The sharp twinge of pain that I feel suddenly in my left hip is the red flag, the warning sign.
I am taking a class with a teacher who I’ve never studied with before, and she invites us to start the class with seated hip openers so that we can prepare for Flying Crow.
For almost 30 minutes, I sit on my mat and follow her instructions as she leads us from intense seated twists to seated forward bends and back to seated twists.
And then, all at once, I feel a sharp twinge of pain, an intense burning sensation, in my left hip.
It feels as if someone has lit a large match and is holding the flame directly against my left hip bone. The bone feels like it’s on fire.
I keep the pain private, embarrassed that my body doesn’t possess the same flexibility as the bodies of the other students bending and twisting on their mats next to mine.
The teacher has no way of knowing that I feel any pain as I sit motionless on my mat, afraid to move, slightly stunned, waiting for the pain to pass.
Meanwhile, the teacher continues giving instructions to the class and encourages each of us to bend further and twist deeper.
But I remain still and notice that the pain in my hip is not like the mild discomfort that I might have been able to push through without hurting myself.
No, the pain feels like a sharp needle digging into my hip, and, as soon as I feel it, I back off, and, luckily, the moment that I back off the pain abates.
From then on each pose that the teacher leads us through, with the intention of helping us open our hips, brings me back to a point of pain. After a while, the pain becomes so uncomfortable—so painful—that I can no longer sit on my mat and do any more bending or twisting.
So, while the class continues following the teacher’s instructions, I get to my knees and bow forward into Child’s Pose, breathing a sigh of relief when the pain goes away as soon as I come out of the intense forward bend.
When I do rejoin the class and resume the seated poses, the pain returns and is too intense to continue. I have to stand up and step off my mat, something I’ve never had to do in class before. I walk slowly to one side of the room and balance against the wall and breathe deeply and wait until the pain melts away.
Only after resting a few minutes do I return to my mat. By then the pain has made me mindful of what I can do and what I can’t do. When the teacher invites us to do a side plank and lift our hips high, I choose to do a modified version with my knee on the mat.
By the time we reach the pinnacle pose—the Flying Crow—I am able to put my right ankle over my left knee in Utkatasana (Chair Pose) and squat down without pain. But I don’t try to go all the way to the floor, just enough of a squat to feel a gentle stretch.
And that’s ok. My goal is no longer trying to do the pinnacle pose but rather to explore the steps leading up to the pinnacle pose at my own pace without feeling any pain, without noticing any red flag.
Pain, it turns out, is a useful tool. It reminds me that no matter what the rest of the class is doing, no matter what the teacher is saying, I don’t have to go as far or push myself farther than I am comfortable going or pushing.
Practice Journal: Have you ever felt pain during your yoga practice? How do you respond to it? Are you someone who believes that you don’t gain anything without pain? Or do you interpret pain as a signal to slow down and stop pushing? Write: 10 minutes