Three Yoga Poses I Avoid

1.  Camatkarasana

Why is “Wild Thing” so popular?  Is it because it looks cool, but is more accessible for many people than handstand or arm balances?  There has been a lot of debate around this posture, primarily focusing on the very real risk to the shoulder joint.  I don’t do it because it’s a twist within a backbend, which is a movement with an increased risk of vertebral subluxation (in this case, displacement of a vertebra anteriorly).  And, in "Wild Thing," this increased risk is not rewarded with any benefit you can't get from much more anatomically sound postures.

In backbends, the spinal vertebrae should move anteriorly (forward) as the front of the spine opens into the posture.  The action of the backbend (especially when not done with a proper understanding of how to traction the spine in the posture) will tend to go into the part of the spine that is already open, and the vertebrae in that area will receive more anterior pressure.  (Check out the photo above and you can see that the majority of the backbend is in a few vertebrae; most every picture of backbends you see verifies this tendency, which calls for refinement of backbending technique.)

Add the rotational action of the twist, which will also go into the spine's open area, and you end up with a very few discs potentially getting a huge amount of anterior pressure.  Unlike the sides and back of the spine, there are no muscular attachments to the front to help prevent a vertebra from slipping forward.  For me, this is an unacceptable risk of potential injury, the results of which might not show up for years.  So, I just don't teach it or do it.  

I always think of shelling peas when I watch this posture (from the downward facing dog I stay in):  open the front of the hull, bend it backwards to expose the pea, and then give it a good twist to pop the peas out.  

Do a twist.  Then do a back bend.  Don't combine them.  Your spine will love you for it.

2.  Uttitha Hasta Padangusthasana B (a.ka. "The Psoas Wrecker")

In this pose, you’re essentially cantilevering the weight of the entire front leg from the lower back.  That’s a lot of stress on an area where most people are already prone to pain.  And what’s holding that leg up?  Your hip flexors.  Westerners are chronically tight in the hip flexors from being seated.  Really, no one needs shorter, tighter hip flexors.

And, again, what’s the point of the pose?  Some people profess to use it for abdominal strength, but there are no abdominal muscles connected to the leg.  You can strengthen your abdominals much more effectively, and much more safely, with other poses.

3.  Eka Pada Rajakapotasana (folding forward version)

When it comes to the hip joint, balance is at least as important as openness.  When the joint is open in one direction and closed (tight) in another, the imbalance creates postural misalignment of the pelvis, which in turn misaligns the spine.  

As mentioned above, most of us sit.  A lot.  (Or else we have tight hip flexors for some other or additional reason.)  Sitting closes the front of the hip joint and opens the back.  Folding forward in eka pada rajakapotasana reinforces this pattern of imbalance:   the more you lean forward, the more the front of the hip joint closes off, and the more the back of the hip joint is opened.  

Yes, it might feel great, but that's not really the standard we should go by.  We have to look at the long-term effects of an asana on the body, and we should always be seeking balance.  Would I ever do it or teach it?  Only if the student can do the full backbend version, tilting the pelvis back enough to comfortably hold the foot.  That would indicate the front of the hip joint is also open, and coming forward for a few breaths would be fine.  Otherwise, this version of pigeon is just creating greater imbalance in the hip joint.

Warning: Yoga for Stress Relief May Be Hazardous to Your Wellbeing!

Seen anything lately talking about the stress relieving benefits of yoga and meditation?  As more mainstream media begin to cover yoga, the lauding of yoga for stress relief is hard to miss -- google "yoga and stress relief" and you'll get more than two million hits.  But let's take a moment to look at this seemingly logical progression: 

Stress is bad.  Yoga and meditation relieve stress.  Doing yoga and meditation to relieve stress is good. 

Why question what's obvious?  In the words of Bertrand Russell:  “In all affairs it's a healthy thing now and then to hang a question mark on the things you have long taken for granted.”  So, let's hang that question mark and see where we end up.  Spoiler alert:  it may surprise you.

If the feeling of peace and calm at the end of your yoga class is something you can't get enough of, then you aren't alone:  people are flocking to yoga for stress relief, and it works.  According to a recent Yoga Journal survey, stress relief is the second biggest reason Americans start yoga, just behind flexibility.  Of those who practice yoga, 53% cite stress reduction as a motivation to continue the practice, and 94% of all practitioners find that their practice does, in fact, reduce stress.

Science corroborates practitioners' experience.  In recommending yoga as a healing modality, the Mayo Clinic noted that a number of scientific studies have shown that yoga and meditation may help reduce stress.  And whenever stress is reduced, mental and physical health tend to improve.  So, it's no wonder that we're hearing a bunch of rah-rah chants for the stress-busting benefits of yoga.

While the surface results of yoga for stress relief are certainly hard to argue with, let's look at the bigger picture and go long-term; after all, that's what yoga is all about.  When stress relief becomes the goal of yoga (and if you look at how classes and retreats are being themed and marketed, that certainly seems to be the case), then the practice actually allows us to perpetuate a harmful lifestyle by reducing the impact of that lifestyle's negative effects.  Practiced for stress relief, yoga doesn't get us out of the muck; it only makes us more ok with the muck we're in, and being stuck like that is not a good thing long-term.

