Finding time to develop a consistent practice is one of the biggest challenges a student faces as they being to travel down the path of yoga. It takes discipline to step on the mat every single day for any length of time. Once your practice is established, there is a multitude of events that can occur and derail it temporarily or indefinitely. One of the most common is an injury.
Over the course of my 15 years of practice, I have injured myself many times—mostly when off my mat. I’d love to say that these injuries didn’t disrupt my dedication, but the truth is that several times I let their occurrence keep me from doing asana for weeks and even months at a time.
The ways in which injury can disrupt a yogi’s journey are many but the two most common are:
Fear of pain or aggravating the injury keep you from engaging in any physical activity and take you completely out of your practice.
Your ego gets involved and you try to “muscle your way through” your asana without adjusting intensity, leading to worsening the wound so that practice becomes intolerable or impossible.
I am guilty of engaging in both of these reactions many times over.
Earlier this year, after almost a decade of waiting and contemplating, I signed up for yoga teacher training. Finally ready to become a teacher, I envisioned the experience as a transformative time that would result in my conquering of the most difficult (and impressive) poses while sculpting my physical body into a sleek and toned perfection. Just a week before my classes began, I severely injured my hip flexors and began to experience explosive pain in my upper legs, hips, and lower back—areas required for a large range of movement.
Suddenly, simple activities like getting out of bed and putting clothes on were challenging. I had no idea how I would get through my teacher training classes, which required long periods of sitting on the ground and lots and lots of asana practice.
Determined, I moved forward with my classes and have attended every one. What I’ve learned along the way is that continuing to practice yoga while injured is not only possible; it’s beneficial for both your physical body and the evolution of your asana. In fact, an injury can be one of your greatest gurus, infusing your practice with wisdom and a skill set that you may not have gained otherwise.
The following tips and insights are meant to guide you should you become injured. They will help you stay on the mat and grow as a yogi while you heal.
Practice the Art of Being Humble
When hurt or sick, your body is not able to maintain physical activity at the same level it can when well. This is something you have to accept if you want to get better, so first, you must humble yourself. The following are simple but essential things you can do to practice the art of being humble:
Modify your poses. It’s hard. My ego wanted nothing more than to do the most advanced version of every pose while I was in a class full of my peers, but I knew that would make my pain worse. There are modifications, alternatives, and stopping points for almost every pose. Get familiar with them, ask your teacher for guidance, and use them.
Unexpected Bonus: Chances are, you will find space and physical liberation in poses that you never knew existed. You may even find a deeper connection with certain poses, especially if you didn’t enjoy them before.
Grab all of the props. Props are your friends. If you are like me and only grab the bare minimum at the top of class (two blocks, a blanket, and strap) that’s got to change. Get a couple of blankets and don’t forget the big, fluffy bolster—it will become your best friend. Now that you’ve got all of the props, use them. Use them even when you think you don’t need to (because you probably do).
Unexpected Bonus: You have an opportunity to grow compassion and understanding for those around you who regularly use props. Yoga is not a competition. It’s not about what you are doing on your mat in comparison to the person on the mat next to you. There is perfection in every asana including those practiced with and without props, and you will have a chance to experience the beauty of a supported pose.
Go Back to the Beginning. You have been signing on to advanced flow and Hatha classes for years. You are a highly skilled practitioner, but now is the perfect time to go back to beginner level classes. These classes are easier and safer for your body. They allow you to reintroduce yourself to shapes in a way that guards against injury and reminds you of cues or alignment tips you may have forgotten along the way.
Change Your Style
If you love fast, advanced Vinyasa style yoga and it’s the only type of yoga you do, it is time to try something new. Try out a slow, gentle flow class, or drop Vinyasa and head into a beginner Hatha class. If your injury is severe, stay on the mat with yin or restorative options and make sure to tell your teacher about your condition before class starts.
Explore New Practices
If you feel like your modified asana practice is leaving you wanting more, take time to explore meditation, pranayama, and mantra. These are all safe and nourishing disciplines that can be used alongside and during your asana routine. Injuries offer the opportunity for exploration and education. Make the most of this time. You might be surprised when you feel a calling to pursue your study in one of these other subjects.
Be the Silent Observer
If the nature of your injury demands that you abstain from any physical activity, talk to your teacher(s) about observing class on occasion. Studies show that visualization can support and even improve performance in a physical practice. Sitting in class gives you the opportunity to learn through listening, watching, and memorizing. You also get the benefits of staying in connection with your yoga community and participating in presence.
Listen to Your Body
Yoga means union. When you are hurt and physically vulnerable, it is extra important to practice yoga! If you let your mind’s focus stray from your physical body while you are practicing asana, you run the risk of missing a sign or warning signal and hurting yourself further. Tune in. Move with intention. Take care of your body as though it were the most precious thing that you have: because it is.
The path of a yogi is a lifelong undertaking that inevitably comes up against challenges. Injuries can be frightening and figuring out how to practice with them is difficult. By viewing them as opportunities to expand and deepen your practice they are transformed. Instead of confronting an obstacle, you receive a gift. Our best teachers don’t always sit at the front of the classroom. Sometimes they show up within us.
Check out more of Annette's work HERE.