Injury & Losing Faith
As much as you hear about injury during yoga becoming a lesson, it’s when mine became stubborn to leave that the real emotional stuff came up.
I’ve been practicing Ashtanga yoga for about 8 years and one lesson that is so often spoken about by senior teachers is the yoga that takes place off the mat. The asana (posture) practice helps to cultivate an understanding of yourself; a patience, determination and a belief system that you can begin to recognise and utilise through the ups and downs of life.
Apart from my time spent in Mysore, I’ve never been the 6-day-a-week practitioner because I’ve not been able to dedicate my whole self to the practice when working and wanting to socialise. As a result, my ‘progress’ hasn’t been the quickest and I’ve only ever practiced to half way through Intermediate series at my most “advanced” point. It took me a while to accept this about myself and my practice, but what I can say is that I have felt like a dedicated yogi off the mat and lived by the intentions set throughout.
This all came into question though as my recurring hip injury made itself more permanent last summer, as opposed to the occasional, fleeting visitor it had been over the years.
The psoas, sacroiliac joint and femur head are frequent themes in yoga anatomy talk, which isn’t surprising when you consider the various hip openers, leg behind the head poses and back bends that are being asked of you. For me, this was an area of the body I was determined to know as much as possible about because I could so often feel it inflame to the point that a small internal rotation of my left leg could cause anything from a long-lasting dull ache to a sharp and painful glitch, like the ball and socket weren’t part of the same puzzle. I read as many different yoga anatomy books on the area as possible, looked at the structure of the muscles being used for any twists and also started taking cod liver oil capsules hoping it’d lubricate the joint!
I spoke to my yoga teacher about the pain who suggested variations in postures and ways to help strengthen and lengthen the muscles around it. In the end though, I had to go to a physiotherapist because it became so painful that even doing down dog was causing a flare up. The physio said the root of it was coming from my back, which was pulling on all of the muscles down to my hip and causing pressure and pain. Finally, a logical explanation!! I saw him weekly when he would apply pressure to my thoracic and after the third visit, my pain eased and yoga was happy again.
Back in my practice, I took myself back to a very slow primary series to essentially start over again. It was great until I had gone two weeks without physio and the hip was as painful as ever! Cue the emotions. I couldn’t understand why my yoga practice was actually hurting me now and going against my body and mind. I felt like I was doing all of the right things - avoiding some postures altogether, adapting others and being mindful of what was being used in my practice - and yet nothing worked.
My faith in the practice was dwindling as I couldn’t understand why even with rest and non-agitation, the inflammation still existed. I felt so confused and betrayed by the practice and belief system I’d had as part of my identity and life for so long, considering that maybe I’m just not fit for yoga and this would be the end of that journey. After all my practice was never that solid, my dedication not like others, and my ego too big.
My faith in my physio and my body was also depleting as it seemed that if I didn’t have that weekly appointment, I wouldn’t get better. Seemingly there was no long term fix to this painful issue.
I had stopped going to the shala to practice because I found myself getting angry with my immobility in a place where you test your limits. After some time, I eventually spoke to my teacher (who is also the owner of the shala) again about these resentful feelings towards the practice and often came near to tears during the chat because I felt so frustrated and let down by something I love so much. Having gone through injury himself though, he understood and actually encouraged me to keep practicing at home knowing the high energy the shala has; it’s easy to get swept up in the heat and forward focus in there that you can easily push yourself too hard, particularly if you’re not in a settled state of mind. So I stayed away, for months.
I kept up a practice of sorts in the mornings at home, which basically involved really gentle, basic stretches and breath work mostly because I don’t function well without this “me time”. I had stopped any real practice but if my hip and mind felt up to it, I’d do a few sun salutations on some mornings. I wasn’t completely rid of the practice it turns out!
An interesting guideline in the Ashtanga system is that most other strenuous physical activities shouldn’t be undertaken because it can tighten muscles and become counter-productive to your asana practice. I understood this completely because early on after just a session of bare-foot running, my calves would tighten and the most basic standing postures would be difficult so I’d always strictly stuck to this. But as I wasn’t practicing as intensely anymore, I started to feel pretty lethargic, weak and immobile and so took up some basic cardio and resistance training. I hated the feeling of letting this injury dictate my fear of movement and my energy levels. I also started some mobility exercises that help with joint strength and increasing range of movement. The two combined helped me to feel strong again and proactive in my rehab.
As I started to feel stronger physically, to no surprise, my mental state became happier too. One weekend I decided to try out half primary series at home and it felt good. A few days later, I tried full primary series (obviously with some variations as things were very stiff!) and it felt really good again! After a few more home practices,I eventually felt physically and mentally ready to return to the shala.
The first practice back in the shala was tough and incredibly slow but it felt good to have my teacher and other practitioners around me again. As the weeks have continued, my practice is coming back and my muscle memory is showing just how clever it really is. So far I’ve only committed to two days a week of full Ashtanga practice, and I’m actually enjoying being a beginner again and seeing how the body slowly but surely progresses each time. I’ve decided to keep up the other activities too because I’ve felt and seen that the variation of all of it has been beneficial to my body. Different strokes and all that!
The injury took me to a dark place I hadn’t visited with yoga before and it lasted around 5 months - not as long as others have had, but definitely long enough for me thanks! I’m still trying to work out all of the lessons it served me, so far I’m thinking it’s along the lines of non-attachment, kindness and patience…