complex physiological and biomechanical information into accessible, relevant moves that help her students transform pain, dysfunction and injury into robust fitness. Jill is the anatomy columnist for Yoga Journal Magazine and has been featured in Shape, Men’s Journal, Good Housekeeping, Women’s Health, Yoga Journal, Self, and on the Today Show and Good Morning America. Jill is regularly featured on the Oprah Winfrey Network. She is the creator of dozens of DVD’s including Treat While You Train with Kelly Starrett DPT and is the author of the internationally bestselling book The Roll Model: A Step by Step Guide to Erase Pain, Improve Mobility and Live Better in your Body. Based in Los Angeles, CA, she is a wife and mother of two small children and is currently writing her second book.

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Tessa Watson

I found this a helpful reminder what it means to embody your yoga, and why it is important to teach to participants in my classes. We are here to heal or maintain health, not cause ourselves further damage due to our ego. Namaste

Bonnie Chiong

I love the “What To Do If Yoga Hurts” list! Admitting that you are in pain is amazingly hard for people to do. When I am teaching a class, I notice that a significant amount of time is spent explaining which sensations are ‘safe’ and which are considered ‘yellow flags’. It’s easy for most students to recognize sharp, shooting, searing pain, but it is much more difficult to recognize the other sensations BEFORE said sharp, shooting, searing pain. Cultivating that skill to listen deeply to the body’s signals is so important! And a big yes to obtaining medical imaging in… Read more »

Alison Higgins

Thank you for this post! I have seen a plethora of articles on the injuries incurred from years of yoga practice, and it has been a bit alarming to me. I find myself wondering if I’m going to far in a pose or if it’s just my mind trying to escape. I usually tell myself that the body is stronger than the mind and that’s how I push through sensations. I have found that I will back off if something is really feeling interesting, but most of the time I push through burning or tingling. I find that yoga tune… Read more »

Marco High

LOL. I obviously can’t follow the following: -What to do if yoga hurts -Admit you are in pain – Done. -Seek out a healthcare professional; get the x-rays or MRI if needed! – Dr said it’s inflammation. -Follow the healthcare professional’s protocol – He told me to stop doing Yoga entirely. -Seek out a qualified Yoga Therapist – I am only taught by qualified therapists, but our bodies take time to adjust. -Listen carefully to your body as you build a new practice, and refrain from doing any pose that your body is not prepared for. – I already do… Read more »

SusanB

You can seriously injure yourself doing yoga. It happened to me, and for the last 7 months I have been dealing with a pinched nerve from bulging discs and bone spurring in my cervical spine from doing shoulder stand and plow pose. I lost muscle strength in my right arm and have had constant tingling and cramping in my hand/fingers since. I may be facing surgery and a permanent disability . Be VERY careful doing these poses especially if you are over 45, or else risk permanent injury to your body. The risk is JUST not worth it, trust me.

Diane Walters

Thank you for a very important reminder to practice mindfully. I have had several injuries because I did not listen to my body. My shoulders are very tight and I have not been able to do a traditional headstand. Instead I have been doing tripod. After reading this article i am considering giving up headstand because tripod puts all of my body weight on my head. Does not sound good. I could not find link to alternative pose that was mentioned in another comment. Is it dolphin?

Anna-Marie Lawrence

Thank you for the reminder about the dark side that Yoga can take if we do not practice it mindfully. As I am just about to embark on my career in Yoga I m grateful that the YTU class emphasizes the idealogy of awareness of not only the physical aspects of yoga but the spiritual and emotional connection. I must admit that although learning so much anatomy in a such a short period time is a bit daunting for me at the moment I know that I as well as my studenst will benefit for all the indivual attention and… Read more »

Maggiedo

Tail bone tucking: I found that it makes no anatomical sense to deeply tuck the tail bone, ever. I use to all the time with nagging low back pain, collapsing in chest and pain in knees. When I let the low back be soft and not tuck I became pain free.., i think stopping urdvha dhanurasana also relieved the pain. 🙂

Jeanne Ann Walter

Asanas require preparation. You don’t sign up for a triathlon if you can’t swim…or do you? Stretch your triceps and lats until you can achieve space for your neck in sirsasana. Or- place thin blankets under both arms to give you space until you manage to create some of your own. I use sirsasana to slide a cervical vertebrae back in line. There is a “rupee or dime-sized” spot on your head that is the ONLY place that should touch your blanket. Padmasana (lotus) is about your hips-if they aren’t ready, don’t expect your knees to adapt. This is so… Read more »

Emily Sonnenberg

In being trained in several types of fitness classes including yoga I have learned that the most dangerous students are the ones that are over confident and those that are extremely frightened. I have found that these types of people are most likely to not listen to their body but instead unconsciously react to a cue. I have found that setting the foundation of the class to honour and respect your own body and where it is today brings everyones (or mosts people’s) awareness to where they are. And then also not teaching risky poses like shoulder stand. Its just… Read more »

Luke Sniewski

This is something that needs to be addressed across all health and fitness modalities, not just yoga. Too many people push themselves beyond their own breaking points, without understanding the potential lifelong repercussions of injuries. Worse is when negligent instructors push students beyond their fitness levels with a complete disregard for the individual. Better to train smart than train hard. Thanks for sharing this story. More people need to read it.

