Injury as Opportunity: How Yoga Can Heal Your Body, Mind & Spirit.

Via on Jan 23, 2013

broken_by_TrueKate

People have been hurting themselves as long as humans have existed.

I am a particularly injury-prone specimen.

In elementary school, every time I went to gym, I sprained an ankle. Literally. This was so ongoing and consistent that eventually my pediatrician wrote me a doctor’s excuse from gym class, so long as I maintained regular exercise through swim team. I never went back to gym, and swam competitively through high school.

My brother joked that I could sprain an ankle tripping over a paint stripe. He made this joke, because it actually happened.

Never once did it occur to me to blame the paint stripe, walking, my shoes, my gym teacher, the Universe, the people around me.  These things just happened.

However, there was a quiet voice in my head that suggested these things happened to me because I was somehow…disconnected, inattentive, unaware, checked out. I didn’t really know what to make of this idea, at the time.

Discussion in the yoga community is reaching fever pitch about how yoga can wreck your body.

The debate has raised hackles, frightened students, and elevated the visibility of some writers and teachers.

For years journalism has been tracing this theme, with articles I’ve found in Yoga Journal dating back to 1998.  This discussion is not new.

Throughout it all I’ve wondered why so many have felt the need to defend yoga’s position as a physical form.

First, sometimes the best defense is no defense. Second, yoga is a technology for healing the spirit, the soul, and the emotions, by way of the body—its physical manifestation is at once immaterial and essential. Coming to yoga’s defense as a physical technology only more firmly entrenches it alongside forms of exercise, a trend that is happening all the more decisively all the time, and in my opinion is tragic.

Why does yoga potentially wreck your body? For so many reasons—allow me to list some of them:

  1. Shit happens
  2. You came to the practice without a sense of physical awareness in the first place, and over-did it
  3. You came to the practice without some baseline fitness, and over-did it
  4. You over-did it even though you possess a sense of awareness and fitness
  5. Your teacher asked you to do something beyond your capability, and you didn’t or couldn’t discern this, and over-did it
  6. You have a lifetime of injury, and something you did in class pushed past your edge
  7. You were comparing yourself to the person next to you
  8. You were comparing yourself to the teacher
  9. You were thinking about something else while practicing, and hurt yourself
  10. You weren’t breathing consciously
  11. You were holding your breath
  12. You were thinking about how great you look in the pose, and then over-did it
  13. Shit happens

Every teardrop is a waterfall

This entire list really tells you more about you than anything else. When you hurt yourself using a hammer, you don’t blame the hammer. When you hurt yourself using yoga, don’t blame yoga.

Injury, in any context, gives you an opportunity to look deeply into the situations in which you find yourself, and to learn from them.

Sometimes you have to look very, very deeply, in particular, when you have old history with an injury, and it may take a very long time to unfurl.

Let me tell you a story.

One of my original injuries is a right shoulder injury. I believe it began as far back as age eight when I first developed tendonitis from over-use in the pool. It was continually exacerbated through swimming as well as extensive piano practice—I played every day, and the right often gets more attention than does the left.

In middle school a “friend” yanked on my head while I was standing at my locker. I heard a crunch in my neck and felt pain in my upper back, but said nothing about it to anyone. As time passed, the pain from practicing the piano turned into a complete numbness in the right mid and upper back. In college I developed ulnar neurosis in my right arm and had to stop playing the piano for a period of time.

After college while at a desk job, my shoulders and neck were so tight that I forced my acromio-clavicular joint back into place with a hobble pop! that only created worse pain, and the need for some PT.

I don’t think I need to go on, right?

So, does it come as any surprise that eventually I began to have migraine headaches on the right side?  Does it come as any surprise that eventually I made the decision to stop playing the piano, in part because it just hurt too much?

Cue yoga practice.

When I began having migraines, I started yoga, upon the recommendation of an ex-Navy Seal acupressurist.

At yoga, and specifically Forrest Yoga, I began to get the tools to heal my body, and also to trace back further into some of the psychological origins of these injuries that I sustained so very many years ago, and as a result to begin to mend the tears in the fabric of my spirit and emotions.

I began to see that the migraines’ onset were the tipping point in my life and in my body.  There were just too many false-hoods happening in my life, and my body said “enough!”

Yoga gave me this awareness and sensitivity.

Just this past year (note the very late date!), I really felt for the first time what I had been doing to my neck and back, all those years of swimming: with each stroke I was anchoring into my body the conviction I had as a youth of being inadequate.  Not fast enough, not slim enough, and therefore not the cool kid on the swim team.

Stroke, “not good enough.”

Stroke, “go faster.”

Stroke, “you’re too fat, that’s why you’re not faster.”

Stroke, “if you were faster, the other girls on the team would like you more.”

