In Defence of a Grotty Yoga Practice

You can and should make your yoga your own, in class and at home. Choose what feels great AND choose what feels grotty. “What? ” You may exclaim. “That’s crazy talk! I do yoga to feel better, not icky.” The answer is, yes, yoga will make you feel better, great even, but not always in the short term. Here’s the thing: there may be a reason for that ickiness. Finding and working the grotty every now and then might make you feel like gold.


I’m not sure how much this word is used outside of Commonwealth countries, so apologies to followers from farther afield if it’s a parochial term … you ought to be able to guess its meaning from context. In reference to a feeling or sensation, grotty means unpleasant or a bit unwell. I think of grotty as feeling bit ick without actually being sick.

Grotty is Different to Actual Pain

When I expound the benefits of feeling grotty in your yoga practice, I’m not saying do anything that produces actual pain. (Real pain as opposed to a little natural discomfort from working hard). If you have actual pain, STOP. Pay particular attention if pain is felt inside a joint. In yoga, we are strengthening and lengthening muscles and other connective tissue. Therefore, you should never feel discomfort in a joint itself. So, if you feel pain, especially inside a joint, stop immediately. Ease back to where you don’t feel pain. Check that you are undertaking the technique correctly. If you are not able to practice the technique correctly you may need to practice a variation or something different to build you up until you can work without pain. It might be that there are some techniques that are not good for your body. That’s OK. Work the body you have.

I think of grotty as feeling bit ick without actually being sick.

– Kate Hay, Founder – Yoga-2-Go

What Is Grotty Yoga?

Grotty yoga might give you a headache

When I say grotty, I mean you are not in pain but you’re definitely not enjoying yourself. Maybe you’re pushing yourself, but it doesn’t feel like you’re getting very far …. if anywhere at all. Maybe you feel jammed up as you try to move or twist or lengthen. Maybe you even get another more visceral response, such as nausea or an inexplicable headache.

Symptoms of grottiness may highlight an area that needs work. The human body is an incredible thing and it compensates quickly for injuries/near injuries. Then it keeps compensating. This ability to keep our bodies working even when hurt or injured used to prevent us from being eaten by lions, so it’s a good thing. Over time though, these chronic compensations cause weakness and imbalance within our bodies that we are so accustomed to we don’t even notice.

“I have a hunk of bone from the end of my femur floating around in my knee joint. This causes imbalance and weakness, physiologically and emotionally, between my left and right sides. I don’t trust my left leg. Over the 15 years since the injury, I have worked hard at consciously keeping the balance. Even so, I was astonished when a physio looked at me standing, with what I would have sworn was straight legs, and said – your left leg’s bent, I don’t think you’ve straightened it for years.”

– Kate Hay, Founder – Yoga-2-Go

In yoga, we do things in very particular ways in order to prevent the body from compensating and cheating, using the stronger muscles, taking the easy route. This is the body “cheating”, not the yoga student, so notice and correct, but don’t judge. As mentioned earlier, protecting the weak spots by using the strong spots helped us to survive on the savannah, so when the body “cheats” in a yoga technique it is protecting us in an evolutionary sense. It’s just not much fun to live long term in a body that’s been fixed by a home handy-man year after year on an ad-hoc basis and never had the foundations straightened out! So, the techniques that produce grotty feelings are often those where we are not letting the body compensate. This could expose an imbalance or weaknesses that the body has been protecting for decades!

Over time the muscles and tendons shorten, others atrophy. Sometimes your yoga practice might be a little like a sports massage, hunting out the knots and nooks, working them over, smoothing them out. Getting into those spots may be unpleasant and might even induce feelings of vulnerability.

The fascia tissue might be all knotted up, and it may be quite uncomfortable working it so the fibres are laying in an orderly fashion. Think combing out bird’s nest tangles in long hair … it can be unpleasant. With the fascia we can tease it out over time with movement and stretching and that’s part of the reason we move quite a bit in a Yoga-2-Go class – you can’t comb hair by keeping the comb still.

It might be that the meridians we are working with are jammed up. While blockages are cleared and/or new pathways built (perhaps we no longer have the organ associated with the meridian, e.g. a gall bladder?), our body starts to recognize and experience the meridian energy again. My Tai Chi teacher told me about a student of his who felt sick whenever she practised one part of the 8 Brocade. When they discussed it, it turned out that the student had had her spleen removed and the technique in question worked the spleen meridian. She kept practising the technique every day, as best she could. When she finally felt good practising the technique, she noticed she felt better than she had since her spleen had been removed. Working the technique had taught her body to build a new pathway for the spleen meridian, even although the student no longer had a spleen. (Obviously, we’re not talking about rebuilding the functionality of the organ itself, but the physiological, emotional and psychological functions of the meridian pathway.)

Even if you are lucky enough to have all of your organs, meridian energy can move too slowly or too fast (maybe too yin or too yang). This might be the result of the body not moving in a balanced way (as discussed above), or it could be caused by diet or stress, or be a natural tendency for you as an individual. Moving between seasons can often cause upset within the meridians as the emphasis moves from one element and set of meridians to another. For example, moving from winter to spring involves a move from the Water element and kidney and bladder meridians to the Wood element and gall bladder and liver meridians.

When working techniques along meridian pathways that are not balanced, it is not uncommon for it to feel unpleasant. It’s also not uncommon to experience some of the negative emotion associated with a meridian while working that pathway in a technique, for example in a spring class you might feel inexplicably frustrated or angry. That frustration or anger may indicate you are practising “grotty yoga”, you are working the meridian pathway as it needs to be worked to get through to patience and balance on the other side.

Embrace the Grotty

Sometimes there’s a good reason for feeling a bit bad. Those reasons might be based in your muscles and connective tissue or in your meridians. Your body may try all the tricks in the book to avoid the problem area, and that’s where yoga with our very specific techniques (and bossy, particular instructors!) can be particularly useful for getting to the nub of the issue. So while it may feel like you don’t get “as far” by following the instructions, but you are actually getting much, much more out of the technique by being obediant!

All of these grotty feelings are reasons not to avoid the cause of the discomfort, but to work with it (never causing pain) within your personal tolerance range. If something felt a bit ick in class, maybe do some more at home. After class, revisit that technique in your head as you drive home … this visualization can help your body with the realignment, readjustment, untangling and pathway building work that gets kick started with the movement in class.

The body is an incredible thing, and so is the mind. And so are you. Work with what you’ve got on any given day and get the most out of it. Warts and all. Embrace the grotty with the good and everything will get better … eventually!

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