Tracy

I am so happy that this conversation has finally come to the table. I have been on a similar trajectory to yourself and many others, doing yoga poses as I’ve been instructed to the very best of my ability, blindly trusting that yoga is benevolent and my teachers knew best, even though my body was sending me a very different message. Sadly, I was so enamored with my practice and my teachers that I had to get a very serious injury before I stopped drinking the Kool Aid. For years since I have been searching for a way to return… Read more »

Donna

I think that we often push ourselves because we want to ‘achieve’ a pose or because we feel pressure to ‘do what everyone else is doing.’ As an older student with wrist and knee issues, I have been working hard on trying to gain the most from as many poses as possible, but have also become very aware that there are poses that I should not be doing or that should be modified significantly. The trick is to find alternate poses to do when the rest of the class is in a complex arm balance, for example and to work… Read more »

john

thanks for the article!

After becoming comfortable with crow, I started trying to straighten one leg and do the single-legged flying crow as seen here: comment image

While straightening my right leg, I felt a sharp pain on the right side of my chest. It has been two days and the pain hasn’t gone away. Does anyone know what this might be? I guess I will have to take a break from crow because doing crow aggravates the chest pain. thanks! [email protected]

jackie

I read the article in yoga journal with amazement, now that I am becoming a yoga teacher I fully understand how we want to push ourselves, it is important to remember this pushing is not the goal of yoga, in fact it is the opposite. I hope I am able to keep this in mind, always.

Erika O

Reading about patricia’s story has really opened my eyes as a new teacher, and been a great red flag for myself to really listen to my body, especially once I start teaching.

Yumee

Thanks for sharing your drop-back story and for providing an image of a variation that strengthens the back rather than harming it. I find pose preps and variations are often more challenging than the classical poses themselves. Here are a couple of personal examples: Not so long ago, I demonstrated a prep variation of danurasana for those who can’t reach their ankles (think of skydiving with arms reaching back and knees bent but hands not quite catching the feet) and was amazed at the way it fired up my back body. Similarly, the YTU pose 1/4 urdhva danurasana at the… Read more »

Charity Baker

Well, this is a humbling topic. My ego has definitely ‘hurt’ me on the mat. Only after a few years of practice am I really learning to listen to my body properly. Burt even still, I tend to push too hard when I shouldn’t. Very recently I consulted Lillee Chandra about the pain I was experiencing in headstand. She gave me a very thorough response of things to look for, which I’m still reviewing and will prbably bring back to her or a body worker in NYC. I’ve never had trouble before, but recently experienced headaches and pains in my… Read more »

Jill Miller

Hi Tina, I have the utmost respect for Judith, have had her books for years. Attempting to keep the tailbone neutral is ideal in backbends…however, we must always account for each individual’s actual living tissue, their relative range of motion and look at other areas that may be compensating in order to create spinal extension. These questions are not easily discussed on a blog thread. I hope we can take a look at this in person at some point in the future.

tina

Question on the tailbone tuck. Hi, I recently took a class on back bending (by a PT and long time yoga teacher, Judith Lasater) so she has amazing credentials as do you, anyway, Judith is NOT a fan of the tailbone tuck, especially in back bend poses and I am noticing as I have stopped tucking my tail so much in the back bends and even in warrior poses, but instead lower the T-12 (drop the ribs onto the skin) the pose feels much more interesting and yes, deeper, but I think it feels that way because I have been… Read more »

Rose D

Wow! Great article. In the attempts to master asana practice, it is so easy to lose sight or never even discover the true essence of what is yoga. I feel like this article could have been written about me. After leaving a very stressful job in corporate finance and injuring myself due to excessive running, I quickly threw myself into my new world of Pilates and Yoga with the same stubborn ego that caused me to injure myself running. After creating instability at L5-S1 in Pilates and rotating a disk in my neck doing headstand incorrectly, I realized that I… Read more »

Kyoko Jasper

Yes, yes and yes! When I started Yoga 11 years ago all I knew was to follow the protocol of classic yoga poses to perfect them. I never even realized how my ego was destroying my body. But now I am finally in good hands… I am so happy to be in Yoga Tune Up®) Certification course. Jill and Lilee gave me so much intelligence and confidence. I never knew until now that I can fully take responsibility for my own body!

Lynnie G

Jill, I’m guilty of doing too many chatturangua dandasanas and not being strong enough – not doing them properly. I had been experiencing shoulder/arm pain and it wasn’t until the anatomy workshop that I realized exactly where it hurt and why. And, when you said to “‘push metal” I also realized I needed to supplement my practice with some other forms of strengthening. Learned a lot. I had to step back a little.

