Opportunities to find deeper powers within ourselves come when life seems most challenging - Joseph Campbell
Heres a truth that many people can relate to - Practice yoga long enough and there's a pretty good chance you'll have to go through an injury. Whether you get it from actually practicing or just living your life outside the practice, it's bound to happen at some point. The reality is that if you are alive long enough you are going to go through some ups and downs, some bumps and scrapes. It's a part of life. So when the injury comes the real question is "what will you do next?".
I've found myself in this place a few times over the years and when you've made the commitment to 6 days a week practice a lot of things come up on how to handle it. It's not easy and can be really dark and frustrating. Looking back, my most valuable lessons and insights into the practice have come through these challenging times.
One of the most difficult injuries I encountered was a year long, debilitating back injury. It literally knocked me flat on my back- the pain was so bad at one point that the only thing I could do was go into the shala and lay on my back and breathe. I'd go through the postures in my head and stay with the inhale and exhale as I was laying there. It was so hard! Much harder than actually practicing. It was a really difficult time where a lot of questions came up (enough to write an email series - link at end of this post) . I stuck with it despite everything and came out the other side. Just "showing up" each day was key. I was so happy to be practicing again but around the corner was the next obstacle. Knee pain.
Here we go again
I had about a month of full primary when my inner knee on the left the side started to hurt. Then the right. Anything lotus was painful and then all the Janu's started to hurt as well. I couldn't believe it! I had never experienced any inner knee pain in 9 years of practice. There it was though and there was no ignoring it. Soon certain postures became unbearable in their full state. I started to modify and question what was happening. Over the next two months the pain got worse and worse. I had just applied to go Mysore to study in February and had 4 months to figure out what was going on and heal it. I had faith. Four months was long enough to get back. I could figure it out... Maybe.
So the investigation started. Youtube videos on hip openers, Ashtanga Yoga anatomy books and appointments with specialists. There must be a reason. What was I doing differently? Were my hips tighter? My adductors? I started to do pre yoga stretches in the morning to open my hips for about 45 minutes. I would do my yoga practice then after lay on my back and stretch my adductors. Later that day I would do more stretches. What happened? Nothing. Still pain and in fact it got worse. A couple weeks before going to Mysore I was so fed up with the pain and trying different modifications that I just said to hell with it and stopped at Janusirshasana A. It was the last pose I could do pain free. I would do my backbends then the closing and that was it. I totally gave up. I knew deep down that I had to let go completely of being able to do postures and I did. Relief swept over me.
First day in Mysore.
My girlfriend and I went out for lunch with Evan and Catherine, two Authorized teachers from Ashtanga Yoga Edmonton and Mysore veterans. They were giving us some of the inside tips on living and practicing in Mysore when Evan brought up that it's best not to do any activity other than the practice while there. At the time I didn't realize I wouldn't have the energy anyway but when he said that it really hit me. My whole time practicing yoga I had always had other activities in my life like mountain biking, rock climbing and many more. I I made the decision that this was the time to focus 100% on my practice. Nothing else.
I'll never forget this day and this practice. "One more!" Sharath called out as I entered KPJAYI for my first practice there. I felt really nervous and excited. The energy of the room was almost overwhelming. Hearing from other people what it was like was one thing but to actually be in it was another altogether. The pictures of Guruji and his family everywhere, Sharath's voice and presence plus the many devoted Ashtangis from around the world creates an environment you won't find anywhere else. I stepped to the front of my mat and said the opening chant quietly to myself. Then off I went.
Ekam, inhale, Dve, exhale. Moving in and out of the postures with my breath and thinking that Sharath's eyes were on me the whole time (of course he wasn't but it feels like that) With that thought I would do the primary series exactly the way it was taught and as close to the count as my breath would allow. I did every jump back, every jump through, only 5 breaths in each posture, no pausing, no cheating. When I couldn't do the full posture I did as far as I could without pain always keeping focus and my breath. The practice flew by. No adjustments. It felt amazing. As I said in the beginning it was one of the best practices of my life, one I will never forget.
Over the next week Sharath watched me and stopped me at Marichiasana D. I stayed with my program of doing my best each day to really focus in on staying as close to the count as I could. When you do this there is no time to do anything else. An extra movement to straighten your mat or glance around the room costs you an extra inhale and exhale. Every "extra" costs you and therefore takes you off the path. It's not the straightest line and therefore isn't necessary. It's a detour. Its like driving to LA from Vancouver and stopping in San Francisco. It's not necessary. Just get on the road and drive straight to LA. This is when things really started to happen. Out of nowhere my right leg went into half lotus pain free. It shocked me. I hadn't been able to do that for months. With that all the postures on the right side were fully available. The left side was still touchy so full lotus wasn't there for Garbha Pindasana, Kukkutasana, Matsyasana etc. I didn't care one bit. I was getting better and it felt amazing.
A week after that Sharath came over one day and told me to finish primary. I still modified the left side which he was fully aware of. In that massive room he doesn't miss much if anything. My personal focus and mantra for my practice became and still is "do the postures you've been given, do them as close to the count and breath as you possibly can, let go of what will happen". In Mysore people follow the rules. There are no props and straps, you can't use a wall to practice something, you don't do postures you haven't been given, you don't stop to chat with your buddy on the way out - you do your practice, that's it. In doing this my practice felt better than ever. It was really hard! Much harder than before but things began to happen and shift. By the end of my stay in Mysore I was moved in intermediate. In 8 weeks I had gone from the least amount of postures I could do to the most. 10 years of doing primary just so I could have Sharath move me to second. It was worth it.
So what's the takeaway from all this?
Identify the essential. Ignore the rest. - Leo Babuta
This is as true for practice as it is for life. I found that by concentrating all my energy into that hour and twenty minutes of practice that the results took care of themselves. Instead of spilling out prana all over the place I used the container of the primary series with the count and breath to harness it in a single direction. The energy becomes more powerful, focused and effective. This principle continues to work in my practice and I've started to apply it to other areas of my life. The lessons you learn by going deep in one thing translate to so many other areas. By looking at what is important to you and then consciously ignoring what isn't you can focus your limited time and attention in your chosen direction. In my experience this equates to more success and more happiness.
Every injury is different and needs to be assessed on an individual basis. This is what worked for me. You will need to inquire for yourself. Know that if you keep trying and stay the path - You will figure it out. What is more important is that you will have a chance to practice without being attached to what postures you can do. One day we will all do our last posture in the series and won't get anymore. When that day comes and you have to go back other way, letting go of postures the whole way down. How will you handle it? This will be the true test. Will you go kicking and screaming or will you go gracefully knowing all along that it was what was happening inside you that was the real benefit of the practice.
Dealing with injuries and obstacles in our practice is not enjoyable but it can be beneficial when approached correctly. I explain how the obstacles I've faced so far have helped me grow in a free email series you get when you sign up for the Ekaminhale Email list - Click here to do that now
Photo by Franceska Lavaggi at www.mydailyradiance.com