Yoga hurts sometimes — but I don’t mean physically. Everyone goes through moments in time when they don’t want to go to a yoga class or practise at all, for all kinds of reasons; from being too busy and tired to being disillusioned with their practice, or any number of things in between. Including when yoga does hurt physically; and if you are injured, I strongly recommend rest, doctors, and/or guidance from an experienced teacher.
But sometimes the reason that people don’t want to practise is because it hurts emotionally. Yoga can make any pain that you’re feeling completely unavoidable; there’s nowhere to hide when it’s just you, your body, moving or sitting, breathing and being.
A strong, fast, dynamic practice might offer some relief. Frequent transitions from posture to posture are something to do, and physical exertion is something to feel; and having other things to do and feel is a method that many of us use to escape when we’re struggling with big emotions. If your practice is slower, though; if you hold postures for a little longer, and sit in meditation or savasana for a few minutes, it becomes difficult to distract yourself.
Sometimes, a yoga practice can be a place where you can’t hide at all. The prospect of being alone with yourself can become a bit scary. That’s part of what yoga does: it’s a method for stripping away distractions, stripping away external stuff, so that you can get to the you in you. And that’s why it’s often a wonderful, incredibly useful and valuable and life-affirming practice. It allows you to feel connected and centred and strong and free — all of those things that regular yoga practitioners talk about all the time.
What To Do?
I’ve heard quite a few people say things like Just Keep Going, and if it hurts, it means it’s working, and if it hurts it means you really need it. And while I understand that to an extent, I suggest, instead, that you proceed with caution.
If the idea of being alone with yourself in your yoga practice right now fills you with dread, maybe it’s a good time to take a temporary step back.
Yoga can be a profoundly supportive practice. It can be the absolute best thing to do for yourself during tough times. But if you approach it rigidly and without sensitivity to how you’re feeling, there’s always the potential that it could make things worse, rather than better.
So, if you’re really struggling with your practice at the moment and feeling overwhelmed by the emotions that it brings to the surface, but you want to keep practising and use your yoga to work through whatever’s going on, what can you do?
The answer is that there’s no one right way to go about it. At this point, I think it’s worth mentioning that seeking counselling from a mental health professional during challenging times is something to consider. But for your personal practice, here are my tips for adapting your yoga to work for you when your usual way of practising starts to hurt.
• Be gentle. Let go of any expectations that you have for your practice, whether physical or emotional. This isn’t the time to focus specific postures or on the idea of your practice looking a certain way.
• Move your body. One of the great things about yoga during difficult times is that moving your body generally helps to lift your mood. But if getting on your mat feels daunting, then take your practice outside - a mindful walk or run can be just as ‘yogic’ — and equally as effective as a mood-lifter — as stretching and core exercises on a yoga mat.
• Listen to yourself. See if you can notice what makes you feel uncomfortable or distressed — it might be particular postures or movements, or sitting still, or some other aspect of your practice.
• Give yourself a break. If you manage to identify specific elements of your practice that make you feel worse, then cut them out for a while. You don’t need to face all of your fears at the same time. You can bring those elements back into your practice when you feel stronger, and then you’ll be able to work through them and deal with the emotions that they bring up.
• Find support. Rather than practising alone, try going to a class with a teacher who is experienced in managing difficult emotions or trauma within a yoga setting. Or ask a trusted friend to do yoga with you; you might find that practising with someone else eases the intensity that you feel on your own.
Whatever you do - and whether you decide to keep doing yoga, or to take a little time off — try to keep the principles of ahimsa (non-violence) at the core of your approach. Be kind to yourself. Your practice is for you, and it doesn’t need to be on anyone else’s schedule. Be ready to adapt, and to try different things; and if you feel overwhelmed, don’t force it.
About the author
Izzy Arcoleo is a yoga and meditation teacher and a writer, currently based in London. She specializes in the relationship between yoga and creativity, using her background in social anthropology to explore how movement and meditation practices can support creative practices, by developing confidence as well as practical methods for working through obstacles.