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Why popping a rib in yoga isn’t as bad as it sounds

yoga injuries popped a rib

Madonna did it, Eddie Stern did it, and I did it. I’m talking about popping a rib in yoga. It turns out that what sounds like a hideous affliction isn’t all that unusual among people who regularly bend and stretch their bodies. Or bad-asses.

My rib went out during a week-long yoga retreat. I was practicing five hours a day, despite my teachers’ advice that I choose either the Ashtanga or the vinyasa class each morning. A muscle gradually clenched up and pulled on a rib, and that was that. I felt like I’d been kicked by a horse.

I should add that in New York I regularly take trapeze classes, and they really work my intercostals, those little muscles between the ribs.

Right after the retreat (and a bunch of Advil), I saw my acupuncturist. He winced as he said, “I’ve done that. Go see a chiropractor.” My yoga teacher, the endlessly patient Barbara Verrochi at the Shala, wouldn’t let me practice and said, “I’ve done that. Go see a chiropractor.”

Dr. Doug Chiropractor
Dr. Doug sees popped ribs or subluxation all the time in his New York practice

So I went to see Dr. Doug Willen, who gave me some perspective, as well as a gentle adjustment, which brought immediate (partial) relief: “I see this all the time, in ballet dancers, yogis, and Spin people,” he said, “but also from coughing, sneezing, straining to go to the bathroom, or sex with a heavy partner.”

Popping a rib sounds dangerous, but typically isn’t. The ribs, he explained, connect to the sternum and vertebrae with flexible cartilage and are meant to move as we breathe—think of the handle on a bucket. What’s commonly called popping a rib (and in chiropractic circles called a subluxation—a misalignment that’s less significant than a dislocation) is more accurately thought of as jamming a rib and limiting its mobility. The chiropractic adjustment is to free it, not to push it back into place.

Part two of treatment is rest until the inflammation subsides. Ten days off from my daily Ashtanga practice wasn’t easy, but here Verrochi offered some wisdom: “Yoga injuries have been getting a bad rap lately, but you learn important things from injuries—to be more mindful, to move slower and be patient.” I guess we could all learn to practice those. —Ann Abel