When Stretching Is Not the Answer

Before my weekly yoga for athletes classes, I like to check in with my students, especially those who are new, to see if anything hurts. The most common answer is
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Before my weekly yoga for athletes classes, I like to check in with my students, especially those who are new, to see if anything hurts. The most common answer is

Before my weekly yoga for athletes classes, I like to check in with my students, especially those who are new, to see if anything hurts. The most common answer is, "Everything hurts!" After a chuckle, I drill down: what really hurts, and where? If the student's complaint is in muscles, especially on both sides of the body, that's usually typical postworkout soreness. But when pain appears closer to a joint, especially when it's on only one side of the body, a red flag goes up. This can be a sign of an acute or overuse injury affecting the connective tissue--tendons, ligaments, bursae, joint capsules--and needs to be treated with care.

Two very common one-sided complaints I see involve the shoulder and the hamstrings' attachment at the sitting bone. Don't bring a shoulder injury to a vinyasa class and expect to "stretch it out"! RepetitiveChaturangas might be the very cause of the problem. Rest your shoulder for a few days, avoiding any motion that

irritates it. If it doesn't improve, visit a health care provider to get it assessed.

Similarly, don't expect stretching to improve a strain to the hamstrings' attachment to the sitting bone. This is a common site of injury in both yogis and runners. Overstretching this area or quickly changing pace can tear the tendon, and a misguided attempt to stretch it out is only aggravating the situation. Instead, avoid any poses that strain the area, and work to strengthen your hamstrings and glutes. Roger Cole has written a wonderful guide to rehabbing this injury.

Treat these one-sided niggles proactively, and you'll avoid having them develop into big problems that derail your practice or your training cycle. Soldier through, and you risk both hurting the original site of injury and incurring

trouble in other parts of your body, as you alter your movement patterns to accommodate the original problem. At the first sign of injury, take a few days away from a rigorous asana practice. You can use the time to enjoy gentle

and restorative yoga, to practice pranayama, to meditate, and to connect with your loved ones.

You'll be able to avoid problems down the road when you apply pre-class questioning to your own practice, both in class and at home. Check in with how you're feeling, paying special attention to anything that hurts. If you have

suspicious pain, let your teacher know, and sit out any poses that irritate it. The first tenet of the first limb outlined in the Yoga Sutra exhorts us to avoid harm. Don't suck it up and work through it; do rest. And remember:

stretching is just a tiny part of the big picture. If you

are paying attention to form and breath to calm your mind, you're doing yoga.