Practicing Yoga with Pain

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Pain is definitely a sign that something isn’t functioning quite right in the body, but the existence of pain is also a normal part of being alive. It’s an indicator that the body is functioning correctly; it’s communicating with you about what isn’t working and what needs to change. While it can feel like an obstacle, pain is a sign that the body is on your side.

Of course, it isn’t always immediately obvious what your pain is telling you. Wouldn’t that be nice? I know from experience that it can be so frustrating to have chronic or recurring pain and not know the reason why, or to know and not be able to figure out what to do about it.

It’s not surprising that questions like the following are some of the most common things I get asked as a yoga teacher.

How can I fix my sore neck and shoulders?

What can I do to make my wrists feel better when I do yoga?

Will yoga make my back pain better?

Can yoga fix my pain?

When people get stronger and learn to move better, pain can resolve. However, it’s important to know that yoga teachers cannot diagnose or treat pain. If you have unexplained or chronic pain, the first thing to do is check with a doctor or physical therapist for a diagnosis and treatment plan.

If you’ve done that already, it’s helpful for me as your yoga teacher to know your diagnosis, and most importantly, any guidance you’ve received about movement dos and don’ts. What I can do is give you information about how to adapt your yoga practice to meet those guidelines, and help you improve your overall movement and function through the practice of yoga poses.

If you follow your treatment plan, don’t do movements that irritate your injury or condition, and work on improving your overall strength, coordination, and movement patterns, this creates the best possible circumstances for your pain to resolve.

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Principles for practicing with pain

1. Follow the guidance of your medical provider.

2. Avoid movements that increase your discomfort.

Look out for increased pain. Also pay attention to breath holding and gripping or tension in places like the jaw, belly, hands, feet, etc. Pay attention to how you feel during a movement, and also afterwards. Feel free to skip movements that don’t feel good, or unmute yourself and ask for an alternative (or e-mail me after class).

3. Move slowly.

Move at a pace that allows you to notice the details of how you’re moving and how you’re feeling. There is nothing wrong with moving quickly if it feels good, and when we’re healthy, moving at a variety of paces lets us get balanced input for our tissues. However, when you’re in pain, move slowly, and you’re less likely to do something you shouldn’t.

4. Honor the need for rest.

We live in a culture that has heavily devalued rest. Rest is necessary for all living things. It’s a sacred duty that allows us to renew and heal so that we can live well. When in doubt, rest more. You can always tell your family you’re doing yoga and come to my class and rest for 60 minutes. Sometimes we need to schedule it in.

5. Work in the whole body.

My teacher, Susi Hately, says, Where the pain is is not the problem. Because everything in the body is connected, poor function in one area causes changes in how we are using other parts of the body. For example, people with back pain should look at function in the hips and shoulders. I often see people get improved symptoms in one area after working on movement in a completely different part of the body.

6. Practice pure movement.

This basically means when you’re trying to move the hip joint, just move the hip joint. Don’t use your back, don’t use your foot, don’t use your shoulder. We often think this is what we’re doing – and it usually isn’t. Our bodies are clever and develop lots of strategies to get movements done in the easiest possible way. This is great until it’s not working any more, and then we might need a new strategy.

7. Look at the rest of your life.

I know, this isn’t what any of us wants to hear. But there’s nothing you can do over an hour of yoga that’s going to overcome what you’re doing for 8 hours every night while you’re sleeping, or 8 hours every day while you’re working. Sometimes we need to make changes across our lives in order to feel better.

8. Get personalized guidance.

It’s hard to know how to work with pain and limitations, and that’s where I come in. I’m an expert in postural yoga and movement so that you don’t have to be. I can help you figure out:

  • How to adapt yoga poses to fit the guidelines given by your medical provider and complement the movements that have been recommended as part of your treatment.
  • Ways to change your practice to avoid the things that increase discomfort.
  • What your habitual movement patterns are, and how to reduce compensations and move more purely.
  • How to improve your whole-body movement.

How to get help

If you take a group class with me, it’s helpful if you tell me about the pain you’re experiencing and any diagnoses or guidelines you’ve received from your medical provider. You can do this on your new student paperwork, or send me an e-mail or arrange a call to discuss your situation before the class begins. Keep in mind that I can’t always see well how students are moving in the online environment, so it’s especially important to let me know what’s going on and ask questions about any areas you need help with. It’s also important that you trust the signals you’re getting from your body over anything I tell you. Don’t do anything that doesn’t feel right.

If you’re still having difficulty adapting to your pain, you’re a beginner who needs more in-depth guidance, or you’re worried about diving into group classes because of your injuries or limitations, I offer free functional assessments to help you get more personalized advice. This is a service I’m offering to help clients get the support they need in the online environment and figure out the best steps to customize their postural yoga practice.

A functional assessment consists of a brief questionnaire and a 15-minute session via Zoom video conferencing. All you need is a device with internet access and a camera so that I can see you. I’ll have you do a series of simple poses so that I can see your movement. You’ll leave with some concrete ideas that you can start using right away to customize group classes or your home practice for your needs. We’ll also talk about possible next steps for improving your movement and postural yoga practice.

Want to join me?

Click below to find a group class, or contact me to book your functional assessment.

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