Why I Don’t Do Fancy Pants Poses Anymore.

Via Erica Leibrandt
on Oct 2, 2013
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Photo: Erica Liebrandt

Photo: Erica Leibrandt (Me In a Fancy Pants Yoga Pose)

Why don’t I do fancy pants poses anymore?

Stuff like tittibhasana (firefly), astravakrasana (8 angled pose) or kapotanasana (King pigeon). The party trick poses—the ones that say,

“Hey! I’m a Yogi, see what I can do?”

Not that you should be doing them that way, but you know what I mean.

The short answer to that question is, I can’t. Well, I might be able to, but I don’t think I should.

Eleven months ago I herniated two discs in my lower back. The stuff that is supposed to be inside my spine exploded everywhere and came to rest in all the wrong places—namely on a bunch of nerves.

It didn’t feel like a back injury. I couldn’t figure it out. One day my left foot was on fire, another, I wouldn’t be able to stand up. Sometimes it felt like I had a knife plunged into the center of my left glute, other times I was numb from the waist down.

I just kept hoping it would go away, even as it got progressively worse. I practiced through the pain, basically speeding down the yogic highway at 120 miles an hour on two flat tires.

I am a yoga teacher. I’ve worked hard to build my classes and my practice, and I was absolutely not going to let whatever this was get in my way. Even though this insistence on not listening to my body was about as non-yogic as I could get.

But after an embarrassing episode at the supermarket, where I collapsed on the floor and wept, I finally went to the doctor.

Prognosis negative. (Seinfeld fans, holler at me). As I said, I had two herniated discs which would require surgery.

I reluctantly took a three month leave of absence from work, the minimum the doctor believed would be appropriate, and set a date to go under the knife.

Meanwhile, I was showered with (mostly unsolicited) opinions from all sides about my decision to have surgery. Many were against it, believing I would be paralyzed. Others thought I could heal my own back. (I was even given a book: Heal Your Own Back.) Still others questioned the doctor I had chosen and suggested I go to their guy, who was the best guy, and such a rock star that he probably stood outside after surgeries signing autographs.

My husband and I endlessly debated the pros and cons of going through with the operation. “You can still cancel,” he’d say, and then a minute later, “But you can’t live like this.”

He was right. I couldn’t. I kept my appointment and was heartened by the pre-op people. “You’ll wake up pain free!” they assured me.

I did not wake up pain free.

I woke up feeling a thousand times worse. That’s natural, I thought. It was a major procedure. Three weeks later when I still couldn’t walk, I began to worry. I was taking six Hydrocodone a day for pain, Valium at night to sleep and I could still barely sit down for longer than three minutes or stand for longer than two.

Was I going to end up bedridden and addicted to pain meds, a bitter and immobile shell of my former self?

Then suddenly, around week four, the pain was gone. Totally gone. First I walked for 10 minutes, then 20, then an hour. It was miraculous.

Then, on day five of being pain free, I felt something snap— which is the only way I can explain it, and suddenly I was back to square one. Mega pain.

Frantic, I called the doctor. I was supposed to go back to work in two days. He saw me and surmised, either I had just re-inflamed the nerve and a steroid pack would fix the problem, or I had chipped off a fragment of my dissembled vertebrae and would need more surgery.

He said this in the same tone of voice someone might say, “I hear it’s going to be windy tomorrow,” or, “Do you happen to know where the bathroom is?”

I wanted to scream “F*ck!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Are you kidding me!?”

Instead, I went home, took my steroid pack, prayed, and within 48 hours, was pain free once again. No chipped vertebrae.

I went back to work, kept my fingers crossed and felt good.

To be clear, though I wasn’t hurting, it did seem like I was in someone else’s body. I didn’t know how anything worked anymore. I had no idea how deep I could go in any pose, if I could twist or jump or turn upside down, or even how wide my stance could be.

Had I imagined this scenario beforehand, I would’ve assumed my reaction would be anger, fear and frustration. What a wonderful surprise to discover that wasn’t the case.

I was truly grateful just to be on my mat at all.

