How To Avoid Yoga InjuriesApr 02, 2022
One recent morning, I woke up, walked myself to the bathroom, and spent a good long moment making eye contact with myself in the mirror.
With my 34th birthday being just a few months away, I no longer had that unquestionably youthy look–that gravity-defying perk in my skin, my step, or my attitude. Nor did I look particularly weathered. Just that with a little more than three decades under my belt, there were scars and leftovers of things long-since-happened that I was still carrying with me in my cells.
Not too far in the recent past, I had decided that I wanted to be the kind of person who took really good care of myself. The type of person who brushes my teeth because I love my teeth, not because I hate my dentist. Who understands my body’s needs and provides for them, even when it’s inconvenient. Who focuses my attention on the things that are within my control, so that my mental health doesn’t spiral into places that are needlessly tortuous and unproductive.
On this particular morning, I conducted a check-in with myself in the bathroom mirror. How was I doing on becoming the person I wanted to be?
I took myself through a checklist of different life areas.
Passions & interests.
In every case, I was surprised at the progress I had made in that area. Like, even without making specific changes to my habits, or declaring “I’m going to stop doing this!” and “I’m going to start doing that!”, I was somehow moving towards the type of person who takes good care of themself.
As I took inventory, things started popping out at me as 1% changes I could make that might have the potential to make my life substantially better. Like, maybe I could allow myself to really enjoy eating dessert when I had it–full-on–without quietly ruining the experience by feeling guilty about it. And maybe I could set clearer time and scope boundaries at work in an effort to prioritize other things on the list. Also, a glass of water first thing in the morning probably isn’t a bad idea. And finally—remember when I did yoga everyday? Like heart-pumping, muscle-quivering, difficult yoga? Yeah, it’s probably time to get back to that…
For more than 10 years, I practiced yoga everyday. It was such a regular part of my life that skipping a day or a week was never a cause for concern. But in recent years, I had skipped more and more days, and more and more weeks, until one day I woke up and realized it had been months since I had done anything substantial. Sure, maybe I did a few stretches every couple of days, but was that really how I wanted yoga to be in my life?
Yoga is not a cure-all or even inherently special, but it’s something I enjoy and has helped me feel really, really great. It doesn’t need to be the focal point of my entire life, but it needs to be a staple. This is absolutely clear to me, without me needing to think too hard about how I feel on the matter.
So, it was time to get started again.
Avoiding Yoga Injuries
And now came the question: How to begin? Truly, how do I start if I want yoga to be a healing part of my life, and not something that adds to my list of problems because I funked up my hamstring or the heel of my foot?
While yoga has helped me feel really great, it’s also, at times, made me feel not so great. I started thinking through my old injuries and funkyness:
My right shoulder blade injury from many years ago that still throbs as a warning sign that I’ve been hunching and overloading my neck and upper back for too long (usually at the end of a workday or after driving for too long).
My left elbow that suffered a partial dislocation during a nasty fall last year, and that sometimes buckles when I put weight on that wrist.
The low back pain I experience when I move with my pelvis pitched forward for too long.
The tension headaches I get from my forehead and eye sockets when I’ve been stressed for too long.
These are a few of my blessings, which I say in all seriousness. They are part of my collection of life puzzles. We are all given our own life puzzles to solve, and these are some of mine. So, I must be a good steward of them. I must be patient, attentive, and willing to try and fail over and over again in pursuit of solving them.
I like the way my favorite yoga teacher put it one time: injuries happen either from overuse or underuse. Underuse refers to lifestyle injuries that happen when you don’t use your body enough. Overuse injuries are acute injuries that happen when you do too much too soon.
Given that it had been a while since I was last practicing yoga regularly, I started to think about the ways in which I had been underusing my body.
My right shoulder blade pain was the perfect place to start.
The original injury was an overuse injury, one of the few I have that I can remember doing to myself in yoga class. It wasn’t anything special. I rounded myself too much in cat pose, and when I came out of the pose, my shoulder blade tissue was on fire.
