One of the mentalities that a lot of athletes – yogis included – often develop when they suffer some kind of injury is: “How can I get over this injury as quickly as possible so that I can get back to what I used to do?” Injuries are bad, after all, and if they cause us to be unable to do yoga, play tennis, ski, etc., the way we love to do these things, then we ought to do whatever it takes to heal the injury (or remove the pain) so that we can return to our old ways again. Right? Well, maybe not.
After having suffered a pulled hamstring, tweaking my neck, and dealing with an on-again/off-again wrist injury, I’m starting to change my thinking about injuries. In fact, there’s a sense in which I have no choice but to do this. My body just can’t handle my old way of doing yoga, and this has been a tough thing to swallow.
A lot of my friends, both yogis and non-yogis, have come to know me as someone who does yoga in a certain kind of way. I think I too developed a certain self-conception of who I was as a yogi, and I had become very much attached to this image of myself. Probably, I pushed my body to the limit and beyond in order to live up to this image, and now I’m paying the price with these persistent injuries. So what have I learned from all of this, if anything?
Well, as the frailty and impermanence of my physical body becomes more and more apparent to me, I have had no choice but to modify my asana practice. In doing so, I’ve had to acknowledge and confront my strong attachment to a certain way of doing yoga. As one of my very wise teacher’s pointed out to me a few months ago, I had become obsessed with inversions, arm balances, handstands, etc., and this attachment, I think, eventually got the better of me.
It’s been interesting to try to do 90 minutes of yoga without doing any of the poses I normally love to do. Your attachment to something often doesn’t become apparent until the object of your attachment is removed from your grasp. I think this has been the case with me and my yoga practice. Lately, I’ve been even getting rid of Chaturanga and Down-Dog in my practice, in order to give my wrists a break. I work the entire standing sequence from the top of the mat, instead of from Down-Dog, and I skip all Vinyasas, substituting in various other poses in their place. Much to my surprise, doing yoga in this very different way has in fact reinvigorated my practice, forcing me to be creative in ways that I would never have otherwise thought to be.
Ultimately, I still do hope that my body will heal fully so that I can once again do the kinds of poses that I love to do, but dealing with injuries has, I think, permanently changed my relationship to specific asanas, and to asana in general. I used to become rather upset when an injury prohibited me from doing certain yoga poses or from practicing at all. The new mentality I’m trying to adopt, however, is that any injury is an opportunity for growth and learning. Indeed, any challenge in life is an opportunity for furthering one’s yoga practice (by “yoga” here, I mean the eight-limbed philosophical system, not just the physical asana component of it). If we take Patanjali’s 1.2 in the Yoga-Sutra seriously — “Yoga is the stilling of the fluctuations of the mind” — then whether or not one can physically do certain physical poses has very little, if anything, to do with whether or not one can do yoga. The way in which one responds to challenge is the defining characteristic of one’s yoga practice. Asana is just one kind of challenge. Injury is another.