Yoga hurts

Published on July 26, 2012 by      Print
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By Shana Sturtz

A recent conclusion I am now willing to openly admit: yoga hurts my body.

Potentially, it’s not the right thing for me, at least in some of its most rigorous forms such as Power Vinyasa and Ashtanga. With all the conflicting information out there on exercise and nutrition, it’s hard not to get sucked into thinking that if you don’t do yoga, you cannot achieve strong health, fitness and flexibility from the inside out. How else are you going to detox those internal organs?

Well, simple twists are not exclusive to yoga, first of all.

I liken my journey with yoga to my one-time decision to throw in the towel with wheat and sugar. I had read so much about wheat destroying our insides and sugar being a current-day poison that I was determined to cut these things out of my diet, even though I wasn’t noticing any ill effects from eating them. What resulted was extreme fatigue and overeating (even after several weeks). I never felt satiated and was weak and lethargic. About a week into this no-wheat-no-sugar shit lifestyle, in one sitting I ate two crab cakes, two pieces of sword fish, a grand-sized chicken wing, salad and other assorted vegetables… and still felt hungry. Ya know, I was trying the whole Paleo thing. But something was wrong. I had never felt worse. I kept waiting for the detox stage to be over, but it never ended.

Almost a month in, my first dip back into straight-up sugar was a peanut butter cookie. I felt good for the first time since I had started these eliminations. I guess I must need some sugar in my diet. Yeah, I know, Coca Cola is poison, but some people need straight up sugar. I think I am one of them. And, I know some people have a real problem with glutinous products and sugar, but apparently my problem is being denied these things. Lesson learned.

With so much conflicting information out there, it’s an error to place too much weight on any advice related to diet or exercise. Opinions are constantly in flux. I remember when I was dousing everything in agave syrup because my yoga teacher said it’s the healthy sweetener, with a lower glycemic index, and that gave me free reign to basically suck it straight from the bottle. But now, they’re saying that agave is actually no better than high fructose corn syrup. So, my bad.

I think the most important thing is to see how your body reacts to all the conflicting information you get about health, diet and exercise.

Back to yoga. After moving to Mexico, and rarely practicing yoga beyond some simple daily stretches, I am no longer at the chiropractor every week. Yes, I still exercise a lot—running, ballet bar exercises and weight training—but not too much yoga short of a retreat here and there. So now, because I am not always in pain, I definitely notice how I feel the day after doing a vigorous yoga practice, and it’s kind of wrecked, frankly.

Before I left Portland, I was already noticing that my body was not responding well to yoga, and I had transitioned into teaching and doing more ballet bar workouts. These classes, where extreme flexibility is not a necessity or encouraged, were actually healing my body. I felt better about passing along this style of fitness to young and old, injured and strong. These workouts emphasized good and safe alignment over attempting your deepest backbend or 200 chaturangas.

I know many yoga people feel threatened by anything that seems like anti-yoga sentiment, hence the fact that a good number of yoga people have made the decision to cut ties with me. However, these are just my meager opinions, and only have as much power as the backlash people give them. Probably no one would have read William J. Broad’s book about the dangers of yoga if there hadn’t been such a backlash. Certainly, he probably wouldn’t have had a 30-minute segment on NPR. And so really, I only know what’s right for me, and am not challenging the benefits of yoga for other people.

Recently, I read that the belief that we need to feel pain to get things accomplished in our bodies is false. This is an ingrained idea in our culture: that if it is not killing us or making us extremely sore, then we are not making positive changes in our health and bodies. But sometimes, the more subtle things are actually improving us at a deeper level.

I know there are all types of yoga, and the simple static and active stretches I do in my home are my healthy yoga now. So, I’m just saying, yoga is not the only way to a healthy body. In fact, I didn’t know how good my body could feel until I stopped doing regular yoga.

