injury in yoga

Vinyasa, Injury, and Addiction


I had a student who severed his ulnar nerve, falling through a glass window.  He rapidly began to atrophy in his hand and after two surgeries and a smattering of assessments, physical therapies, and wacky alternative treatments was told he would not regain it, ever.  Movement.  Ever.  Hand. We adapted his practice.  His atrophy stopped.  The muscles filled back out.  He did chatturunga one day and wept.

Thing is, your body has thousands of nerves and neurons.  We freak out about losing them.  But yoga, if carefully done and practiced without expectation (we were not AIMING for chattarunga, we were focusing on 'what is still there'.  But that focus on other parts of the body gave him some of his hand and wrist back), seems to do miracle things in bodies.  Not regeneration, but retraining other nerves.  Revealing undreamt of possibility.

I also had a student who broke her wrist falling while skiing, was told not to bear weight in her practice, and promptly quit.

Miracles, or quitting.  I see both.

When people begin a (vinyasa) yoga practice, they are very likely to complain about their wrists.

wrists are incredibly delicate and complex. Our practice should be, too.

I generally try to talk through the alignment of the hand and shoulder in weight bearing poses, explain something about muscles, and try to have a conversation about the difference between 'pain' and 'soreness'.  Generally speaking, we come in having very weak wrists, hands, and forearms, if not pretty awful shoulder habit bodies, .  All of this means that being in strong alignment in downdogs and chattaruangas is likely to be really, really hard at the beginning.

Once the body has adapted by building appropriate strength and carrying weight appropriately, this soreness goes away.

They may not complain so much about sore shoulders, but most of us have very unstable shoulder girdles in our planks and chattarungas, and will eventually end up with rotator cuff issues.

This happens, yet teachers are prone to say 'do what feels good for your body', rather than stopping the student.  We've been coached and encouraged to believe that moving our body 'how we feel' is the benefit of a yoga practice.  And there is some truth to this.

However.  I'm thinking.  I've had a number of conversations recently with 'Astanga refugees' (people who blew out shoulders, low backs, with a too rigid for years on end interpretation of the Astanga system as something that 'can't be adapted'), and 'flow' yogis who have had to take months if not years repairing damage that happened when a teacher insisted they do wild thing, or 'breath through the pain' of a hamstring stretch (that tore).  As 'flow' has rapidly become the dancey, groovey, showy Yoga Of Choice in much so that it is pret near the only type of yoga you can get in many places.... injury has become a question.

Of course, you can injure yourself doing any sport.  Or walking on icy side walks.  Or lifting a child or brushing your teeth, if you're not careful.

But yoga's promise - a non-injurious practice - needs to be both re-assessed and re-claimed.  Wewrist pain teachers need to be more careful and more trained.  And we, as students, need to learn things like the difference between soreness and pain, recognize when we are tired and losing alignment, stop ourselves from going too fast too hard too often.  We need to remember that yoga is not a 'sport'.  It is a rigorous body training and assessment.  But it is not a sport.

I need to catch this, myself.  As teacher.  As student.

When students get hurt, the need to change the practice or take a break from practicing is terribly hard.  Painfully hard.  We've come to love it so much. It hurts and is scary to lose.

Just as it is scary to think of losing our bodies, at all.

I know.  I've dealt with a few relatively minor injuries - a strange carpal boss that appeared on the back of my hand and made hands and knees impossible for awhile, let alone down dog; a concussion that left me forbidden to go upside down or raise my heart rate for six months.  Both these and other, even more minor injuries or illnesses, kept me from my practice or enforced a VERY drastic change to my practice.  It was hard.  I had all sorts of 'what if I can never vinyasa again?  Does this mean I'm just done, no more headstands, handstands, ANYTHING, ever, just done?' thoughts.

It was awful.

Chatturgangas afterward felt blissy.

But I'm faced, now and then, with the difficulty of needing to say, as a teacher, 'don't practice for awhile'.  Or 'don't do that pose'.

