Letting Go: Injury as Practice

yoga pose injury
Photo by carrie hilgert

About a year ago I started having low back and hip pain on my right side. Being a young, in-shape yoga teacher (wholly unwilling to admit anything might be seriously wrong) I simply ignored it and continued to practice yoga without modifications. And when it dawned on me that I had been in near constant pain for about a year — I felt more embarrassed than anything else. Not only did I feel some shame from getting an injury in the first place — let’s face it, likely from practicing yoga — but I was disappointed in myself that I had let it go on so long.

That shame eventually turned to anger. I felt duped — like I had taken a few too many sips of the yoga kool-aid and I came out the other side with a bum hip. I didn’t understand why my yoga practice wasn’t fixing my injury. After all, isn’t that what yoga is supposed to do? Magically heal all that ails us? What I really hated to admit was that all the yoga I was doing seemed to be making my injury worse.

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It got to a point where I couldn’t deny that yoga (as I was practicing it) was standing in the way of my healing. Feeling confused and more than a little bitter, I stepped away from asana and turned toward a laundry list of healers and practitioners that I hoped could help.

What I had failed to understand then was that I could indeed practice yoga with my injury, and that yoga could help me heal. But there was a big caveat to that statement: I had to radically change my asana practice. And in order for that to happen, I had to let go of my ego and embrace those other seven limbs of yoga we asana-addicts often overlook.

Instead of ardha chandrasanas and high-powered, sweaty lunge sequences, I was much better off starting my morning lying on my back and hugging my knees to my chest, massaging my sacrum and holding gentle hip stretches like figure four and happy baby. Instead of deep forward folds from standing, stretching my hamstrings with a strap was a much smarter, safer choice.

I still wasn’t going to class, but yoga was back in my life — and guess what? It helped! After just a week of my short, gentle yoga sequences, my muscles felt less tense, my angsty relationship with asana had softened and, yes, my pain was slowly leaving me.

It may seem contradictory, but I feel my experience relates most closely to the yogic principle of Abhyasa. Often, this word translates to mean “practice,” but can also be translated to mean “discipline.” Abhyasa goes hand in hand with another foundational yogic principle, Vairagya, or non-attachment.

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I had mistakenly believed that my high-energy, sweaty yoga classes were a form of discipline — even when they were causing me pain. But that wasn’t discipline at all. If anything, for me, avoiding certain postures takes much more discipline and focus than participating in them. I’m sure other yogis can relate.

Truly, I can still practice abhyasa without the sweat, blood and tears. Through discipline, I remain committed to the practice of yoga. Through non-attachment, I can freely change my practice, let it be as gentle as it needs to be, and most importantly, I can heal.

Have you ever felt shame or confusion from injury in yoga? What has helped you heal?

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