A student of mine with a recent back injury asked me how to know the difference between pain related to her injury versus tightness or soreness she needed to push through in her yoga practice. The key word that stood out for me was “push.” After almost 14 years of yoga practice, 11 of which have been Ashtanga, and having managed several injuries myself, my advice is to never push through anything- soreness or pain. If you push a sore or tight muscle it might tear. If you push an injury you’ll exacerbate it. It may sound cliche but “listen to your body.”
Whether or not pain is ok during asana practice is a subject up for debate depending on your interpretation of “tapas” from the Yoga Sutras, and surely you’ll get differing opinions from different yoga teachers. But my wonderful teachers always taught the no pain, no pain method and this approach has worked for me.
Yoga asks that we tune into a deeper, more subtle state of ourselves. This process begins when we step out of our thinking mind and into our feeling body. We develop awareness through conscious listening to our body’s innate wisdom and language, and part of that language is pain. Consider it a gift as our body’s natural means of communication. Hear it, pay attention to it, and honor it. If you do, it will also educate you on how to make it better. If you don’t, it grows from a whisper, to a nudge, from a shout to a shriek!
There is a big difference between intensity in practice and pain. You can be challenged and work hard, but you must also work intelligently. Intensity usually feels like you’re exploring new territory. It’s difficult and requires you to deepen your breath. Pain on the other hand, whether mild or strong, usually feels like something’s just not right.
Find a way to practice pain-free. This might mean you need to modify certain poses or even omit them until your body tells you it is safe to return. And trust that it will tell you. Why not back off and practice gently for a few days, perhaps even weeks or months? At least you can keep practicing! If it is an injury you’re managing then it will heal. If it is soreness, then gentle movement will work it out. Conservative? Yes, but it is a smart approach that will help keep you healthy and keep you returning to your yoga mat safely.
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