Handling pain in your ashtanga yoga practice

If you are a Mysore Style Ashtanga Yoga practitioner, then you will be used to encountering pain in your body on a fairly regular basis. This method of yoga is particularly challenging and extremely beneficial, and quite addictive. All types of bodies don’t naturally yield to all asanas (poses). Different bodies respond differently to the same asanas. Every body has its strengths and weaknesses. This form of yoga exposes ones’ weaknesses fairly quickly. As students try to overcome their weaknesses and achieve asanas in progression, they tend to become impatient as progress can be quite slow and steady as students pass from the Primary to the Intermediate and Advanced series asanas. Keen on progressing to deeper and progressively difficult and demanding asanas, students may be tempted to take pain medication so they can achieve progress and keep up with competition; internal and/or external. Sometimes, even without trying something new or deeper, students may encounter pain in their practice (or after their practice).

I have been a regular practitioner of this style of yoga and have avoided pain killers or balms from day one. I have tried to work with alternative solutions and managed to keep up my daily practice for several years now. I want to share my views on this topic as I feel it is important for students to understand how to work with pain. I will try and suggest alternative ways of looking at pain to help with maintaining your practice even during periods of pain.

Pain occurs due to several reasons. It can be due to a lack of strength to sustain a certain pose, it can be due to lack of flexibility to sustain a certain pose, it can be due to a lack of alignment in a pose, or it can be due to your body constitution at the moment.

If your pain is muscular, it is most likely because you are not strong or stretchy (flexible) enough yet to achieve the pose. In such a case, it would just mean that you will need to be more methodical and keep up your practice. Over time, such pains should subside and lead to comfort. Generally, strength related muscular pains are the easiest to manage and the fastest to convert to comfort. Flexibility related pains (inability to twist, bend, stretch beyond a certain point) take longer to overcome but can be overcome with consistent practice.

If your pain is in a joint, it may indicate a lack of joint flexibility to achieve a pose. It is very important to be very cautious in such situations. It may take years to gain flexibility and trying hard can damage your joints, forcing you to break your practice. In cases where you are experiencing joint pains, I would recommend you work very closely with a trained instructor to understand how best to strengthen and stabilize your joints (the tendons/ligaments/muscles connecting at the joint) and how to approach your practice. If you are in self-practice or do not have a qualified teacher to assist you, I would suggest you try asanas at your comfort level for longer and proceed with great caution. I would even suggest that you avoid asanas that cause pain and continue to maintain and develop your practice around the painful asanas.

If your pain feels like a deeper rigidity in a particular area, then it may be that you have a long term alignment issue. Sometimes, students discuss a particular pain in their tricep/rotator cuff or hamstring/glute, which seems to inhibit deep stretches. These types of issues tend to indicate long term issues with alignment and habits (like sitting with one leg over the other; for a long time, can yield issues with muscles of one leg being more used than the other leading to imbalance). For these issues, students will need to practice counter poses that help relieve the affected muscles. These can take a long time to heal and lead to comfort. However, careful work in such areas can yield to students overcoming these obstacles and making steady progress in spite of not experiencing complete comfort in such areas.

If your pain is moving, or if you are feeling that your whole body is paining, or if you are feeling lazy in poses causing pain, or if you are feeling pain from your usual stretch, the most likely cause of your pain is your physical-mental constitution at that moment. Some foods can cause increased pain. Especially, foods that cause gas. Sometimes, being too overcome by thoughts or anxiety of worry can cause body pain. These kinds of pains are overcome simply in your practice. You enter your mat feeling low and feeling like your body is paining; but 15 minutes into your practice, you are flowing and you have completely forgotten that you even contemplated not practicing. In most cases of such pain, you will feel far better and more comfortable by the end of your practice session.

Pain may also be due to an injury; a sprain or a bruise. In such cases, it is ideal to give rest to that part of the body while you continue and explore your practice without exacerbating the area of pain. The practice itself is extremely beneficial to body healing and I strongly recommend a curtailed specific practice avoiding accentuating the injury. I have seen this yield positive healing from the injury. For example, if you have a injury in your shoulder that is causing pain in your rotator cuff, you can still continue to do your regular practice but avoid intense vinyasa and jumps that may aggravate your shoulder injury. However, having such an injury is no good reason to avoid a seated forward bend. I employ this approach on a regular basis and have always seen surprisingly positive results. I am able to maintain my practice, and I feel I heal myself much faster than if I would just rest and wait for the pain to go away.

The one and only reason I have tried to categorize the pain and how to deal with it is to demonstrate that there are different causes of pain and that each cause may have a different solution. It is important to understand the cause, contemplate about the solutions, and then pick a solution that best aligns with your body. Taking pain medication should be something yoga practitioners should avoid like the plague. The pain that you feel is the most important indicator of how much you can practice and where you need to stop and the areas that you should focus on. Pain is your navigation system. You practice a pose in a sequence. Your pain tells you whether you are ready or not. If you are not, you go back one pose or multiple poses that are the bases for the current pose and practice more in those poses so you can get your body more ready for the pose you want to achieve. If you take pain medication, you are simply suppressing your navigation system. You are telling your body that you will ignore its feedback to you. Without your navigation system being active and alert, you will find that you will simply end up hitting more and more obstacles in your practice, leaving you more and more frustrated with time.

It is unjustifiable to talk about pain without touching upon key aspects of pain management; your shower/bath and sleep habits. I suggest a warm bath before your practice, a cold bath after your practice and a bath every time you think about your practice (ok, that may be too much, but you get the point). A cold bath can be energizing and healing on your sore muscles after your practice. My bath routine has been essential to my pain (and soreness) management. I suggest you sleep on a hard mattress (I sleep on a 4mm foam/cotton mattress on the floor and it helps a lot). Hard surfaces help your muscles recover as you sleep. They also help you sleep only as long as you really need. We tend to spend too much time wasting away in sleep. Soft mattresses don’t help your muscles recover and make you sleep much longer than you really need to. I have seen ads of ortho mattresses, and they definitely seem better than the regular mattresses out there. However, I haven’t tried one and can’t comment on them. I plan to write separately on your approach to practice and will cover aspects of bath/sleep and diet in greater detail.

By - Gowrisha

October 29, 2019

Share this article with your friends: