I had finally found a home for my naturally flexible body, it was a place I could really excel at doing things I loved with my body. I was never really the super sporty type—my zone of play had always been in movement. But I had never before experienced the connection I felt to my body like I did in yoga.
Like any relationship that starts fast and furious, I dove in head first. I got my certifications, practiced in India, and opened my own studio, all within a very short period of time. This was it—or so I thought: I had met my movement match and we were headed for a lifetime of limber love together. Until, like most fast and furious marriages, the honeymoon was over and I started noticing little aches and pains, small weaknesses popping up, and my allegiance waning.
I chose to ignore what my body was telling me and continued to do more yoga. I repeatedly pushed my flexibility and got myself saddled with my first big heartbreak—a disc injury in the spine. Actually, it was three disks and they were completely herniated. The doctors told me I would never move the same again and an immediate operation was my best option for “recovery.”
I was told that if I chose to forgo the operation, it would put my nerves at risk for permanent damage. Having seen my dad go through multiple unsuccessful surgeries, I decided to risk it and opt out anyway.
Here I was an avid yogi, bedridden for three months on pain killers and anti-inflammatory meds, and facing the possibility of never walking right again—all at only 25-years-old. Yoga had put a really bad taste in my mouth, but after wallowing in self-pity for a long time, I became determined to get to the “core” of my problem (pun intended). A friend sent me the book Back Care Basics and I read it cover to cover. It dawned on me that my own movement choices had really created this situation and unless I addressed that as fundamental to my propblem, I would never find relief.
So I began seeking out the scientific validation for my own experience of yoga asana as damaging to my body. I studied anatomy, biomechanics, and movement therapy intensely. And what I discovered shocked me—all the encouragement of flexibility in yoga was was actually quite damaging. Certain contortion poses can create excessive joint ranges, deep lunges can stress connective tissue, and hip opening came at the expense of strong ligaments designed to hold the hips together, rather than pulled apart constantly like taffy.
Yes, sadly, much of how asana is taught can be injurious to the body, if not done correctly. Yoga poses aren’t to blame here, however, but how they are taught is. Asanas is only one tiny part of yoga, but it is the one part that nearly everyone seems to be practicing, without fully understanding the rest. Most people have no idea how to modify yoga poses to serve them better, and many teachers aren’t always necessarily equipped to guide those students into a healthier way of practicing.
Not one teacher I had until the moment of my injury had talked to me about stability and strength, habits and patterns. It was always about getting deeper and deeper into poses. Achieving harder, more complicated balancing, leg-behind-head-contortionist poses. Not at all very yogic in nature. In fact, very ego-driven.
Once I recognized in myself all the ways I was cheating in yoga, I realized I was destabilizing and damaging my own body with my ego. I started to see it in others, and was no longer able to teach those poses and still go to bed at night feeling good about myself. More of my colleagues were getting injured, some were hobbling around with torn ligaments, but trying to brush it under the rug and hoping they would heal fast, without anyone finding out.
One of my friends who works in an acupuncture office even told me that his practice had become a revolving door for yoga teachers with joint-related injuries. This was starting to look like an epidemic!
So what did I do with all of this new information I had? I began to modify my teachings to be less about flexibility, and more about stability and strength and took out all of the cover photo worthy poses. These are all the contortion poses that are widely shared on social media, but have very little merit physically, in my opinion. And as I did that, my own body stopped hurting, I had three awesome pregnancies without all the aches and pains, and I felt strong and grounded in my body.
I was no longer aspiring to that ego-driven yogi desire, but instead, became fascinated by using my body well, and being truly connected to it. This was far more rewarding than getting my leg behind my head. My relationship with yoga changed completely.
As I pared down the poses, I felt more comfortable in my teaching. I threw in some non-yoga exercises so that my classes looked less like a regular yoga class, but had the same quality of attention, presence, and serenity. My own practice became a mix of yoga, lots of core strenghtening work, restorative poses and stability “drills.” It still felt like yoga to me and my body thrived.
And guess what? I found that the people looking to move fast and do fancy poses were no longer in my classes, replaced by a different type of yogi—a more introspective, curious and mindful yogi. The best part was that my students stopped getting injured and started feeling amazing and whole again. This brought me more joy and fulfillment than ever before.
My pain was my greatest teacher and it catapulted me into my life’s work, but my goal is to make sure my students can avoid the pain in the first place.
I want to share with you my top four tips to get the most out of yoga without any injury:
1. Find a teacher who can teach you what your habits and blind spots are. Once you learn what your default movement cheats are, you can learn to move better and get balanced. Every yoga class you go to will be an opportunity to undo your old habits and create better more helpful ones.
2. The uber obvious one: Listen, listen, listen to your body. I guarantee you, your body is always talking to you. Who cares that your mat neighbor is a contortionist! Just tune them out, don’t be competitive, and listen to your boundaries.
3. Find the the teachers who take you deeper on your life's journey, not in a fancy yoga pose. A teacher whose goal is to get you into complicated contortionist poses is not who you want to spend your time with or money on. Find the teachers who take you on the real journey.
4. The more you move throughout the day and in a variety of shapes, the less yoga you need! That’s right––if you change your position often, stand for work more, walk more, sit on the floor more, the less you need to stretch. The reason so many of us are so tight is because our movement repertoire is so limited, and we sit for too many hours a day. Change your all-day habits and your body will start to change, too.
Photo by Ali Kaukas