Treatment Approaches

Have you ever tried yoga?

This is one of the first questions people ask me when I tell them I’ve had problems with back pain, and I always feel a little embarrassed when I have to tell them that yes, I’ve tried it, and no, I didn’t really like it.

It’s awkward because the person asking is usually really enthusiastic about yoga, and because it has such a great reputation.  After all, yoga has connotations with not only physical but emotional wellness.

For me, yoga has been painful because I have always been inflexible.  I managed to keep it at bay during my running days by stretching religiously, but in shape or not, it is next to impossible for me to stretch without doing some kind of cardiovascular warm-up.  (These days, when I say stretch, I’m talking about doing little movements that a pain-free person probably wouldn’t even notice.  Some days tying my shoes counts as a stretch).

I once attended a pain clinic at a very prestigious Boston rehabilitation center.  The whole experience actually sucked (we’ll talk about that later), but the worst part of it was the four times a week yoga class.  All of the other eleven pain patients and I would end up in more pain by the end of every class.  By the end of my three weeks there, we were unanimously convincing the instructor to teach us an extra tai chi class every time the schedule said it was time for yoga.  We actually liked tai chi because it involved motion, which turned out to be much easier than holding one static pose.  We also probably liked it because it helped get our circulation going.

At any rate, I tried to keep my dislike of yoga on the DL among non-pain-afflicted people.  That is, until I saw this:

New York Times: How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body

Now I don’t want to offend anyone who loves yoga, because I’ve only tried it with two different teachers, and I’m aware there are different schools of thought and ways to do yoga.  But for me, this article touched upon a lot of the things I’d been wondering about.

The article is based largely on interviews with Glenn Black, a yoga teacher who’s been practicing for four decades. Black’s basic point is that while yoga has some applications, the rate at which its popularity has grown in this country has not kept pace with the numbers of qualified teachers, and it is not always taught with enough care.

Some of the most telling quotes:

“Not just students but celebrated teachers too, Black said, injure themselves in droves because most have underlying physical weaknesses or problems that make serious injury all but inevitable. Instead of doing yoga, ‘they need to be doing a specific range of motions for articulation, for organ condition,’ he said, to strengthen weak parts of the body.

“‘Yoga is for people in good physical condition. Or it can be used therapeutically. It’s controversial to say, but it really shouldn’t be used for a general class.'”

In other words, yoga shouldn’t be one-size fits all.  Someone with any kind of injury shouldn’t be going to a class of fifteen people and trying to keep up.  Black says,

“’Today many schools of yoga are just about pushing people… You can’t believe what’s going on — teachers jumping on people, pushing and pulling and saying, ‘You should be able to do this by now.’ It has to do with their egos.’”

The article tells of yoga teachers who tore their Achilles tendons by holding Downward Dog for too long over too many years, and even of a very small number of people who suffered a stroke due to the extreme neck movements that occur during some poses.  Black talks about instructors who had been teaching yoga for decades who’d hurt their backs and hip joints so badly that they now taught classes lying down on a mat.

I know there are a lot of people out there who really love yoga and have had a totally different experience than me.  I guess what I’m saying is that the expectation that everyone will totally love yoga and find it a transformative experience is probably  bad.  That’s what leads beginners to pull muscles during class, because they went in with some kind of underlying structural weakness and tried to keep up with everyone else.  That’s what leads the master teachers to continue to teach even after their doctors have warned them that some of the poses they’re doing can be damaging to their hips.

I think it’s possible that I would like some forms of yoga if I could do things my way.  I would have to do a real warm-up first, and I would probably want to be alone with a teacher or with a very small group of people.  Someone with chronic pain especially needs to take things at his or her own pace.  (Trust me– you can’t rush through things when you’re living with chronic pain.  Things have to take as long as they need.  If you try to ignore your gut feeling and rush, it ends up backfiring every time).

Then again, I know I am partly just saying that as a concession to my friends who actually like yoga.  Part of me is genuinely curious why people enjoy it so much.  But it’s also very hard to admit that you’re that narrow-minded person who doesn’t like yoga.

5 thoughts on “Have you ever tried yoga?”

  1. I’m SO sick of “Have you tried yoga?” being the first thing out of everyone’s mouth when I tell them I have chronic pain. And then when I tell them I’ve tried LOTS of yoga and it didn’t work for me, they start insisting I just haven’t tried the right kind, right instructor, etc. Then they act indignant when I repeat that although I’m young, flexible and otherwise healthy, I’ve injured myself even in restorative poses and that my body simply can’t hold ANY position for a long period of time. As if somehow – even though everyone’s body is built and shaped completely differently and we all have unique chemistry and experiences influencing of nerve responses – there should still be some sort of universal prescriptive when it comes to how to treat pain.

  2. I really love this post. Thanks for telling it like it is! It’s great to see some thoughtful criticisms of yoga for a change. Yoga is overrated. Flexibility is overrated. Stretching is very overrated. Yet if I say some critical things about yoga, man yoga enthusiasts think I’m some kind of closed-minded idiot.
    Sure, many people benefit from yoga, many people enjoy it. But there is more to fitness than flexibility and body awareness. Besides this yoga tends to incorporate a lot of spiritual mumbo jumbo due to its Hindu origins. If these ideas are taken too seriously, they can be outright harmful. Yoga’s spiritual underpinnings are pseudo-scientific.

    While scientific studies show many people benefit from yoga, for the most part these appear to be generic benefits, meaning it proves exercise is beneficial, not that yoga is necessarily beneficial.

    Yoga has been oversold. It has even lead to a form of sexual segregation in fitness, with yoga being overwhelmingly practiced by women and largely ignored by men. Yes, many men practice yoga, but drop by a local yoga class and take note of the % of women in the class.

    It’s great to see some criticisms of yoga, and I hope you get a lot better.

    1. Thank you! I agree– flexibility is highly overrated. People seem to think that more flexible is always better, when in fact, if you have too much range of motion in your joints you’re more likely to injure a tendon or ligament.

      I also think you’re right, that most of the health benefits of yoga are “generic” exercise benefits. Glad you enjoyed the post!

  3. That’s interesting. I do enjoy hearing other people’s positive experiences with yoga… if only because they are so different from my own! I’ve never heard of “adjustments” by yoga teachers before… that definitely sounds like something I never hope to experience, haha.

    And yes, exactly– no one should feel “guilted” into yoga. It’s funny how uncomfortable it can be telling people that I didn’t like it.

    I’m so glad you liked this post. Thanks for your comment!

  4. Good post. I’ve done gentle, moderate yoga for probably 25 years as I found it really helped me. Only in the last 10 years or so have I really enjoyed it – I used to feel quite bored!
    I wonder if there’s a somewhat different ‘yoga culture’ in other countries. I’ve been to many different classes/teachers here and the emphasis has been on care, individual difference, respect… not competition, ego, striving, etc. None of those ‘adjustments’ by teachers either. I’ve never felt under pressure to do a pose I’m not comfy with.
    A different teacher/style of yoga would maybe give you a very different experience BUT then again, if something else like tai chi works better for you, just go with that. No-one should feel guilted into yoga!

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