Practicing With Injury

If there’s one thing I know more certainly than anything else about my beloved yoga community right now, it’s that maintaining a consistent practice during the pandemic is really, really hard. Maintaining a consistent practice is always hard! But as social distance is now the rule, the pleasure of face-to-face interaction and the social reinforcement we get at the studio to stay on our mat has all but dissipated. I am very grateful that the gift of technology has allowed some of us to continue to practice together, but the experience is very different, often hard to get used to, and I commend those of you who have managed to routinely frequent online classes. Our studio needs your support!

I am personally trying to perceive this pandemic experience as an opportunity to develop the depth and breadth of my practice. And as a string of minor injuries have entered my life simultaneously with the reality of quarantine, I’ve gained an appreciation for how an injury, whether it be severe, chronic, or minor, can act like the piece of straw that breaks the back of the camel (the camel being my yoga practice!). For many of us, practicing at home can be incredibly difficult, especially when we don’t have access to a dedicated practice space, or have celebrated roles as caregivers, parents, pet owners—you name it! Yoga in the real world is already difficult, and introducing something like a sore wrist, sciatica, chronic headaches, back pain, (the list goes on forever!), can often be the one reason we need to avoid unrolling our mat altogether when daily life is extra challenging. I am so incredibly honored to have students come to my classes who I know live with chronic conditions, they have taught me so much about yoga.

Since September of last year I’ve experienced, in no particular order: back pain, shoulder pain, elbow pain, wrist pain, headaches, and those icky little things I call “Mysore Toes” (after I heard another yogi refer to the strips of skin peeling off her toes and feet when practicing in humid conditions, often bleeding and quite painful). Some of these injuries happened off my mat, some of them happened on my mat. I can happily and gratefully say I feel pretty great right now, and I can confidently say that it won’t last forever.

What I’m learning about my practice through these injuries is that it is more important to recognize where I was mentally, emotionally, and spiritually when I hurt myself than what I was necessarily doing physically. For example: if I hurt myself on my mat, was I rushing through sequence so I could save time for postures I’ve attached to, or felt for some reason I really needed to be in? Was my Ego driving my body into unrealistic territory? And if it happened off my mat, what was my mind distracted by when my body was busy getting hurt? Did I even want to be doing the activity I was engaged in when I got hurt, and if not, why was I doing it?

BKS Iyengar sums up my realization beautifully in Light on Life, when he states “The cure to combat the three Ss—stress, strain, and speed—can be found in the three Ws—the work of devoted practice, the wisdom that comes of understanding the self and the world, and worship because ultimately surrendering what we cannot control allows the ego to relax and lose the anxiety of its own infinitesimally small self in the infinitude of the divine”.

I am grateful for students who trust in their yoga practice—and me—enough to approach me and ask which poses might help their low back, or how they can avoid reinjuring a wrist. Although everyone and every body is different, the yogic tradition is packed with treatments for physical ailments and emotional disturbances. But perhaps more valuably, the tradition of yoga offers us the ability to look within in order to move beyond our physical bodies. Yoga has the capacity to address every part of us, from the firm and physical to the most abstract and esoteric. And to constantly reassess and redefine our relationship to ourselves.

In Astanga Yoga: As It Is, Matthew Sweeney describes this inward drifting gaze as the experience of becoming aware of what truly is, rather than what we think should or should not be true. He states “No amount of asana or pranayama or meditation practice will make you a better person or hasten your development. Nothing will. For there is nothing better than being what you are, right now.” Further, he states “the idea that asana practice will eventually bring about a perfect state of health is problematic. Asana practice may make you stronger or more flexible, but in some areas it might not. Some change will always be there, but the form that change takes is beyond your control. To keep hoping that the future will bring perfection or even a moment of happiness is a problem which only self-acceptance can resolve.”

Yikes! So although we need to embrace the healing potential of an asana practice and ensure that our time on our mats is beneficial and therapeutic, we need to simultaneously be ready to accept where we are and detach ourselves from what we think we are going to get out of our yoga practice. This is ultimately how we begin to live the principles of abhyasa (constant practice) and vairagya (freedom from desire). Abhyasa doesn’t mean we necessarily maintain an intense daily asana practice for 20 years, and Vairagya doesn’t mean we give up wanting to earn more at our jobs, make new friends, or wear fun colors. But what they do both imply is that we maintain a strong and sustainable connection to our practice of yoga, and that the choices we make help keep us steadfast.

Pain in this lifetime is inevitable, and it should not be used as an excuse to get out of the work that needs to be done sincerely on one’s yoga mat. Instead of understanding my practice of the yamas, niyamas, asana, pranayama, and meditation as separate practices, I’ve started to decompartmentalize my practice and save space for those times when my mat time deserves less emphasis on asana than it does on breathwork and stillness.

Rather than allowing an injury to keep me away from my mat, I give it the chance to help me be present and accept my present situation for what it is, no more or less. When I attended the Ashtanga Confluence in San Diego several years ago, Eddie Stern and several other prominent instructors talked about the Yamas and Niyamas in a panel discussion. When they got to Isvara pranidhana, Eddie described it along the lines of “Surrendering oneself completely to the unknown”, and I really love this description. It has stuck with me over the years and allowed me to detach from my expectations for practice and maintain my practice through the aches and pains of life.

Joel has been apart of the Hilltop community for the past ten years and completed his 500-hour training with Hilaire in 2014. His love for yoga enriches his work as an Occupational Therapist, guides his adventures in the garden and kitchen, and helps him maintain his composure in this wild world we live in. He is very grateful for his family and supportive community. Join him for led Ashtanga Primary Series at 5:45 pm on Thursdays in Old Town, Lansing.