Sunday, November 3, 2013

Yoga, Pain, and Something Bigger

Over the past year, a lot of people have asked me, “shouldn’t yoga help your pain?” I have learned to try to just smile and nod. But a few times I have responded, “there is a chance yoga caused my pain.” Let me be clear before I go further. I still think yoga is amazing. I am not giving up being a yogi – in fact, I am teaching a restorative class next month. But yoga, as it is taught in the United States, is not the answer to life, the universe, and everything.

This is a shock to some people. William Broad took on the yoga establishment in 2012 with his book The Science of Yoga: The Risks and Rewards. The yoga blogosphere would not stop talking about it for months. And he is back with another article in the New York Times titled, Women’s Flexibility is a Liability (In Yoga). And we can fight and argue until we are blue in the face (very yogic of us, I’m sure), but there is no question we have to be careful.

Let us examine for a minute what yoga is. First, on this blog, I hope I have been clear that yoga is not about asana. It is about a way of life. Yoga is about yamas and niyamas and breathing and meditation. Asana is a piece, but it is nothing more than a piece. And in my life recently, it has become even less of a piece of the yoga bundle. Yoga to many in the West, however, is exercise. When I used to tell people I was not in the best shape (I have never been a runner, for example), people would respond, “But you do yoga.” Sometimes I would get into the discussion about yoga not being exercise, but more often than not, I would simply nod and smile and move along.

Yoga in America and the rest of the Western world has taken on a feeling of gymnastics. It has permeated the gym culture and become a source of sweaty movement. That is fine for what it is, but it is not yoga. Even, or perhaps particularly, in asana, we must be aware and mindful of how we are moving, feeling, and changing. Vinyasa practices, for anyone except the super aware, take us out of that place. And please do not misunderstand. I LOVE vinyasa practices. I just realize now they may not love me.

And why do we love the sweaty movement of yoga? I personally think it has a lot to do with our culture. We like to feel like we are doing something good for ourselves while still “doing” something. I used to fall into that mindset as well – is it really beneficial if I do not move? I knew the answer was yes, but I still gravitated toward classes with vinyasa flows. I also did a lot of yin and restorative, now my only source of asana, but those classes were my dessert, not my daily practice.

People who know me outside of a blogger persona know I need to take a deep breath and calm down. I would expect that many of you reading this are in the same boat. This blog is, after all, for people in high stress places in life. So many of us have spent our lives looking for external gain – the good grades in school, the good university, the good graduate school, the good job, that we forget to stop and breathe, and before we know it we wake up, and we are stressed and sick and in our late 20s. Sound like anyone you know?

And big-money yoga took on this mentality. There is nothing inherently wrong with the yoga dominance. But there is a problem when it is causing harm, and we as yoga teachers ignore it. The yoga teachers I know do not ignore it. The yoga teachers I know tell me to come to class if the only thing I can do is lie in savasana and imagine myself in the various asanas. But I know there is a different culture out there. I see it in the discussions I have with people. I see it in the yoga ads. It is why I stopped my subscription to Yoga Journal.

So before everyone gets all up in arms about William Broad again, I think it is important to see how he ends the article. He does not tell people not to do yoga. In fact, he makes a very yogic statement, “Better to do yoga in moderation and listen carefully to your body. That temple, after all, is your best teacher.” Each and every body is different. We can look at every single skeleton and chart about muscles, ligaments, fascia, etc. we can find. But at the end of the day, those are guides. Incredibly useful guides, without which I would not want to be a yoga teacher, but nothing more than guides.

Some people have livers on the left side of their body. Some people have naturally fused vertebrae. Some people have hip sockets that misalign. Some people walk pigeon-toed. Some people . . .

So can yoga cause pain? Of course it can! Anyone who tells you otherwise is, frankly, dangerous. Can some people have a vinyasa practice for 20 years and feel great? I guess so. I’m skeptical of that, but I know people who have sworn by it for years. But they are also incredibly strong, incredibly attuned to their bodies, and most likely, incredibly lucky.

My yoga practice has taken a strange about-face turn. This year has turned my life upside down. But I’m slowly finding myself again, and moving again. And these days I understand my body better than ever and still do not understand the first thing about it. But that is the point. We have to be slow, understand what we are feeling, and move from there.

Making your first yoga class ever a vinyasa power class is not the way to do that. They may have their place for some people, but at the end of the day, they are simply not the answer for most people. And yes, that can cause pain. And yes, that is something the billion-dollar yoga industry does not want you to know. But guess what? Yoga is so much more. Through yoga, we can calm our nervous systems and begin to respond to life calmly. Through yoga, we can begin to understand ourselves better. Through yoga, we can begin to understand our relationships better. And as a dear friend keeps reminding me, through yoga, we can heal the world.


© Rebecca Stahl 2013, all rights reserved.

The Post, Yoga, Pain, and Something Bigger, first appeared on Is Yoga Legal.


  1. Awesome article. It is a way of life, a practice for every second of the day and evening, not a workout at the gym. Thank you for sharing your well organized thoughts. love, Erica

  2. exactly! blindly seeing yoga as the cure-all for everything isn't balanced, nor is it safe.

  3. thank you for writing this .... so true, so true! i have a muscular scoliosis that is very sensitive to my practice. without a great amount of awareness and care, I can walk out of the studio in great discomfort. If I am slow and mindful, I can be pain free.

    1. Exactly. It is so important to be mindful of where we are. Breath and conscious movement bring us to a place of deep knowing of ourselves.

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