The Good News and the Bad News: Ashtanga Giveth and Taketh Away

The rather unattractive alternative: an artificial disc.

Which would you like first?

I’ve had the same doctor for over a decade now, and she’s seen me through a lot. We’ve become friends, I’d say–which allows for a certain amount of candor on both parts.

So when I rolled in to Dr. Marcia Whalen‘s office with a list of complaints, I laid it all out (she’s also the head doctor for the U.S. Olympic Water Polo Team, by the way). Medial knee pain, both knees. Left shoulder. And a mystery lump next to my spine, first thoracic vertebra. So, she checked it out.

Now, Marcia knows all about Ashtanga. She’s pulled me back together after a lot of problems related to the practice, and also subscribes by my motto: “There’s nothing Ashtanga can’t break that Ashtanga can’t fix.” The results?

First, the back. The degeneration that started in my late 20s has reached an advanced stage in my spine, spreading up into the thoracic, and is probably the cause of the cyst. I most likely have a tear in the rotator cuff, and probably tears in the medial meniscus. Again.

But the spacing and length of my spine is normal. The cyst is present, but thanks to the practice and what I learned from Russ Pfeiffer, the pain is under control.

Now, what about the shoulder? The knees? Marcia said, point blank, “There are star players on the water polo team playing with torn rotator cuffs. They’d never dream of surgery. They’re accurate, effective players. Adapt and modify. Nobody operates at that level of practice without modifying.” I could hear it in her voice. You want to play? Learn new ways.

I thought of all the people that have helped me slowly gain control over my pain–including the very first orthopedic surgeon I saw, who told me to try yoga first (I still silently thank that man on a regular basis). I thought of how lucky I am to have the practice. But beyond that, how lucky I am to be able to afford to have the practice. My mother suffered with chronic pain her whole life, and had nothing to give her strength.

The good news? I will continue to practice. The bad news? The practice demands constant awareness, and even so will take its toll. It seems every Ashtangi I’ve met has a similar story. I know I’m not alone. The final piece of it all is that the study of Ashtanga itself is deep and rich enough to provide me refuge. Shelter. A place to look beyond the pain.

Posted by Bobbie

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Two Ashtangis write about their practice and their teachers.

10 thoughts on “The Good News and the Bad News: Ashtanga Giveth and Taketh Away”

  1. “Ashtanga itself is deep and rich enough to provide me refuge. Shelter. A place to look beyond the pain.”


    1. Torn labrum, torn rotator, same stuff, both shoulders, surgery on one, now spinal degeneration. The journey continues and constant mindfulness and listening to what my body tells me is utterly mandatory. Another “ashtangi with a similar story “

  2. So I am at a very interesting point here as well. I have issues with l4 and l5 and Bikram seems to aggravate the issues which is very contradictory to the practice…….I am going to give it some more time and hopefully I get the same results you are achieving from Ashtanga yoga.

    1. L4/L5 is a pretty common spot to have issues. You might consider the possibility that your practice just brought it to light! Everything counts with that set of vertebrae: walking, driving, sitting, standing. Bikram didn’t give me enough strength, but I wish you luck!

  3. Thanks, great inspiration. I’ve been dealing with back pain for many months. I’ll keep at it. When I began Astanga 3 years ago, I had knee pain, and it left if the first class. I have been devoted ever since. Must admit I did cave in for shoulder surgery, torn rotator, bone spur, cartilidge debris. And am totally thrilled that I did. But it was a solid 4 months before my first SNA etc. Very painful, don’t go into it unless you’re really screaming in pain.

  4. What are your plans for adapting to the practice? One could opine, falsely I should add that the shoulder imbalances come from repetitive chaturrungas, jump-backs, maybe even parasarita c’s. Some other modalities say the external rotation and integration in the shoulder socket, with engagement of the serratus anterior are necessary for good alignment. When I do combinations of those, pain arises, then other days not. I have found that shoulder strength training (gym) is the only thing that works for me and not doing a “full practice” every day as prescribed, dare I say.

    I have knee issues, which magically arose from nowhere. So I modify my binds in lotus positions, and never go for a mari- D adjustment. I have recently put a small towel between the knee cap joint in lotus and it feels good. Doing modifications in a Mysore room raises issues with the ego… Maybe just me.

    For lower back issues, I have heard chronic dehydration. If the vertebra bones are compromised however, seems unlikely an extra glass of water would help. Finding more length in the spine works for me, as the Anusara people say, side body long. Equinox girl adds something wise, I forget what exactly.

    I remember Steve mentioning somewhere that Nancy G. believes a lot of injuries come from non-progression to secondary series poses -maybe I misunderstood but I tend to agree with that statement. What do you think?

    I personally cringe when I hear yoga causes pain. I teach it’s not supposed to cause pain but actually remove it. So, what to do?

    1. Hi Nick! I plan on asking Tim for some long-term practice advice when I’m at his shala this summer. Now, there are just a few things I do: I almost never do chakrasana—bone spurs in my neck, very scary. I’m working on improving internal rotation in my legs—lots of virasana. Russ the Rolfer taught me to use lats to lift the arms, so because I don’t use the rotators, no pain. Russ and Richard Freeman also taught me to use those larger muscle groups in the dogs and dhanurasanas. Nancy’s way of breathing has given me tons of strength, so I don’t feel a need for the gym (yet). Nancy did say that she thought all the knee and back issues in Ashtangis were from being held too long in First. I was a wreck before I started, so I can’t blame it all on First—I think it’s not helping, though. More extension would certainly help me. Indeed, what to do?

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