YOGA AND INJURIES
T. D. KEIM
No matter what physical sport, diversion, pastime, game or activity you enjoy, sooner or later you’re likely to be injured. I’m not being a pessimist mind you, but a realist. I’m embarrassed to admit that I’ve hurt myself in just about every activity in which I’ve ever participated. Maybe it’s just me. I’m a Leo.
So when it happens, maybe my little story will help.
Let us begin with these premises: Unconscious actions can produce injuries, especially when ego pushes us beyond sensible limits. Injury causes pain. Pain causes suffering. Suffering helps us to become more conscious.
Besides the minor neck discomfort from learning halasana/plow pose , I’d not blundered into a serious injury until I tore one of my hamstrings in March 1996. In a gym one afternoon, in my second year of yoga practice, I was attempting hanumanasana or the splits, to impress a couple of young girls admiring my postures. I was better than half way there when I heard and felt a strong pop deep in my left thigh near the head of the femur. The initial pain wasn’t severe, so I thought I was okay—until the next day.
The pain, stiffness and immobility of my left hamstring complex was a show stopper. I had to lay off practice for a while. It took a bout a year to mend, but easing gently back into asana on San Diego’s beaches helped. After I moved to Las Vegas the long journey to recovery continued. My range of motion is now greater in the injured leg. Hmmm? But no sooner was I healing from one severe injury, when I was apparently ready to dumbly court another.
I used to practice in the park across from my apartment in the Vegas township of Paradise. It was a cool winter morning in the Mojave Desert and I’d just begun practice with some Surya Namaskar. Somewhere in my flow I lost concentration, I got careless, the earth shifted,–something happened!? I pushed up into down dog and I felt as if I’d jammed my left shoulder. Nothing I couldn’t ignore if I tried. Somebody wasn’t listening! It was me Guruji., it was me.
What I’d done was fail to extend the humerus bone completely out from the socket. The combination of the pressure of the posture and the misalignment of the ball and socket caused trauma to the joint. I was not concentrating in the moment, thus unconscious motion equaled injury. Now, I focus on the full extension of the humerus, like flaps extending out from the wing of an airplane at takeoff.
Coincidental to my shoulder injury I attended a yoga class soon after. As I hung away from the wall grasping straps to open up the front of the shoulders, chest, lungs and compress the lower back, an overly-aggressive yoga teacher placed her foot in the small of my back and actually kicked me; ostensibly to push me further into the posture. Like the hamstring injury, the severity didn’t show itself until days later when excruciating sciatica shot down my left leg every time I rose from a chair or got out of my car. It would take 30 seconds to a minute to release the protective bent posture I used to shield myself from the pain. I had to concentrate on walking upright. It would have been easy to give into the the pain and hide in the crippled pose, but I knew I didn’t dare.
I guess a note about allowing a yoga teacher to physically adjust your posture is in order. I would recommend that when visiting a new yoga class, directly ask the teacher about how they adjust a student’s posture during class. If the answer does not communicate gentleness, and respect for your body, either leave the class or tell the teacher that you prefer not to be touched during class. If the teacher seems defensive about your assertiveness—find another teacher. When I want to adjust a student’s posture, I first demonstrate the correct posture, and if more is necessary, I use only my finger tips to encourage movement in the desired direction. Never should a teacher use any degree of torque to enforce an adjustment of posture.
Over the next few days my shoulder also stiffened to the point that I couldn’t raise my arm even a few inches away from my body let alone try to look cool with my elbow hanging out the window of my old ’89 Beamer. I was off to the orthopedist.
The diagnosis was shoulder impingement and frozen shoulder. The bottom line: crippling pain, low mobility and simmering anger. The range of possible treatments began with physical therapy and ran to surgery. The doctor explained that these injuries usually sorted themselves out.
I remember standing at the sliding glass window of my apartment one morning watching the sun rise and wishing I was out walking and practicing asana in the park.
After weeks of intensive and sometimes painful physical therapy— with no success, I threw in the towel. My anger was compounded when my yoga teacher proved defensive about her culpability in my injury.
I’d never been so disabled in my life. The left side of my body was nearly incapacitated. I struggled for the better part of a year to heal. All the while, my frustration was building. I wasn’t able to make anticipated arrangements for my education. I felt cornered, out of favor, desolate. I finally worked myself into a serious health crisis when my guts erupted with a full blown flare of Crohn’s Disease. The CAT scan showed that all twenty-six feet of my intestines were pocked with bleeding ulcers. I was flat on my back in the hospital sucking up IV steroids. To top it all off, the negligence of a nurse’s assistant inflicted yet another insult to my beleaguered body by tying a rubber glove tightly around my arm so that my daily shower wouldn’t contaminate the mouth of the intravenous tube in my vein. This constricted and irritated the blood vessel causing phlebitis. My entire arm swelled up tight and hot while blood clots formed on the walls of the veins in my arm and chest; anyone of which could have broken free and caused a stroke. I was finally beaten into submission. The flames of my unconscious, untempered rage had ignited inflammation in my body and psyche. (During a Crohn’s flare bowel movements are replaced with a steady issue of runny, clotted blood. I was also anemic.)
