Numerous forms of psychotherapy – particularly Cognitive Behavioural Therapy – emphasize the fact that it is not ‘things’ that cause us to have subsequent emotions but our perceptions of those things. Viktor Frankl who developed Logotherapy said we are ‘meaning-making machines’ which I love – the beauty of those few words are in their absolute truth and utter simplicity. Logotherapy has as its underlying belief that ‘it is the striving to find meaning in one’s life that is the primary, most powerful motivating and driving force in humans’. And, fundamentally, it is the meaning that we ascribe to a situation that defines our response to it. Again, this is an old adage, coming from the Roman Epictetus, who said: “it’s not what happens to us, but how we respond to what happens to us that matters”.
This is just as applicable to us on the mat as it is off it and I am particularly interested to look at this in relation to injuries. There’s a running joke in the fields of bodywork that it is the Ashtangis that keep osteos/chiropracters/Rolfers in business and many an osteo/chiro/Rolfer that I’ve seen in the past has never quite understood WHY I’d even want to contort myself into various poses, particularly if they have led to the injury that took me to said practitioner. Happy though they were to take my money and have yet another dig at the Ashtnaga community.
The way I have responded to injuries over the years has changed massively… from the bust knees I experienced yanking myself into the lotus poses when I first started Ashtanga (and me believing I’d never be able to practice again and just resign myself to a life of shit food, booze and fags – not that I was being dramatic of course) to becoming a teacher and beginning to develop a problem solving approach to understanding what may have been happening anatomically… to developing my knowledge of the workings of the mind in my therapeutic work which gave me and continues to give me an understanding of the interplay between body and mind on the mat… to probably the pivotal moment in my practice when I got hit by a car as a pedestrian in 2010, breaking bones, fracturing a vertebra, and puncturing a lung. That whole raft of injuries forced me to practice completely differently and it pretty much took me right back to being a beginner from being a second series practising, handstanding Ashtangi.
Coming back to how I started this post, what is crucial when we get injured is the response we have to our injuries. Do we work more mindfully around them or just keep on practising as before, hoping they’ll eventually disappear? Do we feel sorry for ourselves and let this feed into our inner sense of being a victim? Do we listen to our bodies to understand what’s going on with a sense of curiosity (aided by a teacher when necessary) or do we just numb the pain with painkillers taken before practice?
In my work with drug/alcohol misuse, I deliver a group on anxiety, with the main idea of it being that anxiety is a completely natural response usually connected to a stimulus that is often identifiable with a bit of effort. I try to teach people to develop a relationship with their anxiety, to listen to it and work with it rather than going to the doctors and getting prescribed some valium or beta-blockers as is becoming more common in our increasingly medicalised society. The same goes for pain and discomfort felt in practice – rather than try to numb the pain or ignore it, treat it as a signal that is telling you something is wrong. You should not be feeling pain in the practice – something which should be so obvious but which is so often overlooked. And why? Because of the ego… Being advanced or good at certain poses or jumps gives us a sense of achievement that can become intertwined with our sense of who we are. Not being able to grab your heels like you may have done in Kapotasana because of a dodgy back or getting your chest to your thighs in a forward bend like before can lead to a sense of failure, to feelings of being less than or incapable. The reality is – it doesn’t matter! Not being able to do something like you used to does not make you any less of a person. I cannot emphasise this enough.
It saddens me that so many people get injured in Ashtanga (and other disciplines of yoga too). That said, in many ways the injuries are inevitable as the repetition of the Ashtanga practice coupled with the sequencing of the poses cleverly designed to mobilize our tight spots and stabilize our weak/flexible spots, results in a literal reconfiguring and restructuring of the body… but only if we allow the process to happen mentally and be comfortable at letting go of the things we do/did/like/felt good about.
There is an ongoing debate within the Ashtanga community about whether injuries are ‘openings’. It is difficult to say as it is impossible to have a blanket rule for every niggle and pain. Rather, each injury should be looked at and explored as an individual case and it is this exploration that will effect change, not just carrying on as before with faith that it’ll work itself out. Interestingly, the language here IS interesting – reframing an injury as an opening can in itself affect your relationship with it.
I recently developed an injury in my left shoulder – a slight niggling that developing into intermittent throbbing that woke me up at night. Being the cyberchondriac that I am, I Googled, read lots of articles on rotator cuff tears and then thought I’d have to have surgery (the drama queen in me unfortunately lives on). Once through that particular night of melodrama and able to think clearly again, I began to systematically investigate what was going on – where was the pain, how much of the tension around it could I let go of? I didn’t jump during my practice, left out handstands for a couple of weeks, and introduced many a dolphin pose before and after my practice to really strengthen the muscles around the injury. The result? A very sore set of stabilizing muscles around the sides of my torso and my back (telling me that I’ve got this far without ever really using those muscles and over-relying on my stronger shoulders leading to the injury), handstands and jumps that are more stable than ever before, and no pain in my shoulder. It has also led to another shift in gears that has changed my practice and moved it up a notch to a different level. It is this constant evolution, the subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) changes that keep me fascinated in this whole Ashtanga thing, probably more than ever before, even after seven years of doing pretty much the same thing, day after day.
It is inevitable to hit a plateau in your practice but I would urge you to look at how you are responding to it. Are you changing anything in your practice? Or are you just doing it like you’ve always done it, inevitably leading to always getting the same results… Something as simple as changing how you breathe or letting go of achievement can have the most incredible results.