When Yoga Hurts: The difference between DOMS (Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness) and Injury

Have you ever wondered why sometimes you feel the most soreness two days after working hard in yoga class? Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS) is muscle pain that can peak 48 hours after new or vigorous activity. It is especially common after eccentric contractions like the action of the triceps (back of the arm) and pectoralis (chest) muscles that control the lowering of your body in chaturanga.

DOMs is actually caused by little “micro trauma” in the muscles responsible for doing the work, in the case above the triceps and pecs are working really hard to support the body through a chaturanga, and if these muscles have not been asked to do this sort of work, they may protest by way of soreness until they are strengthened sufficiently through regular, safe exercise.

In yoga, many people experience DOMS after a particularly challenging yoga class–whether it was a Power Yoga class or even a Yin class.  Both of these classes ask you to move your body in ways, through dimensions, that you may not normally do.

Think about it, outside of yoga, do you regularly stretch the outside of your glute like you do in pigeon pose?  Or, outside of yoga, do you push yourself up several times other than maybe at the gym–and even at the gym, how often are you doing “tricep” pushups???  I know I rarely pretend to sit in a kindergarteners chair –except during a flowing or power yoga class, designed to bring strength to the body.

That’s means you and I are asking a lot of the muscles, even if they are designed to work, each time we come onto the mat.  Depending on where you are in your yoga journey, the muscles you use during practice may need some time to work up to the demands of a class without being overly exerted.  This doesn’t mean I am saying you shouldn’t push yourself. Not by any means. It is this little micro trauma that also helps to build strength and flexibility in the muscles.

Today, I want to talk to you about knowing the difference between being sore from a good workout, and knowing when you may be suffering from something more.

Typically, DOMS goes away within a few days…one week at most.  You can save yourself a little pain if you go really slow as you work your way into a new practice or workout, but if you’re anything like me….that doesn’t always happen.  When it does happen, take it easy for a day or two and then come back with mindfulness, trying not to push your body too far too quickly.

Here’s the thing, yoga, just like several other types of exercises or body movement practices, especially when done daily can ask a lot of your muscles in a variety of ways, some of which can be unsafe if they are practiced in excess or without the best “form.”  I use the word form here loosely because what a pigeon pose looks like on you may look very different than a pigeon pose on me. However, even if the poses look different on different bodies depending on the amount of strength or laxity in the muscles and supporting body tissue, there is definitely a safe way to perform that pose and a not as safe way.

The same goes for chaturanga, or the yoga push up.  We have already covered drills, tips, things to look out for on this website in 3 different places offering tips, break downs and drills,

  1. Chaturanga Tutorial
  2. How to Stay Safe
  3. Top Drills to Build strength for Chaturanga

but I cover this pose again simply because of the prevalence of injury and because of the bad rep this pose gets.  (I was literally on social media this weekend and had a person blaming chaturanga for an injury.)

Here’s the thing folks, and I know this is going to get me some backlash, but I do not believe that it’s not the pose that causes the injury, it is the person practicing the pose.  

Your body was designed to move.  Mine was too! The thing about it is, some of the ways I move my body easily may seem like a #lifegoal to you and visa versa–some of the ways that you can move your body may seem like it’ll be impossible for me.  It’s the beauty of creation and uniqueness in each of our structures. What is oftentimes forgotten by people that practice yoga (or sports in general), we were all designed differently, we are all in different places in our lives, even identical twins have had different experiences, and the experiences combined with our structures create the platform from which you and I must work, and the expectation that you will look like me and I will look like you–that’s where the injuries can occur.

Let’s face it, splits are cool, right?  But, if you were born with super tight hamstrings, or hip flexors, or if you spent your life sitting at a desk, or running marathons, or maybe had something traumatic happen to you physically or emotionally that makes opening those muscles up really hard.  If you push yourself too hard, too fast into splits, injury can (and likely will) occur.

Likewise, if you have never spent much time in the gym, and you decide to start a vigorous yoga practice daily and you practice your chaturangas, unsupported, unsupervised, and beyond your muscles capacity, you will most definitely end up in injury.  Chaturanga takes a LOT of upper body, core and leg strength. I don’t want to stereotype here, but it wasn’t until the last 20 years (I really want to say 10 years, but I will give it some) that being strong was considered sexy or cool for women.

As proof to that, when I was 18, (that’s 20 years ago), I was a swimmer.  I was a decent swimmer, nothing like world class, but I could hold my own in a 100 mtr butterfly. I would practice twice a day for an hour each time and sometimes even throw in a run “for fun” (oh the energy of youth!!)  At that time, I started dating a guy that I thought I loved (insert the eye roll of time here) and he made fun of me because my biceps, shoulders and lats were so big.  (something I’d never really noticed. I quit going to twice a day swim practices. Soon, I quit swimming altogether.

