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Talking to Your Yoga Teacher about Pain

Pain is inevitable. At some point in our lives, we are all going to feel icky, achy, coughy and hurty. It is important to keep your yoga teachers informed of injuries and pain. Without this knowledge, they will teach you like a healthy or non injured student and it may be the exact opposite of what you need.

Yoga is therapeutic. If you listen to your body and communicate with your teacher, your practice can continue through sickness and health.


FIRST AND FOREMOST, CHOOSE THE RIGHT TEACHER.  If you do not feel comfortable talking to your teacher, they are not the right teacher for you.  None of the tips below will work unless you and your teacher can have an open dialogue.

Get to class early and talk to the teacher about what is going on with your body. I would do this several times. Teachers with lots of students may forget. Show up early and remind them as many times as is necessary.  “Hi, Jonah, remember about my hamstring?”

Honor your diagnosis. If you received a diagnosis or words of advice that you trust and that is working for you, stick with it.  The teacher may tell you something that is counter to your diagnosis. Respectfully let them know that you are going to practice in a different way.  “Thank you so much for your advice. My doctor (another teacher) told me I should stay away from chatarunga for a while. It seems to be working. So I am going to modify.” If they don’t honor that, choose another teacher.

What I mean by honor is, they may not agree, but they let you try it your way for awhile.  All teachers won’t do this and it does not mean they are a bad teacher. Some teachers feel in their heart that what you are doing is injurious and it is against everything they believe to sit there and watch you do it.  However, the answer is the same. If you believe in the diagnosis and advice, choose another teacher.

Stay open to a second opinion or option. If you have tried one method for 6 weeks or more and the injury is not getting any better, talk to your teacher about trying something else. However, make sure you have done your current method to the letter for at least 6 weeks.

Research Institute.  Healing can be counter intuitive. For instance, if your back is hurting, your first thought may be to not do backbends. However, backbends can be therapeutic for ailing backs.  Some straight leg poses my make your hamstrings hurt while others don’t bother them at all. It may take a while for you and your teacher to figure out what helps and what doesn’t. Don’t make assumptions. Research with your body.

Discuss modifications. It can take a while to figure out the best way to modify the practice. Keep an open dialogue with your teacher regarding modifications.  “This one is working but this one is not. What else can I do?”  If you do not practice mysore style ashtanga or if you practice at a studio with big classes, consider booking a private with your teacher to discuss your options. If you book a private, let the teacher know in advance what you want to discuss so they can come prepared with options.

“2 doctors, deathing”-Pattabhi Jois. If you are injured, have a chronic illness or disease, it may be best to practice with just one teacher.  This one teacher will know the ins and outs of your injury and illness and how to work with it. They know where you have been and where you are trying to go.  They will be familiar with all the modifications and options you have tried and they will know what works and what does not.  This is not the time to take workshops with many different teachers and try different styles. Stick with what is working until your injury is healed or your symptoms are under control.

Be careful taking advice from the internet. I sometimes cringe reading posts on yoga boards. These people don’t know you. They have never seen your practice.  If you are hurting, the best thing you can do is find a teacher and a health professional to work with in person, not over the internet.  I am not saying all internet advice is wrong. This article is on the internet. LOL  I have watched a few Kino videos that have changed my life.  I am not saying the internet is all bad.  There are a few people on the internet that I absolutely trust to give great advice that fits my body and life.  Try not to take multiple pieces of advice from multiple people.  If you must get your advice from the internet, take one piece of advice, research it and try it out for awhile and see what happens.  Limit who you are listening to.  Again, “2 doctors, deathing.”

Be honest. Don’t downplay sickness, pain or injuries. But also,

Don’t exaggerate your symptoms either.  Dishonesty and exaggeration can result in the teacher working with you in a way that is not appropriate.

Learn the difference between the discomfort of learning something new and the pain of doing something wrong.  This is really tough. When you first start yoga, it is hard to know the difference. That is why it is really important to have a good teacher. In the beginning, you will depend heavily on your teacher to help you with this.

Speak up right away.  Most injuries start out as little tweaks that can heal quickly if seen to right away.  Don’t wait until your shoulders are hurting 24/7 to say something to the teacher. If you feel something weird, talk to them as soon as you can.  If your teacher is hurting you, let them know right away.  All adjustments and assists are not right for every body.  Let your teacher know right away if an assist is not working for you.

If a teacher is coming over to give you an assist on your injured part, immediately speak up. Don’t assume they remember. Don’t assume they know better. Talk to them about it. The assist might be therapeutic or it may make it worse. Talk to them about it and get an understanding of their approach.

Cease and desist until you can talk to the teacher.  Repetitive motion on something that is aggravated will take your pain from 0-100 real quick. If you cannot talk to them right away, do a modification or skip it until you can.

Mistakes happen.  Ask Google about any health care profession and it gives you examples of well meaning highly trained people making the wrong decision for the wrong patient.  It is common for doctors to try many different prescriptions with a patient before they get it right.  Look at your own life. How many times have you been wrong? Probably way too many to count.  Humans make mistakes. As you dialogue with your teacher, keep this in mind.  However, if it seems like your teacher is not listening, defensive or dismissive of your concerns,  find another teacher.

Speak with kindness. Your teacher is human. Speak kindly to them. Try to use low tones. Don’t alarm the other students in the room. This can be hard. Sometimes, when you feel something, you unintentionally raise your voice. Just try, when you can. Remember, this is the teacher you chose. There was something about them that drew you in. When we get angry or we are hurt, the pain lashes out. It is easy to forget the amazing things that drew you to the teacher in the first place. It is easy to forget their humanity. As you speak to them, try to remember something about them that you love. Try to let this memory filter the harsh voice of pain.

Sometimes, speaking in private may be necessary. If you don’t feel comfortable talking about your illness and injury in front of others, set up a time to speak in private.  If a teacher unintentionally causes you harm, talk to them about it in private. This can be difficult. Sometimes, when we get hurt, we  want to keep others from feeling the same, so we talk about it to others.  Again, the teacher is human and you chose them.  There was something about them that you loved. If you unintentionally hurt a loved one, would you want them to talk to you in private or at the Thanksgiving table? If you did something wrong at work, would you want your boss to talk to you about it in private or in the lobby in front of all your clients?  If your spouse feels mistreated, do you want them to come to you or your children first? If the teacher has a record of intentionally causing harm and of unethical behavior, of course you can speak up about it.  But first, seek understanding.



Shanna Small has been practicing Ashtanga Yoga and studying the Yoga Sutras since 2001. She has studied in Mysore with Sharath Jois and is the Director of AYS Charlotte, a school for traditional Ashtanga in Charlotte NC. She has written for Yoga International and the Ashtanga Dispatch. Go here for more information on AYS Charlotte. For information on workshops, please e-mail