With the gift of this new, strange body I got to be a beginner all over again.

Now, I’m a lot more relaxed about my practice than I was before my injury. I’m not buying into the images of enlightenment that I see in Yoga Journal or on the web pages of Yoga-lebrities anymore. I’m not striving to do whatever they are doing, even if what they’re doing is good.

I’m going to find my own flavor, my own rhythm, my own current to float in. I’m going to be my own teacher, my own student, no cameras, no mirrors, no bullshit.

I hurt my back because my ego was driving my practice.

We all have to learn our lessons in different ways. I’ve been given the opportunity to practice humility, and you bet I’m going to grab it. Maybe once I’ve really learned my lesson, there will come a time for me to be fancy once again, or maybe not.

It doesn’t matter. That’s the point.

For now I will relish the simple things; being able to stand, walk, rest and pray. I’ll watch real fireflies do firefly pose and thank the world for so consistently giving me everything I never knew I needed.


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Ed: Cat Beekmans


About Erica Leibrandt

Erica Leibrandt is a licensed mental health clinician, certified yoga instructor, and mother to six heathens who masquerade as innocent children. If she occasionally finds herself with a fried egg on her plate or dancing until dawn, she asks that you not judge her. Life is short, she knows the chicken that laid the egg, and we can never dance too much. Connect with Erica on FacebookTwitter, and Tumblr.


18 Responses to “Why I Don’t Do Fancy Pants Poses Anymore.”

  1. sophie says:

    Thank you so much for sharing your story, very nicely told. It is really sobering.

    Are you practicing more Iyengar yoga now?

  2. Joe Sparks says:

    Hi Erica, sorry about your back. Glad you are doing much better. I agree with you about certain poses doing more harm than good. Long time yoga teacher, who has had surgery from doing the fancy pants poses. I stopped and started studying YogAlign with Michaelle Edwards, a contributor to Elephant Journal , " Flexibility can be a Liability". I own a yoga studio, and YogAlign is the only method of yoga we teach. Safety has to be the number one priority for my students. Good luck!

  3. Erica says:

    I should be and would like to once I get my ducks in a row 🙂 Thank you for reading!!

  4. Erica says:

    Cool! I've never heard of that and will investigate…thank you!

  5. Mark says:

    Erica…thank you for sharing and glad to hear that you are doing much better. As a teacher that, at times, questions myself as to why I don't teach the "fancy poses" in my classes; I'm so grateful for you sharing this perspective. I really needed to see this. Best of luck down the yoga highway….

  6. Charlotte says:

    So sorry to hear about your back injury. I hope that lots of people read your story. I used to do fancy poses in my 20s and 30s, and even into my 40s. My 58-year-old body will still do many of them, but I don't practice them anymore. I credit my Iyengar training for the fact that I've only had one acute yoga injury–from putting too much weight on my head in headstand after a colleague scolded me for using my arms too much.

    What I'm feeling now are instabilities that accrued over time–sacroiliac and hip joint issues from overemphasizing my flexibility in those areas. While these injuries are not as extreme or as immediate as yours, they are due to wear and tear from overstressing my joints for too many years. My wear-and-tear injuries have been debilitating at times. All those fancy poses were not worth losing the ability to hike the way I used to. If I had it to do over, I would not have let my ego dictate my practice the way I once did.

  7. anne says:

    Brilliant article. This week I've been teaching yoga on the theme of being aware of our limitations and not letting our egos take over and push us too far. Need to remind myself of this often 🙂 I've had a similar experience as this writer with a painful knee for 4 weeks. And it's taught me such a lot about taking my practice down a notch, not "needing" to do certain postures, looking after myself.

  8. Erica says:

    Charlotte, thank you for your perspective. It is sobering and further supports my thought that the middle road is the right path. Erica

  9. Adam says:

    Compelling article and story. Thank you! I’m wondering how you herniated the discs?