About Shana Sturtz

Shana Sturtz is a certified yoga teacher and survivor of the exploding Portland, Oregon yoga scene. She currently lives in Guadalajara, Mexico with her husband, Tom. She continues to teach yoga and tutors in English. She has practiced yoga for 15 years, and yes, she is older than most yoga teachers. She is currently looking for more ways to occupy her time in this new land where she hasn’t quite grasped the language, and she is too scared to drive. Coming from Portland, you only learn to ride a bike. While no longer living in Portland (where a new yoga studio opens every hour) she is forced to practice her yoga within the comforts of her home, often with her cat looking on admiringly.

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  1. Anon says:

    I didn’t know how good I could feel about myself until I stopped doing yoga!

    I recently stopped doing yoga because I couldn’t afford it. I’m planning and paying for a wedding on my own…so ZING! There goes the $120/month yoga pass.

    Instead, I started running because it’s free and puts me out in nature more often. Also, it’s fun to challenge my body in a different way. I still go to a free yoga class a couple of times a month, and I love it every time, but having a comfortable distance from the “scene” is good for me right now.

    I feel like I’m finally more true to myself, more in touch with what feels good and more clear about what I want.

    Yoga often makes us think and judge ourselves (and have others judge us) about our intentions, our preferences, our commitment and a host of other things. On one hand, it’s good to be able to take stock of where you’re at–to call yourself out on your own bullshit.

    But other times, I think we can put undue pressure on ourselves to fill a certain “yogic” role, when what we really need is to just be who we are, and be comfortable with that. If yoga helps you change certain parts of yourself that you don’t like, that’s great. But if it changes you just to fit the mold, and you start to recognize that, step away for a while.

    • VQ2 says:

      ☼ ☽ ☯ [sun? moon? Yin? Yang?)

      Yoga? (︶︹︺)

      Pilates, Yogilates, Ecstatic Dance? ♫ ♬ ♫ ♬ ♪♫ :-D each time …

    • Shana says:

      Thanks for your thoughtful and non-judgememtal perspective!

    • Mara Critchett says:

      The purpose of yoga is not to judge yourself or others…if you do, that is your stuff, not yogas and if you are still caught up with people who are in that mode, they just don’t get it..not yet, or if ever. I know this website about trashing…and it does that well, and that is what most people prefer to do than celebrate the good stuff. We look at what’s wrong, what’s bad, what we don’t have….so much wasted energy. Use your energy anyway you want and then ask yoursefl ” So, how’s that working for me?” It’s on you….don’t lay it on anyone else.

  2. New York says:

    Interesting article!

  3. Meg says:

    Wow. This article is sad and has so many areas I would like to address I don’t even know where to start. It is tragic that Ms Sturtz has had such a bad experience with yoga, and too bad she didn’t have better teachers, who would not have let her push herself to the point of pain and injury, and could have nipped any competitive urges to do “200 chaturangas or your deepest backbend” in the bud. My experience with yoga has been the complete opposite: I have been able to heal injuries I sustained from other activities (like running), which reinforces her point that we each have to find what works for our body, but I also think her assessment of yoga has been skewed by practicing in some very non-yogic environments with some very poor role models, which is just sad. In fact, the reality that this website even exists is sad! Apparently I have been sheltered in my little yoga shala in my little town…

    • Michael says:

      Totally agree Meg.

      A few years back, I was very banged up from consistent yoga practice, with a hamstring injury, rotator cuff issues, and a constantly sore lower back. A well-known teachers of Ashtanga shared these words of advice.

      “Any kind of yoga is going to hurt if you do it wrong.”
      - Mark Darby

      “Sometimes you need to go to far to find out where you’re really at.”
      - David Swenson

      Injuries can be your best teachers if you shift your perspective on them. They teach you to pull back and use some restraint, and to reverse the actions that brought you into the pose. When the asanas are done right, they really shouldn’t hurt at all. When the right balance of opposite actions is found in asana and there is concentration on the subtle, every pose feels the same.