And the difficulty in myself when students don't in fear

Thing is, yoga reveals us.  There's a very popular yoga teacher who runs a workshop called 'asana junkies'.  I thought this was cute, when I first heard it.  Just like at my 12 step meetings, there was an immediate recognition of myself in somebody else's story.  I want to raise my hand and say 'busted'.  I know a lot of people who get crabby if their practice is put off because of circumstances.  People who go into depressions when their beloved teacher leaves or moves or takes a pregnancy hiatus.  People who grumble when classes aren't sweaty enough or a substitute teacher shows up.  I know that all of us - see me raising my hand, here, a 'busted!' grin on my face - have a little bit of this.

The meditation, the revelation, is the work.  When I have been injured, I had to somehow deal with the fact that I may not be able to invert and arm balance ever again.  I did this sometimes well, mostly poorly.  Of course, in the end I AM able to do those poses.

There is the fact that someday I will no longer be able to.

The question is what are we doing, in this yoga, thing?  What is it we really want and need out of

Matthew Sanford, teaching in his wheelchair. He says the principals of yoga are non-discriminating; they can pass through any body.

a practice?   The complexity, elegance, and potential of bodies is amazing.  We can spend our lives exploring this.  There is a biochemical thing that happens, while we are doing this, that changes our minds and our very lives.  But how is that complexity, elegance, potential, and biochemical thing related to overpushing ourselves or becoming dependent on a certain pose, teacher, style, or routine?

I don't think it is.  Related.  Not at all.  But we get confused.  We're human.  That's what we do.

And I don't know that I should teach as much 'up dog down dog' as I do; or that yoga classes from east coast to west should be so full of 'vinyasa flow' standards.  Not unless we get really particular about teaching the right way to do it.  The right way to do it is non-injurious.  We're failing, that.

Ultimately, the meditation suggests we have to accept.  We have to accept it when we lose legs.   This doesn't mean we stop practicing.  It in no way means the elegance and potential of the body is gone; but it is DIFFERENT.   It is only powerful to the level we can accept and play with body's uniqueness.

We have to learn to accept the smaller losses or ego swipes along the way - the whole do what you can but if your breathing is compromised you've passed the edge, thing.  Or maybe we don't HAVE to.  But if we can, if we can learn to be that sensitive to our inner bodies, to experience, to the breath, our practice will continue in its elegance until we no longer practice.  If we don't, we re-create suffering.  Impose the addictive, denial qualities of the rest of our lives onto our practice.  Harm ourselves.  Miss the point.

Practice accepting illness or injury now will make the transition to a different practice fluid and entirely possible when and if you DO lose a limb.  Or your eyes.  Or die.

Don't practice acceptance and those arrivals will floor you.  The arrivals are coming.  That's what life is.

The short, practical thing I want to say here is this: you can adapt a vinyasa class to a broken arm, toe, or a wheelchair.  Really.  You can.  It may get a little more complex for you (and hopefully your teacher) as you have to take time and figure it out.  You might have to learn more about yoga.  You might have to build up different strengths and flexibilities and this might take time.  It might feel hard, confusing, and frustrating.  But who ever said yoga was going to be simple and easy?

When you are injured, take the time you need to heal.  Don't ignore your doctors,  teachers, or sensations.  It's a sprained wrist, a broken leg, whatever.  Struggle with this, mightily, but accept it.   Then practice in a way that respects the injury, finds new ways to move, break expectations all over again.  Fact: people without arms can do amazing yoga postures.  Follow them and be bloody glad you just have a fracture.

The more subtle, complex thing I need to teach, practice, and encourage is this: adapt or burn. Find your own practice.  There is a practice in you that is stunning, stroendureng, powerful, deep minded.  But it may not look like the class, the 'vinyasa', or what you did yesterday.  Most of us have 'can be changed' and 'cannot be changed' all screwed up.  There IS potential in the body and mind.  And there are things we cannot change, waste energy resisting or free ourselves by surrendering.  Feeling this out is your work.  Work hard. Figure out what moves.

shoulder medicine from Karin Burke on Vimeo.