Many an article have been written on the subject of Yoga injuries. Yoga Basics author Mara Carrico writes, "Sometimes it seems that the only thing growing more quickly than the number of yoga classes offered in fitness facilities is the number of injuries sustained by eager participants." With this flood of injuries comes of course criticism, of both teachers and Yoga as a whole (some of them fair), fearful students, and a plethora of “new” ways to avoid injury. One of the fairer arguments criticizes newbie teachers as being too inexperienced to handle students coming into class with pre-existing injuries and low fitness levels. It takes practice to learn the difference between pain and sensation in our bodies. Both are speaking to us, but learning their language can leave beginners lost in translation, creating new injuries or worsening old ones.
My own body was familiar with bumps and bruises, sore muscles, and broken bones long before I came to yoga. I’ve broken fingers and toes, my right wrist, my left clavicle, and learned the limits of my pain tolerance when a fly ball at a baseball game made a line drive for my face at over 90 mph (ouch!). As a consequence, my endurance for pain was informing my yoga practice much more than any desire to develop awareness. That poorly set left clavicle giving you trouble? No worries, bind your way through that pain Chelsea! I never once raised my hand to inform a teacher I had an injury. In fact, it took me two years to realize that the tightness in my shoulders might stem from that injured left clavicle.
Ultimately, we are responsible for ourselves. Our teachers are there to guide us, but just like any relationship, communication is key.
The other side of this high pain tolerance spectrum is the fear of sensation. Without an understanding of what it’s like to feel pain in our bodies, we interpret any sensation as pain. As the lovely and renowned Iyengar teacher Carrie Owerko would say, we have to know our maximum as well as our minimum in order to find our optimum. I had the pleasure of learning from her this past weekend and we spent all of Saturday and Sunday discussing how to work with injuries from the ground up, making space for the body and mind to begin the healing process.
Just as every body is different, so is every injury specific to that body. Learning how to practice in a way that promotes healing for yours takes time, and sometimes requires trying many different methods until you find what works for you. It’s our job as teachers and students to recognize that symptoms are the body’s way of telling us that something needs to change and that we need to give ourselves the opportunity for variation in our practice.
For me, this variation meant being gentle, giving myself support (in the form of props and people), and learning to communicate what I needed to both my self and my teachers. For others it might mean letting go of their fear and learning safe ways to discover their limits. As always, these ups and downs in our practice teach us even more about life than they do about our bodies. As my teacher Jeanmarie often says in class, “How we do one thing is how we do everything.” We have to be open to exploring, to admitting we might be doing something wrong, and to finding strength in our vulnerability.
Our goal as yogis, and more importantly as human beings, is not to be so unaffected by pain that we charge through life without any compassion, or to be so passive that we never discover the courage to challenge ourselves, but to live somewhere in the middle. In our own personal optimum.