Many people believe that yoga is “working” when they are in pain. Once a woman with severe scoliosis told me she had been going to yoga for a while at her doctor’s suggestion to help stabilize her spine. When asked how it was going, she replied, “Great! I think it’s working because I am always in pain when I leave.”Following the “do no harm” tenant of yoga is chiefly the responsibility of the teacher. They should know which 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 this and offer an alternative. A good teacher will also remind the class now and then to scan their bodies and make sure they are doing okay. However, “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 are not pushing themselves too far. They 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 by continually looking for that difference, we 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 “This hurts.” It doesn’t mean you are doing something wrong, it just means you are unsure. When you admit you don’t know something, learning can truly begin.
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) or emotional pain (anxiety, depression). 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, called 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 doctors cannot explain. If medical tests have been inconclusive, consider prana. If the pain goes away with prana-balancing practices, you have confirmation.
What does prana have to do with working in pain? If you put yourself in pain, go to a class where you don’t trust the teacher, or feel generally uncomfortable, you are disturbing your primal energy, your prana. Since physical ailments can actually arise from disturbed prana, you must ask yourself: is the class really helping?
Yoga Therapy practitioner, Mukunda Stiles, says 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 relief from pain, becoming pain free could be one of the criteria. Additionally, consider if you are becoming less stressed, sleeping better and feeling overall more joyful and excited about life. These are surefire signs that both your yoga practice and teacher are working for you. 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. By practicing with a good teacher and honoring your body through ahimsa, your prana will be balanced and your body will be free from pain.
Bonnie Pariser (Amarjyothi) is the founder/director and senior instructor at Yoga Loka in Frenchtown and Somerville. She began teaching Yoga in 1998 and has taught in the Frenchtown area since 1999. Locations: 7 Kingwood Ave., Frenchtown; 19 N. Doughty, Somerville. 908-268-7430. Yoga-Loka.com.