The desire to increase flexibility tends to be the reason many of us attend hatha yoga classes. Our jobs keep us sitting or standing in one position for far too long and our bodies cry out for that succulent, sinewy stretch that only comes from a good, deep yoga practice. Yet sometimes there are unexplained aches and pains that linger after class. It may be more than sore muscles. Some element of your yoga sequence may be overstressing your joints. This is something at which we, as practitioners, need to take a closer look.
Regardless of what you may have heard in class, pain does not burn up toxins or make us stronger. It is a call to action, a profound quiz in the textbook of life that asks, “What is the lesson here?” Pain is a powerful messenger that tells us to stop, modify, or change what we are doing in some way. The type of pain we experience from poor alignment or overdoing may show up as burning in the lower back or achy hips that wake us up at night, and these may be things that are easily corrected right on our own mats.
Regardless of what you may have heard in class, pain does not burn up toxins or make us stronger. It is a call to action.
There are a handful of misconceptions about yoga, pain, and alignment that I’d like to address from a therapeutic perspective, both for new students and those who have years of experience. These are the six "yoga myths" that top my list:
1. "Using props for simple seated postures is for beginners and inflexible people, right?"
Not at all—elevating and angling the pelvis forward in all sitting postures (especially meditation poses) helps with breathing and prevents that lackluster slouch and tired sore back we would like to avoid. In my experience as a yoga therapist, the habitual collapse of the lumbar spine is probably the most common source of yoga-related pain. Sitting in sukhasana (easy posture) or similar seated poses with no lumbar curve sets you up for overstretching the lumbar-sacral joints and compressing the discs. Spinal discs are soft, compressible discs that separate the interlocking bones (vertebrae) that make up the spine. The discs act as shock absorbers for the spine; when they are not supported with good alignment and healthy muscle tone, the discs become weaker and joints gradually destabilize.Furthermore, twisting from this slumped position is a spinal disaster. Poor lower back! The cure? A blanket or two folded to elevate the pelvis, angled so that the pubic bone is lower than the tailbone. See how elegant your spine feels?
2. "Rounded forward folds over straight legs releases my back, true?"
This came up in in a class I taught recently. Each time we would approach a pose that would strengthen the spinal or core muscles, the very movements that support great posture and back health, one student would stop and do a rounded paschimotanasana or uttanasana. I had asked before class about injuries or issues, and she had told me she had lower back pain and had to “do her own thing.” Alas, her own thing was her undoing. We talked after class about ways to strengthen her core and spinal muscles to help with her noisy, cracking, and painfully destabilized lower spine. “But the forward folds feel good!” she begged.
Learning to do a forward fold that builds core strength may not be as easy or relaxing as rounding forward, but it makes daily movements like getting out of bed, standing, and walking a better experience in the long run. Bending the knees in a seated fold may make us feel a bit like we are cheating at first, but with bent knees, the angle of the pelvis again will place the fold in the hip crease. The axial extension (upward lift) of the spine is a wonderful find in dandasana, for instance, and that same length can be maintained through paschimottanasana.
In a standing forward fold, knees need to be a bit (or very) bent, and there is a little backbend (spinal extension) in the forward fold. The ascent is the same way, no curling/rolling up. To come out of the standing forward fold, bend knees slightly and bring arms out and up. Or, if you feel you must curl up, bend the knees deeply to use the strength of the gluteals to bring you upright.
(By the way, I now see my friend with the cranky lower back applying these ideas in class, and I even received a bouquet of seasonal flowers from her a few days ago!)
3. "Pigeon pose in every class keeps hips healthy and flexible, doesn’t it?"
There are definitely qualifiers for this one. If you have collapsed unsupported into pigeon for years and found the forward fold variation to be a position in which you could fall asleep, at some point it’s likely to start biting you in the butt, back, or SI joints. A sturdy kapha type may be able to do this for years with no problem, but woe to the small-boned, stretchy vata person whose skeleton needs more muscular strength to keep their joints from being noisy and painful. "Should I skip it," you ask? Not necessarily. You can always modify. If it’s strength you need more than your easily available flexibility, try keeping your front heel under your hip (rather than aiming for a 90-degree angle in your front leg) while isometrically contracting your thighs upward and engaging the pelvic floor. Or for a more passive pigeon, roll to your back instead and draw one knee to chest and then diagonally across your body; you may find an area of your hip that actually needs the stretch.
