February 2013 – If it hurts you are doing it wrong

February 2013

“If it hurts you are doing it wrong!”  quote by David Williams

If your yoga practice hurts you — you are doing it wrong!!  Yoga as it has grown and spread to places like gyms and to those who do not practice it regularly has lately been associated with pain and injury.  This does not have to be — yoga is not about pushing your body in to a posture.   Yoga practice is about the breathing technique.  You will get more benefit from your yoga if you focus on your breath and not worry about attaining some perfect posture.

Deep breathing is health at a cellular level – the root cause of health or disease.  When a cell is deprived of O2 it mutates; this is where cancer and disease start.  Shallow and erratic breathing as is common for most people most of the day does not provide enough O2 to our cells to combat the constant threat we are under from all the chemicals we are exposed to.  By putting more attention and focus on your breath than on a posture you will create health at a cellular level — this is much more important than a musculo-skeletal benefit such as being flexible or able to do a fancy arm balance.  We need the postures to help move the freshly oxygenated blood into the tissues in our organs, but the breath is the most important part of yoga.

Many people are now getting exposed to advanced poses in gym and yoga blended exercises before their bodies are properly trained for them — and they they push their body to attain this posture, and end up injured.  Some even call this an “opening”!  Bull Shit.  If you tear tissue in a yoga class it is NOT an opening — it is tearing tissue that has ramifications.  Not only will it impact your yoga negatively, it also takes energy from your immune system to help heal it.  And a tear or sprain in a young healthy body takes anywhere from 6 weeks to 6 months to heal!  And after it is “healed” many times pain lingers and still affects your movement for many years to come.

In Ashtanga Yoga we have vinyasa counts — these serve an important purpose, when you learn the vinyasas into and out of the postures you move with your breath.  When following the vinyasa count you do not have time to fidget with a posture or push yourself deeper.  The most common time an injury happens is not while you are in the pose but when you are getting into it — this is because many people tend to hold their breath and push themselves into a posture.  When you hold your breath and push yourself you increase your risk of injury!

You can practice smarter, focus on your breathing and do your practice CONSISTENTLY OVER A LONG PERIOD OF TIME, then the postures and the jumps and the lightness and the arm balances, etc. come to you effortlessly and injury free.


Yoga is not about the physical — its not really even about the postures. It is a path to self-realization — which I don’t even like that term — what does it mean?  Acceptance, seeing the big picture, relating to others in a way that creates less suffering, knowing we are all the same and all ONE.

Yoga goes very deep, beyond the muscles and joints, beyond the nervous system — deeper, to our thoughts our psyche — what makes us tick. It’s a method of getting to the source of our angst.  Yoga is all about stopping the fretting!  And then increasing our integrity.  But you can’t get to this “good stuff” if you are pushing yourself in the postures (because then you are focusing on the physical — which is shallow).  You can not work on the deeper healing of our “wounds” from life if you are continually creating new pain.

Start all this deeper work by making your practice feel good.  So how can you make your practice feel good?  Ashtanga yoga gives us several tools to focus on what you can not see — to focus on the inner workings of yoga.

  • DRISHTI — Stop trying to be like someone else in a pose!  Mind your drishti – looking around will not help you — it will either create suffering or feed your ego.
  • BREATHING & BANDHAS– Make each posture feel good.  Focus on breathing and bandhas = this is how you find the meditative state in the practice — in the meditative state we are happy and relaxed.  Relax in the postures.  Don’t worry so much about where your body is as to where your attention is.
  • VINYASA – Align yourself with your breath.  The purpose of the vinyasa is to keep you moving in synchronicity with your breath, this is what puts us in the meditative state and keeps us from holding our breath where injury is most likely.

How can you practice yoga if you are injured?  — KEEP PRACTICING!  If you are injured learning to pratice in a way that not only does not exacerbate your pain but can actually heal it is a good lesson.  Learn how to move in a way that does not hurt your body.  Learn to tune in to what hurts and what feels good.  If you are injured:

  • Step it back … go slow.
  • Modify poses as necessary
  • Breathe deeper and focus on Mula Bandha.
  • Do short practices
  • Follow the NO SUFFERING rule.
  • Take a nice long rest pose covering up to hold in the warm healing prana.

If you aren’t making your yoga practice as pleasant and energizing as possible, you’re missing an opportunity.

