5 Steps to Recover from an Injury, On and Off the Mat

You may be experiencing an injury and all that comes with it, but you are not your injury. Here are 5 ways to recover mentally, physically, and emotionally.
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lauraburkhart

Over the past two years, while dealing with a slow-healing hip injury, I’ve learned that injuries not only affect your physical life—which can have a major impact if you’re an active person or use your body for your profession, like I do—they can also take a toll on your mind, emotions, and finances. In this Yogaland Podcast, hosted by Andrea Ferretti, I go into full detail about my mental, physical, emotional, and financial experiences during my injury journey, plus challenges I’ve faced as a yoga teacher, what gave me hope, and what made my experience more manageable. Though the first six months post-injury were especially difficult, once I started to implement the following life-changing steps, my journey became a lot easier.

See also 4 Ways to Build Hip Stability + Prevent Injury

5 Steps to Recover from an Injury, On and Off the Mat

1. Take Care of Your Injury, but Don’t Let Your Injury Take Over Your Life.

When dealing with an injury, obviously take good care of your body, avoid activities that make the injury worse, and be sure to get all the medical attention you need. If you know the healing process is going to take a long time, it's important not to get your identity wrapped up with your injury. You are experiencing an injury, and all that comes with it, but you are not your injury. There is more to you and your life than this particular experience.

I learned this lesson a long time ago when dealing with a health issue that influenced my entire digestive track, and got worse after I picked up a parasite in India. For the next couple of years, my entire world revolved around my stomach and colon—that was all I thought about, talked about, read about, etc. My health issue, and trying to fix it, became such a part of my life that it wasn’t healthy for me, or my relationships.

This time around, even though for the first six months I was in non-stop pain that affected my daily activities (I couldn’t even put shoes on unless they were flip-flops), my teaching, and my sleep, I refused to let this experience take over my life. I continue to meet with medical care professionals and do activities to support the healing process, but I don’t give this experience all of my attention. There is a big world out there and more to life than focusing on my hip.  

The takeaway: Constantly talking and thinking about your injury, or any negative situation or setback, gives it more power. Focus on the positive aspects of your life while taking steps to get well.

2. Prioritize Self-Care. Feel the Feels, but Don’t Get Stuck There.

Injuries not only take a toll on your body, they also do a number on you mental and emotional state, leaving you in a vulnerable place. The first few months post-injury, I experienced a lot of internal turmoil, anxiety, and depression. I questioned how I would be able to stand on my own two feet, literally and figuratively. I wondered how long would I be in this limited state, how would it affect my teaching and teaching career, what else could I do for work since I'd worked solely in the yoga world for well over a decade, and where would I live if I had to give up everything? The way I normally processed this type of anxiety would be by going for a walk or moving through an asana practice, but that wasn’t an option.  

I discovered the best way to handle this period of instability was coming up with routines that helped me feel supported and whole. To de-stress, I found that I could swim with a buoy between my legs, which felt like a meditative practice in and of itself. I got a waterproof iPod and turned it into an underwater party. To brighten my mood, I reintroduced my body to the sun. I spent more time with friends, and discovered how much I love Jacuzzis, hot springs, bathhouses, listening to the ocean, and getting chair massages. 

The takeaway: Figure out what makes you feel at ease and supported, and do it!

3. Rewire Your Thinking. Focus on What You Can Do Now.

Post-injury, it’s easy to dwell on not having the same range of motion you once had or not having the capability to safely get into your favorite yoga postures. These limitations may last weeks, years, or even a lifetime. It’s normal to experience frustration and grieve your new limitations. That being said, continuing to focus on what “used to be” is not going to serve you or anyone else. It’s important not to get your identity, or value, wrapped up with your physical range of motion or capability. Your “do” is not your “who." You are not your yoga practice. The asana practice is only a tool to help connect you to something deeper than the physical body. Also, let go of the misconception that being able to do complex asanas equates to being an advanced yoga practitioner.  

In the same way holding onto your past doesn’t serve you, putting unrealistic expectations on what your practice “should” look like by an arbitrary date isn't healthy. Our timeline and Mother Nature’s timelines don't always line up. It’s important to respect your body instead of pushing yourself too hard, which can lead to further setbacks. I learned this all too well in the first couple of weeks after my injury by pushing myself too hard, making my injury 100 times worse. Even after making my injury worse, I planned to be back to my normal practice in four to six months, while no doctor, both then and now, has been able to give me a timeline as to when I’ll be back to “normal."  Currently, I would be in a much better place and had an easier time healing had I backed off rather than pushed.

