Published on Elephant Journal
August 1, 2013
During my yoga teacher training, the instructor asked how many of us had suffered an injury through our yoga practice. Nearly every hand in the room shot up immediately.
I, too, tentatively wagged a few fingers, having experienced some lingering hamstring twinges here and there. But as someone generally more strong than flexible, my asana practice was more about a struggle to get my palms flat on the ground during a forward fold, rather than any sprains or pains resulting from over-stretching.
My decidedly un-yogic body type and proportions meant that the spiritual and the philosophical aspects of the practice were far more accessible than the physical results. My first lessons—and, what I still consider to be the greater lessons—were the stillness of the mind that I experienced as I travelled into my body and grappled with my tight hamstrings, or lost myself in the waves of my breath and in my dristhi.
My daily Ashtanga practice was a way to meet myself on the mat every morning, as I was sometimes distracted, occasionally heavy on my feet and usually stiff.
A Kick in the Asana
But as someone once said, “Practice, and all is coming,” and with my daily Asana sequences, my body grew more supple and flexible. And then one day, while attempting a particularly ambitious pose, I met with the dreaded SI joint sprain. I was flattened. For a few weeks, I barely get out of bed. When I finally got back on my mat, I found that my standing forward fold stopped at my knees!
I felt cheated and angry. Yoga had betrayed me. It had taken away my strength and my practice at a time when I had felt the most confident in my body and when I most needed the benefits of yoga.
Just as my asana practice had turned my back in seemingly unalterable ways, I decided to turn my back on the practice. And to boot, I dismissed all the other elements or limbs of yoga, including meditation, pranayama and turning my senses inwards.
The Importance of Injury
It didn’t take long for me to realize that this was far more detrimental to my body and mind then any yoga injury could be. And slowly, I began to understand why it is often said that a yoga injury can be your greatest teacher and the most difficult obstacle we face in our practice. I became aware of the decidedly un-yogic practices that had contributed to my injury, and how the holistic understanding of all the limbs of yoga—not just the physical practice—could help me heal and truly delve deeper into my practice, and not just the poses.
Avidya, or ego, the Yoga Sutras tell us, is one of the five main obstacles in our yoga journey. It can derail us from our ultimate goal of Samadhi, or of deep absorption or unity with our creator. And, as I learned, it can be the source of many a pain in the back. I was injured as I attempted a pose that I knew I wasn’t ready for, but ego spurred me on to try. My practice was strong, and as my teacher guided me into an advanced pose as the rest of the class looked on, my Avidya shouted, “Hey! Check this out!”
Ouch. The pose may have looked cool, but my grimace and hobbling out of the classroom definitely did not.
Which brings me to my next point…
Listen to your body before you listen to any teacher
Our first guide in our practice should be how we feel in our body on any given day, and not what our mind, or our ego, or what the instructor tell us to do. As a teacher, this is something I repeat before every lesson. In a class, eager to be the star student, this was the first thing to go out of the window. It’s one thing to be gently guided into exploring your edges under the watchful eye of a qualified instructor. It’s quite another to abandon your intuition and contort yourself into someone else’s notion of what you should be doing.
Ahimsa Starts at Home
The first part of the first limb or step in our yoga journey, according to the Sutras, is Ahimsa, or non-violence. Us yoga practitioners are often inclined to embrace a philosophy of loving kindness towards all those around us, while beating ourselves up on the mat. After my injury, it would have been wise to rest, to discover the importance of savasana. Instead, I chose to power through, believing that a few more vigorous practices would set me right. Very soon, I no longer had that choice.
The Practice Is Just One Part
Maybe if I’d been a little bit more flexible in my approach to yoga, I could have caught some of the damage. But for me, yoga was my 90 minutes Ashtanga class, with pranayama before and meditation after. It was all or nothing, and if I wasn’t powering through the primary series, I sure as hell wasn’t going to be doing any restorative poses or just sitting and breathing. Asanas, or the physical practice of yoga, is just one of the eight limbs of yoga, but because I pegged my experience of the whole body of yoga philosophy on just one limb, I lost everything.
The Road to Recovery
Over the last few months, I have been reclaiming my practice, my body, and my yoga journey. I am no longer scared to sit out for a pose in a class if it just doesn’t feel good, or to join a beginner Hatha class if I need to. Some days, I just sit. What is far more important I have learned, is that I show up on my mat, in my body, ready for my practice, whatever it may be on any given day.