Immersed in 'Black'ness - A Yoga Class with Glenn Black | Yoga Tune Up

[…] unhealthy attachment to ‘traditional’ yoga poses (and for more on this, see Jill’s last two blogs). If someone unthinkingly stretched during a pause in teaching, we all suddenly had to do […]

Sarah J.

I am one of those people who suffers from neck pain after coming out of headstand. I just finally was able to achieve the pose after years of practice but after reading this post, I am more aware that this may be a pose that my body just may not be built for after all, and in the spirit of thanksgiving I should be grateful for the many others I can do!

Megan

An important reminder to be present and conscious at all times. Whether eating, practicing yoga or doing projects around the house…we must be aware of what we are doing to our bodies. Thanks!

Steve

Yikes, a truly scary story that got my attention. I too am becoming addicted to my every-morning headstand, working up to 4 minutes so far. No problems that I can see yet, but I come out early if I feel ANY discomfort. I’ll continue to be vigilant.

Trish

It’s so important that people listen to their bodies. I have had issues with my right knee recently and eventually just had to stop doing lotus for a while until the pain subsided. It’s so hard when you love certain poses and are determined to keep improving in your practice. This is such an important lesson to speak of. Thanks!!

Jill Miller

Gina, persistent pain that does not disappear, that drains your energy, or makes you flinch when you move should be addressed by a medical professional.

Cathy

It’s really scary that a yogi would hurt themselves so severely by doing something they love so much! The beauty of yoga, to me, is that we can all participate at our own speed/level, we shouldn’t have to push so hard to enjoy it. Good reminder….

Gina T

Sometimes it can be difficult to tell if I am in pain from injury or simply from sore muscles. In such situations, how long do you recommend before seeking medical attention?

rcm

Thanks for pointing out what is sometimes so easy to forget — saftey first!

christina

This is why i want to work on people one on one. great article.

Karla Huffman

This article is a constant reminder for me to slow down and remember that pain is not soreness. I always think, yeah I got a good practice in today cause I feel the soreness. A lot of times this “soreness” is pain in my body and I need to recognize that.

Anita

As Felicia mentions above, we did the test indicated in this article in our teacher training last weekend to determine whether or not we should attempt the full headstand pose. For years I have been frustrated because I can’t do this pose as other inversions are not as difficult. And I could never really find a position where there wasn’t some discomfort. Have finally realized that I am not meant to do this pose…it’s not worth risking one’s life! Sometimes we just need a dose of reality!

Elizabeth E

This is such a good reminder for both teachers and students. So important to distinguish between a pose that’s just difficult and one that’s painful. Thanks for these reminders.

lisa Moontague

The story of Patricia had areal impact on me. I haven’t found a pose that I could maintain for really long periods and I now know if I have pain, I will stop what I am doing. I guess everything in moderation.

Fulana

Hi Jill. I am surprised to hear these rather rarer poses flagged. They are hardly ever taught in the crowded flow classes that predominate in studios around LA. Handstand is the default pop up into in every vinyasa ,try in your first class, and applaud. combined with the emphasis on repeated updogs & fast chataraungas, it seems shoulder & wrist problems due to lack of symmetry/upper body strength would be a more widespread chronic problem. IME, the very few teachers who include headstand introduce it very slowly, monitor alignment closely, emphasize building core strength to raise bent legs & hold,… Read more »

Kim Currier

Jill – I have heard about this story but reading it in your blog makes it so real. I tend to reach a little in my yoga practice and it is simly not worth it. Thank you for reminding me!

Teresa Heit-Murray

There is a difference between reaching to go further and reaching to pain. Knowing the difference is knowing your physical body and being able to listen to it and act accordingly. It seems simple… maybe it is…. as simple as that. That is the yogic way… isn’t it?

Hayden Bird

Thanks for addressing this! I still need reminder to take care and really listen to my body both on and off the mat.

Felicia

Jill – Thanks for an enlightening article. Last week in Yoga Teacher Training we did a test (clasp forearms around top side edge of skull and look to see if head is above, even or below forearms) to determine if it is safe to go into traditional headstand. Many students, me included, found out our heads were not even or below our forearms while standing upright and therefore we would be putting too much pressure on our heads in the traditional upside-down position. For years I have been trying to master the pose and just practicing headstand prep hurt my… Read more »

Ariel Marcoux

Awesome article – and such an important reminder for yoga teachers and students alike. Thank you!

Becky G

Thanks Jill! I sometimes forget to do both of these simultaneously.

Jill Miller

Both of these poses affect the lower back, as they position the spine into extension, or “backbend” it is very important to attempt to negate the effects of the backbend by strongly contracting the abdominals and “attempting” to do a crunch while entering and maintaining these positions. In addition, you want to also posteriorly tilt the pelvis, or “tuck the tailbone” while in these poses as well to prevent impingement in the lower back vertebrae and discs. Good Luck!

Becky G

Hi Jill, when I get into poses like Warrior I or upward facing dog, sometimes I feel pain or tightness in my low back. Do you know what would be causing this?