Stroke, “if you were faster, the boys on the team would like you more.”

Stroke, “you’ll never be good enough.”

Every. Day. Thousands of strokes.

Where did these thoughts go? Into my neck. Up, up, into my head.

When I realized this, I wept for the girl I was then, who felt these horrible emotions every single day and who burnt it into the cell tissue of her body in ways that poisoned her soul.

These tears were so cleansing, and just began to account for the years of tears unwept by that girl.

I wrecked my body. Not swimming. Not my coaches. Not the pool. I did it. I poisoned my soul. The responsibility is largely mine.

And yoga gave me the help to see this, and the help to heal and recover, in ways that doctors and medicine never will.

Are my migraines gone? No. But when doctors cannot tell me what they are, where they come from, or even why or how my medication works, I find it tremendously comforting and empowering to have the self-knowledge that I do.

Have I hurt myself at yoga—absolutely. Could I wreck my body—certainly. But, I could also doing this crossing the street, and yoga has given me tools to use wisely to do exactly the opposite.

I now consider my myriad of life injuries as opportunities to study myself, and how I work in the world.  Some of them, like the one that I’ve recounted here, are legacies of the past with strong roots in who I am right now.  Sometimes when I hurt myself, it shows me the ways that I disconnect in the present, in new ways.  Injury keeps me on my toes.

Consider injury to be your opportunity to look deeply into yourself, using yoga as the lens.

 

Like elephant yoga on Facebook.

~

Ed: Kate Bartolotta

About Erica Mather

Erica Mather, M.A., E-RYT 200, is a lifelong teacher. She has been teaching yoga in New York City since 2006. Erica created "Adore Your Body," a Signature System for addressing body image challenges, and is the Founder of The Yoga Clinic NYC. Check out her website and follow her on Twitter.

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33 Responses to “Injury as Opportunity: How Yoga Can Heal Your Body, Mind & Spirit.”

  1. Deb H says:

    Beautiful piece. Thank you.

  2. This is a great piece – so thoughtful, especially considering we live in a culture that loves to blame & is highly litigious. As a yoga teacher who went through a pretty unexpected & shocking injury last year ( http://www.elephantjournal.com/2012/07/finding-th… ), it is something I've been thinking about a lot.

    • ericamather says:

      Susanna, I love this musing on the nature of pain. Thank you for sharing it! I often "hear" pain–it has different frequencies, and vibrations. Sometimes I see it too…certain sensations have colors, and gloss or matt…Perhaps this kind of description lends itself well to your exhibitions? with love, Erica

  3. Thank you for sharing these intimate insights. It’s amazing how simple some of the most complicated things can seem once you figure them out. It’s really helpful and inspiring to read about your journey.

  4. Kat Olson says:

    But wait, why the ankle injuries!? ;-)
    http://www.elephantjournal.com/2013/01/yoga-has-s

  5. Betty Mantz says:

    Excellent article! I especially liked the content of your list!

  6. Ayoganut says:

    love it. I can literally fall off my own feet with rolled ankles as well. I've just started Forrest Yoga and can feel the anchoring difference. I like the five finger barefoot shoes as well as they really help me stay grounded and connected. Strange coincidence (or not) I cried for the girl I was this morning as well. In that release I decided I get to choose every day who I am and how I interact with the world. Nice.

    • ericamather says:

      Ayoganut, Oh, love your comment. So glad that our Active Feet in FY have been helping. It's helped me sooo much. Glad too that you got a cleansing cry. Here's to your freedom of choice. A-ho!

  7. Jacqueline says:

    Well done. That was so satisfying to read and I appreciate your long and deep contemplation of your own life.
    Thanks.

  8. Xerxes says:

    One of the best articles I have seen here. Thanks for saying what many of us have experienced. I injured myself doing yoga as a newbie while trying to keep up doing hero pose (torn meniscus). While not perfect, I understand it all much better, and it gave me a chance to really understand that yoga goes way beyond doing poses.

    • ericamather says:

      Thanks, Xerxes. I'm so glad that yoga has become so much more for you. Virasana can be a danger zone! Took me YEARS to get even marginally comfortable. Many blessings to you. xoxo!Erica

  9. Lalana says:

    Thanks for writing this wonderful article!

  10. catch says:

    Enjoyed this article. I am just starting to realize how much yoga makes you aware of "where" your body is in space.

  11. Naila Sattar says:

    Fantastic, insightful, helpful article, Erica. Thank you for sharing. And thank you for being an excellent teacher. I had a very weak right ankle, and your Forrest yoga classes taught me how to ground my foot correctly and build up strength and solidity. I miss your classes now; I wish Nepal wasn't so far from New York!

