“Lock it out, girl!” I heard the teacher yell from across the room. I could see in the mirror that my lifted leg was nearly straight as I reached towards my reflection in Standing Bow-Pulling Pose.
I had pulled my left hamstring early on in my yoga practice. Some days it felt fine; other days it didn’t. I was also suffering from chronic pain, which I now know was tendinosis (chronic inflammation of the tendon, leading to degradation) right in that spot where the biceps femoris strip of the hamstring connects to the sitting bone.
But at that moment, I didn’t care. My endorphins were pumping and I really wanted that “perfect” split balanced on one leg. Just as I accomplished my goal, I heard a loud pop, followed immediately by what felt like the total muscular failure of my standing leg. I fell into a heap on the carpeted floor, terrified. After a few deep breaths, I managed to pick myself up off the ground and hobble out of the yoga studio.
It took about 10 minutes for the pain to fully set in. The next morning, I tried to bend over and realized I couldn’t reach past my knees, let alone place my palms on the floor. A visit to the doctor shortly thereafter confirmed I had ruptured the tendon connecting my hamstring to my sitting bone, and there was nothing to do but wait for it to heal. I took an entire month off from my asana practice and started meditating.
See also A Beginner's Guide to Meditation
Understanding Injury—and Different Ways to Lengthen a Muscle
After the anger and sadness came deep introspection. I had to ask myself: Where did I go wrong? Clearly, I owed my injury to the fact that I had failed to embody one of the central tenets of yoga, abhyasa and vairagya: to maintain a disciplined practice while also remaining unattached to a particular outcome.
I will admit that in my early years as a yogi, I viewed the practice primarily as a liberating form of physical exercise—one that stabilized my moods and helped me sleep better at night. I was definitely a collector of poses, and I didn’t think all that critically about how the prescribed methods of attaining those picture-perfect postures might affect my body in the long term. And yet, as I came to learn more about anatomy and kinesiology throughout my yoga teaching career, I began to realize that perhaps my ego wasn’t solely to blame. In fact, it was possible that my movement patterns in yoga classes had also left me vulnerable to injury.
Leading up to that fateful day when I tore my tendon, I had been practicing both Bikram and Vinyasa in New York City for several years. Being a typical New Yorker, I approached yoga with the same intensity that characterized most aspects of my life. I listened to my teachers and practiced everyday without fail. I completed my first 200-hour teacher training at a well-known Vinyasa studio downtown, during which we covered the anatomy of the entire human body in the span of two days—without much discussion of how certain movements might heal or exacerbate particular dysfunctions.
Traditionally, both Hatha and Vinyasa Yoga involve a great deal of static stretching, meaning that the muscle being stretched is basically passive for thirty seconds or more. Although I’m sure the information was available somewhere, I had no idea that some doctors and physical therapists were arguing that this type of repetitive static stretching could actually weaken tendons, making them more susceptible to strains and tears.
The Path to Learning More About My Injury
The tendon connecting the hamstring to the sitting bone is particularly vulnerable to injury given that it is compressed during stretches that involve hip flexion. According to yoga teacher and educator Jules Mitchell, forward folds, Downward-Facing Dog, and the splits (among others) all compress the hamstring tendon against the boney protuberance of the sitting bone, which can lead to degradation over time.
In the years following my injury, my approach to yoga changed dramatically. Coming to my yoga mat became less about expanding my repertoire of poses and more about maintaining a sustainable relationship with my body over time. I wanted to understand on a deeper level how the human body—and specifically my body—functions.
I read physical therapy textbooks and sought out anatomy teachers. I still wanted to experience the joy of a challenging flow, but I wanted to do it safely. I didn’t want to abandon static stretching entirely, but I was looking to balance it out with other types of movement.
It was during this time that I came across information on the benefits of eccentric training (sometimes referred to as eccentric stretching) and PNF (proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation) stretching. The addition of these practices to my yoga sequences has become an integral part of maintaining a caring and workable relationship with my body, which has helped me build strength and flexibility while staying injury-free over the last decade.
How My Yoga Injury Taught Me a Different Way to Stretch
In the simplest terms, both eccentric training and PNF stretching include techniques that require a practitioner to contract and lengthen a muscle simultaneously. However, while eccentric training involves movement, PNF does not. Eccentric training involves contracting a muscle under a load while that muscle is lengthening. For example, your inner thigh muscles, or adductors, shorten when you bring your knees together from reclined butterfly pose (Supta Baddha Konasana); they lengthen when you slowly open your knees and lower them towards the ground. The lowering phase is an example of eccentric training, as the adductors are working against gravity in a lengthened state. Eccentric training works to strengthen tendons, which makes it particularly effective in treating and preventing tendinopathies (tendon injuries).
On the other hand, PNF involves stretching a muscle against pressure so that the muscle contracts, ultimately allowing the muscle to relax. An example of this would be pressing down into the floor with the edge of your heel during a half split pose (Ardha Hanumanasana) for a slow count of three to five. As anatomist Ray Long, MD, points out in the second volume of his Guide to Functional Anatomy in Yoga, the point of temporarily contracting the muscle being lengthened is to stimulate the Golgi tendon organ, which then signals to the muscle that it is safe to release. This release is called the “relaxation response.” PNF stretching is an effective way to not only increase your range of motion, but also strengthen the muscle that’s being stretched.
See also Understanding Your Muscle Tissue