Yoga is supposed to enhance your life not wipe you out.  Remember, Pain = NO Gain.

Don’t Push Just Try
I  want to clarify that while I am talking about not pushing in your practice you do have to try.  And there will be days when you have put forth effort.

To increase strength our body needs to be ever so slightly challenged just a little more than it was the day before.  I want to emphasize that just a little effort is needed.  If you push too hard you break the body down too much making recovery more difficult.

And in your trying, try and then let it go — you get to practice non attachment 😉  Don’t get too caught up in “getting” what it is you are trying — thats when we end up pushing too hard and making the practice unenjoyable.  Compliment the qualities of engagement with letting go.  With the daily practice of the ashtanga system you have tomorrow to try again . . .

There is a balance with the masculine and feminine energies in the practice (I do a whole workshop on this  . . .).  Our society is masculine dominant — even women are becoming more masculine in their energies and the way they work.  Masculine energy is about conquest and acquisition — it is a driving force.  Feminine energy is nurturing, receptive — approving, it is receiving force.

In our practice we need BOTH, we use the driving masculine energy to build heat in our body for detoxification and to keep our strength, we need the feminine energy to allow the practice to nurture us and to receive the benefits of the postures and the breathing.

You can work the masculine element in your sun salutes and vinyasas and arm balances, relax and enjoy the feminine element in your postures and your breathing and your mind.  As you go through the practice some places will require a little effort and other places require that you relax and receive.

Know the difference between being complacent or lazy and honoring the feminine principal — and at the same time know the difference between doing the work and pushing hard.  In your practice feel:

  • fluidity
  • receptivity
  • powerful yet relaxed (breathing and bandhas give your practice power)

Use your strength and love it! in vinyasas and sun salutes–relax and be receptive to the poses,  allow the poses to affect you.  If you are always trying to get deeper into a pose you are putting a lot of muscular contraction or effort into the pose and not allowing it to affect you.  The tension you are creating from all the muscular effort is blocking your receptivity.

Receptivity invites the magical “force” in the universe.  This energy, prana, or life force is all around us, when we relax our bodies yet move with with our inner strength we are connecting to this life force.  This force can move bones and mass amazingly well.  Being able to receive this strength makes our muscle’s work at times effortless yet very effective.

Chemistry of Yoga

Our body releases hormones and neurotransmitters to give us energy; in our practice we want to encourage the feel good chemicals without the “stress” chemicals:

  • When under stress our body releases Adrenaline to give us the energy to run or fight.  If we run and/or fight we used up the adrenaline in our system.  if you do not it is stored in our bodies, in our muscle tissues, where it creates toxins and leads to tension and tightness.  Adrenaline is created under stressful situations whether or not the threat is real or imagined, so our thoughts alone can create adrenaline!  When you feel stress — physically or emotionally, your body creates adrenaline.  Pushing in your practice to “succeed” or get a posture or a ‘release’ will create adrenaline.  We want to use our practice to feel good, not to create more stress and tension.
  • Endorphins are released with physical exertion.  They are capable of lowering stress and causing pleasurable sensations similar to opiates, but in a good way (aka the Yoga high :).  If your work in yoga is pleasurable you will create endorphins but NOT adrenaline.  This is desirable.  If your work is stressed you will create endorphins AND adrenaline (studies show that video games create both since they stimulate the fight or flight response . . . but just working out does not — yoga is a work-in by the way, not a work out 😉
  • Serotonin, melatonin, and GABA (gamma aminobutyric acid — a neurotransmitter) are released into our body with meditation and deep breathing.
    • Serotonin influences happy mood and behavior; a lack of serotonin leads to depression, obesity, insomnia, headaches, pms, fibromyalgia, among other disorders.
    • Melatonin is a hormone manufactured by the pineal gland (from the amino acid tryptophan).  Levels of melatonin in the blood peak before bedtime to create restful sleep.  Melatonin is also a powerful anti-oxidant.  Stress lowers melatonin levels.
      • The hormone melatonin produces a number of health benefits in terms of your immune system. It’s a powerful antioxidant and free radical scavenger that helps combat inflammation. In fact, melatonin is so integral to your immune system that a lack of it causes your thymus gland, a key component of your immune system, to atrophy.(1)  Melatonin may even have a role in slowing the aging of your brain.  In addition to helping you fall asleep and bestowing a feeling of overall comfort and well being, melatonin has proven to have an impressive array of anti-cancer benefits.(2)  Melatonin inhibits the proliferation of a wide range of cancer cell types, as well as triggering cancer cell apoptosis (self destruction). The hormone also interferes with the new blood supply tumors require for their rapid growth (angiogenesis).(3) Melatonin can boost efficacy and decrease the toxicity of cancer chemotherapy.(4)
    • GABA is best known for stabilizing mood disorders.  Anxiety, tension, insomnia and epilepsy are related to low levels of GABA.

