Advancing your practice / Alignment / For beginners

That hurts.


Before we get started, how about this wise and insightful piece by Kino MacGregor on Healing Injuries with Yoga.

chatt 1

Chaturanga Dandasana

aka “low push up” or “low plank”

How many chaturangas in a vinyasa class?

Elbow pain.  Wrist pain.  Low back pain.  Normal?  Bad?  I tell my students there is a distinct difference in being in pain, and feeling discomfort.  Never should you feel pain in a pose; pain is your body’s way of yelling at you “back off/modify/dilute/this one is not for me.”  Positive growth and change usually doesn’t occur without some discomfort. True pain is a whole other kettle of fish, and I never seek for my students to face it.  The trouble is, there’s a fine line between the two.  And most of us start going to yoga after habitually crossing that line over-and-over again without even knowing it.  And then those habits start to appear in the practice we came to in hopes of soothing ourselves.  After a while, the pain creeps in.

It’s my hope every yogi can feel empowered to recognize when she is feeling pain, and then make a choice based on her intuition (rather than ego–we always seem to carry these two conflicting voices within us), a choice to push further, or to draw back.  We should all feel free to live in our own bodies.  Not that of our teacher, the person on the mat next to us, or the woman modeling on the cover of Yoga Journal.

You live in your body, and deserve to feel good in it!

But, let’s say you are already feeling elbow pain now.  (Since I can’t see you, talk to your yoga teacher after class, if you have one, as he or she may have some helpful tips after seeing you practice). Pain sucks.

First thing I would do is ask you to show me your vinyasa, particularly your chaturanga.  That might reveal the cause of the pain.  If you can’t hold yourself somewhat comfortably in chaturanga for a few breaths in and out before needing to push to up-dog or belly-flop, your alignment is likely out of wack.
If you are already feeling pain, please give yourself time and rest to heal before diving in to address the root issue.

R.I.C.E. (Rest, Ice, Compress, Elevate above the heart)

If you are back on the mat:

Try modifying any vinyasa to go from knees-chest-chin to a low cobra (rather than chaturanga to urdva).  Regular cobra can be a nice modification from a knees-chest-chin or low-plank too.  In regular cobra, knees can be on or off the mat, but hips don’t touch the ground.  The key in cobra is to keep the elbows bent, whether it’s a generous bend, or just a micro-bend.  Think softness rather than strain and tension, surrender over force.

Micro-bend in down dog too–lots of many opportunities in a flow class to lock the joints that could potentially slow your healing.  Maybe “goal-post” the arms in warrior 1 to see if that reduces strain. Play around with moving slower between the poses to tune into the moments where your body starts speaking up and saying “this feels not quite so good…”

Are you doing jump-backs from half-way lifts?  Lots of people will jump straight back into high-plank (with the arms straight), which can totally blow out your elbows. Especially after repeating week after week, year after year.  It might not hurt now, or the first few hundred times, but it will later.

I recommend skipping any jump-backs (and arm balances) until the pain subsides.  But if/when you feel good to go for it, jump straight back into chaturanga (with the elbows bent as they point straight back and hug the side ribs) and your shoulders dip no lower than your elbows.

Good way to notice that space is to put a 4 or 5 inch yoga block at the top of your mat, at the lowest height.  Think of it as a cute kitty or puppy you love, and as you come into chaturanga (either from a jump-back or from high plank) you do not crush the kitty/puppy with your chin or chest.  I see a lot of students who go too low, which means they are throwing a lot of pressure on the wrist and elbow joints by putting them at those very acute angles again and again.

If you’re not jumping back, but going from high to low: 

In high plank: hug the arm bones towards one another.  Melt the heart a bit between the shoulder blades.  Keep engaged in the core as your belly button pulls back towards your spine, your tailbone tucks towards your heels, and your transverse abdominals wrap around your side body like a tight hug.  Remember to breathe! Then bring the heart slightly forward of the hands before or as you lower to keep nice right angles in your joints.

Make sure you are pressing firmly into the hands

and the backs of your fingers and knuckles as they spread out from one another, fanning out like the legs of a starfish.  Keeping that weight spread in your hands means you put energy into the ground below and reciprocally can get it back, rather than stopping it at an over-stressed wrist joint.   Eyes of your elbows face forward, not in to one another.  Hands should be as wide (or possibly wider for some folks) as your shoulders.  Plug the shoulders on the back so your scapula squeeze together on the back.  Be mindful not to loose this engagement with the hands pressing and the shoulders pulling away from the ears when you move to upward-facing dog or cobra.  Keep the legs strong too!  If your hips are off the mat (full up-dog or regular cobra), press the toes and the tops of your feet into the mat so firmly into the mat your quads engage and your kneecaps lift off the earth.

These poses take FULL BODY ENGAGEMENT.

Legs, abs, the position of your tailbone, your hands, shoulders, all of it is involved and can’t be taken for granted when you are repeating these pose several times every class.  Gravity is working against you, so be easy on yourself as you work through this.

You don’t need to do or know everything at once.  Give it time.

Suppose you are naturally very flexible.

You might always run the risk of hyper-extension because you’ll be able to move stretch deeply with ease, and you might want to push further, so you can really feel something. Try shifting some focus away from going deeper and gaining additional flexibility.  Flexibility will be a major challenge for lots of the people you see next to you in class, but your challenge might instead be stability.  Can you hold a pose longer, can you breathe deeper, can you scan your body for places you are letting your muscles go when you could be hugging in?

Final thought:

“If you can breathe, you can do yoga”–Krishnamacharya

“Anyone who wants to can do yoga,” he asserted, “but not just any yoga.”

There’s no one-size-fits all pose, or type of asana.  If the pain is frustrating you by taking you away from something you love doing, consider the time as an opportunity to explore something else you really need (but maybe didn’t realize you needed).  This could be a good time to read, to observe, to meditate, take a yin or restorative class, nourish your relationships, or cultivate other things in your daily life that make you feel happy and connected.

Try, but try with ease!


One thought on “That hurts.

  1. Pingback: Summer Theme: Safety! | Lisa Rigby Yoga

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