When I tell people I am a yoga teacher they like to share their yoga experience with me. Once a woman who had a pretty severe scoliosis told me she had been going to yoga for a while at her doctor’s suggestion to help stabilize her spine. I asked how it was going and she told me, “Great! I think it’s working because I am always in pain when I leave.” Conversations like that make me cringe. I have them a lot. Yoga is not supposed to cause pain. One of the primary tenants of Yoga is “do no harm”.
Sometimes a yoga teacher doesn’t know how to get a student out of pain. I was working with one of my teacher trainees at a corporate event and after watching her interact with some students, I told her I would prefer she ask the participants what they are feeling rather than tell them, which is what she was doing. Her response was very honest. She said she doesn't ask because she is afraid she won’t know what to tell them when they give her an answer. This revealed the focus for rest of this persons training. An experienced and well-trained teacher will continually ask students if they are comfortable.
Following the “do no harm” tenant of yoga is chiefly the responsibility of the teacher. Teachers should know what body parts are typically stressed by each pose they ask a student to undertake (for example, pigeon pose might compromise someone’s knees). The teacher should alert students of that possible outcome and if a student admits that a vulnerable place in their body is being compromised by a pose, the teacher should know an alternative to offer. A good teacher will also remind the class now and then to scan their bodies and make sure they are doing okay.
But “do no harm” is also the responsibility of the student. Students need to stay attentive to their bodies while they practice to make sure they do no harm to themselves. You should be willing to move out of a pose that hurts. Admittedly, it is sometimes hard to distinguish between the effort of contraction, and pain. But if we keep looking for that difference, and are able to feel it, we will learn what is good for our bodies and what is not.
Students should trust their instructor enough to say “I don’t understand what you want me to do,” or “I am not sure what I am doing,” or “OUCH. This hurts.” It doesn't mean you are doing something wrong, it just means you don’t know or are not sure. When you admit you don’t know something, then learning really begins. And isn't that one of the reasons you are going to class, to learn more about yoga and your body?
Yoga should not cause pain. You may be stiff from moving something you have never moved before, but that should feel very different from pain. You can work hard and sweat. You can exert a lot of effort trying to get into the pose, but you should not be in pain. Especially in the joints. In particular, you should not feel pain in your knees or the sacroiliac joints.
You might be attracted to yoga to help with physical pain (joints, muscles, ligaments, tendons, etc.) or emotional/mental pain (What so and so said really hurt my feelings; I wasn’t invited to the party and I feel hurt; I didn’t get the job I wanted, etc.) Sometimes we can feel directly injured and hurt on an energetic level (like an x-ray or negative environment - a place you are not comfortable for no apparent reason). Yoga can help with this as well. It is important to consider that yogis recognize that pain on the physical and mental level can arise from disturbances in our body’s primal energy, which yogis call prana.
When our energy is depleted or disturbed we can become tired, stressed, and sometimes end up in chronic pain. Many times this is a pain that the doctors cannot explain. When I have a client who tells me their doctors have done many tests, and taken x-rays, and scans and can’t find a reason, I consider their prana. I test it out by theory by giving them prana balancing practices to do. If they then feel better and the pain goes away, we have confirmation.
So what does prana have to do with working in pain? If you put yourself in pain in a yoga pose, or go to a class where you don’t trust the teacher, or feel uncomfortable for reasons you can't put your finger on, you are disturbing your primal energy, your prana. And because physical ailments can actually arise from disturbed prana, how is the class helping you?
My Yoga Therapy mentor, Mukunda Stiles, said we should test our teachers for a year. If after a year you do not see the results you want from your yoga practice, find another teacher. If you begin yoga seeking freedom from pain, becoming pain free could be one of the criteria. But only one: Do not only ask yourself if you are becoming pain free, but how about becoming drama free and stress free? Are you sleeping better and feeling overall more joyful and excited about life?
These days there are many yoga studios to choose among. Finding the teacher who is best able to serve your physical practice as well as your spiritual and energetic practices should be an essential part of your yoga journey.