You choose how you want to practice — you can create the joy chemicals, serotonin and endorphins, by breathing deep and relaxing and enjoying your practice.  Or you can create adrenaline by pushing too hard for all the fun and fancy “tricks” of the practice . . .

When your practice makes you feel good you WANT to practice 🙂  Practicing in a way that makes you feel good also creates positive thoughts and feelings.  Positive thoughts attract positivity in your life.  Pushing in your practice and creating adrenaline is a fear hormone, fear comes with negative thoughts, negative thoughts attract negativity to you.

If you feel pain or tightness or tension in a posture, don’t push through it.  Relax and breathe it in, invite it.  This stored tension is a stored memory (the issues are in the tissues . . .)  Welcome these discoveries of tightness with a mothers nurturing compassion.  There is a part of you that has witnessed all these little hurts and sufferings since you were a child.  Allow them to release, use your breath as a healing balm relaxing the tensions that are trapping in the tightness so those feelings can release our body and mind from their bondage and negative thoughts.

The Jerk Factor
If you jerk yourself around in postures . . . you are going to become a jerk!
If your practice makes you feel good (aka the joy chemicals) you are happier and peaceful from your practice.  You carry this with you for a while after practice — at first it may only last 10 minutes or so then you go back to being the same old jerk you were.  Over time you extend the happy yogi feeling longer after your practice and throughout your day — which means less jerk time and more happy peaceful yogi time.

Two Sutras come to mind on this topic:

Yoga Sutra II:46 – Sthira Sukham Asanam
Sthira = Steady, suka = pleasant, enjoyable
Find a balance between effort and ease that feels delicious and challenging at the same time. Sthira and sukha form a state of equilibrium (sattva) that is without agitation (rajas) or inertia (tamas).  The effort can create our feel good endorphins while the ease in a posture with deep breathing will help our body release serotonin and melatonin.

Yoga Sutra II:16 – Heyam Dukham Anagatam
Heyam = avoidable, dukham = pain or suffering, anagatam (is that which) has not yet come.
Krishnamacharya built his viniyoga on this sutra.

There are a couple different ways I have seen this sutra translated:

One way to avoid future suffering is to awaken now.  Some say this verse is speaking of removing the ignorance in us that makes us do things like push ourselves in postures and bring on pain.  Yoga certainly serves its purpose in reducing pain that has not yet come by increasing our clarity about why we do yoga — it is not about the posture!

Some say this verse has to do with Karma; The rishi Vasishta  says karma can be intercepted.  With an increase in effort and a willingness to “change our ways” we can change our karma and avoid the suffering that could come to us from previous karmas.

I have spent some time contemplating this sutra, I have found it quite interesting.  In my experience I would say this sutra means we are creating more suffering for ourselves by thinking we have to “attain” a perfect posture to be good at yoga.  This also creates more future pain by the fear then of losing what we have attained (due to age, stiffness, etc).  The way through this is to realize THERE IS NOTHING TO ATTAIN.  WE ARE ALREADY THERE.  WE ARE PERFECT AS WE ARE.

I have heard Nancy say “No goals in postures”.  This alone would end suffering for many of us!

The following sutra II:17 says “The cause of that which is to be avoided (pain) is the union between the seer and the seen”.
Meaning our suffering is in our ego identity in thinking the seer and the seen are 2 seperate beings.

Really, it comes down to this simple thought:  See the bigger picture.  The practice is not about the postures.
1 Neuro Endocrinol Lett February-April 2004
2 The Cancer-Light Connection January 2004
3 National Cancer Institute: Melatonin, Chronobiology, and Cancer
4 Eu J Cancer November 1999

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