I sustained an injury a few weeks ago at the dog park. I had about 120 pounds of rolling playing puppies crash into my shin, which dropped me down from both pain and surprise. The first two days I was unable to walk or bend my knee, which was not great fun. I wasn't in pain, but I was concerned about how much mobility I was going to have going forward. I attribute my rapid healing to acupuncture (thanks Ann!) and some herbal poultices and patches, the Joint Freeing Series and good old rest and ice. By the following Sunday I was able to participate in asana classes again. Ironically, the thing that remains difficult to do is the restful child’s pose AND the pose of the month, Natarajasana (dancers pose).
There are so many things I want to share about this experience, which was probably the most intense soft tissue injury I have had since my karate days. As I do more and more asana, and I am figuring what I can and can't do (which changes every day), my understanding about working with injuries in asana has been confirmed, so that is what I will share today.
I imagine that if I went to a standard asana class with an instructor that was schooled in "alignment" and I mentioned my dog encounter, they might tell me off the bat which poses I should not do. They might have a standard list of knee poses that are considered to be the “bad ones”. I say this from experience, as back in the days when I went to studios for asana classes, I would tell the instructor of some valid injury or limitation if asked, and inevitably the instructor would tell me not to do something that I knew was actually fine for my body. What an instructor often would not do was ask me what I was feeling in the pose before suggesting I either come out of it or try it a different way. Now I know this kind of individual attention can be difficult- especially if you are in a big class, and if you are the new kid in the class and most likely transient, a teacher may not give you that kind of attention, understandably so.
If your instructor forgets to attend to your injury because they have a ton of other stuff to manage, or they don’t know how to advise you (and by the way, lately there have been warnings to instructors to NOT ask because if they do, and if a person aggravates that injury in class, the instructor opens themselves up to liability being that they knew about something but didn’t do anything to prevent a re-injury) then you are on your own to manage yourself. And that is the thing right there- we should be on our own. We should be ready and able, as soon as we decide we are going to do asana, to listen intently to our bodies and see if what we are doing is good, or not good, is helping or hurting. This can also be problematic. Some of us just want to be told what to do when we go to a yoga class. I hear that and that is ok! But then again, at some time, for some reason, we might actually want to, or need to, know if what we are doing is helping or hurting.
I just spoke to a woman yesterday who was a professional dancer in the early part of her life. Lately she has been having issues with her hip. She told me that armed with her desire to strengthen her core and try to get some mobility back, she went on YouTube, found a core-strengthening video, followed it, and hurt herself. She said the whole time she was following the video, she knew that she knew better. “I am smart about these things, and I still got hurt. I don’t know what happens to people who are not as in touch with their bodies”. She is a very busy person, and she really wants to get better. She made the wrong choice and she recognized it before doing more damage. There are really great things that can be learned well on YouTube. But there are some things we will never get from a video, like a direct question “how is that feeling?”, “how are you doing with that” and then subsequent feedback and options that respond to those answers.
If an instructor gives us the list of no-nos, we might accept it with no questions asked. But here is the thing about my knee in Natarajasana- it hurts when I bend it back too far and reach for my ankle if I am sitting sideways, but not when I am standing or on my stomach. It is much easier when I hold the right ankle with the left hand, less so if I use the right. When I am holding my ankle, even in the sideways sitting, and I engage the quads and pulse pressure in in my hand, I can feel the pose is doing me good. I can feel that is a therapeutic pose for the thing that is still lingering in my knee. If I am lax and just holding my ankle without engaging, it doesn’t feel good. If I engage, I feel that I am changing something for the better. From the outside, it looks the same. From the inside, it is so much different.
We must embrace our potential to understand our bodies better, and teachers should give us the power to understand this body and know what the therapy might be for it. It is so individual. No one pose is going to heal or harm an injury. Had I been hit on the front or the back of the knee instead of the side, I would probably be having a different experience in Natarajasana, and maybe a different pose would be the one that was my therapy pose. We have to listen in to know, and we have to be guided to understand the messages we are getting from that feeling.
One other thing to consider- sometimes you hear a teacher say in an asana "align this way to protect the knee (or back or whatever)". It makes me wonder about the difference between "protecting", “strengthening” and "healing". Just like a substances in one amount can be a miraculous cure, in a different amount can be a poison, some movements that seem dangerous can actually be the therapy, when done with awareness, intention, vigilance and intelligence. I wouldn’t recommend a YouTube video for that either, because you again are missing the important question, “how is that movement feeling now?”. As a yoga therapist, I am always listening for how a person describes the sensation- there are so many things a “pull” may mean. My job is to help you understand which pull is good, which is not.
Meanwhile, I am working on my own pulling and pushing, finding my way back to the Natarajasana that I was able to do prior to my injury. And to all of you who have been in classes lately, thanks for keeping me company during my therapy session!