The Source of Stress, in Yogic Terms

Guess what!  You're very well connected.  You hold inside a spark of the universal intelligence and love that created the universe.  That spark is the truth of who you are, and it fully knows your role in the "big picture."  (This has been tested and corroborated, by the way, by millennia of spiritual experience, and uniting with the source of this spark has been the primary goal of classical yoga throughout the ages.)  If what you live on the outside does not match the truth of who you are on the inside, then your life is based on, and perpetuating, a fundamental disharmony (which is a more pleasant way of saying "a lie").  Living that disharmony will always, always, always be stressful.  

So, from a yogic perspective, your stress is telling you in clear terms, "You are not connected to or living your truth!"  When your only response to this message is to continually alleviate, numb, or lessen your stress by external means, yoga included, you are like a child who sticks her fingers in her ears and yells "la la la" when her mom is trying to tell her something.  And if you continually ignore the message and refuse to find out who the heck you truly are, then you will be, at most, what the world has told you to be.  Your life will be a form of bondage to a rather arbitrary definition of happiness and success imposed by your culture, education, experience and conditioning.  The life you were meant to live will remain hidden, waiting and untapped.  Is having a moment of chill really worth it?

Case in point:  I spent 15 years pursuing a legal career, ultimately working my way up to a partner in a firm specializing in courtroom litigation, because it seemed like a logical way to get what I thought I wanted based on my externally referenced understanding of what creates happiness.  After all that study, work, and time in the courtroom, I had a career and a bunch of stuff that I felt no connection to -- I was living what most everyone said was the dream life, but it turned out that it wasn’t MY dream.  It was a definition of success I had learned and was good at, but not who I actually AM.  The result?  Stress, and a lot of it, which I relieved with frequent and intense visits to the gym.  So I had money and was buff, and everybody acted like I had won the lottery.  I, however, dreaded getting up every day for work.  I now shudder to think that I could have just used more effective means of stress relief (like a sweaty yoga class) to keep living that charade. 
So, I may be in the minority here, but I don’t think yoga for stress relief is a good thing in the long run.  It’s palliative care instead of healing, like taking a blood pressure pill as you continue to ingest massive amounts of salt, or taking painkillers as you continue to jog on that blown-out knee, or . . . well, you get the picture.

In short, don't do yoga to relieve your stress.  Do yoga to discover and live your truth, so you don't have anything to be stressed about.

I know that may be easier said than done, so here are three recommendations to get the ball rolling:

1.  Stop believing that stress is a necessary and natural byproduct of life.

It's a testament to how out of balance we've become that high stress levels are actually admired in modern culture; after all, being anxiety-ridden must mean you are on the go, getting things done, and living life to the fullest!  (How proud we are to exclaim, "I'm so busy!!!")  And have you noticed "stress relief" is being replaced by "stress management," as if we just have to accept stress as part of life?  Living your truth is admirable; creating increasingly busy versions of a false life, not so much.  Open to the possibility that a complete and accurate expression of your self will create a fulfilling and abundant outer life without the stress, and that your inner wisdom knows what you should do more than anything you will ever read, see or hear.

2.  Embrace yoga's stress-relieving benefits, but don't stop there!

If you've been reading this and thinking, “Well, that's all well and good, but I’m just trying to make it through my week without exploding, and yoga is really helping me,” -- and we’ve all been there – then by all means go to a yoga class and decompress.  Revel in yoga’s physical, mental and emotional benefits -- they’re awesome!  Be grateful for the feeling you have at the end of class, hold on to it as long as you can, and do what you can to return to it as often as possible.  

BUT . . . stay attuned to the deeper message of yoga and start to cultivate a practice that’s more than a bunch of postures.  That's just the outer work (no matter how deep it feels).  In Purna Yoga (the method I study and teach), we always begin class with a technique that pulls the mind and senses back from the outer world’s message of who and how we should be.  We then lead the mind to the deeper truth we hold inside, and we start class from that connection. The focus of the physical practice is not simply on removing stress or creating calm, but on opening your body to the transformative power of your deepest spirit, and using its wisdom to improve your life choices.  The goal is to leave class a different person prepared to create a different life, not just a less stressed person going back to the same old life. 

3.  Remember the message of stress.

When you start to get stressed, pause, step back, and take a moment to remember that within the stress is a message that you have a bigger and better story than the one you are living.  Unlike the way stress feels, that message is actually a very kind and loving one, as it seeks only your progress.  Drop all self-judgment around the message, and hear it as the voice of potential beckoning you forward.

Having worked with this practice for over a decade, do I have stress?  Of course.  But when life throws me curveballs, I respond much differently now.  I understand that the stress is a call to bring more of my truth into the situation in front of me, and by doing that I will reach a better resolution for everybody involved.  Just knowing that dissipates anxiety.  The stress that I used to experience as a constant, energy sapping, health-wrecking effect of living life is now a brief but effective reminder that I have a better choice to make and better outcomes to experience.  My yoga practice is how I access the wisdom, clarity and power to live that choice.

And that, I believe, is a very good reason for doing yoga.

Get started:  Use the link below to get a free 10-minute meditation that will start your inward journey.