Last week we were exploring feeling in the body from the calm relaxed space of the Para Sympathetic Nervous system. Apart from the obvious benefits of feeling relaxed, plus the physiological and psychological importance of spending time out of our stress response, being in this space prevents injury.
I know ALL about injuries. In October 2007, almost 10 years ago, I had surgery on my back to cut away a piece of disc that had bulged and was impacting my sciatic nerve. For months I hadn’t been able to walk or stand up for a minute or 2 without excruciating pain in my right leg and foot. I had to sit down when out walking around, and change my commute so I could guarantee I would get a seat on the Tube. Ten years on, I still experience the effects of the surgery: the scar tissue in my back means my right hip is very tight, which has an ongoing impact on my knee.
Yoga actually made this situation worse! That’s right, worse! I basically practised TOO MUCH hard core astanga vinyasa flow yoga, with teachers who did not encourage (or even allow!) the use of props to help alignment. There was an attitude of getting to the next more difficult pose which I totally bought into as it fed my ego. Plus I was doing classes 5 times a week. It felt great!
Of course, I was on a massive exercise high, completing pushed by my ego to do harder and harder poses. And so I injured my knee which forced me to slow down. Teacher training reinforced the slowing down of my practice and evaluating who, what and why I teach. My teaching style is slow as a result of this, with lots of emphasis on alignment and self care because I know the damage Too Much can cause.
We are starting to see a lot of yoga injuries, especially in places like London, where the overall attitude to everything is More More More. The problem with this is apart from injuries is that yoga is being used as a distraction and as a punishment. People like hard practices because ‘it stops them thinking’. I get that, but if your mind is crazy, no amount of yoga is going to help reduce it. You feel better at the time, but soon you’re back on the treadmill of anxious thoughts and an adrenalised state. Hard yoga is also done in an adrenalised state. It’s just more of the same. In addition, many many of us just want to be punished. We seek out hard things because we don’t think we are deserving of a gentle, kind relaxing experience. I saw this a lot in London and I continue to see it here in Tunbridge Wells. A barrel of self loathing and “I’m not good enough” which of course just feeds the monkey mind and constant busy-ness and rushing around.
I say this, because this was me! Busy all the time, pushing myself all the time, constant chatter in my head. Wanting to be the best at everything. Not wanting to be seen as weak or a failure. Even with back surgery, a couple of months later I was volunteering in India (where I fell off my bike and tore my left ankle ligaments!) and then started work at a hard core management consultancy. On Teacher Training in Bali, my knee injury was bad and then I became very ill with a parasite, so I couldn’t do anything except lie on the floor and observe. My body completely shut down to prevent me from doing any more physical practice. Having to sit and watch everyone else was torture (but actually much more useful for me as a trainee!) as I felt such a failure. I passed my exams of course, incidentally teaching the entire practical without demonstrating once.
You would think I would learn, but no, I am injured again. My wrist has been this way since the end of June when a culmination of repetitive strain plus jumping into handstand pulled the ligaments, which in turn moved the small wrist bones out of place. Why did I jump into handstand when my wrist hadn’t been great? Quite simply, I got over excited in my teacher’s class. My wrist was feeling a lot better, wasn’t complaining during plank and chaturanga, so I went for it.
BUT, and this is the most important bit. This was my teacher from Teacher Training. Remember, when I was the person who couldn’t do anything? Part of me was determined in this case to show her I wasn’t ‘rubbish at yoga’ and could do it! So when she came round to assist, I jumped into handstand and held it. Yay! Look at me! I’m not that ill loser from your training course who had to lie down all the time! This was followed by arm balance, and at the end of the class when the endorphins ended, I realised my wrist didn’t feel great again…..
Rest is the ONLY way to get it better. So no arm balances, handstands or even downward facing dog. I do a lot of my practice on my forearms, and its making me practice poses that I normally avoid, such as in the hips, as all my favourites are unavailable. It is incredibly humbling.
The ability to avoid injury lies in staying super aware and in that calm space that allows us to use our discretion about what is available for us in that moment. It is always better to start simple and build up. If you start at too challenging level or too deep into the pose, as Kirsty Gallagher says, your ego is not going to let you come out of that without a fight. This fight is very visible to me and I see it every week in every class: gritted teeth, laboured breath, contorted faces, literally about to collapse. These are all signs that the body is in danger of being injured. But we are unlikely to come out of this unless in pain.
Everyone wants to ‘go deeper’ but the really advanced stuff doesn’t even happen in the pose physically. When you can hold Warrior 2 correctly, with alignment, with a steady breath, muscles engaged, feet grounded, shoulders relaxed, aware of everything that is happening inside the body: feelings, sensations, thoughts, and yet the mind is steady, relaxed. Then you have gone deeper. Then your practice is ‘advancing’. When you can sit in meditation for 20 minutes in this way, then your practice is advancing. Handstands and arm balances have very little to do with it. They’re fun, they test us, but they are not really that ‘advanced’. Don’t let the Instagram yoga/gymnastics pictures fool you.
Want to go deeper? Join me for an 8 Week Mindfulness Course starting 9 October!