I have a lot invested in yoga. Sixteen years of practice, thousands of dollars spent on training, nearing a decade of teaching, and now yoga is the main source of my livelihood as owner of a yoga studio.
Yoga saved my life in my early 20’s. Then in my 30’s I nearly crippled myself due to an overly aggressive, ego centered, un-informed abuse of the physical poses. I was unaware that it was my approach to yoga practice that was causing the increasingly incessant pain in my hip joints, hamstring attachments, and lower back. Funny thing, the grand purpose for the practice of yoga is ultimately heightened awareness. I was SO off track.
Constantly I was going ‘deeper, further, deeper further’–boundlessly stretching while applying no technical skill in asana and wanting to do more and more advanced stuff. I was saluting the sun with an overly expressive dramatic flare and competitive ferocity that in retrospect is completely ridiculous and embarrassing to think about. Mistaking the intense sensations and the constant over-efforting as what yoga was supposed to be, I was doing an impressive looking (?) masochistic workout. But it was not yoga. I could talk the talk, but I could barely walk without pain. I was definitely in constant pain in my hips and lower back during practice (except savasana when I would l nearly pass out from having pushed myself so far beyond my limits that my body welcomed the collapse).
I did realize I was hurting, but I suffered in silence. I felt that the pain was just another hurdle I had to clear in the same way that I made it through significant weight-loss through yoga. The pain (like the excess weight before it) made me feel physically inferior. I simply thought ‘the more I practice, the better I will be’. The pain was shameful. I ignored it and kept it secret.
Self-inflicted pain always has the last word and it’s usually a big FUCK YOU. OK, that’s two words.
After years of ignoring the aches and red-flags of my ego-centric and reckless yoga practice, one night in August 2006 I woke up completely paralyzed from the waist down with sharp shooting intense burning in BOTH of my hips and inner-upper thighs. I couldn’t move my legs. It was kind of like a seizure. When it let up I could walk, but had to do so with great caution.
My first thought was, ‘I just need to get to yoga and it will be ok’. So, the next morning I went to yoga. We warmed up with sun salutations, warrior poses, and lunges. Despite activating the familiar and unpleasant ‘catch’ in my hips in Warrior2, and aggravating the ache in my weak lower back in the Cobra to Down-dog transitions, I was relieved to be on my mat, my saving place. We proceeded to practice handstands. In mid flight up, my hips and attachments locked in the crippling seizure of the night before. In that moment, my mind expanded, the big light went on, and I knew completely that it was my practice that had brought me to this seriously scary place.
I was terrified. Terrified of the pain. Terrified that I’d done irreparable damage to my body. Terrified of yoga. Terrified about life without yoga. Then I was mad. I felt utterly betrayed by yoga, every teacher, and method I had ‘surrendered’ to. Heartbroken and physically broken, I did not practice for 4 months. I isolated myself from my yoga friends and fellow teachers. I limped through the last part of 2006 depressed, sick, and lost.
Towards the end of that year, a well know Anusara Yoga teacher came to town and I went to his workshop to give yoga ‘one last chance’. I informed the teacher of my injuries and limitations–a first for me. I humbly and cautiously let the yoga poses meet me where I was –injured, feelings hurt, scared, and skeptical. It was one of the most uplifting, informing, satisfying practices of my life. Despite my maimed condition, the poses felt good. The practice left me feeling enlightened, expansive, and happy.
Long story short, the therapeutic elements that are built into the Anusara method allowed me back into a pain free physical practice. But even more important than that, the method insists that we open to, trust, and abide the innate wisdom of our Self- our inner teacher. This is empowering and it holds ME accountable for hurting myself. Really, I am not a masochist. I happily report that my tolerance for self-inflicted harm becomes less and less everyday. And true awareness continues to rise.
This post is not a plug to entice you into Anusara practice. If you like yoga, you should try every kind to see what fits you best.
This post is a sincere call for you to honestly asses your practice.
Are you repeatedly experiencing pain in any pose or part of your practice? Is yoga exhausting you? Are you intensely sore every ‘day after’ yoga?
Honestly assess your practice. Are you hurting yourself?
Simulating challenges on our yoga mats that train us to move skillfully through tough real-life situations is just that. Learning skillful living, not painful living. Yoga is absolutely, positively not supposed to be physically painful.
Yoga poses should feel good in your body. If poses feel forced, unsafe, unsupported, or wrong, you need to re-set your practice. If you continue to ‘push through the pain’ you must realize that you are choosing to hurt yourself and then hold yourself personally accountable for your choices.
Don’t hurt yourself and then blame yoga. Don’t hurt yourself and then blame yoga. Yes I said it twice. My words may seem doubly harsh. But, for a girl like me and so many more like me, there’s simply too much at stake for yoga to hold anything but it’s shimmering, brilliant reputation.
In love and yoga always,
-Melanie Buffett writes YogiPod Blog. Posting from somewhere on the Path.