This was my third hospital visit for Crohn’s. What can I say, I’m a slow learner.
Ironically, it was the IV steroids that began the healing. Steroids are anti-inflammatory, and they commenced to cool the fire not only in my gut, but my shoulder, and sciatic nerve as well. The blood clots in my arm, infused with anticoagulants, slowly dissolved. Strong medicines are necessary for the chronically ignorant; those of us who continue to bang our heads against the wall like spoiled children rather than accepting life as it is and cultivating the grace to deal with it.
Out of the hospital after a week of intensive treatment, it would be 42 days before I got back to work. With the deep loving kindness of my sweetie, Michele, and the recuperative indolence of the 2001 holiday season, I was on the rocky and uneven road to recovery.
During my convalescence Michele drove us back up to the Bay Area for an extended New Year. On January 1st, 2002 a bunch of us friends motored to Grace Cathedral Episcopal church in San Francisco to walk their labyrinth. We wanted to get the year off to an auspicious beginning. I was game though I’d never before done this kind of walking meditation.
A labyrinth, not to be confused with a maze, is an intricate convolution of connecting passages, a contemplative walkway that predates Christianity by hundreds if not thousands of years. The circuitous path delivers the meditator to the heart of the ancient structure.
I took it slow; one step for every exhalation. Hands folded to my heart in supplication. It took the better part of two hours, and was the single most powerful meditation experience of my life. The message to me was: life is not a race. Slow down. Take your time. Steady persistence, not haste, will deliver you to your goals.
This is where I began the long pilgrimage whose teaching to me was this: pain can be a ally, a great teacher.
As I finally began to get over my childish moping and self pity, I humbly crawled back to my practice. The initial motions were limited, and pain was a reliable governor to make sure I didn’t go too far too fast. In asana, as I approached the threshold of discomfort I would slow down, back away from the incipient twinge and breathe slowly and deeply.
For my sciatica and hamstring injuries, even though they were years apart—uttanasana or standing forward fold was the pose that finally brought not only immediate pain relief but total restoration. I would hang long and easy with my feet gently but firmly rooted in the pose and breathe deeply, feeling the breath massage healing into the wounded cells of nerve and torn muscle. Practicing many times daily, the cure came slowly but completely.
For my inflamed frozen shoulder, I took Erich Schiffman’s prescription, and deep breaths as a regular treatment. You’ll find Erich’s remedy on page 182 of Yoga: The Spirit and Practice of Moving Into Stillness. These postures are the very handbook for the care and feeding of this easily injured shallow ball and socket. I’m 90% of the way to total recovery. The more I practice, the more complete the healing.
Notice the common denominator in these practices: the breath! I learned the profound lesson that the breath is my own personal massage therapist, and that gentleness is the path to strength. How does simple deep breathing do this?
The breath delivers prana, the Sanskrit word for “life force”. The physical components of prana are oxygen and nitrogen; air. Unadulterated air, delivered by the breath is the magical elixir and universal remedy to soothe all life’s ailments. We live only seconds without it. Tuberculosis patients and inflamed arthritics were once sent to the Mojave Desert to be cured by the purity of the air! As we learn to master its use, nothing is beyond our grasp, even learning from pain.
Our experience of pain teaches us two principal tenets : less ego attachment to specific results, and that stubborn insistence on plowing heedlessly ahead forces open the door to injury. Injuries may not only be physical. If we approach life with the same thoughtlessness, we will damage relationships, lose valued social status and face the difficulty of making peace with a humble apology. If we persist further and fail to humble ourselves, personal and social decay may cripple our lives permanently just as physical injuries do.
Persistent injury is the torment of ignorant, unconscious thought, and impulsive word or movement. It is bitter to our very being, but its memory is a great servant. It prevails upon us to pay attention like the cosmic brick to the forehead. The third eye, sheltered behind the forehead, is actually the pineal gland which begins to open with the dawning of intuition. Intuition is the path to infinite Self-knowledge and the sight to perceive the Divine. You don’t have to be a religious believer to experience the Divine. Even an atheist can do it.
That’s my intuition, anyway; but I’m merely a novice on the path.
This is what I’ve learned from unconsciousness, injury, pain,suffering and the concomitant unfurling bud of intuition.
As I continue to practice with spurts of intensity and lazy lapses, I haltingly advance toward the fulfillment of the great mystery of yoga: total union with the creative consciousness that bore us all. It is our joyous birthright and destiny, the promised land that is metaphorically presaged in the great teachings of all true spiritual traditions.