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Yoga and Injury Recovery

by Mollie McClelland Morris(more info)

listed in yoga, originally published in issue 256 - August 2019

Injury can disrupt everything we do, making running, or even walking difficult and exercise impossible. Even small injuries can limit daily activities. Of course, yoga might also be affected. Having sprained my ankle, I learned how many poses required ankle range of movement that I hadn’t noticed when my body was well. Public yoga classes are not usually appropriate for someone with an active, healing or recently healed injury. But, yoga can provide a space to heal and recover from injury, if you work with your practice in a mindful modified way.

Every injury and injured person, has a unique path to recovery. Blanket statements about recovery are difficult with so many factors at play. A tailored yoga practice, can provide an outlet for physical energy, and can help balance the body and rebuild strength. Most of all, yoga practice increases body awareness, and embodiment, which help people listen to and feel their bodies to avoid further injuries.

Personal Injury Practice

When I have been injured or with injured clients, I create what I call “personal injury practices”. (If you are not very experienced, you might find a suitable teacher to help you with this). I find specific exercises or yoga poses that gently and effectively mobilize and strengthen the injured area. Then, I add poses that do not aggravate the injury and work other body parts, especially places that are limited by the injury.

There are plenty of ways to tailor a yoga practice to a specific body, and a specific injury. The key is willingness to adapt your practice to your current circumstances, and let it change as your conditions change.

Creating your Injury-Specific Practice

Many yoga poses are similar shapes, with different relationships to gravity. A forward bend can be standing, sitting, or laying on the back. You can even work folding action in a headstand. So if you are limited by an injury in one way, can you adapt the shape, to avoid straining or weight bearing on your injury?

 

Yoga and Injury Recovery

 

Similarly, many yoga poses have similar benefits with slightly different combinations of elements. If you have a shoulder injury, a back bend pushing up with your hands and feet on the floor (wheel pose) might not be appropriate or possible. Camel pose (a backbend on your knees) or cobra pose (on your belly) are backbends which don’t require the shoulders. With a wrist injury, downward dog might not work, but dolphin is a similar shape on forearms instead of hands.

There might be poses that are really good for your injury, either because they create mobility around the injured area, or counter balance the body. So if you know any of those, they make a good focus for a personal injury practice.

Improving Awareness and Refining Movement

For long term yoga practitioners, injuries can have a silver lining. That is learning about our body, and our own movement habits because of the limitation. As we feel our patterns, we start to refine our sensitivity to our own bodies.

When the body is feeling fine, it is easy to mentally zone out from physical activities. In fact, some people actively try not to feel their bodies when they exercise, using loud music, television screens and other stimuli to increase distraction. While this does have a purpose, in yoga, a goal is to increase our presence in our bodies, and increase our embodiment.

Movement awareness is multi-layered. Firstly, when we are trying to avoid sensations of pain, we must pay careful attention to our range and intensity. For example, we might want to work with spinal mobility, but when injured the range of flexion and extension might have to be smaller. Pain might keep us attentive to our tendency to overdo. Secondly, we tend to change our pace when injured, working more slowly, allowing more time for being present.

Through deepened sensitivity we might discover parts of the body engaging or shutting down together. With back injuries for example, often whole sections of muscles seize up, and it is important to help the body distinguish them to facilitate relaxation. Gentle or subtle movement can bring overall mobility back to the area, even if it doesn’t totally heal the problem.

Some injuries are a result of postural imbalances. If you continue to move in the same way you always did, your injury will flare up repeatedly, or will migrate through the body. So it is important to address postural habits (like standing with one hip sticking out to the side, gripping the jaw or tensing abdominal muscles). Bringing consciousness to a pattern is the first step to changing it.

Adding touch can be a way to increase presence. Our brains have limited perception at any one time, so when something is constant, our awareness of it diminishes. (Think about holding hands with a loved one while watching a film. After a short time, you won’t feel their hand anymore. A little stroking action is like a tiny brain stimulation each time, reminding you of their presence.) I use touch before and during my practices to wake up my sensitivity and awareness. This helps the body feel awake and responsive. It also helps posture to self-correct.

 

mollie

 

Shifting the Focus of Movement

Whether injured or not, when we speak or think about our bodies, the overwhelming language we use is negative, and pain-based. “My back is so tight.” “I’m sore.” “My abs are weak” etc. We rarely hear anyone say, “Oh, my spine feels very fluid today”. Sometimes shifting this mental pattern is enough to shift a quality of pain.

Embodiment is a key feature of this practice. You might question “what am I embodying with this pose/practice?” If you are embodying negativity, the action of doing might make you feel better, but you won’t get as much improvement as you would by embodying qualities you want to cultivate in your body, or in your life.

Kinesthetic words help shift the mental chatter and increase embodiment. For me, thinking of my shoulders or arms floating, or invoking qualities like smooth and light changes the way my arms feel. Images, metaphors and motivations can make movement feel better.

A more detailed, (and perhaps challenging) version of imagery work is using a good side to help ‘teach’ an injured side, through imagery. If your injury causes immobility in a certain place, you can move the good side, getting as sensitive to the movement as possible. Then imagine your other side doing the movement with the same level of detailed awareness. This is called Mental Simulation of Movement. If there is movement, but less range or ease, use the imagery of your good side when you work with your injured side. For example, in my body, it is easier to side bend to the left. Left side bends feel flowing, like water pouring over a waterwheel. On the right, it never feels so nice. But, I imagine the waterwheel image as I do right side bends, and it generally feels better and improves the range.

Yoga practice, done in a mindful way, can help heal our injuries and improve how we feel in the body. Here are some tips for incorporating yoga practice into injury recovery.

●       Focus on what you can do. When injured, it is easy to get frustrated by what is not possible. Focus on what is. Get interested in movements, poses and postures that your body can do. Most injuries need movement, so work with what is achievable and keep at it;

●       Tailor your practice to your needs. Cut out poses or sequences that create pain, and find poses or exercises that strengthen and mobilize your injury.

●       Focus on balance, not on stretching. Deep stretching is a place where we can easily get injured, so avoid going to the end range of your poses. When you work the body in one direction, make sure to work the opposite, both in lengthening actions and shortening actions. If you do a lot of leg stretches, do poses that strengthen the same muscles, so you stay balanced;

●       Reframe your mental chat into positives. Think about how you want to feel, and then tell yourself those words while you are moving. Affirmations like “my spine is supple and flexible” or “my feet are springy” can direct your movement, and create a different internal experience. It doesn’t mean lying to yourself. Your thoughts are like instructions. If you keep reiterating negativity in your thoughts, your body will recreate it;

●       Stimulate the body with touch. Body Tapping is one of my favourites. Simply tap the body, touching all surfaces, at an intensity that suits you. It shouldn’t hurt but it should feel like something. I usually do one arm or leg, and then pause and notice before doing the second side. Then move up or down the body, tapping back, trunk, shoulders and neck. Tap lightly on face and head. This wakes up your sensory nerves and feels refreshing. Try it!

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About Mollie McClelland Morris

Mollie McClelland Morris is a renowned London-based yoga teacher with more than 16 years of experience in teaching, mentoring and encouraging people to live healthy, happy, mindful lives. She is the founder of the Grace and Presence Teacher Training. Free resources and more information on classes and trainings can be found on http://www.molliemorris.com/

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