Injuries…something we all share!
You cannot go through life without experiencing pain and when you have a regular physical practice (whatever that might be) as things progress, it’s quite likely you will sustain an injury of some kind.
A daily Astanga practice is a mirror reflection of yourself. You cannot go through a practice without facing fear (whichever posture you are currently working on). I believe the essence of the practice is that it enables you to sit in those feelings of discomfort and fear. To keep breathing and know that eventually things will move on. Change is inevitable.
Injuries are difficult, they are cumbersome and uncomfortable. In essence, they accentuate everything.
In our society don’t we always look for the quickest solution? The most direct path? When we have a pain we go for the strongest painkiller! An injury forces us to focus and be truly present. The gift it brings in its arms is a very distilled essence of what the practice is.
To manage an injury you need to be mindful and gentle and come to terms with your ego (the cause of most of humanities failings). Also to recognise that it will pass. There is no permanence in life, good or bad. It’s about learning how to adjust and go with it. It’s practically impossible to have an injury and not learn from it. Emotionally it clarifies who you are and what you no longer need in your life. Physically it opens up new pathways and gives you a deeper understanding and relationship with your body.
I’m in good company with my thoughts on this. Expert yoga teacher David Garrigues says:
“There is a karmic and a dynamic aspect to yoga. You cannot have a long and intense relationship with Astanga yoga without some kind of injury happening. It just happens, you can’t help it. There is carelessness, there’s genetic weaknesses and there’s factors you just can’t control. So often being hurt is what actually brings you to a place of honesty and realness within yourself. It brings you to new truths you would not discover any other way. So, to think it is wrong to be hurt is in some way a mistake about the practice. Guruji’s attitude towards it was evidence of that. He would get so excited about some of these things. He would say “new body is making”.
Yoga teacher Tim Feldmann also comments about injury, taken from a podcast interview with fellow teacher and wife Kino Macgregor (by Peg Mulqueen at Ashtanga Dispatch)
“The problem is misidentification. You are the observer of this practice and that is where the stability lies. If you can reside there a little while you will feel lighter. The injury is your possibility to gain knowledge, to gain experience which is what the practice is all about. Observe your mind and take a look at what’s going on inside. Because your body gives you this tool to see who you really are and how you think”.
Here are what a few long term practitioners say about their experiences of when they have sustained an injury :
Story 1: “My injury swept me off my feet on Christmas Eve. It wasn’t the best present anyone could wish for but it certainly kept me ‘present’! I was forced to rest, reflect and deal with this ‘gift’ I’d been given.
Practice commenced slowly, mindfully and pretty much unrecognisable from the one I’d left behind the year before. My teacher encouraged me to do as much of the sequence as I could comfortably manage and to include at least 20 minutes meditation and chanting afterwards. I had never managed to incorporate such a long period of stillness into my day before. Surprisingly for me, my body and mind welcomed this new way of practicing and I felt a shift in my approach to my injury. I didn’t see an Osteopath, Physiotherapist or acupuncturist for the first month. I just sat and waited…
Sometime has passed now and I am moving in a much more fluid way and creating a healthier pattern for my body to follow. The Astanga practice is incredibly healing if you adhere to the guidelines of breath, bandha, patience and daily practice. I feel steadier, more in tune with myself, less scared of injury and more able to understand others.
I am not yet back to the posture I left behind but I’m excited for the journey back to it. I have learnt ha gigantic amount about myself during this time. I have grown closer to understanding Ahimsa, the non-violence part of Astanga yoga. I will always be grateful to my teacher for her support and wisdom. I am certain I would’ve become despondent without her by my side. I shall most definitely listen to the warning signs my body gives me in future and try to always stay present…”
Story 2: “I have been practising Astanga yoga regularly for over five years. During this time I’ve encountered little physical niggles along the way. Some are only minor, but of late I’ve hurt my shoulder, which as every regular student will know seriously restricts not only the flow of the practice but also some of the postures. The healing process has hitherto been very slow. At times this has been frustrating, causing me to doubt whether I’ll ever make a full recovery, together with a sense of not quite doing it right; this has also come with a realisation that in all probability I’m unlikely to ever ‘do’ the more demanding series of postures that I see others squeeze into most days. Perhaps I need to just accept that despite what my mind likes to think, my body just isn’t 21 anymore! But as I’ve thankfully come to understand, that isn’t really the ultimate goal of our path. The practice of being centred in the moment isn’t seriously impaired by my shoulders beginning to feel their age. So this is now the current challenge, to overcome not only my ‘inner critic’ but to appreciate that while I’m on the mend I’m still doing it right; the breath, the bandhas and the gaze are still serving their spiritual purpose as aids to ground me in the moment. And this process is, in itself, just as demanding as it always has been. In fact, somewhat comically, rather than my mind wander like it used to away from the mat and onto breakfast, work or football without a faulty pair of shoulders, it now wanders onto breakfast, work or football with a faulty pair of shoulders. So on a positive and fulfilling note, the ongoing practice of training my mind to hold its focus for progressively longer periods of time is still very much unaffected by the physical aches and pains that sooner or later we all seem to encounter. At the risk of sounding like a poorly shouldered guru, if I was asked to pass on something from my experience, I would say of course take note of physical discomfort and moderate the practice accordingly — but still keep practising; the journey continues. Namaste”.
Story 3: “Injuries have been uncomfortable physically and psychologically at the time but I can now say (gratefully!) that they have changed my attitude to my practice, body and soul. They have experientially shown me the mind, body and soul connection.
My first yoga injury was tendonitis in the lower tendon of the right deltoid. I was practising Astanga yoga daily, when I became aware of what felt like a thick band of burning tension in my right upper arm; that snagged and pulled in every Chaturanga Dandasana, and distracted me during my practice. I had to back off practice for a month and a half to let it settle (and have several deep sports massages!)
Sometime afterwards I became aware of an intense pinching soreness in the deep muscles of my lumbar spine. This pain seemed to have mysteriously crept up on me, and lingered for quite some time. I went to my osteopath, and it turns out I have a couple of deformed vertebrae in my lower thoracic spine (it’s called Scheurmann’s Disease) that cause energy to get trapped above and below them. Hence the sore neck and lower back.
My initial reaction to the injuries was one of resistance and disappointment. An injury is a clear message from the body to ease off. The process of accepting that I would have to soften my practice, rest and take initial steps (that seemed) backwards, led me to feel frustrated. Astanga is such a physically demanding practice. It requires dedication and consistency to slowly develop the necessary strength and endurance. So backing off from practice felt like letting go of all my hard work.
These challenging emotions showed me just how attached I am to my practice, to the fruits of my labour. How ironic, considering that one of the main themes of yogic philosophy is detachment! And so each injury forced me to soften the grip and accept reality, and with time I now feel grateful for this process. As that is what needed to happen, and ultimately what I now feel yoga is really all about. Accepting reality, surrender, detachment and faith.
In both the case of the tendonitis and lower back problem, I felt the injury had just crept up on me. What I have now accepted is just how distracted I was whilst practising. These last few years have been ones of challenging personal transformation, catalysed by external stress. I have spent a lot of time on the mat, frustrated, angry, sad, in a state of victimisation, and generally pretty low. And so with my ‘monkey mind’ distracted by my awakened pain body, perhaps I failed to notice the damage that I was causing myself through non-mindful practice.
However the good news has been the gradual, but infinite potential for awakening and change. We are creatures of habit, however through yoga we can change our patterns. We can slowly re-programme ourselves to become more present, grateful and strong. And through this process build health, mindfulness, patience and… most importantly to me…faith”.
So take heart , keep going and remember you are in good company!