Most of you already know, I grew up practicing a vigorous form of yoga. Over the years this vigorous practice led me down the rabbit hole of repetitive strain injuries in my knees and lower back. There were years of pain, clicking, cracking yet constant devotion to the practice. I was 21 at the height of my injuries.
There is a movement among yogis to turn away from the vigorous style practice and move into something more gentle and restorative, especially as so many of us are becoming injured. There is no one way to work through injuries, and in most cases its not my job to “fix” someone’s body. But as a teacher, it is my job to facilitate the best possible experience for my students, which means having some skills that render me more competent when someone is injured. Because at the end of the day, let’s face it, most people who walk into a yoga studio or gym have a little bit of something going on.
Last month I guest taught at my mom’s retreat, where there were students of different ages, body types, and lineages. My task was to teach some sort of upper body strength routine, because many of the students had been dealing with shoulder injuries. Rather than avoiding the shoulders because they had been a source of pain and instability, I dove right in. I taught different ways to strengthen, mobilize, experience and perceive the upper body. At the end of the class, one woman who had been really struggling with her shoulders mentioned that she felt surprisingly, really good. When I asked her what she had been doing for her injury she said she had been mainly avoiding it because everything felt aggravating. This is a story I hear far too often, and its a confusing predicament to work with as a student and teacher.
When our bodies don’t feel safe we naturally make changes in our lives to support ourselves in the best ways we know how. These changes can be large or small and are often times unconscious. These changes are helpful in the short term, but over the long term they can become dysfunctional. It is important for teachers and students to know that although our behaviours can seem dysfunctional in the present moment, at some point in time, our bodies did what was best in that moment.
Later that night, my mom and I had a conversation about how important strength is for the aging, injured or burnt out populations. Restoration is key, without it we can’t become embodied. But in my opinion, having a restorative practice will benefit us much more alongside a strengthening practice. Usually when we become injured we completely back off whatever seems to be nagging us, this is a good first step. But what happens next?
If we lay off and rest a part of the body for a long time although the injury may (or in some cases may not) improve, the rest of the structures can become weak. Shoulder injuries are the perfect example of this. Without specific movements like crawling, planks and hanging our shoulders may never reap the benefits of weight bearing exercise. Strength can only be maintained through practicing strength. Practicing weight bearing movement and resistance training over time is vital to healthy bone mass. Without it, our bones will deteriorate and as we age this has significant adverse effects. The older we get, the more important this is not only for fancy yoga poses, but for daily life. If we can maintain enough strength to help prevent against wrist fractures, dislocated shoulders and kyphotic upper backs, wouldn’t that be nice? But the older we get the more injury prone we are, the less we feel like going to the gym, and the more we want to move to a gentle form of practice. There has to be something out there for everyone, this is where Mindful Strength comes in.
So how do we maintain strength when an essential part is injured and giving us pain? My experience helping people recover has taught me a few really important points. For me it always comes down to sensitivity, strength and full body integration.
- Start at the Periphery
When I began my workshop at the retreat, my goal was to teach everyone how to do plank pose without experiencing pain. We started with the wrists. In cases of injury, starting right in the middle of it can be triggering and uncomfortable for students, and frustrating for teachers. Starting at the periphery, away from where the bulk of the pain resides gives students a way to experience their bodies and movement in a way that might feel safe again. The more we feel safe and capable in our bodies, the less on edge our nervous systems will be.
2. Isolate Weak Parts
The next thing I did was isolate and wake up some of the important muscles which would help support the plank position. This included activating the serratus, lats, pecs and rotator cuff muscles, in gentle ways that did not place much load on the tissues. Some students noticed that there were certain muscles that seemed to be unplugged, and in need of some energy. This can be a great realization, to know that its not “our fault” that our shoulder is hurting. Without the help of the supportive structures we can’t expect our joints to work as intended. Once we can grasp simple steps that need to be improved upon its much easier to focus on the journey back to health, rather than trying to do everything at once.
3. Try Again With a Different Mindset and Emphasis
The last part of my ninety minute class was moving into the actual plank pose with a new mindset. Rather than feeling what we would usually feel, is it possible to feel something new, and more supportive. I encouraged students to feel new parts of the body that were experiencing fatigue, and even encourage some parts to work more than others. Fatigue in certain muscles is a good thing, we just have to make sure the right parts are experiencing it. When gravity starts to pull us down to the floor, is it possible to push up against it.
When we are bogged down by injuries and pain its so easy to move out of our bodies and avoid the underlying issues, especially as long-time practitioners. I’m curious about ways to actually work with injuries, to help students feel safe in their bodies, while bringing things back into balance.