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The Upside of Injuries

Hi, my name is Stephanie, and I’m a yoga teacher with an injury.

It’s iliopsoas bursitis (inflammation of the bursa which sits under the Iliopsoas muscle at the front of the hip), and I’m happy to report it’s on the mend. I first had twinges of hip flexor pain as a ballet dancer more years ago than I’d like to admit. So while it came on very gradually, I didn’t totally ignore the warning signs; I just figured they’d go away. When warning signs crossed over into pain, I had enough hubris to believe I could figure out how to fix the problem myself. Like a self-control addict, I had to admit I had a real problem for things to start getting better.

I have to laugh at the irony of writing this for public consumption, because I’ve been trying to keep it under wraps for months. After all, yoga teachers aren’t supposed to get injured. We’re supposed to be so mindful and proficient in our practices that we don’t ever get hurt. But we do.

Now, I don’t want to open up a can of worms about the safety of yoga. I can say without hesitation that if I didn’t practice, I would be much, much worse off physically. My orthopedic idiosyncrasies have been a nuisance since I was a teenager, and yoga keeps them at bay. I’m in my 40’s, and in better shape and healthier than I have ever been. Nonetheless, injuries happen.

Many injuries are the end result of a long process, of which we’re often not even aware until pain rears its ugly head. Even tiny misalignments in our form can combine with underlying weaknesses, imbalances and idiosyncrasies and start to take a toll on our bodies. For some, the lure of the perfect pose is strong. Our hips are habitually tight, but we insist on doing padmasana (lotus) anyway; so our knees get torqued, bit by bit, until we’ve damaged the medial meniscus. Ouch.

In this way, the process of getting injured is not unlike the process of addiction. Both require a certain amount of denial, self-deception and self-defeating behavior. We feel that pain in our shoulders, but we dismiss it. We think it’s just sore, and it’ll go away. We keep plowing through our practice and don’t see the reality of the situation until it gets so bad it is undeniable. And then we have to admit to ourselves that we have a problem, and get help.

There’s no denying that injuries are frustrating, humbling, embarrassing, and of course, painful. But for me, after getting input from a teacher who is also a physical therapist, I start to approach my practice differently; parts of my body that were sleeping start to wake up. Parts of my ego that were hijacking my practice start to back off. My pain starts to improve, and so does my practice. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that injuries are the best thing to happen to my practice.

When you are injured, your injury goes from being your worst enemy to your best teacher. It will speak to you in very clear terms, and if you want to get better, you must listen. Respect the teacher by putting your ego aside and practicing in a pain free range of motion, always. If this means modifying and using props, do it. Forget about the perfect pose.

A human teacher is also a good idea. So while you may have a thriving home practice, it’s good to get to class where someone can observe your practice and give you some feedback. And if you’re in pain, go see someone you trust who knows how to deal with it.

Practicing when injured forces us to break out of apathy and absent-mindedness and take a more reverential, humble attitude. Injuries require us to be completely mindful and respectful of our bodies. They require us to slow down and really be present, and connected. We become a beginner again in the best sense of the word.

And that is where the yoga really is. It’s not zooming through 80 chaturangas at light speed so you can pat yourself on the back. Recovering requires that we take inventory and hold ourselves accountable—that we become more aware, more responsible, and that we make amends to those we’ve harmed (including our hamstrings). This is how we make things right and prevent future injuries too.

Injuries are the best thing to happen to my teaching too. Sure, I learned about shoulder anatomy in teacher training, but it wasn’t until I had a bout with shoulder tendinitis that I began to understand it. As a result, I am learning to spot potential shoulder problems in my students and help them prevent injury.

Injuries make us more mindful of the potential for injuries in our students; they teach us to be more sensitive, and maybe even compassionate. I hate to think how many injuries it will take to make me a great teacher, but I will learn whatever I can from each one.

Injuries are ultimately a reminder of our fragility. If this sounds grim, maybe it is, but being reminded of your mortality is also highly motivating. When you realize you don’t have forever to live your life, you stop wasting time and start living.

Just as the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous culminate in nothing less than a spiritual awakening, injuries lead us to awaken in new ways to our practices, our bodies, our selves. I wouldn’t wish one on anyone, but I don’t have to. Injuries happen. Use them as an opportunity to wake up and move forward, and you’ll do just that.

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About

Stephanie Carter is a yoga teacher/psychologist in San Antonio, TX, and is the Director of the Esther Vexler Yoga School. She began practicing yoga and meditation over 20 years ago as a way to manage stress while working on her Ph.D. While working in the state mental hospital system, she began teaching yoga to fellow staff members and realized the potential in sharing the practice with others. Her classes are fun, inspiring, and will help you find clarity, compassion, and courage on and off the mat. She also enjoys working privately with people that have a range of challenges, both physical and psychological. When she's not studying, teaching or practicing yoga, she enjoys writing, taking pictures, and spending time with her dogs. Connect with her at her website, on Facebook and Twitter.

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