The Guide to Pain From Your Yoga Practice:
Recognizing the Difference Between Good Pain and Bad Pain
Yoga requires us to use and stretch our muscles in unique ways. This fact alone is why proper alignment and listening to the limitations of our body is vital to avoiding injury.
As a recent graduate from a quite intense YTT200 certification program, I learned how important the direct connection between the makeup of our anatomy and each yoga posture is (both from seminars and the fifty hot power classes I had to take for completion). Sequences are designed to target specific parts of the body, all while avoiding injury during and after each flow is finished.
Our body moves in certain ways for a reason, am I right?
This is why misalignment and pushing ourselves too hard is a ‘no-go’ while doing yoga (or any workouts for that matter).
Yoga Journal recently quoted Loren Fishman, Medical Director of Manhattan Physical Medicine, who ensured us “You may think your muscles are active, but some yoga poses will still stretch them in unfamiliar ways. Muscles can become sore because they’ve been overused.”
Have you heard the saying “the second day is always the worst” after exercising? This is our body’s response to overused or exerted muscles; It’s called delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS). Lucky for us, what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger. Erica Yeary, MPH, and RYT, claims “Muscle soreness is actually a good thing. Once your muscles recover, you’ll experience muscle growth and improved performance, ultimately making you stronger.”
Here to inform you of the different areas of pain you may notice during or after yoga, it’s important to understand the difference between “Good Pain” and “Bad Pain.” While the good pain will “ultimately make you stronger,” the bad pain can develop gradually over years of consistent misalignment and over-stretching, resulting in long term or permanent injuries.
I’ve been to a Cardiologist for chest pain, tightness, and difficulty breathing. Turns out, nothing was wrong with my heart, but my pectoral muscles and rib cage cartilage were slightly inflamed.
Was it a coincidence this happened during my yoga certification program?
Chest pain is actually pretty common for those advancing their practice. Resulting from overusing and overstretching your chest cavity and pectoral muscles, you’ll notice when your body is taking the toll of consistent Sun Salutations and heart openers.
A little tenderness in your chest cavity and surrounding muscles can be a good pain that informs you of the space you’ve made for deeper breathing and Pranayama practices. However, it can quickly turn into a bad pain if you start to have difficulty breathing, lifting heavy objects, or feel tightness in your chest when lying down.
You and I both know that chest pain is not to be tampered with, so avoid overdoing it and modify when needed. When you notice your body straining, bring your knees to the mat during your Chaturanga and Upward-Facing Dog, taking the weight off your chest. As much as we all love Wheel Pose (teehee), sometimes it’s okay to skip it and go straight into Reclined Bound Angle instead (no matter how encouraging your instructor is to lift up).
The key is to listen to your body. We are told to do that at the very beginning of each class for a reason!
Long term, shoulder pain can result in rotator cuff and collarbone injuries that can be quite hard to heal. To avoid this surprise long term injury, keep your shoulders down and back within each posture.
Even more so, the owner of the yoga studio that I received my certification from informed us of her rotator cuff injury that resulted from consistent and long term misalignment during one pose . . . Chaturanga Dandasana.
It took years of duck diving into Upward Facing Dog, holding her elbows at a 45-degree angle versus the necessary 90-degree angle (hugged in close next to the rib cage), and not keeping her full body completely parallel to her mat, to end up with almost irreversible shoulder issues. This notable “transitional pose” isn’t, in fact, a transitional pose and should be incorporated into your practice as its own breath (exhale) with proper alignment.
Unfortunately, it can be easy in any workout or physical exercise to injure our shoulders. Be careful not to overextend or stretch the rotator cuff or shoulder girdle to avoid injuries such as dislocating the joint.
Good pain in the shoulders is very temporary and you’ll notice it’s only during the beginning of your practice when you start to strengthen those muscles that hold your Chaturanga in place. This strength aids in amplifications and inversions with the ability to stack your joints properly with ease over time. If your shoulder pain lasts longer than two days, I would consider having a friend check your alignment or incorporate blocks into your flow to correct posture.
Honestly, though, no pain from yoga should last you more than two days.
LOWER BACK PAIN
The most frequent pain noticed from one’s yoga practice, lower back pain would be considered more of a “bad pain” than any other. Usually, when your lower back is strained, it’s due to either an unengaged core or too much rounding through the spine.
Our spine flexes the opposite direction when rounded, ultimately resulting in an ache following class or long term disc issues. In order to avoid this injury, make sure to lengthen your spine before folding (lifting the weight off your hip joints). You can also bend your knees slightly to transition the weight out of your lower back.
The best defense against lower back pain will always be core work. Strong abdominal muscles don’t always need to be visually recognizable (usually comes from one’s diet), but can be felt in the reduction of back pain. It’s worth it!
Not referring in any way to the appearance of your backside, “yoga butt” actually refers to a few common injuries that occur in or around your glutes or gluteus maximus.
One of the muscles easily injured is your piriformis muscle, located deep within each glute to help your hips and legs rotate outward. When this muscle becomes tight, it shortens, which can cause the nerve that runs through/behind this muscle (sciatic nerve) to compress. It’s basically the worst butt cramp you can experience, that takes time to stretch back out and heal. Avoid this injury by making sure you take rest days throughout your weekly exercise routines, especially with yoga after incorporating multiple Warrior Poses into your practice.
Left without rest, this muscle pain can cause you to become almost immobile for weeks up to even months, also causing the surrounding hamstring and leg muscles to tighten up as well. I would consider this a “bad pain.”
Our knee joint is the most complex joint in the body. Injuring your knee is almost impossible to recover from, so take care to really avoid any strain on the joint and surrounding muscles.
Any movement or flexibility in the knee joint comes from our hips first and foremost. One of the poses I most frequently tend to feel this concept occur in is Resting Half Pigeon. The more parallel I work to get my shin to the top of my mat, the more my knee hurts. Sometimes, readjusting my hips (making sure they’re square to the mat as well) can take any additional tension or pressure off my knee. However, on occasion I’ve noticed even after readjusting, sometimes I’ve also just had to bend my knee enough to avoid any discomfort. This is the best possible solution to avoiding any tears underneath that precious knee cap of yours.
My shin will get there eventually, but if I force flexibility on my joints, I’ll never get there at all. I suggest this concept for all in their yoga practice as well.
If you find your wrists start to hurt during your yoga practice, you may be placing your weight on the wrong places. The solution to this recurring discomfort may not be that you have bad or weak wrists, but sincerely just the placement of your hands on the mat.
Read more about wrist pain in our blog “Is Wrist Pain Affecting Your Practice” to learn more.
I hope the information I've learned through my personal practice and training has helped some of you save yourself from any long term injuries or pain after your favorite classes. Please feel free to comment below with any injuries you've suffered from or ways you recover/avoid pain from your practice.