Yoga practice is not an exercise class and it’s not a workout. Sure, it’s vigorous and physically challenging, but that’s just the means rather than the end. However, as with any physical endeavour, aches and pains are unavoidable and injuries can happen.
If one gets injured practicing yoga, the yoga practice is the best way to heal and rehabilitate. Also, if one gets injured doing some other activity, yoga practice is the best way to heal and rehabilitate. Finally, if one begins yoga practice with a preexisting injury, the yoga practice is the best way to heal and rehabilitate. From my experience, yoga practice is an amazing healer.
Healing an injury with Ashtanga Yoga is possible and requires daily practice. Taking days off regardless of how one’s feeling is ultimately detrimental to the healing process. Unlike working out, the effects of yoga practice are cumulative. The body’s natural reaction to injury is to contract and armour. Yoga encourages the afflicted area to move when it wants to petrify. Taking days off between practices just makes the body stiffer under normal circumstances, but even more so with an injury or chronic condition.
Students often wait until their aches and pains are gone before returning to class. They’ll disappear and return saying they needed to rest their injury. The truth, however, is that the pain is not gone and the injury hasn’t healed. The problem simply went underground while they were resting and was patiently waiting to return. Whatever imbalance or bad habit caused the pain or injury hasn’t been addressed or corrected. The pains and injury return as soon as the student is back on the mat.
It is a shame that some students who aren’t willing to follow the prescription for daily practice end up quitting and saying that “ashtanga yoga doesn’t work” or “yoga made my pain worse.” This just isn’t true.
The first thing a student must do when using the practice to heal and rehabilitate is adapt. It is necessary when injured to scale back practice so that it’s appropriate as therapy. That very often means having a very basic and short practice for awhile where the level of sensation to the injured area is deliberately kept at zero.
Both Rachelle and I have had pain and injuries over the years and we both used ashtanga yoga as a means of healing ourselves. Some days, I would do only a few slow and difficult sun salutations before needing to stop. It had it’s moments of frustration and I often felt impatient and frankly pissed off. It wasn’t much fun, but I slowly healed and was back to 100% over time.
So, first off, a student needs to adjust practice to reflect the injury or pains being experienced. There’s no reason to power through or ignore the problem. In the case of an injury caused by bad habits or poor breathing, taking things slowly and scaling back helps to pinpoint where there’s a problem and re-learn how to practice correctly without causing chronic pain. One of the added bonuses of using practice to heal an injury is that we find practice is stronger once we’ve healed.
In the case of a student who starts ashtanga yoga to heal a pre-existing injury, the best advice I can give is to look at practice as medicine and follow the prescription.
If I were to develop a chest infection and went to a doctor, I would likely be prescribed antibiotics to treat the infection with instructions to take three pills every day for a week. If I follow the prescription, I will no longer have my chest infection However, if I do NOT follow the prescription and I take the medicine every few days or only once per day, I really shouldn’t be surprised if my problem hasn’t been cured.
Practice daily. Do what you can. Don’t push. Maintain zero sensation in the injured area. Be patient and have faith. Talk to your teacher when you’re frustrated. This is the prescription to heal injuries using ashtanga yoga. Students who follow this prescription heal their injuries and rehabilitate chronic problems. They transform their bodies and blow their minds in the process.