Teaching yoga asana is a tough job. A newer teacher, I learned this the hard way. Three big shifts lead me to experience persistent pain.
1. My practice was no longer entirely my own.
Once I became a teacher, my students and my classes were always in the back of my head. I could no longer appreciate my time on the mat the same way.
This was cool, on one hand. My practice gained meaning. It became an experience I got to share with my students.
Thinking more while practicing had minuses, too. It felt difficult to be totally present. Time on my mat took a sharp turn toward content creation, and away from self-care. While my students benefited from my practice during this time, my body didn’t in the way that it had used to.
2. The cognitive overload of learning to teach made me unaware of myself while teaching.
While getting my chops as a new teacher, I relied on practicing while teaching. This was how I found my words and developed a sense of timing. Plus, I’m a kinesthetic learner which means I learn best by doing.
Teaching in this way as a new teacher, however, meant my attention was torn. I would, for example, unwittingly demo poses on one side, but not the other, or jump into demoing a posture for which I wasn’t completely warmed up for.
3. Teaching and practicing asana (and nothing else) lead to pain and injury.
During the first 5-7 years of my teaching, I was chronically stiff and sore in specific areas of my body. I wondered if this muscle soreness was a sign I was getting stronger. I ignored it and kept doing what I was doing – practicing and teaching a lot.
Eventually these chronic aches and pains turned into alarming pain. I developed sharp, shooting pain around my neck, the front of my right shoulder and the front of my hips – pain so bad it began to limit what I could do.
I’d wake up in the morning unable to turn my head and remain unable to do so the rest of the day. I had intermittent anterior shoulder pain. Taking my arms all the way up overhead caused pinching. The worst was really disturbing, hip and SI joint pain. This pain ranged from dull and annoying to completely debilitating, making it hard to sleep at night.
The hip pain really freaked me out because around this time many senior yoga teachers were coming out about their hip replacement surgeries. Psychological fear, as much as physical pain, kept me up at night. I spent hours obsessively Googling ‘how to know you tore your labrum’ searching for signs that I didn’t.
I didn’t go see a PT or orthopedist, by the way. I preferred the comfort of not knowing while I looked for a solution on my own. Additionally, the cognitive dissonance of teaching something many think of as a healing art while in pain myself, likely partially because of the practice I taught, weighed on me. I was afraid to open up about my experience.
Looking back, I realize the avoidance of seeing a doctor stemmed more from my difficulty in asking for help. If I’d seen a PT, I’d likely have arrived at a game plan sooner. Nevertheless, in my somewhat solitary struggle to find a solution, I determined my practice needed to change.
My big ‘Aha!’ was realizing I needed to shift back into student mode and learn new ways of loading my body.
I like the way biomechanist, Katy Bowman says it. She explains movement variation as something akin to a well-rounded diet. Asana is just one source of load nutrients. I needed to do other things to #varytheload and balance my body’s ‘dietary requirements’ for movement.
I started to add external resistance to my movement diet, a key missing load nutrient for body weight only exercises like yoga asana. After just a few weeks of lifting weights and incorporating stretchy bands into my yoga practice, I experienced immediate positive shifts. I was sore the next morning, but it was temporary soreness – the kind you experience from fatiguing a muscle rather than joint instability. The chronic stiffness and sharp shooting pain around my neck, shoulders and hips lessened gradually. Eventually it disappeared.
I started feeling stronger, too, and not just in the physical sense.
Around this time, I started to make other positive shifts in my teaching. Shifts like writing more and sharing my personal story, as well as my passion and creativity on social media with a larger community.
Coincidence? I think not.
Getting stronger changes your brain.
I became physically stronger and personally bolder. I came into my own by owning my pain, listening to my gut, absorbing the wisdom of trusted sources around me (yes, even doctors) and then most importantly, resolving to do something about it.
The asanas are still a dear part of my movement practice and will be forever. But now, they comprise a portion (not all of) my movement diet. Not only do I feel better in my body, but my teaching has benefited enormously from this cross-pollination of movement modalities.
It’s this learning curve, primarily—having pain and learning how to getting out of it while still continuing to practice and teaching—that is the primary inspiration and passion guiding my evolution as a teacher. Necessity is the mother of invention. Likewise, sometimes persistent pain is the catalyst for persistent growth.