We often bring injuries with us into our yoga practice – both from pushing ourselves too hard in yoga and from overworking our bodies in other exercise or daily activities. Yoga can provide a therapeutic tool for healing and recovery from an injury – but it can also be an impediment to healing or even worsen the injury. By adhering to some simple guidelines we can safely practice yoga with an injury and utilize yoga to support the healing process by activating the body’s lymphatic system and by improving local circulation.
There are three main stages of healing after an injury has occurred. By being aware of these three stages and following the recommended guidelines for each stage we can expedite the healing process and reduce the risk of re-injuring the area.
1. Acute Stage: During the first stage, the acute period, rest the injured area for 4-6 days. Do not perform any movements that require strength, aggravate the injury, or produce any pain. At the beginning of this stage inflammation is usually present, and elevating the affected area will help to control any swelling to help reduce any throbbing or discomfort. Inversion poses will be very helpful to reduce inflammation by activating the lymphatic system, and will also provide elevation if the injury is located in the lower body. Using ice and compression (wrapping with an ace bandage) on the injured area during the first 2-3 days after the injury is also recommended to help relieve inflammation and pain, and to expedite the recovery process. After the swelling has subsided (usually after the first 48 to 72 hours), very gentle and slow range of motion movements can be performed, but do not stretch the muscles that trigger the pain. Even though the area may feel like it needs a stretch, stretching will not help with the healing process and most likely will re-injure the area to prevent further healing.
2. Subacute Stage: The subacute stage of injury follows the acute stage and lasts between 1-3 weeks. During this time the injured tissue is very fragile and susceptible to re-injury. Very gentle stretching is the first step of rehabilitation. Stay focused on the breath and the sensations of the stretch, but do not stretch to the point of pain. The next step of rehabilitation is to slowly and gently strengthen the muscles involved in the injury. Begin with slow, gentle non-weight bearing movements and gradually increase the amount of motion and number of repetitions. As symptoms resolve, gradually resume using weight-bearing movements. An adequate warm-up before and correct alignment during yoga is essential in this healing stage.
Move into the poses slowly and gently; use long hold times and practice slow deep breathing in the poses. Any movements that increase your symptoms should be avoided. If a yoga pose causes any pain, tingling, or numbness, stop immediately.
3. Chronic Stage: The chronic stage of injury follows the subacute stage and may take up to 12-18 months for complete healing to occur. During this time the injured site may feel healed but it is still susceptible to a re-injury and/or chronic inflammation if excessive force is used on the area. It is important to know that care must be taken during this stage and that the injury will not be 100% healed until after this stage has passed .
Following these guidelines will allow you to continue your yoga practice while allowing and encouraging the healing of your injury. While using the above guidelines can effectively heal most minor injuries, a yoga practice should be used only to supplement conventional therapy, not replace it. Severe pain lasting more than a few days without improvement requires medical attention.