When yoga hurts: a lesson in dropping the ego
Here is a true story. A few years ago, while practicing Vinyasa yoga, I noticed that my shoulder hurt when I moved through a vinyasa to Chaturanga Dandasana (aka Four Limbed Staff Pose). Here is what went through my head: Huh, that’s weird. Why does my shoulder hurt like that? Let me try another one… yep, it still hurts. Well, let’s move through another one… yeah, so weird that it hurts like that. I wonder if it will hurt again tomorrow? [24 hours later] Interesting how it still hurts. It actually feels worse this time. Let’s do another one and see… huh, it still hurts.
Yeah, I was the idiot who kept practicing Chaturanga even though it hurt, every single time! This is a perfect example of what not to do. Because pain means stop.
I was not practicing what I was preaching. I tell my classes all the time that yoga poses may bring up strong sensations, but they should never be painful. If you ever experience sharp pain, especially pain in the joints, you should stop. If you experience a sensation strong enough to stop the flow of your breath, stop.
And here I was, with pain in my shoulder, which is a joint, continuing to do Chaturanga. And not just Chaturanga, but a flowing vinyasa from Plank to Chaturanga to Updog and then Downdog. What was I doing?
Finally it dawned on me that I should stop. And I’ll be honest–it was hard to back away from the vinyasa. I was (still am) proud of my vinyasa. I have great alignment (i.e. a 90-degree angle in my elbows, with shoulders over wrists and elbows in by my ribcage). You could put a picture of me in a yoga book as an example of how to do this pose. I also love the opening into Updog and the whoosh of breath as I move to Downdog. The vinyasa movements make me feel strong.
If I stop doing them, will that make me look weak? Will I lose strength? What will people think? Should I explain to the teacher and to the people around me that I am fully capable of doing vinyasas but my shoulder is bothering me today?
Oh, how the ego interferes with our practice.
Yoga is always teaching us. This was my lesson in dropping the ego. (One of many, I might add.) I had to take an honest look at what I was doing, and I had to make a change. I couldn’t keep hurting my shoulder, because pain like that doesn’t go away on its own. Pain like that just gets worse.
I told myself that I would go to class and do only one vinyasa, and if it hurt, I would stop. So I did, and it did, thus I modified for the rest of class. I still flowed to Plank, but then I held it for two breaths and went directly to Downdog. And at the end of class I realized that I hadn’t missed those Chaturangas at all.
What I eventually learned was this: I liked my practice better without the vinyasa. This flow from Plank-Chaturanga-Updog-Downdog is full of power and strength, which isn’t a bad thing, but it’s not my thing. Plus it is too easy to let the ego get carried away, especially when you start adding in the jump-backs and the hop-forwards.
I don’t practice Vinyasa Yoga as often anymore. I enjoy other types of classes much better, like regular Hatha, or Slow-flow (with fewer Vinyasas). I love Yin Yoga, too. Thanks to my shoulder pain (which I never fully diagnosed, by the way, meaning I don’t know why it started hurting or why it stopped) I now enjoy more meditative, contemplative styles of yoga. I’m out of the “yoga to workout” phase. My practice is much more rewarding.
How about you? Anything hurting in your yoga practice? What have you learned from it?