      Avoiding limitations, or ignoring traumas that are stored in the body, doesn’t really address the issues, which are sure to resurface in the future if you continue to ignore them. Find an amazing teacher at a local studio and commit to that teacher at least 3 days a week. There’s also some amazing reading material out there to help refine the alignment and identify the missing puzzle pieces. I recommend Gregor Maehle’s book, “Ashtanga Yoga: Practice & Philosophy” to practitioners of all styles.

      • Shana says:

        I had an amazing Iyengar type teacher before I left the US. He always encouraged me from going too deep, pulling back in the poses. It was a very good experience for me.

    • Joslyn hamilton says:

      Hi Meg
      In Buddhism, pity is the flip side—and the dark side—of compassion. Food for thought.

      • Meg says:

        Point well taken, however, the whole gist of this website does not seem to be about compassion, but rather about humor, satire, and also just a dumping ground for those who have negative feelings about yoga: Shana’s commentary included. When I said it was “sad,” I was commenting on what yoga has become in this country and how it has hurt some people and/or left them with bitter feelings, and that for whatever reason (bad teachers, bad environment, ??) her experience has been the total opposite of mine. I didn’t mean to be condescending. At the same time, I get the feeling that some of the postings here are for shock value rather than accuracy.

    • VQ2 says:

      Your little town sure ain’t New York City. I can count on one hand the number of teachers who don’t need a yogic GPS (if such a thing exists) in order to meet a very average student (not talking young and acrobatic or athletic) student where they are ….

      If so, I wish they would hurry up and invade all the East Coast to give an example of yogic geocaching so those teachers who still teach don’t have to switch styles (or lives) …

  4. Omiya says:

    I have been practising yoga for 10 years in various forms, all vinyasa/power types of practice. i have recently gone back to a Mysore style practice. what i have learned is this:

    i did get a few small injuries from blasting through the primary series without paying attention. i started practising at home and slowing down. i would modify every pose around every injury. the injuries got better, and i turned out to be stronger than before starting this type of practice. what i have learned is that led classes injure because i prefer to go at my own pace and modify everything. i was shocked that this difficult practice was actually healing my body, i expected to simply accumulate more injuries…

    …that being said, primary series 6 days a week is WAY too much for me. i break it up with slower practices (hip openers and whatnot) and it works out very well for me.

    …and last thing: not everyone loves yoga, and not everyone should. it is not for everyone. maybe you have found out that it is not for you? for me, it was like coming home in my body (as compared to all previous forms of exercise i had engaged in). but that won’t be the case for everyone………….thank you for your honesty (in all of your posts!)

    • Meg says:

      I could not have said it better myself! For over 16 years I shied away from ashtanga for fear of getting injured (especially hamstrings), but with the help of some excellent teachers, I have found ashtanga to be healing. I have been doing a 5/6 day a week Mysore practice for a year, and my body feels better than it has in decades (and I have always been very active). Mysore style seems to attract “teachers” that are invested in helping people rather than advancing their reputations and/or careers. This is part of why I think the Mysore realm has managed to escape the unhealthy, ego-driven, competitive environment that so many of these bloggers describe. For anyone who is ready to ditch yoga but hasn’t completely given up hope, I highly recommend checking out humble ashtanga teachers who are striving to keep it pure, such as David Garrigues , Tim Miller, and Mike Hannum.

    • VQ2 says:

      for me, it was like coming home in my body (as compared to all previous forms of exercise i had engaged in). but that won’t be the case for everyone………….

      For me, not ALL forms of exercise …

      If, as my yoga teacher, you teach me all sorts of challenges, but if later on after practice that day, I’m centered only on a fluke, as my yoga teacher you’re history …

      Swimming laps and stairmaster had made me more centered than many yoga classes … guessing it’s all about how I feel and not how I look and that I need a special kind of Zen ….

