What's The Right Thing to do? Working With Physical Challenges, Injury And illness in Yoga

Mar 07, 2017

If you stick with yoga long enough, and perhaps not even very long, it’s certain you’ll be dealing with the question of what to practice when you get injured or sick. Do you forge ahead and get to class even when your sciatica is flaring up? Do you stop practicing completely when your physio tells you you have a torn meniscus? How do you adapt your practice after you injure your shoulder playing tennis? How do you know what’s right?

It takes sensitivity and awareness to respond to changes in your physical condition and adapt practice appropriately. Therefore, working with an injury or illness can actually be a turning point in your yoga if you approach it as an opportunity for learning and self-discovery.

I’m going to set aside the hot topic of working with yoga-related injuries for the moment because they bring up a whole other set of important and nuanced questions that I’ll explore separately down the road. Here, I’d like to address how you approach practice when you have a physical limitation or an injury that happened ‘outside of yoga’. I put that phrase in quotes because whenever you are working with physical limitations how you practice will certainly impact your condition. Of course your condition doesn’t stay outside of yoga, you bring it into the practice. And that’s exactly where the opening for growth lies.

If you've already stuck with yoga though an illness, injury or another kind of physical limitation, then you probably already know that adapting practice during these times is a great opportunity to: 

  • Quickly deepen awareness of your body in the moment because you know it's important to assess how different actions or poses affect you and whether they are helpful for you.
  • Learn a tremendous amount about your body and yogaBecause the stakes are higher you're more present, focused and motivated to pay attention.
  • Honor and respect the needs of your body and  let go of expectations not in line with those needs.
  • Observe your reaction to your limitations. This can often involve an emotional or psychological component like frustration, blaming yourself, the arising of old, familiar feelings of weakness or vulnerability, or that there is something inherently wrong with you. You evolve in practice by recognizing all this, seeing it, experiencing it, and still choosing to continue on appropriately and with compassion toward yourself.

For all these reasons, working with physical issues results in taking more responsibility and ownership of your practice and knowing yourself more deeply. 

Depending on your personality, in my experience most of us will tend toward either giving up and stopping practice all together, or powering through the situation by continuing on as before. I’ve wanted to respond both ways at different times.

It's important to be aware of how your mind and personality will tend to want to respond and put that in a larger perspective. Instead of either of these extremes, I encourage students working with physical conditions to first take a step back to observe the expectations, reactions and resistance that might arise. And, to get a clear, medical diagnosis and the advice of medical professionals and therapists on a plan of treatment, seeking out objective information about what will serve regarding physical movement and yoga practice. Then, create a realistic, short-term plan for yourself that you can revisit as your situation changes.

Often, there is a period of time during illness or injury when we need to rest. Actually stop asana completely or at least take it super easy. At these times, we can remember the many forms yoga practice takes like breathing, chanting, and meditation. I’ve known students who visualized themselves practicing postures when they were incapacitated and not able to perform them physically. They report feeling the subtle benefits of the poses even just by doing this. Whether this effect is measurable or not, the point is that even when we can’t do the physical practice, we can remember the whole spectrum of other practices yoga offers us as a conduit back to an inner sense of stability and our most essential sense of Self.

At the appropriate time we may come back to practice at a slower pace with more supported postures to be able to observe the effects of what you are doing and continue to respond and adapt practice.  

The Bhagavad Gita tells us that Yoga is the severance of union with pain (6.23). We can use this teaching as a compass to direct our curious and mindful engagement with practice. Some questions to gauge our experience are: 

  • What specific poses, movements, positions, actions or micro-adjustments make me feel better or worse?
  • How is my breath moving?
  • When I come out of the posture, how do I feel physically, mentally, and emotionally?
  • How do I feel during and especially a few the hours after my practice?
  • How do breathing and meditation affect my experience of discomfort?

And, we can get input from a teacher or therapist we trust to assess if we moving in the right direction.

In some ways, physical challenges can be aids to maintaining a regular practice. Many older students I know are motivated to practice very regularly because they know from experience that doing some yoga everyday helps keep minor aches and pains at bay.

In successfully working with injuries, we hone the skill of discrimination, emerging with greater understanding of ourselves. In doing so, we strengthening our ability to see beyond what is preferable to what is beneficial, and to choose the latter. Since the body is always subject to change, the sooner we get accustomed to learning how to skillfully respond to physical challenges, the more empowered we will be in our practice.

Get my free 16-page Home Yoga Practice Guide here, it’s full of practical tips and suggestions to support your independent practice, including a pose syllabus and practice sequences if you have 15, 30 60 minutes or more. I hope you enjoy it!

LOVE YOUR YOGA!  Online Practice Course is now available!

"This course has helped me to acknowledge that that what I really want from my practice is mental space and calm; a moment to myself, free from the responsibilities of work, family and domestic stuff (always excuses to not practice!) It is this peace and calm that I seek rather than excelling at physical postures... Thank you Barrie for asking the right questions and reminding me of these things that I know, deep down."

"I am, FINALLY, carving out proper, regular time for my own personal practice, getting up 3 times a week and practising from 6-7:15am while my husband looks after our toddler when he wakes up.  I am so happy."

I'm delighted to announce that Love Your Yoga! my online practice course focusing on Arm Balances, Forward Bends and Spinal Twists is now available. You can begin the program at any time!

Once you sign-up, you'll have access to all the course materials and ongoing support from me for one full year.

This course is designed to transform your relationship to your practice, and it works! Engaging course content is far richer than what any online studio offers, including:

  • 9 Practice sequences for arm balances, forward bends and twists  in 30, 60 and 90 minute versions
  • 3 Video recordings of the 90-minute sequences
  • 4 Video tutorials with additional mini-sequences for more specialized work in poses.
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  • Online forum for support and Q&A anytime!

Sign-up here and receive a 20% discount, now $120 instead of $150!


Evolving your Yoga Talk and Guided Discussion

Wanderlust Studio, Montreal, QC

Thursday, March 9 7:30-9pm

BY DONATION. Are you a yoga teacher or student interested in expanding the benefits of your yoga practice without necessarily doing more or working harder? Do you sense (or even know) that yoga can serve you in bigger ways and yet are unsure how to go about extracting the richness of the practice? Join us for this interactive, engaging and practical discussion with special guest and experienced yoga teacher Barrie Risman, about getting the most out of your yoga practice by:

  • Clarifying why you practice and the role yoga plays in your life
  •  Learning simple approaches to practice that will infinitely expand the benefits of how you practice and teach yoga.
  •  Understanding how to apply the basic wisdom of yoga to serve you in your life right now.

Evolving Your Yoga: Backbends Master Class

Happy Tree Yoga, Montreal, QC

Sunday, March 12 10am-12:30pm

This workshop for continuing students and teachers includes a reflective look at your yoga practice followed by a deep backbending practice. You’ll discover how yoga is working for you in your life right now and clarify your intention for practice. You will also experience the transformative power of heart-centered asana to weave your vision into the fabric of your being where it can begin to manifest!

Read more from the Beyond Asana blog