No one wants an injury. They are painful and often annoying reminders that sometimes, despite our best intentions and dedication to practice, matter trumps the mind.
Getting injured while practicing yoga can be especially difficult. For those of us who revere our practice for its power to heal, injury can feel like the ultimate betrayal. We often rely on our practice to “save us.” After a long day, a tough conversation, yoga acts like a bolster for our mind and body. For some of us, our practice gives us that special soreness after sleeping muscles reawaken to our beckoning. It can be delightful to have tired arms and a core that is so sore it hurts to sneeze or to laugh; each little sensation of pain reminds us of our dedicated practice. But what happens when we tear too much, break bones, rupture ligaments, or slip discs?
Sometimes it’s an accident, sometimes not of our own doing—a teacher’s forceful adjustment, someone carelessly kicks us or lands on us—and sometimes, maybe more often, we are careless and let our attention waiver. This might be a momentary blip and something snaps, breaks, or tears, but more often than not, it’s a sign of repetitive avoidance; we ignore what our body tells us until it’s too late.
I have been injured many times, on the mat and off. I started dancing when I was 3 years old, running when I was 6, yoga at 10, figure skating at 11. I was no stranger to ice packs, ace bandages, and ERs. When I began to totally immerse myself in yoga, it wasn’t long before I tore a hamstring. Instead of listening to my body’s call to rest, I doubled up on Advil and thought that as long as I practiced in clothes that would make me sweat more—think garbage bag pants—I would be okay. I convinced myself that the only way to heal was to force it on my body, so I went to class once, sometimes twice, every day working myself harder than ever before.
Ten years later, and a few years into teaching, I was immersed in the philosophy of yoga. I was obsessed with the path of enlightenment that yoga promised, and I read only yoga books, all the while attempting to intellectualize my own enlightenment. I was also still obsessed with the physical—too obsessed. Inspired by an old friend, for my 32nd birthday I decided to do 32 drop backs into full wheel during my morning practice. Though my back had been consistently radiating discomfort for about a year, I was determined to complete this feat. There was no ecstatic payoff, no deep heart opening that wasn’t there before. I felt pain and was clouded by intense dizziness for all 32 repetitions. I didn’t just ignore my body that day, I had been ignoring it for years.
It was not even the day after those backbends that I woke up unable to move. It was a month later. My back was shouting out louder and louder and finally had to scream at me to stop abusing it. Slipped discs L3 and L4 made it impossible for me to move on most days for the next six months. I was frozen, couldn’t even bring my hands together in Namaste and bow at the end of class without excruciating pain. I was uncertain if I would ever get better. I was depressed and uninsured. My holistic chiropractor suggested surgery. I wanted drugs to take away the pain and the depression. I couldn’t use the methods I’d used previously: I couldn’t put on a plastic bag, double up on practice, or move my mat to the back of the room and set a healing intention. This injury was of a different variety. Finally, I surrendered to the process and allowed myself to be in pain, be angry with my body, rest, reflect, and finally make peace with it. It was not easy but it was necessary.
As a teacher, I often see people running back to their mats right after surgery—I’ve done that—and I’ve seen people limping into the yoga studio and limping out—been there, too. I have seen the competitive spark in the eye, the posture void of breath and connection. I’m no stranger to these things, but it saddens me to see the way we all practice. It seems that we have sold ourselves a story that achievement of asana, whether it is sticking a handstand or showing up on the mat injured, is an absolute necessity for sanity, even if it drives our body to madness. Or maybe we measure our self-worth by it, in which case we need to reexamine why we practice at all. At a certain point we have to be able to ask ourselves if what we are doing to heal is actually causing us pain.
With hindsight we can use the space and our power of reflection to appreciate those times when we were so down we thought we would never get back up. Because if we are fortunate enough to survive times of difficulty, as I was, we have the privilege of learning from the course we took to map our way out. I had the privilege to relearn how to move and to experience appreciation of my body for the first time. I learned to listen to my body, to all of its wisdom and power, and to recognize when it needed rest. More than anything, this healing process gave me my practice. Before, I didn’t know how to breathe, was never mindful of my movement, and now I see any movement as a gift. It no longer matters what I can do. What matters is the quality of attention I bring to the moment, through awareness and through movement. Not surprisingly, I can “do” so much more, and when my body says rest, I listen. Injuries are an invitation to start over, let the body mourn, repair, heal, and let the mind grow. They lead us down a path of possibility to a place where mind and matter can peacefully coexist.
Photos by Heather Parks