But first, a few things about Michelle. Michelle is the owner and director of Florence Yoga in Northampton, MA (I just realized I actually don't know how to spell MA in full...). She has been practicing Ashtanga since 1997. Among other things, her studio boasts a big beautiful Ganesh statue. I have yet to see it, but I hope to someday go there and practice in front of it; I have a good feeling that my practice will improve by leaps and bounds when I do so :-) If you are ever in the area, please think about stopping by her studio to practice.
I guess I've said enough. I should let you read what Michelle has to share below. She combines her knowledge of the Ashtanga practice with an intimate knowledge of Ayurveda (especially the Ayurvedic concept of Dinacharya, or "daily routine") to fashion a comprehensive path towards greater well-being. Enjoy!
Coping with Injuries: Some Practical Suggestions
by Michelle Ryan
So, you’ve gone to Ashtanga class, and at some point in the practice, you forgot to breathe, lost your concentration, or pushed a bit too hard and you feel a sharp pain. Or, you were chopping wood, or raking leaves, or walking an overzealous dog, and you go inside and notice "something" hurts. You’ve pulled or strained something, and you are unsure if you should do your practice.
Approaching your practice with an attitude of self care is vital at all times, but especially when you are injured. The practice is a brilliant means of bringing you health and wellbeing, a way to clear and revitalize your mind and body, when approached wisely and compassionately. You should feel buoyed and energized, not depleted and discouraged, by your practice. A compassionate, non-striving approach goes a long way.
But, we have bodies, we can use them rigorously, and sometimes we get hurt. Here’s what I do when this happens, and it’s based on the Ayurvedic concept of “dinacharya” or “daily routine.”
(A couple of disclaimers: with any injury or pain in yoga practice, especially if it’s chronic, it’s best to talk to a healthcare professional to determine whether or not the pain is something more serious. Yoga can help and even heal the body, but you must be certain your injury is not something more serious, that may require Western medicine. Also - I am not an expert on Ayurveda. I have had this post fact-checked by one of my students, Kim Jorczak, who is a trained Ayurvedic Consultant - and I owe much of my original information to my friend and teacher, Christine Hoar, who has shared these strategies with me over the years.)
Very succinctly, Ayurveda, the “sister science” of Yoga, was developed in India over many centuries to help us put our bodies into harmony with nature’s rhythms. The easiest way to think about these rhythms is to imagine that our bodies are like clocks, where every system of the body has a time period of optimum function. Aligning your choices with the optimum times of when and what to eat, when and how long to sleep, when to do mental work, and when to be physically active, and then following the regimen regularly, on a daily basis, along with awareness of the season, is the basis of Ayurveda. It can have a profound effect on maintaining and even enhancing our health and wellbeing, especially as it gives us the means to do so naturally, without resorting to panaceas that only mask or treat the symptoms.
Our bodies like routine - and rituals. Just as doing a daily asana practice becomes something we begin to look forward to and benefit from, dinacharya - daily routine - will also be something your mind and body will benefit from, too. Dinacharya follows the Ayurvedic tenet that as long as we live in harmony with daily and seasonal rhythms, our body and our minds will respond by being more healthy and well as a result, giving us the means to live in balance.
My personal dinacharya helps me manage those aches and pains that inevitable arise through the rigors of the practice. Besides my 5-6 days of asana and pranayama practice each week, I practice the following methods of self care every day:
- going to bed and getting up at the same time
- scraping my tongue
- using a neti pot
- dry brushing before I shower
- doing uddhiyana kriya (not necessarily ayurvedic, but it really helps your digestion to do this)
- sesame oil self-massage (especially ears, hands and feet)
In addition, I eat moderately and healthfully, according to my ayurvedic constitution, at optimum times for my digestion. I also drink warm water or herbal tea throughout the day, and have cut way down on fats, sugars, wheat, and most animal products.
If this seems like a lot to do, it’s not, really. It only takes me 30 minutes to get ready every morning, including my daily cup of chai, before I head out the door. It has become my way of managing my health every day, and the results have been very positive. I began doing these dinacharya practices, in addition to my yoga practice, 7 years ago, with Christine's guidance. While I had a daily asana practice, I wasn’t fully healthy: my blood pressure was considered “borderline” high, and my cholesterol was above 200. I was overweight by about 15 lbs, had chronic back pain, debilitating allergies that were leading to asthma, and Reynaud’s syndrome, an auto-immune related disorder that effects circulation, and is a pre-cursor to more serious autoimmune disorders.
I just went to the doctor a few weeks ago for a complete “work up,” and every test fell well within the “normal” range. My Reynaud’s is gone (it disappeared about 5 years ago); I fortunately never developed asthma; my weight and BMI are within normal range, and my cholesterol and blood pressure are excellent; I still have some seasonal allergies, but they are not as debilitating or year-round as they once were. I no longer suffer from back pain. I am very healthy - and I attribute it to these dinacharya practices that I have added to my Yoga asana practice.