  5. Shana says:

    Just to set the record straight, I never had one teacher openly pushing me to do things that hurt my body. Yeah, i had some painful adjustments, but my fault for not screaming out in agony in class :)
    The culture of some of these classes is a bit showy and hardcore. People often want to look like the teacher or look like the other students in the class, and because of that I think people can push themselves too hard (sometimes that’s me to test my limits). I know this also because i am a teacher and hear students tell me this sometimes. They say, as soon as I stopped trying to look like the teacher, I started enjoying yoga. Those are the people that didn’t get intimidated at the door.
    Yoga sometimes can feel really good for me, but my point was that I have found some things that actually work better. I am enjoying the results of those other activities overall as I get older and things change in my body, life and priorities. No need to feel sad or sorry.
    Because I have the type of personality where I want to be great at physical endeavors, I think the yoga atmosphere can actually push me to unhealthy places in my body, but I am to blame for this not the yoga teacher or even the culture. Yoga can most definitely be very healing for people and that is especially why I am clear that I only speak to what I have been going through personally.

    • Oreste says:

      Shana: Understood. But it sounds like you also never had a teacher who pulled you back. Who actually noticed that you were pushing yourself to an extreme that was not useful. I think it’s great that you take responsibility for your own inclinations. But it doesn’t absolve the teacher. They are there to keep you safe as much as they are there to help you grow.

      True that yoga is not for everyone and that other activities can have the result of being more appropriate, even more meditative and transformative for some people. But it’s a shame that it took you bruising your body to come to that conclusion.

      Teachers here are too shy (or perhaps it’s not conducive to business) to tell a student that a particular style or approach is not for them and that they would be better served otherwise. One of my teachers kicked a new student out of an intermediate class because it was not appropriate for them. The student relented and the teacher would not start class until she left. I know plenty of teachers who do not do that and who instead will let someone “figure it out on their own” even if it means getting hurt. But that intelligent observation is the purpose of a teacher. Perhaps I’m lucky to have had teachers who were, literally, raised with the practice and who came with more than just a handful of years of experience and a couple of certifications to their name.

      I realize you want to reiterate that you’re speaking of your own experience. But you’re not the only person who’s been hurt in practice and for whom practice has had detrimental effects. The conversation seems to focus on the Yoga. I really don’t think that’s the problem. Its application is the problem. So really, it’s the teachers.

      • Shana says:

        Oreste, thanks for your comments. Sometimes I write these pieces and its hard to remain focused on my original intent. So many comments and different peoples’ interpretations of what they think I am trying to get across often confuses things. I start to transform how I feel about my original piece and the thoughts and emotions it stemmed from are sometimes altered. Your comments have made me think about a lot of aspects of the piece, my insistence on personal responsibly,  and my defense of yoga teachers in general. You are correct in saying that yoga teachers and the way they are trained are responsible for some of the injuries occurring in the classroom. However, my intent with the piece was simply to say there are ways to be healthy and feel good without practicing yoga asana of any kind, and not to place too much weight on all the health and fitness hype out there.

        • Oreste says:

          I understand what you mean. And you’re absolutely right. The fitness hype is BS. The whole “yoga can fix everything” hype is absolutely BS. It’s certainly true with the level of yoga that most of this country’s teachers know.

          And you are absolutely right that yoga asana is not necessary and often not appropriate. But my thing is that a good Yoga teacher knows that… or should.

          I interviewed a woman a few years ago, soon after Pattabhi Jois passed away. I was trying to learn more about Jois’ impact on his students. The first time she went to Mysore, he refused to teach her the Ashtanga-Vinyasa series. Made her do pranayama for 2 months before he taught her even one asana. Few people know that this man was trained in Ayurveda and Sanskrit translation. Even fewer understand that he wasn’t ever suggesting that the A-V method was universally applicable (he himself stopped practicing asana at the age of 40; his daughter, who teachers, also does not practice much asana now). Few teachers I know would actually tell their student to go home and rest for days or a week, let alone a month. Most A-V teachers will say that pranayama is a more advanced practice and you need to do asana for a long time before starting that. BS!

