It happened. That thing that you have been so careful to avoid. The thing that you have taken hours of yoga anatomy and alignment courses to avoid. You have an ouchie. An injury. What to do?
If you are mindful, patient and compassionate with yourself, you can continue your yoga practice. However, you have to be really honest with yourself.
Are an all or nothing type of person
Refuse to modify in front of others
Feel like you are not doing a full practice unless you are doing “everything”
Have an inhumanly high pain tolerance to the point where you only feel things when it is too late
Are hard headed
You may be better off not practicing for a while or working with a strict teacher who will not allow you to over do things. I have also benefited from resting during the more acute phases on an injury.
Whenever I get an ouchie, I come up with a strategy. My strategy allows me to enjoy and grow my yoga practice while allowing the injured party to heal.
Before coming up with your injury strategy
Figure out what is wrong
Call your doctor, PT, minister, teacher, imam, Jesus or whomever, and figure out what is actually wrong. It is not always what you think. Our brains can cause us to feel things in areas that are actually not the culprit. Even if it is the culprit, it may be originating from somewhere else.
Figure out what caused it
Mentally replay, not only your practice, but the events and days (months, years in some cases) leading up to the injury and figure out what caused it. It can also be caused by your lifestyle choices i.e too much sugar, not enough rest, auxiliary exercises etc so make sure to replay those as well.
Figure out what poses make it hurt or injure it further
It is not always what you think and don’t make assumptions. Don’t assume things like, my back hurts, so I should not back bend. I have had back ouchies that actually went away after a few days of vigorous back bending. The next practice, following an ouchie, I do my normal practice just really slow. I make note of things that hurt and things that feel good. I continue to monitor my body throughout the day because sometimes, things don’t hurt during, hurt later. The next morning, I also note whether it got worse. If I feel worse, I may be missing something and I do the process all over again the next practice.
If you practice Ashtanga, and you do more than one sequence, try out the different sequences and see which one is best for healing, and stick with it. For example, when I injured my hamstring attachment, I mainly practiced Second Series because there were not as many forward folds. All the backbends, headstands and arm balances allowed my hamstring to chill while the rest of my body continued to be challenged. After the attachment healed, my hamstrings and hips were really tight. To regain mobility, I switched to doing a lot of Primary. I stopped working on Third completely because it is a bunch of crazy insane poses that did nothing for my healing and there really was no point to it. Honestly, It was probably a year or so before I started adding back any Third.
Once you figure out, what poses aggravate your injury, you are ready to come up with modifications. If you cannot figure this out, it is better to stop practice until the injury heals or consult your teacher or other physical movement specialist who can help you figure it out. I do not recommend continuing to do asana without knowing how to deal with your injury or what is actually wrong with you.
Your injury should get better with time, if it is not, go back to the drawing board. You missed something.
The Injury Strategy
Eat to heal
If you are doing any activity at a high level, you should be eating a diet that supports it. This is even more crucial when you have an injury. Your diet should be geared towards your recovery. If you have an ayurvedic doctor, now is the time to contact them. If you don’t, do the basics. Cut out all refined sugar, eat clean unprocessed chemical free foods, and go heavy on the plants. Sugar and chemicals cause inflammation which slows down your healing. Plants are full of nutrients that heal.
Plan for modifications, in advance. Before you show up for a public class, especially a guided group class, you should know what modifications you will taking for commonly called poses. Unless you are trying out a class for therapeutic reasons, this may not be the time to try out new styles of yoga. Stick to what you know and what you can prepare for. Unless your teacher is adding poses for therapeutic reasons, I would also not recommend adding poses during this time either. If you are having trouble coming up with modifications, schedule a private with your teacher and come up with a strategy together.
Talk to your teacher, in advance. Get to class early or contact your teacher, before you practice, and talk to them about your injury and your strategy. Now is not the time to jump from teacher to teacher. Pick a a teacher or two that can help guide you though this period and who has a working understanding of your injury. Work with them until it is healed.
Shift your focus
It is human nature to focus on what is wrong instead of what is right. Shift your practice to focus on the uninjured portions of your body. This will allow you to grow in your practice while still healing. For instance, if your hamstring is injured, focus on arm balances or shoulder flexibility. If your shoulder is injured, focused on hip mobility or core strengthening.
You don’t have to change the practice, just switch your focus. For instance, if you are doing Sun Salutes and your hamstring is injured, instead of focusing on straightening your legs in the standing forward fold, you might focus on putting weight into your hands to prepare for the float back into Chaturanga. If doing Half Lotus hurts your knee during Marichyasana, you might modify the lotus and focus on keeping the hips square and getting more movement in the thoracic spine which will help grow your twists and backbend practice. By the time your injury is healed, you will have gained strength and flexibility in other areas thus still growing even during healing.
When you feel better
Hold your horses. It is so tempting to go back to your regular practice the minute you feel better. Enjoy feeling good! Give your body time to fully heal. Make sure it wasn’t a fluke or “a good day”. When you feel good, slowly work your way back into your original practice. You may not be fully healed. Don’t be overzealous. You don’t want to undo months of healing in one day. Add one pose back at a time and see how you feel the next day. Once you have taken out all of your modifications, don’t add on any new poses. Take a few months to reestablish yourself in your practice and make sure that the old habits, that caused your old injury, have been firmly replaced with new healthy habits.
Allow your mobility and strength to slowly come back. For instance, don’t throw your leg behind your head the minute your hip feels better. Start small and slowly add back bigger movements over time. If you push it too soon, your nervous system may feel like it is under attack and your body may tighten up to protect itself. I had this happen with my hip. Everything was healed but my body would not allow me to do Full Lotus. Like literally, it felt like an iron bar that wouldn’t bend. I went to a doctor who told me that some people’s bodies don’t bend that way. I was like, “ummm, I know my body does because it did for the 10 years prior to this injury……um, so do better.” To get my mobility back, I had to focus on my breath and get my nervous system to chill. There were some days where it would take me 5 minutes to get into a Full Lotus. I would breathe a little bit, try it, breathe a little bit, try it, until it happened. Even now, I still have days where I have to breathe my way into Lotus. Don’t be me. LOL. Don’t rip your band-aid off. Go slow.
If you do these steps, and you are PATIENT, your injury will go away for good and you won’t have to deal with it again. Yes, every now and then I over do it and I feel a bit tweaky, but one night of rest completely takes that away. You should not be dealing with a full blown injury for more then 6 months, and that is actually on the extreme end. Don’t believe me, ask Google, but most injuries resolve themselves in about 6 weeks. Meaning, it may feel a bit tweaky, but you are pretty much good to go. If you have an injury that is not getting better after 6 weeks and is not gone in 6 months. You are doing something wrong. Go back to the drawing board or take a full out rest.
Shanna Small has been practicing Ashtanga Yoga and studying the Yoga Sutras since 2001. She has studied in Mysore with Sharath Jois and is the Director of AYS Charlotte, a school for traditional Ashtanga in Charlotte NC. She has written for Yoga International and the Ashtanga Dispatch. Go here for more information on AYS Charlotte. For information on workshops, please e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.