They’d probably tell you to practice mindfully.
This goes out to every yogi, especially those of us who have cultivated a daily practice and then found ourselves in the endless throes of injuries.
Injuries tend to mess with us. And we, in kind, tend to let them mess with us for a while before we finally, but quite late in the game, say “enough is enough!”
So the story goes:
After a week/month/way-too-long hiatus, we slink back to the mat and meticulously reassemble our lukewarm practice to the soundtrack of ourselves neurotically telling unsolicited stories about where we have been, why we’ve been off the mat, what’s going on with our shoulder, how the hamstring “is still burning when I…you know, right in there,” etc.
I’ve known this road.
I’ve talked these things out, to quite the angelic community of yogis worldwide. Symphonies of explanations about pulled hamstring, tendonitis associated with my trapezius, that little tear in my right meniscus (from playing tackle football 12 years ago with an ex), an inflamed bit of cartilage near my sternum from perhaps a bit of a popped rib, the pain in my lower back that forced me to (painstakingly and successfully) reconstruct my approach to backbends. No, I’m not preaching from atop a mountain here people.
But what I am realizing is that the question of whether or not to practice is changing in my mind. It occurred to me during my latest month-long training that—like all others—forced me onto the mat daily, come hell, high water (or a lost chunk of money invested). Indeed, once again, this immersion saw most of my injuries calm down or disappear.
I realized, as most advanced yogis must have as well:
When you show up to the mat and look squarely at these injuries, they are really just anxious messengers.
They’re waiting, eagerly, every day, to tell you a secret about the asanas they are most associated with, a way either physically or psychologically, that this practice gig could be a lot better time. It’s very subtle at first, the conversation that these injuries want to have. They seem so shy, but really they’re not.
It’s like…have you ever been around someone who just doesn’t listen to you and assumes that you are the quiet type? I mean, it’s as if anything you tell them goes nowhere and forget about them asking you any questions. You’ve been there I bet, and it’s 100 percent draining and annoying, right? Have a look at this common backbend scenario for a comparable example:
Lumbar vertebrae 2 & 3: “Is it really all up to us to take this backbend, again? Why can’t T4 or 5 or the pelvis do some moving?”
Brain: “What? You’re hurt? Okay, I’ll take a day off.”
Two days later.
L3: “This is totally unfair. I mean, they are just twiddling their thumbs, doing nothing.”
Brain: “What? You hurt? Okay, we should take it easy.”
Do you see a pattern? I do, and I have many times. Too many times.
Sure, there are conversations like these:
Femur: “I’m broken.”
Brain: “Okay, time to take a couple months off of walking and get some PT.”
Body: “I have a temperature of 102 F.”
Brain: “Did you say something? What time is it? I’m going back to sleep.”
Perineum: “Uh, just had a baby.”
Brain: “Okay, let’s get real about jump throughs.”
But these are major conversations, right? I’m talking about subtle, more intricate, ones; the ones that, when glazed over with the usual reasoning, tend to sneak in and really sabotage your commitment to practice, for weeks and months and even years.
A trusted teacher of mine describes the hip, the knee and the ankle as sisters. Now, if I have a torn meniscus, this relationship becomes critical. Who is getting the brunt of my ambition and attention in Padmasana, for instance? Probably the knee. Here’s how that conversation goes:
Knee: “Uh, you know, hip up there is kind of bored…and I think if you lift all of us up a bit more and fold me at a more straight angle so that the heel goes toward the navel…”
Brain: “I wish you would just heal. I mean, I know there isn’t much circulation going into a meniscus, but I put oil on you every day and I mean you are just so crotchety and…this is so annoying…why if I am supposed to be a yogi do I have such a bum knee!”
Knee: [the equivalent of lower lip tremble and tears]
Wow, I think these two need a therapist!
But seriously, instead of skipping practice, start experimenting; start looking at the relationship between the different joints and parts of the body as if (light bulb moment, for me too!) they are all connected.
The injury is trying to whisper this to you, as only a rejected, desperate and yet devoted lover can! It’s also trying to connect your brain with your body more, to ultimately slow you down, and get you into that far more juicy, mindful place when you practice.
Take this classic (not-so mindful) exchange between the hamstring and the brain during Hanumanasana, for example:
Brain: “Okay, let’s do this! I’m warm, it’s a fantastic day…I love that the genius function on my iTunes knew just when to play this amazing song, let’s rock these splits!”
Hamstring: “Hey, glad you are so excited. Me too, but…uh, I’m not quite…uhhhhwwahhh!!”
Whoa, were those two even in the same room together?
Well, one thing’s for sure, they are about to become very close.
In the end, what I’m saying is this: When you find yourself asking “should I practice with this injury?” and you are really not sure—i.e., there is no obvious reason why not—the answer is yes, and the reason to do so is a conversation waiting to happen, a conversation that reaches the heart of a very important matter: realigning responsibility within, between, and among all the parts of, the body and mind.
Keep at it; build the heat and talk with the injuries, every day. Listen to them and recruit your good senses and various physical parts to show that injury that you care, that you are listening.
This will go a long way to help integrate the experience into your journey and keep you in the swing of your practice.
Editor: Hayley Samuelson