Is it possible to practice Yoga with chronic injuries, and can Yoga help one heal chronic injury?
A few weeks ago, after Liz Fox broke her foot in a freak accident, and Ashleigh Beyer had spent the winter recovering from surgery following a skiing injury, I thought it was a good idea to do a post on Yoga with and for injuries.
My daughter Genevieve, (one of the co-owners of Shree Yoga Taos, with Suki Dalury), is also an example of someone whose practice is informed by injury and pain, which really brought the subject close to home for me.
I sent each of these three women a few questions and here are their responses.
Liz, ever the iconoclast, did not answer in a linear fashion, but riffed on the subject matter instead. I’ve posted her response last.
1) Could you please tell us about your various injuries?
Buckle up, it’s a long ride… I have a litany of injuries the results of a well-used body. I repeatedly rolled my right ankle playing soccer as a young person and have a good amount of scar tissue in the joint as well as limited mobility. In fact, I will just say that injuries lead to scar tissue and limited mobility, so that goes for the whole of the list. I stretched all of the ligaments in my right knee in a skiing accident when I was twelve. When I was fourteen I fell on my head attempting a jump on my snowboard, neck injury incurred. When I was fifteen I was ejected through the windshield of a truck, broken ring finger left hand, major lacerations (more scar tissue) complete compression fracture of L-5 vertebra, 85% occlusion of spinal cord, surgery and bone graft ensued. 10 years of repetitive motion as a barista in a coffee shop led to hip and shoulder injury on the left side, same side as bone graft, the whole of which creates continuous binding on the left side. The whole of the picture amounts to chronic pain, varying in scale, always present.
2) How do you approach your ongoing healing through Yoga?
Regularly, and patiently.
3) How has Yoga helped you to heal specific wounds?
I was so fortunate to find a therapeutic, biomechanically aligned, and heart centered yoga practice when I first came to the mat. Even more so, many fantastic and knowledgeable teachers who understood anatomy and physiology and could teach that simply to students. And more powerful, the intertwining contemplation of the journey of the spirit as a liberated and free reflection of the Divine. As a result, yoga has always been about journeying into the uncomfortable places and finding more space there, in a patient and loving manner. Along the road of this now thirteen-year journey I have heard scar tissue rip apart and experienced the unfolding of space where I thought space would never be. More than anything I have cried many, many tears. In fact, I gauge the quality of a class by how many tears I shed, the more, the better.
The injury is different from the wound. The wound is usually less tangible, lives in the fascia (the connective tissues between skin and muscle), hides in the bravado that protects vulnerability, lurks in the closets of the psyche. When you have a spinal fusion, the spine is forever changed, there is no going back. However, the emotional distortion and fear that remains can be healed, but first it has to be faced, experienced, forgiven, and surrendered. Yoga has helped me heal so many wounds that would never make the list of injury because of its innate ability to invite surrender. As a result, the spirit is liberated to experience the beauty of the moment, no matter how the moment reveals itself. This translates to living with injury and chronic pain. The pain may not go away but the ability to live in the company of the pain without being overtaken by it, is more accessible with each visit to the mat.
4) Can anyone who has sustained serious injuries begin a Yoga practice and what type of practice would you recommend?
Yes. It depends on the person, the level of injury, the amount of the mobility in the body. I always encourage those new to yoga to shop around like they would for a pair of jeans. You want a yoga class to be comfortable, like you want jeans to be comfortable. However, there is a bit of a paradox here. Yoga is innately uncomfortable. So to go into yoga thinking you should be comfortable sets you up for disappointment. But you want to have a basis of comfort. For some a slow restorative practice is the farthest thing from comfortable they have ever experienced. For others a methodical, biomechanical, heart centered class grates the nerves to such a degree that the body never has a chance to settle in. So, while discomfort is common in yoga, finding a class and a teacher that suits you is the right place to begin. Shop around. Feel ok about leaving in the middle of class and taking care of yourself first. The practice is meant to enhance the quality of your life and that should be the way you feel when you leave class. If the class is’nt feeding that aspect of this short fleeting thing called your life, don’t waste your time there, life’s too short.
5) How have your injuries informed your teaching style?
In every possible way! Because of my own journey with yoga I know that there is always more room, and as a result an ability to experience relief. This is not limited to the physical journey, because, sometimes the physical journey is limited – like having a spinal fusion. However, there is more room in the mind to perceive things more spaciously. There is more room in the spirit to experience life more spaciously. And even if it minute and incremental, there is always more room in the tissues and fibers of the body.
The more room we make, the more enjoyable life is. And this is the basis of all that I teach. Make room for life, enjoy life, all of it, because it is temporary and it is a gift, even when the package gets all messed up!
I have had 3 fusions in my neck, which limit rotation and bending. I have had injuries to my back, and have had surgery for sciatica. Essentially, my spine is a mess. But yoga is the key for me. I keep my spine, and my students’ spine, supple, and warm up our spines very intentionally. I tell my classes ‘they can replace your knees and hips, but mess up your spine, and you are SOL.”
Right now, I have a broken foot, and am not doing much yoga. But already, 2 weeks out, I can tell that my back is starting to get out of wack, which tells me how important my yoga is to my overall health. I am now working on finding what I can do to keep my back happy while keeping weight off my foot.
I think anyone can do yoga, not matter what the injuries. Of course, they need to find the right class, and the right teacher. Hopefully, someone who has had similar injury! (I avoid any yoga teacher who has not had an injury!!). There is chair yoga, which works on the arms, shoulders, spine, and also the legs, just without weight bearing. Yoga can be adapted for anyone. Each of us need to learn what works for our bodies, and I always tell my classes to listen to me, but to listen to their own bodies more. That is the goal, anyhow, to find a deeper connection to our selves through yoga, not to get the foot behind the head or stand on said head! What feels good? What feels good an hour AFTER class?
Thank you ladies for the truly awesome information I am so happy to share. For more on these extraordinary women and their classes, please visit Shree’s site linked below this post.
All photos taken in front of Shree’s Mandala wall c/o Shree Yoga Taos.