          In much the same way, I recently spoke with a student of the Viniyoga method who was told by her teacher to avoid any martial art that was combat focused. The teacher understands that what we know as Yogasana today is just a set of postures that have particular documented effects. But other postures and activities also have an effect. And the effect, not the means, is what’s important.

          Teachers who really know the applications and effects of Yoga practices (and non-yoga activities) of all kinds come from the same introspective space (with, of course, alot of training and exposure to relevant sciences) that you talk about: that it makes no sense to do something that doesn’t serve your body or mind and that buying into the BS hype about Yogasana being universally beneficial is dangerous. Students and teachers alike get caught up in the lifestyle and identity without actually caring to the develop the substance. I guess that’s why I harp on teachers.

          Students are very protective of their teachers because they know their teachers are coming from a place of wanting to share their knowledge. But their knowledge is often incomplete and its application actually in some cases harmful. I see so much of Yoga in this country being defined by people who don’t know much about it. And I juxtapose that against science and engineering (my actual day job) and consider that if someone who took 2 weeks of Physics tried to teach it claiming any level of authority, they would be laughed out of the room. They wouldn’t be taken seriously. And this would be someone simply discussing intellectual knowledge that can’t hurt anyone. With Yoga, we’re actually teaching people and changing their bodies (physical and energetic). And yet we have such a hesitation to call teachers out on their ignorance. We need to know what we’re doing. And we sure as hell need to understand that sometimes what the person needs is to not come to our asana classes. You figured this out and that puts you in a pretty unique place as a yoga teacher. Your students will benefit from that. If you start to pass onto them that intelligence, that self awareness and knowledge, then you’re teaching them something closer to Yoga than what most people get in classes.

          I’m so happy you posted this. I hope more people read it. And I’m glad you didn’t take offense to my comments. This is a hot button for me because I see so many people taught improperly (not improper alignment but improper mental attitude and application), they get hurt and then they go out and talk trash about Yoga and give a free pass to their teachers when it was the ignorant, egotistical teachers passing themselves off as experts that was the problem. It’s great you learned all this without being seriously hurt and that now you can pass on this approach to your students. We need more teachers like that.

  6. Oreste says:

    Meg: I second that!

    Shana: When I read your post I was immediately appalled at the experience you’ve had… and felt incredibly blessed that I’ve managed to have five amazing teachers whose instruction and care has kept me from getting hurt even after 12 years of practice in three different locations. I don’t know the Portland scene but if the experience you had at your studio is indicative of most people’s experience there then I’m glad it wasn’t in my cards.

    The yoga movement in the West has devolved so that, with few exceptions, it hardly resembles the traditional, let alone original, practices. The experience you have now with much more awareness of your specific body (and mind’s!) needs is much more in tune with Yoga with a big “Y” than what you encountered at your studio.

    I’m glad you’ve found a better pracice. And if you find yourself considering returning to Yoga, check out Viniyoga, which encompasses yoga therapy as well as customization of practices (they almost never have group classes). These folks essentially operate from the same conclusion that you’ve reached: that different practices are appropriate for different people. They also include non-asana practices that are more subtle and powerful in dealing with injuries and ailments.

    By the way, I have been laughing at the “Your third eye needs a contact lens” for 15 minutes now. Classic. And oh so appropriate. :o )


  7. Warriorsaint says:

    Yoga injuries are what propelled me to become a Pilates teacher. I had enjoyed (please don’t say “blessed” unless clergy is involved) studying with some talented hardcore teachers. A torn rotator and nagging low back pain finally convinced me to give it a rest. I had more injuries in 3 years of yoga than 15 years of capoeira.

    Truth be told I never learned how to guide a student’s body safely through space until Pilates.

    • Shana says:

      Yes, you get what I am talking about.

