"The right way is the hard way." -Bikram Choudhury
Should yoga hurt? I frequently hear yoga teachers say, "If you feel pain, back off from this pose." I've used this line plenty of times myself when I teach. We step on the mat to heal, not to strain and sprain. Pain let's us know when we've gone too far. For Type-A folks like myself, pain's a disciplinarian, reminding us that we can't actually fly, we don't actually live forever, and that no means no, even if the "no" is spoken from a grumpy hamstring refusing to wake up and join the rest of the body for class.
While sharp, alarming pain functions to warn us of potential tissue damage to come, the absence of pain in our yoga practice should also serve as a warning. I was reminded of this last week, when, after a couple hours in the hot room at our local Bikram Yoga studio, my teacher Ping walked up to me and asked if she could share an observation about my practice. "When you kick out in Standing Head-to-Knee Pose, one hip is higher than the other. Try to even out your hips. Here, try it."
I centered myself, eased into the pose and, sure enough, my kicking hip was higher than my standing hip. "Now," Ping continued, "lower the hip." As I lowered it, I felt the muscle and ligament infrastructure around my hips and sacrum groan. Wow! That's hard! That hurts! Not a sharp pain. Not an oh-damn-I-just-tore-my-SI-Joint pain. But an ache - a discomfort. In other words, my body did not want to do what the form of the pose required. "Yes!" Ping cheered. "Now your hips are even! Remember that feeling."
The next day, on the mat at home, I practiced with careful attention to hip alignment. Sure enough, it turns out that Standing Head-to-Knee Pose wasn't the only problematic pose. Little-by-little, I had unconsciously sacrificed hip alignment in a number of poses in order to avoid the pain of doing the poses correctly. Can you blame me? Who wants to spend hours on the mat in pain? Who wants hard work if they can avoid it?
I redoubled my efforts. That day, and each day since, I've started again from scratch, slowly working each pose and carefully pushing my body to places it does not want to go. I've felt muscles engage that had previously enjoyed a long, luxurious hiatus. I've walked around after class with some sore-ass glutes (pun intended). These past few days, I've walked up to Pain and said, "Okay. Here I am. Let's do this." As a result, I've grown.