The Yoga of pain

By David Joel Miller, MS, Licensed Therapist & Licensed Counselor.

I did not realize that yoga could be so painful.

Yoga postures Parshvakonasana

Yoga postures Parshvakonasana (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Some people are able to do all the postures with little or no discomfort. I, on the other hand, have perfected the art of suffering through Yoga.

Absolutely I am not an expert on Yoga. Not unless three sessions over a two month period make one an expert. I have however learned a large amount about what not to do while practicing Yoga. If any of you out there know more than I do about this subject, feel free to leave a comment and help us, newbies, out.

First a little about how I came to be attending a Yoga class in the first place. I am not too much interested in the religious aspects. I value my hair too much. Once long ago I was tempted for several days to join the Krishnas, cute girls, and all. But the robes and the shaving the head, that cured me of that thought.

So why Yoga? First off my doctor has been urging me to get more exercise. I briefly tried an aerobics, calisthenics, and weightlifting program.  The instructor was of the no pain – no gain school. He was home on leave for the summer and was making a little extra change before resuming his primary job, something about waterboarding on a remote Caribbean island. This was a painful experience.

A second reason to consider Yoga was when I dropped my pen on the floor and had to lay down to get it. My old body no longer bends all the way to the floor.

The first session of Yoga went great, well maybe acceptable would be a better description. By the third session, I was in pain, again. Thereupon I set about trying to ascertain what Yoga and pain might have in common. Was pain really needed for gain in the Yoga arena?

Yoga is defined as “a system or set of breathing exercises and postures derived from or based on Hindu yoga.” I do not think there is anything predictive of pain in that description.

The only common feature that my practice of yoga and I have in common, is  – well – ME!

Clearly, there were things that I was doing incorrectly. I will not give you the full list of the things I do incorrectly, that would require the assistance of a family member. But here are a few of the errors I made in doing my Yoga.

You must continue to breathe while doing yoga postures.

Who knew that breathing was all that important? Turns out that the muscles need oxygen to function properly. If you have the tendency, as I do, to hold your breath while exerting yourself you will stop breathing while in those long poses and the result will be, muscles deprived of oxygen can become painful.

It is not necessary to strain to benefit from the exercise.

Forcing yourself to twist the way the person next to you does is not a good idea. Especially if they have been practicing Yoga for 20+ years. Go as far as you can, using the resistance of your own muscles to help you strengthen. If you are feeling pain this is BAD.

The little booklet we got when I signed up for class said, once I read it, the newcomer benefits from going partway until they can become flexible enough to bend farther. The more experienced person needs to bend a lot farther to get the same benefit.

This is the first time I can remember that being unable to do something was a plus.

Work around your injuries.

Do not force a part of the body that won’t bend, go as far as the part that does bend will go and then stop. The objective is to improve your breathing and ability to move, not to develop a full inventory of past injuries.

Doing a little each day is better than a marathon session once a month.

Between the last two group sessions, I have been doing a few stretching exercises each night before bed.

Guess what I discovered? If I gently stretch while breathing each night, by the end of the week I was able to reach my toes. OK, I was lying down at the time, but look, just being able to reach them, that is like a good thing, right?

Have any of you out there started on a fitness program as part of your recovery? Anybody do Yoga or a related exercise. Could you help an old guy out with any suggested ways to get the benefits without the pain?

Staying connected with David Joel Miller

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3 thoughts on “The Yoga of pain

  1. Pingback: Relaxed or tired? | counselorssoapbox

  2. I’m one of the 20+ year practitioners of Yoga you mentioned in your post. I would not consider myself an expert, but I have picked up a few things I can share with you.
    1) Yoga is called a practice for a reason. Give it your best every time. Somedays, you’ll feel like you’re making leaps and bounds, while other days you’ll feel like you’re moving backwards. That’s not what’s important. What matters is that you showed up for practice.
    2) Yoga translates to “yoke”, as in “union” or “join”. A big goal is to work on uniting your mind and body. In Yoga, your mind asks your body to do something, your body gives you feedback, and maybe sometimes, your mind makes up a story about that feedback. All of this is useful information and a great feedback loop to learn from.
    3) Yoga is a metaphor. I’ve learned a lot about myself and how I move through the world by reflecting on my Yoga practice. I ask myself lots of questions about my response to the practice and see how those answers apply to other areas of my life. For example: Did I hold my breath when things got difficult? Did I avoid things that seemed hard? Did I tell myself “I can’t”? Did I accept help or guidance when it was offered? Did I feel angry when I was “in a bind”?
    This strategy helped me relax into my practice many times.
    Four classes is well on your way to becoming a regular practitioner, David! Keep showing up!


    • Thanks for all that great information. As always it is good to hear from you. With all I learned from your comment I was tempted to skip this weeks session, but that would only be cheating myself out of whatever I am supposed to learn. Drop by again anytime and leave a comment.


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