I’m not a doctor — just a yoga teacher
Every once in a while someone will come up to me before a yoga class with this question: “I’ve been having this pain in my lower back, kind of on the right side but not too far down, sort of in the middle, but only when I turn like this?” Then she will look at me expectantly. As if I’m supposed to nod sagely and reply with, “Ah, I know exactly which yoga pose will solve that!”
First of all, I wish I did know the answer! Over the years I’ve tried to educate myself as much as possible, by taking courses like Yoga Anatomy and How to Teach Gentle Yoga to an aging population. Any time I’m in a class and I see the instructor helping someone modify, I’m always peeking. I should be staying on my mat, I know, but I want to know what type of help she is offering, so that I can file it away for future use.
But all the CEUs and modification tips and tricks can’t help me with the original question, the one about the back pain. When one of your students asks a question like this, there is only one answer. Actually, it’s two parts, one question and one reminder, and they are both equally important.
What does your doctor say? If any yoga pose hurts, don’t do it.
What does your doctor say?
Yeah, no matter what your ideas are about western medicine, this is always the first thing to ask. Because you are a yoga instructor, not a doctor. It is not your role to give medical advice. Usually what I hear, when I ask this question, is that my student hasn’t asked the doctor about it. And I get that. I’ve had my own issues with weird aches and pains, and deciding when to call the doctor is always a judgement call.
Sometimes students will tell me their doctor said they should not do certain poses, like shoulderstand, seated forward bend, or even downdog because because of bulging discs, low back pain, or shoulder injuries. “Okay, great,” I respond, “let’s find something else you can do.” But in my head, I’m wondering why the doctor said that. Does the doctor know anything about yoga? My instinct is to say something like, “Tell the doctor that you’re sitting on a blanket with a block under your knees and that won’t hurt your back!” But I don’t say that. Because I don’t know all the information. Maybe the student isn’t giving me all the facts. That’s fine. It’s not my place to contradict her doctor. I don’t want her doing anything in my class that might be harmful.
If any yoga pose hurts, don’t do it.
Isn’t it amazing how many times we have to repeat this? Even to ourselves. As yoga teachers, we know better. Yet I’m still doing vinyasas, which aggravate my wrist pain. I know I should stop putting pressure on my wrists, but I don’t. Well, sometimes I skip the vinyasa, but not all the time.
I have one student whom I’ll call Mable. About three years ago, I asked if I could give her an assist in danurasana (bow pose). I stood behind her and lifted up on her feet, then gently pulled back.
“OH!” She was so surprised. “I didn’t know it was supposed to feel that way! That’s the first time I’ve done that! It always hurt before!” The whole class was laughing because she was so excited. And I had to explain that it wasn’t supposed to hurt.
Me: “Why didn’t you tell me it hurt?”
Mable: “I thought it was supposed to hurt!”
In my head, I’m thinking: people, have I taught you nothing?
Mable still comes to my class, and sometimes I still have to remind her: this isn’t supposed to hurt. I can tell by her facial expression and her breathing that something isn’t right. So I say it again: If it hurts, back out of the pose. Let me know and we’ll find a modification.
What can I tell them?
Usually after I’ve asked about the doctor’s advice and reminded her not to do anything that hurts, I’ll ask what else she’s tried. Hot baths with Epsom salts? Massage? Myofascial release? Arnica? I feel safe recommending these things because they are non-invasive. The people I know who do bodywork are far more knowledgable than I am and can usually offer some relief. Hot baths with Epsom salts are my go-to feel-better remedy. And Arnica gel can work wonders.
Have you had a similar experience with a student? Leave me a note, I’d love to hear from you.