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Reframing Injuries in Yoga

In a yoga class recently, I had a student come up to me and very politely say “I’ve injured my shoulder a little, so my apologies, my practice is just not going to be as good right now”.

Of course we discussed what sort of modifications they could use to adapt their practice and not worsen the injury. I also had to question within myself whether I was unwittingly putting pressure on my students to treat their class practice as a performance, rather than creating a space designed for learning. More to come on that later.

The key thing I wanted to explore from this interaction though was the way their injury was experienced as a limitation.

Through my work with athletes, I can see how common this experience is and how frustrating it can be if your training/performance is physical in nature. But even more broadly, for anyone who has experienced serious injury, it’s not hard to remember how limiting it can feel.

However, injuries are going to be perceived as a limitation only to the extent that you evaluate the quality of your training or practice by achieving certain physical results. The issue is more complex in competitive sports where the objective is performance rather than health (although even there, learning to reframe injuries is an essential skill), so for this article, I want to focus on how we can reframe injuries in yoga.

If my objective in my practice is to see how far I can go, how much I can do, how long I can reach and how deeply I can bend, injury will be interpreted only as a limitation to physical skill, and will engender frustration. Often this can be the case in a public class where we can experience scrutiny (by the teacher, other students, and often from ourselves). When we are focused on what our practice looks like, injury can become an obstacle to demonstrating our competence, or show that we’re working our hardest.

However, there are other, more internal ways of evaluating our practice and setting intentions for ourselves, particularly when injured. The quality of your practice can be extraordinary in ways that do not pertain to your physical prowess.

Dr Gervais often says there are three things you can train: your mind, your body, your craft. In yoga, injury is a great opportunity to train your mind and your craft:

  • Prioritise technique. Simple skills like setting up your pose and getting out of it are fundamentals of yoga ‘craft’ requiring ongoing attention and refinement. No matter what your pose looks like, you can focus on the details of entry and exit, making your transitions more stable and fluid.

  • Develop your awareness. Notice what it feels like for you, specifically, to be in class when injured. What emotions arise? What sort of thoughts? Is there resistance, and if so towards what? Be curious towards any frustration that arises, and what your mind pays attention to. By noticing what you notice, you can pick up valuable clues as to what you are searching for in your practice.

  • Practice helpful inner dialogue. Cut out anything that is blaming, shaming or self-pitying. You don’t have to baby yourself, but speak to yourself as if you were a mother or father (it’s called self-parenting). Give yourself what you need from the world.

If yoga is about the asana, there is always an externally-evaluated quality to it. Take on the inner aspects of yoga practice: you’re the only one who knows what’s really going on inside; you’re the only one who can meet your own needs in that moment. Practicing this when injured can then allow you to take those skills into practice, whatever the state you are in.

Matilda MayneComment