4. "I just learned a cool sequence! We did lunges and all the standing poses on one side before we did the whole sequence on the other side—great, huh?"
Maybe not so great for you. Yes, it may be wicked choreography, and your strong kaphic friend may have no problem with it, but flexible you went home with searing pain across the sacrum and felt imbalanced in your pelvis for a week. What may have happened is that as muscles became tired the SI joints start taking over the work of supporting the weight of the body. This can skew your pelvis and cause lingering, burning pain. Do you leave the class? No—for now just narrow your stance and take the most "beginner" option in each standing or lunging pose. Consider lowering your back knee to the floor, using a block, and don’t try unsupported parsvokanasana, trikonasana, or too many balancing poses when you are already a bit tired. You might also mention to the teacher that a lot of asymmetrical work hurts your sacrum. They may have no issue with it in their own practice, and thus may not be aware it causes problems for others. And in your own practice, be sure to do poses on both sides of your body.
5. "If I keep stretching, my [insert body part here] will stop hurting and I’ll get more flexible."
This too is case by case. Take the wrists, for instance. I hear the cue more times than not to “Place your wrists directly under your shoulders” in tabletop pose. But take a look at your wrist extension. Fold your palm back at the wrist and see if it creates a 90-degree angle. If it does, that alignment is fine for you, but many of us with a natural 110-degree wrist angle need to crawl the palms forward a bit for weight bearing in the wrists. You may find that your wrist joints squawk much less this way. Jamming down on the wrist will not make your bone structure more flexible. Same is true for knee and hip alignment in many standing poses. Knee joints can't get "more flexible," and torquing them in warrior I with heel-to-arch or heel-to-heel alignment is just one of those bad-news cues that can cause havoc in the joints. For good knee-to-foot alignment the feet need to be pelvic-width apart. Toes always go in the same direction as the knees. Hips are ball-and-socket joints, so they can rotate, but a pinched feeling in the socket is a message to bend the knees—it means you are bone on bone and that type of compression leads to microfractures of the joints (a discomfort common in forward folds and poses standing on one leg).
6. "Deeper is better, and I get a great release!"
Huge cranking hip circles in table pose, downward dog, or supine core practices; cracking our backs regularly in supine twists; and popping up out of deep knee bends like malasana without the support of our hands are just a few of the “noisy” things we shouldn’t be doing in yoga class. Instead, keep leg and hip circles small and controlled. Keep your pelvis and knees stacked in reclining twists so you don’t “crack” the back, and never push into a twist to get the popping noises; it only feels good in the moment, and the habit can lead to inflammation and spinal maladjustment. Try to avoid dipping beyond 90 degrees in squats, or if a pose requires coming to a deep squat (like malasana), put a lot of weight in your hands when you come back to standing.
You may not have to throw out the offending pose or sequence. Instead, see if applying some careful alignment helps.
There are going to be times when you feel discomfort in asana practice, but learn to understand the difference between actual pain and a deep stretch (or the discomfort from using lesser-used muscles). If you feel a bit of discomfort in a pose and upon release it feels better, it’s probably the stretch of connective tissue and muscle that you're feeling; that’s okay. If you have continuing pain when you come out of the posture and maybe even when you leave class or move through your day, it may be your joints, tendons, or ligaments giving you a warning that it’s time for some examination of the culprit. You may not have to throw out the offending pose or sequence. Instead, see if applying some careful alignment helps.
Remember, this is your practice, and it is for healing. There are ways to make your practice interesting and adventurous without getting hurt. Ego is a lousy anatomy teacher (T-shirts available!). Wise, subtle awareness can save you from having to learn from injury.