  12. Erica Mather says:

    Miss you here! Xoxox

  13. Stephanie Guinosso says:

    Great article Erica! I love the no-nonsense style. Just in the last year, I have become so fascinated with some of my chronic injuries and what they are teaching me. To my surprise, a chronic shoulder injury actually sparked my love of the practice that much more! Paying attention to how I can move through a yoga class with this injury in a safe way has helped me raise my body awareness to a whole new level, and is an awesome feeling!

    • ericamather says:

      I try to avoid nonsense at all costs. :) Glad to hear you enjoyed and that the article resonated with you. xoxo

  14. Brenda54 says:

    In a similar vein – I have had the experience of emotional release during massage and other body work – and even flashes of memory – as the practitioner touched a part of my body. For example, after being treated dishonestly and then unceremoniously dumped by someone who was my first relationship after a 9-year mourning period over a long-term relationship that came to an end… I went to a practitioner of a breathing practice that also involved connecting energy points through touch; for some reason, when she touched my feet, this released an alarming howl of grief – which I realized later wasn't really about this recent incident, but actually reached back all the way to my childhood, which was marred by abuse and abandonment. Another time, as a massage therapist touched my left shoulder blade, I got a vivid flashback to nothing more than walking around the corner of the brick apartment building I lived in at age 7 or 8 in a housing project, and began sobbing uncontrollably. The massage therapist comforted me and told me that this is something she's seen frequently. Without these experiences, I am not sure I would "buy" that our bodies somehow store emotions and memories. Also, I saw a fascinating episode of NOVA about 10 years ago in which researchers were looking for where "mind" is actually experienced – and one woman explained that "mind" isn't solely in the brain – it encompasses the entire body. This made intuitive sense to me, and then these direct experiences reinforced this understanding. Thank you for writing such a compelling, personal account. I actually have a very good friend who sounds a lot like you – she's had all kinds of terrible injuries, and primarily it has been because she's more concerned about inconveniencing someone (i.e. a biking group that decided to go out when there was ice on the ground) than about injuring herself or even asking for help AFTER she injured herself. Am working on "waking" her up about this!!!

    • ericamather says:

      Brenda54,

      Thank you for your reply. For exactly the reasons that you persoanlly account here, I am less likely to buy into the idea that our bodies map emotional memories in particular locations…bottom of feet…childhood grief. Shoulderblade…imagery and sadness….I feel that the mappings of memories and emotions is probably challenging to track or make sense of, and in light of this the best thing is to just simply pay attention. I'm so glad that this piece resonated with you as another piece for your healing/learning journey.

      hugs,

      Erica

  15. yogaguerillagrrl says:

    Fabulous insights here. To be engaged we must always see ourselves as being the doer and take responsibility- have agency. However your 'strokes' which drove the feeling of bad self worth into your very cells are also very much a problem of society- of us being so visually oriented as a species, so hung -up on being beautiful/slim/strong… hung-up on success and validation, on winning and being and experiencing the best… signs of our shallowness as a race in this age. It is that which we need to evolve out from of as a race. Great article!

  16. Erin says:

    I like the personal responsibility component a whole lot. It's true that we're often not aware or honest with ourselves about the limitations of our bodies — especially doing yoga; but much can also be said for actively promoting safety in yoga practice.

  17. Erin says:

    The NY Times piece about yoga wrecking the body is an important one & I think it should be discussed in yoga classes. The mounting clinical evidence of injury is also compelling. I hate shoulder stand & really any pose (bridge, even, if we're expected to lift our hips as high as possible) that puts unnecessary pressure on the neck.. I basically am at a point in my yoga journey where I know & accept my limitations. I've met teachers who don't teach students how to do headstands or poses that put your neck or back at increased risk for injury. I would be interested to hear from teachers who do not encourage certain poses. I am a student at this point in my journey and truly feel that safety needs to become a bigger concern in classes that are packed to the gills with people wanting to get a "great workout". In so doing, we have to be mindful and it's easy to lose focus when the ego comes into play. I've noticed I often compare myself to and sometimes compete with others.

  18. ericamather says:

    Hi Erin, In Forrest Yoga (my training and practice), we don't teach headstand, and take a cautious approach to shoulderstand, pretty much very rarely teaching it. I was interviewed for an article on Yoga City NYC about teachers who don't teach headstand. I don't have the link on hand, but suggest looking around their site. If you'd like to dialog further, please email me through my website: http://www.ericamather.com

  19. Tom says:

    Terrific article! I've done yoga for years and never injured myself, but I am careful and don't do more than I can handle. If a pose is too difficult, I modify it or don't do it. If a pose really hurts, not just a dull soreness, I come out of it. Much better to be the "special" one in class than to hurt yourself trying to be the instructor.

  20. Gail says:

    Thanks Erica – great article! XO

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