This may sounds very self-satisfied, but I am very humbly grateful to my dinacharya routine, and thank Christine for her kindness and wisdom in sharing it with me. Your routine may be different, and I highly recommend that Ashtanga practitioners meet with a qualified consultant to have their own Ayurvedic evaluation, and be given a dinacharya routine specific for you and your body type.
Now, some additional things - some Ayurvedic, some not - that I do when I am injured - My mantra is “decrease inflammation, increase circulation.”
- Ice the injury to decrease inflammation.
- Put sesame oil on the affected area at night, before you sleep. Gentle massage brings stimulation and circulation to the injury, which ultimately speeds up the bodies natural healing process, and doing so before you go to bed is very effective, too, as you sleep more deeply, which helps promote healing.
- If you have worked particularly hard in a class and know you’ll be sore later, take an Epsom salt bath that evening, before the oil massage. Epsom salt has long been associated with helping to decrease muscular pain and inflammation. You will sleep like a baby after this warm bath, which again, promotes healing. Follow up with a bit of sesame oil massage on the affected area before you go to bed (wear old clothing, as the oil can stain.)
- Consider trying an interesting “hybrid” homeopathic/herbal anti-inflammatory ointment called Traumeel. It’s also available in an internal “tincture” form. It includes arnica and a variety of other herbal anti-inflammatories. It’s effects are helpful in decreasing muscle and joint pain. I have had success with Traumeel in the past - and know of many other students and friends who have had the success with this product as well. (My mother, who suffers from Fibromyalgia, swears by it.) It’s good to put it on right after you injure yourself, so keep some handy when you practice, just in case!
- If you are not allergic to ibuprofen (as I am - and I kind of dislike suggesting this), but it may help to take some for a limited time to help with the inflammation. Do not become dependent on it, however, as it is only a panacea - and can wreak havoc on your liver if you take it for long periods of time.
- Reduce caffeine, alcohol, sugar and fats in your diet. This can be hard, but it’s necessary. For me, a vegetarian diet is best for promoting healing and renewal - you may be different.
- Eat more pineapple - it is great for reducing inflammation. Juicing is great, as well, since the micronutrients you get from one 16oz. glass of freshly juiced veggies and fruits are concentrated and easier to consume than eating the original large amount of veggies.
- For old injuries where there is scar tissue, hot castor packs work wonders. (I used these on my C-Section scar about 5 years post-partum, and it dissolved the scar tissue from the incision.)
- If you can afford it, get good body work from a qualified professional. The modalities I personally prefer for injury are acupuncture, shiatsu and deep tissue massage. Do what makes your body relax and renew. It’s worth the cost to give this gift of to ourselves.
- Talk to a qualified Ashtanga teacher to see what else you can do in your practice to promote healing. Modification of postures is preferable to re-injury, and it’s the wise yogi who does this. Also, study the anatomy of the affected area - I have found this is very helpful in giving me a greater understanding of what I should do in my asana practice to prevent further damage, and also future injury.
Although there may be an understandable desire to “take a break” from practice to heal the pulled muscle, I’ve found that after a short rest of a day or two to let any swelling subside, it’s better to continue my practice, albeit, carefully. In general, it’s also better to practice for shorter periods of time, but more regularly, because you will feel less sore and depleted when you practice gradually, adding a little more every time you practice.
I use the asana practice to promote healing. I listen to my breath and intuition even more as a guide and make sure to explore alternatives and modify postures that would exacerbate the injury. Following Primary series carefully, moving through the postures and ending my practice if a posture is not working or feels like it exacerbates the injury, is wisest. The next day, I go through the series and only add a posture when there isn’t pain associated with it. If it hurts, I close my practice. Each day, I do a little more, adding postures as they become comfortable. I may get “stuck” on a posture for some weeks before being able to move on.
Patience is key to this slow and steady approach. It can feel like you are going back to square one - you may only be able to do Suryanamaskar at first - but this method can work to resolve longstanding issues in your body. You have your whole life to practice and explore - what’s the rush?! Pushing to “fix” yourself with the practice by doing it as you “think” you should be doing it, or as you were doing it before the injury, is counterproductive. Trust the practice, because it’s healing, but trust your intuition too. If something hurts very badly, or makes you feel worse afterwards, STOP. Don’t keep doing it. Close your practice for the day. Take rest. The Ashtanga Police will not arrest you for taking good care of yourself.
Finally, see this amazing man and definitely watch this amazing woman's story; both of these videos offer a refreshing, inspirational perspective on the Ashtanga practice and the potential of our minds and bodies.
Injuries can be humbling and frustrating, no question. But, I suggest, you will find greater clarity, depth, humility and acceptance of what “is” when they do happen to you. It's then that the true yoga practice can begin.