    • Oreste says:

      :) For some of us, Yoga is about connection to God, so “blessed” is actually the right word. LOL. That was its original intent, actually. It’s only in very recent history that it has become an exercise routine. That’s what I mean by “traditional” teachers. Not that they are militants devoted to just one Yoga style, but that they were actually more concerned with my state of mind when I practiced than they were with exactly where I put feet or hands or whether I could bind a pose.

      • Pamela says:

        Asana practice, those complex physical poses you are doing, were NEVER the “original intent” of yoga. Those are only a recent addition, meant for preparation and support of meditation and occupy an extremely small piece of real estate in the spiritual yoga world. Glad you enjoy it but please be careful about practicing more than one or two times a week even with the best darn asana teachers out there.

        Don’t let anyone fool you that you can’t injure yourself with asana because you absolutely can – even with a great teacher, even with proper alignment. I’ve seen it happen multiple times with excellent practitioners who have been at this a while under the directions of top notch teachers. Work on your meditation practice and mix in some pilates and other cross training so you don’t wreck your body in pursuit of of your spiritual goals. Seriously, asana is such a small part of it, it’s not the main course by any means. Hope you will consider a voice of experience.

  8. Laura says:

    I second what Oreste said. Find the type of yoga that works for you and your body. Yoga Therapy is great because its focus is on healing and mind-body balance (who doesn’t need it?) rather than achieving the ‘perfect pose’, or impressing people with a deep and dangerous back bend. Contortionists suffer tremendously in later life, many end up unable to walk. If yoga becomes a form of contortionism its place is the circus, and its name should change too. Unfortunately many yoga studios feed the ego of very competitive practitioners and teachers, and let everybody else down. I have always kept a safe distance from competitive yoga and luckily have never sustained any serious injury, nor caused injures to any of my students.

  9. Laura says:

    and of course for many people, myself included, Pranayama and meditation, or a walk in the forest, are far more effective to restore balance than any asana sequence in a crowded yoga studio.

  10. Duff says:

    I smoke half a blunt about 2 hours before class. And then finish it after.

  11. Yoga hurts. ~ Shana Sturtz | elephant journal says:

    [...] This story originally appeared on Recovering Yogi. [...]

  12. Lisa says:

    WOW I am so proud of you! I am a certifed Yoga Teacher and I really LOVE your honesty.
    I am not giving up my coffee sugar wheat or meat. Really we all need to pay attention to what works for us. I love to teach yoga but do not teach the North American way nor the Indian way. I invite people to expand their own awarness and do what feels good for themselves. THANX

  13. Tommy says:

    Heres a sentiment I picked up quite early on in my own yoga adventure.

    If Yoga is not adjusted to you then it’s not Yoga.

    That always made sense to me, that uncompromising attitude regarding our health. If what you’re doing is doing real damage to you then don’t fucking do it.

    Equally true when my best friend keeps trashing his shoulder and claims that what he’s doing is “strenght training” or any other example of someone shooting themselves in the foot and calling it .

    My own personal observation (whatever thats worth) leads me to believe that being a health worker, regardless of wether you call yourselves a yoga teacher or aerobics instructor or whatever, it’s a big responsiblity and the good ones are few and far between.

    Warm regards from an on and off again yoga enthusiast.

    • Tommy says:

      The interwebz ate part of the last sentence in the second to last paragraph… The full thing should not end abruptly with “it”. Full sentence:

      …or any other example of someone shooting themselves in the foot and calling it whatever fitness fad they happen to prefer.

      Sorry for the confusion, couldn’t find an edit button.

  14. vkim says:

    LOVE this article!! I identity with your sentiments completely! xo v

  15. Tai says:

    My question is: I have stopped doing yoga 3 years ago after a 10 year 5x/wk practice and ever since then my body hurts. I never felt this way during my yoga days. I am wondering if I messed my body up doing vigirous yoga for so long or i trained my body to want good posture and stretched muscles. OR I.m just getting older, age 32. I feel sad if I hurt it long term or guilty that I stopped doing yoga. Is there anyone this has happed to?

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