Two months into my injury, after experiencing a lot of depression and anxiety, I decided to rewire my mind. I sat down with a pen and paper and made an exhaustive list of everything I could do NOW, both on and off the mat. This was by far a turning point for me that gave me a much more positive outlook. I was so shocked and excited about all the things I could do, even while being in a limited state. For example, in addition to my new self-care activities, I realized how much I loved writing blogs and articles. I honed my verbal cues and realized I could still teach complex asanas in classes, workshops, and online by using students to demonstrate poses rather than my own body. I found out how much I enjoyed helping other teachers with their career path, and began developing a co-led 200-hour teacher training. I also went through a couple more teacher trainings, deepened my knowledge in anatomy, learned more about yoga injury prevention, and have become interested in yoga balls and therapeutic classes.

The takeaway: Focus on what you CAN do, not what you can't do.

4. Don’t Let Go Of Your Practice—Work With What You've Got.

It can be easy to dwell on what your practice used to look and feel like pre-injury. Though your practice may temporarily or permanently altered, instead of focusing on what you can’t do, figure out what you can safely do now, even if it’s one pose, such as Legs-Up-the-Wall Pose (Viparita Karani) or a meditation practice. 

Talk to your doctor or physical therapist and find out if there are any poses that may may reduce your pain or help heal your injury. For example, throughout my entire healing process, Viparita Karani has helped me reduce inflammation in my legs and hips and relax my pelvic floor muscles. Months after the initial injury, to help reduce pain, I added Downward-Facing Dog in wall ropes; a Reclining Hand-to-Big-Toe Pose (Supta Padangusthasana) variation in order to create space between the head of my femur bone and hip socket; and eventually Bridge Pose and one-legged Bridge Pose, to strengthen my gluteus and hamstring muscles, which tend to weaken when you have a hip injury.

Before doing any asana, ask yourself, "Is this pose going to help my injury, make it worse, or neither?" Don’t feel pressure to do any poses that aren’t going to support you getting better. Let your body be your guide. For poses that seem OK for you to do, be hypersensitive, take things slow, and be cautious when coming into a posture. Start with the most conservative variation of a pose and see how it feels before gradually going deeper. You might find the most conservative variation is the best variation for your body now and maybe even 10 years from now, and that's OK. Its better to be safe than cause further harm to your body.

Let your yoga teacher know you are injured. If you have a minor injury, it might be OK for your teacher to adjust you during class. As for me, I don’t want anyone touching my body unless they are a medical professional. If there are poses offered in class that don’t seem best for you, find a couple of default poses that work for you. You can also ask your teacher for recommendations.

See also The 10 Rules of Hands-On Adjustments for Yoga Teachers

The takeaway: Let go of your ego. It’s important for you to let go of what you think a pose “should” look like. Don’t compare what your current practice looks like with what it used to look like, and don’t ever compare your practice with others. 

5. Stay Positive About Your Future. Continue to Dream Big.

In addition to focusing on what you can do now, keep your eyes on what you want to see manifest! One of the positive things my injury did was force me to slow down my hamster wheel and allow me to see that my wheel wasn’t rolling down the best, most sustainable path. It gave me a chance to rethink what I really wanted in life, both big and small. I asked myself, "What do I want? How do I want to feel?" I discovered that the majority of the things that I wanted either didn’t require having a fully mobile body, or by the time some of my wants manifested, I would have a more mobile body. For example, I wanted feelings of peace, abundance, and stability. I wanted more quiet time, and more time to see my family my friends. I wanted to help animals and build water wells. I wanted to spend more time in nature, go clothes shopping (it's been years), get a Vitamix (I finally got one!), take a vacation at least once a year (it had been years!), and have my own house. I wanted to use my gifts and talents, both known and unknown, in the best ways. Teaching-wise, I decided I wanted to take a slightly different direction, but I listed many of the same desires I had pre-injury. I wanted to work more with Yoga Journal (which I’m doing!), teach more online classes, learn more about yoga injury prevention, teach at more national and international workshops and festivals, and lead teacher trainings. 

The takeaway: Don’t waste any time on being bitter. Don’t let your injury limit you now or your future. Where the mind goes, the man (or woman) follows! You may find the same dreams you had pre-injury can still happen post-injury. Let your setbacks become your divine set-ups. Dream big. 

Hear Laura's story come to life and learn how she turned the fear and difficulty of injury into a catalyst for positive change on Yogaland Podcast.