‘Listen to your body. It is the only place you have to live.’ Jim Rohn
Let me ask you a question: what’s the one phrase you hear time and time again when practising yoga? Listen to your body. And time and time again, what do most of us do? Continue to push on through. Pride and ego take over, and the result is more often than not an injury.
The thing is, injuries happen, especially when you commit to a regular physical discipline. As much as we can try to prevent them while exploring our physicality in a sustainable way, sometimes there is no avoiding injury. To put it bluntly: sh*t happens. So what happens to your yoga practice when you can’t, well, practice?
In my own experience, lots of emotions come to the fore when injured: guilt, anger, frustration, disappointment, restlessness, sadness. But I’m also a firm believer that there is always something you can do. Always. Do not allow yourself to kowtow to the idea that if you have to take a step back from your physical practice for a while, you’re not a worthy yogi.
Currently, I’m on a strict six-week period of rest following knee surgery to repair damaged cartilage and I can confirm I’ve run the gamut of those aforementioned emotions, often all in one day. I’ve found myself questioning my self-worth and my yogic credentials given that I can’t practice asana. But, having spoken to my mentors and fellow teachers who have experienced similar periods of injury, time off asana often offers us the opportunity to explore new terrain in our practice. I'm a firm believer that this is a good thing: it forces us to get out of our comfort zone, and this is where growth happens. Here are my top tips for staying sane while out of action.
LET YOURSELF FEEL
Frustration, anger, disappointment and sadness are all totally normal and understandable emotions while dealing with injury. Don’t deny them. Let me share with you this passage from Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism by Chogyum Trungpa: ‘We must surrender our hopes and expectations, as well as our fears, and march directly into disappointment, go into it and make it our way of life, which is a very hard thing to do.’ Spiritual practices are not about making our lives as comfortable and luxurious as possible, they are about allowing ourselves to see the situations of life as they really are and accepting them with a solid dose of pragmatism.
SIMPLE IS BEST
Yoga Sutra 2.46 states ‘sthira sukham asanam’, which translates as ‘yoga asana should be a steady, comfortable posture’. If you can sit, you can practice yoga. Right now, my physical practice consists of seated cat cows (either on a chair or on a block with my legs straight), neck rolls, shoulder stretches, ankle and wrist circles, and gentle twists to mobilise my spine. Simple movements, yes, but it’s often the simplest movements that have the most profound impact. Look at your injury as an opportunity to explore softer practices such as restorative yoga or yoga nidra. They will shape your practice for the better, trust me.
ASANA IS JUST ONE ELEMENT
It’s important to remember that yoga – according to Patanjali's Yoga Sutras at least – is an eight-limbed path, asana being limb number three on the route to samadhi (bliss, or enlightenment). If you can’t do asana, there are plenty of ways to explore and deepen your practice, such as pranayama (breathing techniques) and dhyana (meditation). You could even use it as an opportunity to study the yamas (restraints) and niyamas (observances) in more detail, and build upon your knowledge beyond the physical. Personally, I am using this period as an opportunity to work with the yamas of ahimsa (non-violence), by being kind to myself and being mindful not to take my frustrations out on those around me, and aparigraha (non-attachment), reminding myself that a) this is just a phase and it will pass and b) not to attach as much value to my physical practice; that self-worth goes beyond our bodies and physical abilities.
I'll leave you with one of my favourite quotes by Iyengar below. Remember that, ultimately, we use our asana practice to deepen our understanding and awareness of our Self, so that in turn we can be of better service to the world around us. Injury is simply another opportunity to learn and grow.
‘It is through the alignment of the body that I discovered the alignment of my mind, self, and intelligence.’ B.K.S. Iyengar