Dealing With Injuries
Ever heard the saying "everything happens for a reason?" Perhaps your injury is telling you to slow down. "When we're injured, we think, 'Now I can't do my practice. This is not real practice, not what I want,'" says Cope, "and by then we are miles away from what it's about: Being with injury as much as being with practice when it's humming, and learning to embrace the fact that part of the embodied state is injury, pain, displeasure, getting what I don't want."
To work intelligently with your injury, become an expert on it. Extend the attention you exercise during your asana practice to life in general. Get an anatomy book and read about the area where you're injured "so it's not a mystery," Life says. "You need to be able to visualize it. Then observe all your habits: the shoes you wear, how you carry your bags, how you walk down the street. You have to mentally be aware of habits you form and start changing them. Because it isn't just something that happens in asana practice; the practice just kind of pulls it out and says, 'Hey, you better pay attention to this.'"
Studying with a yoga teacher who has a thorough understanding of asana and anatomy is the ideal when you're injured. If you feel that insufficient progress is being made with a trusted and respected yoga teacher, seek a second or third opinion—either within yoga or in another healing discipline. "Perhaps the basic assumption about what is wrong should be questioned," says Mary Pullig Schatz, M.D., author of Back Care Basics: A Doctor's Gentle Yoga Program for Back and Neck Pain Relief. "And always remember that traditional medicine does have much to offer when used appropriately, just as other healing arts do."
In 1979, Schatz became engrossed in what B.K.S. Iyengar was doing therapeutically, "not only with muscles and bones, but with the nervous system and organs—seeing yoga as a total health maintenance system," she says. Since then she has become ever more convinced of asana practice's efficacy as a tool to prevent and heal injury, through her use of it for her patients and for herself.
"People who do poses without knowing where their areas of vulnerability are can create injuries," Schatz notes. "But if you know what your vulnerabilities are, you can use similar poses or the same poses, modified, to make those problems better."
Unfortunately, injuries are not uncommon even among long-term practitioners with supple bodies. "Muscles are the guardians of the joints," Schatz explains, "so people who are really stiff with muscle tightness actually benefit. They may be holding the joints in a less-than-perfect position, but they're not letting the joint support structures get overstretched, which is what happens with very flexible people." When the stretch moves into the ligaments and the tendons—the supporting structures of joints—the joints become more unstable and disorders like fibromyalgia (chronic pain in muscles and soft tissues around joints) can develop.
Life, who has suffered from meniscal tears in both knees, eschewed surgery, opting instead to accommodate the condition in his practice.
"The choice of surgery vs. no surgery depends on one's tolerance for discomfort and level of patience, viewed in the context of the degree of disability created by the problem," says Schatz. One has to "weigh the desire for quick relief against one's aversion to being cut open and to the risks of anesthesia, infection, and a poor surgical result."
Yoga therapy for such an injury might take a very long time, Schatz adds, and consists mainly of trying not to irritate the area.
The bottom line: Like anyone using their body in a regular, strong physical practice, yogis get injured. "That is an absolute fact," Lasater acknowledges. "Asana practice asks people to do things that are unusual and sometimes uncomfortable so that they can learn about themselves and a new way of being in the world, experiencing their own resistance for a variety of psychological, emotional, and physical reasons. And when you do that, there's always risk."
One of Lasater's prescriptions for injuries is Savasana (Corpse Pose), which she calls the most advanced of yoga poses. "When we learn to do nothing 20 minutes a day, it's powerful, not only physiologically—improved immune function and reduced blood pressure—but because we imbue ourselves with an understanding that we are more than our bodies, more than what we do. When you have that knowledge, you learn it over and over again and carry it with you into your next practice. And that's the ultimate injury prevention: to love yourself and to know your connection to the whole."
Carrie Schneider is a writer and yoga teacher in New York.