Ashtanga 101: Practicing Yoga with an InjuryFeb 17, 2019
Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. These aren’t just the five stages of grief - they’re also the five stages of practicing through a yoga injury. Depending on the injury, it can feel like the same thing sometimes.
If you practice yoga for any length of time, it’s likely that you’ll have an injury sooner or later. Regardless of whether the injury occurred during your asana practice, the recovery period can be frustrating, scary, slow, and a range of other experiences and emotions. Ultimately, though, your practice can support your recovery if you modify appropriately, and the ability to adapt and maintain your practice through challenges and hard times is one of the most important mental disciplines in (and benefits of!) Ashtanga.
The factors underlying injury can be incredibly complex, and they vary from person to person. Ashtanga yoga is not inherently dangerous, but it’s also not 100% safe. It’s a physical activity that challenges our bodies to move in non-habitual ways. In fact, Ashtanga is a practice in which we are deliberately trying to break our patterns. In my experience as a teacher and practitioner, injuries are occassionally acute - a bad adjustment, pushing too hard, or falling out of a pose can lead to the occasional strain, tear, or bruise - but much more common, and much more difficult to keep track of, a is the fact that many yoga injuries are cumulative. They occur gradually, over a longer period of time, because of joint instability, hyperextension, bad alignment, and a number of other causes.
Ironically, yoga injuries can be hard to identify because our practices tend to make us more in touch with what is going on with our bodies and our practice is supposed to create new sensations. It could be that the practice is revealing to you a physical truth, imbalance or sensitivity that was previously hidden. The difficult thing is that it’s just so hard to tell the difference.
Everyone comes into the yoga practice with different strengths and different limitations, and nobody is immune to injury. That said, it has been my experience that the first year or so of daily Ashtanga practice tends to bring a lot of physical issues to the surface. I think this is the nature of the practice. Initially it's so physical, and honestly can start off as almost a very gross practice, and inevitably these physical issues and sensations are going to be what the practice brings up. It's really common for new students to experience soreness, tenderness, and new sensations in the wrists, hamstrings, knees, and back - while there is the chance for injury, and students need to stay alert for new sensations indicative of injury or bad alignment, these are all nonetheless quite typical experiences and (in my experience) generally nothing to worry about.
So how do you find your edge of sensation? How do you find that place and work there while staying grounded enough to not hurt yourself? How do you go deeply without going too deep?
The answer is to get to know yourself very well. You have to pay very close attention not only to the way you feel in practice, but also to how you feel after practice.
As Ashtangis, we tend sometimes to contort ourselves into things, thinking we are making it work when really we’re just forcing our bodies into the wrong motions. And that can be a major mistake, not just in the way we practice but in the way we think.
Experiencing some existential physical pain in the bellies of the muscles from overuse is fairly normal. But when it's your joints, back, knees, or hips, it becomes a question of how to keep doing what you need to do under new physical circumstances, or how to fix them. How do you wake up the pathways so you can intelligently move? It often doesn’t really matter which pose you are working on - that is, it doesn’t matter to anyone except for you. One answer is to work closely with a teacher you trust (for more on that look HERE).
Aside from that, here are a few suggestions!
Keys for Practicing with an Injury
I believe that through mindful communication and teaching, the number of yoga injuries that occur can be greatly reduced. I tell my assistants and students all the time that it’s much easier to adapt the posture to the person than it is to adapt the person to the posture, and I believe this is true both for the care and prevention of injuries. Practicing with an injury is normally something I encourage - doing so smartly can help you maintain strength, flexibility, and balance, as well as helping you better understand your own capabilities.
When an injury is acute, you rest. If you sprain an ankle, if you break a toe, if you crash your bike, take a few days to rest. Even if you can practice, don’t. Let your body heal. Maybe this means you need more sleep, maybe it means you need to keep your injury elevated or on ice - as frustrating as this time might be, let the energy of your body redirect itself to healing you. It would also be a good time to get your injury checked out by a medical professional. I don’t suggest taking too much time off from your practice, but usually 48 hours is a good estimate.
In the next stage, the subacute stage, you can begin to practice again. During this time, injuries are typically very susceptible to being re-injured, so practice mindfully, stay focused on the sensations, and avoid moving into your pain. Gradually, you’ll start to rebuild and regain your strength and mobility. Aside from the personal strength of working with your injuries, returning to the mat can also help to increase circulation and blood flow to the injured area.
If you are practicing with an injury that may be related to recurring movements, it’s important to reexamine your patterns. If you are able to invest in private lessons with a skilled teacher, this could help you identify and correct a bad pattern. Be sure to communicate what is going on to your teacher, so that you can work together to rebuild your patterns in a healthy and sustainable way.
Once you are ready to start practicing again, just remember that it’s easier to adapt the pose for the body than the body for the pose. Use props, modifications, research, and good old common sense as you rebuild your practice. It might be appropriate to completely skip something for the time being. Depending on the injury, you might decide that you want to pull elements from more than one series. You need to know your body and what is going on with it, and you need to have an idea of what exacerbates the injury and what makes it feel better, and then you practice accordingly. A skilled teacher will be able to help you practice in a way where you can navigate your pain while still reaping the fullest benefits of the practice.
Perhaps the most important thing is to keep a good attitude and focus on what you can do. It might not feel like it, but you can probably still do so much! So maybe Janu C is out of the question until you knee feels better, but trust me that you are the only one who cares! And you can probably still forward fold and do other poses to reap a lot of the same benefits without running the risk of hurting yourself. Focus on that. Focus on the good stuff.
The limitations that an injury presents are not only bodily. Oftentimes the fear that accompanies an injury can turn into something just as limiting as anything physical. Fear can easily develop and affect our movements after injuries, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Fear intensifies our presence, so you’ll find yourself paying more attention and will be less likely to repeat a mistake. If you are feeling a lot of fear, hesitation, or tension in a posture, build up to the full posture by creating incremental successes along the way. It’s not a zero sum game, and you didn’t get here in an instant, so be patient and expect to do a little work as you regain and rebuild to where you once were.
It’s easy to want to rage against the limitations, but injuries are like quicksand - the harder we try to fight against them, the more they pull us down. Do your best to keep a positive attitude, move away from pain, practice intelligently, and allow your body the space and rest that it needs to heal. Let your heart and your mind listen to your body’s wisdom, and keep moving forward.
My favorite ways to get through injury. I do a lot of Pilates. I can isolate better than in yoga, incorporate loads of PT exercises, and I don't lose strength - so when I am ready to get back to my full practice I have all the strength I need. Try my online Pilates or Foam Rolling courses and save 20% now! Use coupon code : BUILDSTRENGTH
My favorite tools to help me deal with an injury:
- Orb ball - so I can roll out all those hard to get places.
- Foam Roller
- Resistance Bands
- Epsom Salt
- Castor Oil
- A witch doctor. I'm not kidding - but he isn't available on Amazon 😊
** These are affiliate links but I do love and use these products. If you buy from one of these links I will receive a small affiliate commission.
Some of my more memorable injuries....and honestly, these ones are nothing. They were acute, I knew what was wrong, I recovered. It sucked at the time, but it wasn't long term. Much scarier are the cumulative ones I'm experiencing now.
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