  10. Wan says:

    2009. Herniated L4 & L5 and left bedridden and wheelchair-bound for 6 months. I am now driving on left lane ( which is non-overtaking lane in Malaysia 🙂 ) after keyhole surgery. Now I'm back on mat but NO speeding on yoga highway anymore. I can totally relate to your story and this will be forever my constant reminder.

  11. Jamie Khoo says:

    Thank you, you've told your story so beautifully and I love especially that single line that you say so bravely "I hurt my back because my ego was driving my practice". Isn't that so much of what is behind our injuries? You've given me that extra inspiration today to pull out my mat and do a little practice at home on my own, in my underwear, at my own pace, listening to my favorite rock-chick songs (instead of say, pushing myself to go to the gym just to say that I've been). Love xxx

  12. Erica says:

    Thank you Adam. During the very photo shoot and pose pictured above! The thought is that they had been bulging for quite some time and this put everything over the edge.

  13. Erica says:

    Oh my goodness Wen. Wow. Im so glad you're back on the mat. Take good loving care of yourself.

  14. Erica says:


  15. knittinginnc says:

    The part of your post about how people told you you could heal yourself really resonated for me. I have struggled with multiple issues that my yoga teachers and friends told me yoga or some other new-agey technique would cure. Well, I tried legs-up-the-wall, hypnotherapy, netti pots, countless inversions and many many many other techniques. Finally, after a 2 years of significant insomnia, reoccurring sinus and ear infections to the point that I lost some hearing and recurring injuries, I finally gave western medicine a try. Ambiene, Flonase and physical therapy worked wonders.

    The point of my comment: there could be a separate post about how the yoga world, and yoga teachers in particular, should recognize the limitations of their methods. When people have serious medical issues (herniated disks, multiple months of sleepless nights, severe allergies, etc.), the first recommendation should be to seek professional medical advice.

  16. maya says:

    Hi Erica, thanks for this story illustrating humility all too often forgotten in yoga classes. Just wondering however: as much as some poses do look like they may induce injury (Im thinking 'vinyasa' chaturanga up dog in beginners class) in your case I assume you were experienced, knowledgeable, and had no warning sign of 'weak spot' so how can one actually know about own limits? Do you mean that some poses are just not safe for everyone… Please say more on your view about safe practice. Namaste

  17. Erica, Sorry to hear about your injuries and struggles with disc herniation. I do think you should not blame your ego for the injury though. I am a forty year yoga practitioner and 25 year yoga teacher and body worker and I am convinced that many yoga poses lead to joint destabilizations and disc compression. Humans are not designed to do straight leg forward bends and I suggest you eliminate them from your practice to protect your spine from any more compression. Please go to http://www.yogainjuries.com for more information explaining how the human body is made of curves and spirals and why we should not try to engage our body in straight line compartmentalized yoga poses that put our spine and joints at risk. Plow, seated and standing forward bends, boat,and revolved triangle are some of the most dangerous poses which are leading many yoga teachers to get hip replacements. When people are hyper-mobile, these poses may feel good but overtime, ligaments needed for joint stability are stretched out and spine, hips and knees are damaged. No it was not your ego, it was the yoga poses. My advice as creator of YogAlign, is to only do poses which simulate how your body is designed to move.

  18. Charlotte says:

    I so agree. I have genetic high blood pressure and genetic artery issues that have caused everyone in my dad's side of the family to die young. When my blood pressure started going sky high, so many people told me never to go on medication, that I should deal with it naturally. I was already doing all the things you're supposed to do to keep blood pressure down—a clean diet for decades, yoga and meditation for decades, exercise, etc.—and none of it was enough.

    The interesting thing is, I used to be one of those people who was outspoken about not using any kind of Western intervention. Being in a position where it was really the only option, it was embarrassing for me to remember how truly ignorant my attitude had been. Until you are in pain or in my case, in danger of a heart attack or stroke, you are not in a position to tell people what to do. Of course, you can encourage common sense healing modalities such as yoga, meditation, diet, etc., but sometimes these things are not enough.

    When I talked with Judith Hanson Lasater about my blood pressure issues and my hesitance to take medication because of my beliefs about it she said, “Think of the pills as magic, because they are.”