Confessions of a Careless Yogini

Just as I was starting my 300-hour yoga teacher training, my back “went out.”  I had been spending a lot of time in my car driving to private clients and other gigs.  I was feeling life’s pressures and not attending to my own needs.

In the middle of my morning yoga class (extended side angle pose), my back started to feel uncomfortable.  After finishing class, I walked home, worked all day long and then attended one of my “pod” meetings with my mentor.  I remember fidgeting a lot while sitting on the hardwood floor during the meeting--I just couldn’t get comfortable.  The next morning, I taught a yoga class, demonstrating the poses less due to increasing pain in my lower back.  I ignored the pain and walked home.  A mere hour later, my husband had to help me out of the shower.  It hurt too much to walk.

Somehow, we made it to the chiropractor, and Doctor Tom was able to get me back on my feet and speed my recovery.  Now, a year later, I’m convinced that my lower back injury was a blessing.  Sounds crazy, right?

Well, hear me out.  I had always been very flexible – no pose was too bendy for me! Yoga students who say they aren’t flexible, are usually the ones who don’t get sidelined. They know their limitations and they honor them.  It’s the flexible yogis who go beyond their edge and oftentimes end up hurting themselves.  It feels good to go deeper and push harder…until it doesn’t.  There’s no place for aggression in yoga.  The phrase, “Leave your ego at the door,” was probably originally intended for the super flexy yoga practitioner.

I’m completely to blame for my back problems—I hadn’t been paying attention to my body and, in particular, my “core.”  It took about six weeks for me to get back to something approaching my regular yoga practice.  During that time, I continued to see the chiropractor, read everything I could get my hands on about lower back issues, and I paced myself during my four-hour long workshops on Saturdays and Sundays.  Now, if something doesn’t feel right, I back off.  I finally understand what it means to “hug the navel to the spine” and “release the tailbone” down.  Self-care is a wonderful thing.

The whole experience has made me a better teacher as well.  In Tadasana/Mountain pose, I routinely remind my students to “pretend that you are putting on a tight pair of jeans after Thanksgiving dinner,” “zipper up the belly,” and “release the buttocks flesh down.”  In Salabhasana/Locust pose, I ask students to extend and lengthen in both directions, rather than worry about how high they can lift their upper and lower bodies; I encourage them to keep their gaze low and their necks long, so as not to strain their necks.  I’m sure I sound like a broken record, but my sincere hope is that it makes an impression that sticks.

Good yoga teachers care about their students.  We want our students to practice yoga throughout their lives, not just class-to-class.  Good yoga teachers put a lot into the knowledge required to properly sequence fun, creative and safe routines.  Good yoga students heed the instructor and listen to our bodies and modify accordingly.  And it’s on us to let our teacher know before class starts, or ask his advice after class.  I have yet to meet the teacher who won’t adapt her sequence to meet the needs of the students in the room.

Our injuries are blessings.  They teach us valuable lessons.  As students, we learn how to take better care of ourselves through our injuries.  As teacher, our injuries enable us to take better care of our students.  your teachers say things in class for a reason; listen well to your in-class teacher, but also listen to your body--it is often our best teacher.  Try to find a middle ground.  But don't be afraid to ask questions.  There's no such thing as beating yoga or winning in yoga.

Gretchen Lightfoot

A Yoga Alliance RYT-500, Gretchen trained with Carmen Fitzgibbon, Thomas Taubman, and Gigi Snyder of YogaWorks in Los Angeles. Gretchen’s teaching experience includes YogaWorks, Neutrogena, Fancy Feet Dance Studio, the Palisades Library, the Palisades Rec Center, and one-on-one work with a number of private clients throughout LA.

Gretchen’s classes vary in style. Her weekday morning classes run from a balanced, all-level flow to a chilled-out yin practice, to an Iyengar-style wall practice. Sunday morning flow tends to be a little more energetic (expect music). Regardless of the style, Gretchen encourages practitioners to listen to their bodies and modify where needed.