What Injury Can Teach Us

Yoga injuries have been occupying my body of late. I have practiced yoga regularly for five years, but the last three months have been noteworthy in terms of injuries. Injury number one: I hurt my left knee trying to do bound lotus. I was so close, my toe was right there. Have you ever seen that bumper sticker that says "put your ego on a leash?" Unfortunately, seeing it does not equate to the application of said advice. Injury number two: In Supta Padangusthasana, or reclined big toe pose, my right side was significantly more open than my left. The teacher thought to help me with my weaker side and instead of my left leg miraculously finding its way to the floor, I felt something torque and give way around my lower left ribs. For a couple of days it was incredibly painful, particularly to laugh. For a couple of weeks I wasn't even able to do downward dog without pain. Stepping all the way forward into lunge was impossible. This was new and gave rise to a frightening question: what would I do if I couldn't practice anymore? Practice no longer feels like a choice. It is the thing that keeps me in the ballpark of sane, the thing that keeps my heart open enough for a little of that joy to creep in. And it's good stuff, if you don't know what I'm talking about.

Injury number three was the one that really caught my attention, or more aptly, demanded it. I have previously managed to tear my Sternocleidomastoid, the big muscle that runs down the side of the neck and attaches to the collarbone. Having been pain free for months, the pain started to return, radiating down my shoulder and my arm. After a couple of days of broken sleep I was reaching eagerly for the muscle relaxants. I am not a pill popping advocate, knowing the temporary pain relief does nothing to address the source of the problem. I went for a massage to be told that my shoulders are rolled forward adding flex to the trapezius putting strain on the neck. My masseur seemed surprised that I didn't suffer from frequent tension headaches. When it came to the pressure points on the trapezius, I was obliged to vocally register my discomfort. Ouch ouch ouch!

My old injury was aggravated by my shift toward a more dynamic vinyasa practice with lots of Chaturanga Dandasana's. It appears that problems arising from Chaturanga are not uncommon. I have gone from being happy about this (I am not the only one) to uneasy. If this is so common, why are we not preventing more of these injuries? I don't have the answer to this, but we can certainly make students aware of the possibility of injury, educate them on anatomy and why it is important to build muscle strength in a balanced way. A very simple thing we can all do is attend to our posture off the mat. Often, we don't realize how much we slouch. The thoracic spine, that part from below the neck to the bottom of the rib cage, is naturally slightly rounded but when the shoulders are rounded forward there is added strain. This curve tends to increase over the years anyway, a problem that will only escalate as we spend more time bent over computer screens. If you care to get off the road toward a hunchback, watch your posture, open the chest, and yes, keep your shoulders rolled back and down.

The good news is that injury, and the associated pain, has informed my practice like no end of instruction. Pain is the body's objection, its demand that things needs to change. It has been a great motivator to adjust my posture and my practice. On just the second day of working with renewed attention to my shoulders and upper back, there were a couple of surprises. I found I was unable to touch my toes in Janu sirsasana, when leading with the heart and keeping the shoulders engaged. The process of coming to terms with the degree to which I can sacrifice the body's alignment in order to approximate the picture perfect pose is ongoing. Thankfully, the body is a quick study. I pushed myself up out of Savasana, intuitively into an improved posture. Of course I adjusted immediately, because it felt so strange before again adjusting, returning to the initial position. The body was not only supporting my efforts toward healing, but beginning to take the lead. I am reminded all over again to trust the body's intelligence. Another few days of practicing with this attention and here I am walking down the main street of my home town feeling taller, engaging in a little bit of self-congratulation. Somebody needs to get me one of those bumper stickers.

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