The pain was near constant for a couple of years. During that time, I had to completely change the way I was practicing yoga and ratchet up my learning. After a few years, the pain softened to a dull whisper. Nowadays, it’s closer to an underuse injury–something that flares up as a warning sign that I’ve been neglecting my movement needs for too long.
I knew I needed more yoga in my life as I realized that I had felt my shoulder pain practically everyday in recent weeks. It was far less intense and lasted for shorter periods of time, but I knew I was deep in a pattern of underuse.
It was also strange that my lower back had been aching more often lately. Except that it made perfect sense given how much I had used my hips and legs recently. My glutes had lost a ton of definition and were having a hard time supporting my pelvis from the backside, which was overloading my back.
As I started tracking my current state, I realized that there was some soft mushiness nearly everywhere. The little aches and pains I was experiencing here and there, on this day or that day, were likely the result of my body’s structures not remembering how to do their work.
The only recipe for addressing underuse injuries is use. And the moment things are used, they are at risk of being overused.
Every time I’ve dived back into yoga after a period of latency, I’ve experienced some sort of overuse injury.
I’ve logged a few reasons this happens:
I remember what I used to be able to do and I try to do it
I follow my teachers’ recommendation to do something at a particular intensity or depth
I do more than what I’m able to do well
In all these cases, overuse injuries happened because I did something my body wasn’t ready to do. That’s hard. My body doesn’t communicate its limits to me in English. It communicates with sensation, pressure, resistance.
Trying new things means stepping from the known to the unknown. Like the known, some parts of the unknown are safe and some parts are unsafe. The challenge is, we don’t know what’s safe or unsafe in the unknown because it is, by definition, unknown. Every time we step into the unknown, we risk our safety. It’s an essential and unavoidable part of being alive. Without it, we would never have learned to walk, bike, swim, or climb.
Learning something new requires toggling between too much and not enough. If it’s not enough, we fail to learn. If it’s too much, we injure ourselves while learning. In the restarting of my yoga practice, it’s important for me to think about how to slice that down the middle, such that I’m learning and growing, but I’m not injuring myself in the process.
I started to use this framework when stepping into the unknown:
Before | Set Boundaries
Select Class - Figure out who I want to practice with. Where? How long should it be? How much intensity feels appropriate?
Self Check-In - Briefly evaluate my current state and imagine how I’d like to feel after class is done. Doing this reminds me that I am in charge of my own experience.
During | Monitor
Observe my body’s reactions to the movement. With curiosity rather than judgment, try to understand the sensations, pressures and resistances experienced in my body. Proceed cautiously into the unknown, ready to shift direction if the vibe starts to feel unsafe. Do my best knowing that this is a guess and that mistakes will be made, and commit to not giving myself grief about making them.
After | Reflect
Sometimes things hurt later on that don’t hurt in the moment, and vice versa. How I feel later is a great indicator about where I ventured too far into an unsafe part of the unknown.
From a certain angle, you might say that overuse injuries are unavoidable. It’s mostly a matter of luck and degree. The thing to strive for is a minimum of overuse injuries while continuing to grow your capabilities–the most gains with the least amount of pain.
A Few Weeks Later
A few weeks after restarting my daily yoga practice, I found myself back at the bathroom mirror for another check-in. A bunch of 1% changes had me looking pretty similar but feeling wildly different than the person a few weeks back.
All in all, my underuse injuries were resolved and my overuse injuries were minimal. My right heel felt a little funky. By gosh, I must have pulled my left hamstring a bit because it was super achey. Those were two minor overuse injuries I felt after the fact.
At the same time, my legs and glutes were more present underneath me. My core had a more solid look to it, and it very snuggly held me up a little taller towards the ceiling. My head was balanced more upright on my spine, rather than hanging forward over my toes. My breathing was a bit more relaxed and a bit more in the belly. My facial expression was more calm, carrying with it a newfound confidence in my ability to transform myself into the kind of person I want to be.
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