That’s just one of MANY MANY stories of my youth where strength wasn’t praised –probably because I was female, and I am so incredibly thankful for the strides we have made in terms of acceptance, approval and even encouragement!  (big shout out to Halle Berry, Michelle Obama, Pink and Beyonce for their progressive, cut arms, 6 pack abs, and so on) It’s awesome to have the social approval to be strong, but there are many, MANY women, in my demographic (so almost 40 and over) that grew up thinking smaller is better.

As a result, these women (and some men who maybe haven’t been fitness oriented) are coming into fitness classes or yoga studios and trying to do some pretty significant strength building exercises, asking muscles that haven’t had to do these exercises regularly for 40 + years, which will definitely lead to some Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness, but also, unfortunately, injury.

Unless it is something major, (you know like a bone sticking out of your leg), you are going to be able to tell what is pain due to DOMS or pain due to injury.  As a general rule of thumb, pain lasting over a week after the exercise can mean injury. Seeking out advice from a qualified professional like our friend, Dr. Monika Patel DPT can help you determine if you have an injury, and she can provide you exercises and therapy to help bring you back to wellness and keep you well.

That is why it is so incredibly important to practice with and under a knowledgeable teacher.  A skilled, experienced teacher will be able to help you modify your practice in a way that is perfect for your body today.  When you have the watchful eyes of a very trained teacher, he or she can help you to stay safe while you gain strength. Really, there is no reason to permanently injure yourself in yoga, unless you go to hard, too fast, and without supervision.  

You may say, well I have no time to go to a studio!  Or you may say I only practice at a studio and I still got hurt!  I want to ask you a question, even if you’re busy, do you have time for a couple of one on one sessions to be sure you stay safe?  Do you go to a studio where the teacher actually watches you practice? Have you asked for tips after class if a particular pose seemed uncomfortable?  

Yoga is supposed to feel good.  Even when you put your leg behind your head, it’s supposed to feel good (I can see your eyes popping out of your head.)  The thing is, you don’t do that pose until you’ve done a great GREAT many poses before that successfully and relatively easily.  A good teacher will be able to help you identify the poses you have to work on to get to the poses you want to do. If you are constantly getting injured in your yoga practice, I suggest asking your teacher to watch you in the places that seem to hurt.  He or she should already be watching you BUT, in the event that you’re in a super busy studio, you should be able to get feedback right away on what it is that you may need to modify in order to stay safe. If your teacher doesn’t know how to modify, you need to find a new teacher.  (which may seem harsh, but it’s true.)

Yoga does ask you to find your edge and to keep moving that edge forward, but it shouldn’t be done in such a way that causes anything more than micro trauma to the body–if you are still sore a week after the practice, then seek advice on how to modify your practice, before injury results.

Just because yoga is supposed to feel good doesn’t mean it won’t ever be uncomfortable.  Check out my blog post about how I love frog (just kidding, I hate that pose!) Usually, you can learn a lot about yourself in the uncomfortable spaces, but being uncomfortable is different than being in pain.  Don’t seek out the point of pain, seek out the point of comfortable discomfort, that’s your edge. If you find pain, back off, change your direction, and try again.

If you’re looking for a studio with qualified teachers that know how to help keep you safe, Thrive Yoga and Wellness is for you!  If you’re too busy to get to the studio, but you still want to practice, maybe you schedule a private lesson to help identify places that you need to modify and strengthen or stretch.  Maybe you want to learn how to become a teacher that can help (yourself AND) other people grow in their practice safely, well we have the program just for you!  Our 200 hr Yoga Teacher Training Certification is the area’s only modular training program focusing on the functionality and therapy of a yoga practice.  You will learn how to keep yourself safe and how to help others be safe and get stronger through yoga. I know it’s a life changing experience and it’s one you won’t want to put off any longer!

If you are not in the area, but still want to practice with us, we offer a great Online Yoga Fitness module that is designed specifically for women who have had a baby, and how to strengthen your body safely and effectively–whether you’re 6 weeks postpartum or 16 yrs post partum!  Don’t let the fear of DOMs or injury keep you from moving your body into full wellness. Come practice with us at Thrive today and see how a regular yoga practice can truly help you to live a life that Thrives.

By: Megan Brock, PT, DPT, RYT-200, MPH and Jennifer Dixon MBA ERYT  500