The best yoga advice I ever received was to not practice yoga. I know that sounds counterintuitive but let me explain.
The date: circa 1998. The place: the first Internet boom, Los Angeles. Me: a web developer (aka coder, geek, desk jockey). If you have ever worked at a technology startup, you know that the job can consume your whole life. You are expected to work a lot of hours hunched over a computer. As a result, I developed a serious case of tendonitis in my wrists.
I loved my work. The World Wide Web was just coming online and we were doing things with streaming video that had never been done before. It was exciting and fun and I was getting paid to do it! So I often stayed late and came in weekends.
A couple times each week I would leave work just in time to make it to a yoga class. Yoga wasn’t mainstream yet, but a lot of people were catching on to it as an antidote to the stress of Los Angeles.
At first, my wrists were just a little sensitive, but as time went on and I worked longer and longer hours, the pain intensified. My wrists felt like they were on fire. When my wrists came into contact with any surface, radiating pain went up my entire arm. At night, rolling onto my arm the wrong way would wake me up.
My doctor diagnosed it as tendonitis and prescribed wrist braces and anti-inflammatory meds. “Don’t take these off. Sleep in it. Work in it.”
With the wrist issue, my yoga practice had become increasingly difficult. Down Dog had become my nemesis. I learned all the adjustments and alternatives for Down Dog, like Dolphin pose. When I did have to do Down Dog, I would place my fingers on the mat instead of my palm, like a suction cup; anything to avoid bending or putting weight on my wrists. Instead of handstands, I would do headstands. Instead of plank, I would do elbow plank. And so on. Constant adjustments.
My yoga teacher Max Strom soon caught on to my tricks. When he saw my “adjustments” he would come by and advise me not to do it. “Why are you on your fingertips?” he inquired in his deep and gentle voice. Instead of telling him about the pain in my wrists, I acted like I didn’t know better and returned to the painful placement of my palms with bent wrists.
As time went on and I did not change my lifestyle, the condition worsened. After class one evening, I laid in savasana for some time with a towel over my face. Max stopped by my mat and asked how I was doing. I lied and said, “Okay”. He asked, “How are your wrists?” I replied, “They’re okay, I’m making it work.” He kindly replied, “You need to stop practicing until your wrists get better. When you’re in my class, I’m responsible for your safety. I see you come to classes and power through the pain, but yoga isn’t about pain. Yoga is about healing. You can still come to class and join in some of the asana and meditation, but until your wrists are better, no inversions or anything that puts pressure on the wrists.”
“But what if they don’t get better?” I said with tears.
“Well, then you won’t be able to practice yoga this way,” he replied. “All the more reason to stop now before it gets to that point.”
That was the best advice I have ever received as a yogi, and some of the best advice I’ve probably ever received: When it hurts, stop. Choose another path. Take care of your self first.
How many times in your own life have you done this? Or perhaps you’re even doing it now? Perhaps it’s a job that causes you pain or a relationship. Or perhaps, like me, it’s the very thing that should be bringing healing and self-awareness, your yoga practice.
I learned the lesson just in time and I never forgot it. I try to teach my students now the same lesson. Yoga is here to help us heal and become whole.
I also learned that yoga is more than asana. This has stayed with me through the years. Whenever I find myself going deeper into a pose because my ego is telling me to, I back off. If I’m deeper in a pose and there is ego present, it isn’t a deep yoga pose, it’s Cirque du Soleil.
Thanks Max for the best advice I’ve ever received.
Check out these articles by my fellow yogis and friends about the best yoga advice they’ve ever received: