Refining Yoga Classes

Nine years ago, I began to feel a deep ache in my left inner hip that felt more painful after yoga classes. I knew what it was then, and an MRI last summer confirmed it: interior anterior labral tear, with left gluteus minimus tendinopathy. My yoga injury. You can think of the labrum like the rubber seal on a Ball jar, essentially sealing the head of the femur into the joint. When this tissue gets torn or damaged, range of motion is restricted and pain presents eventually. Some say it’s permanent, some say physical therapy or PRP therapy can help, and some say only surgery is a true fix.

The heart of yoga is timeless and gorgeous. What we consider asana, or yoga poses, today isn’t ancient at all but really a new discipline in the long history of yoga as a whole. As with anything new, it needs to continue to be refined as we learn more about the mechanics of the body and as we have more data of more bodies over longer periods of time in this discipline.

The ever-growing population of long-time yoga practitioners with both shoulder and hip labrum tears, neck pain, SI joint injuries, hamstring attachment injuries, and knee injuries needs attention. The more extreme range of motion postures are, well, extreme. Fine, do them once in a while and don’t hurt yourself. Most of the practitioners who can do them were born with a structure that supports larger range of motion or some other proportion that makes the shape more accessible. Couple that with a few months of work and you’ve got a gorgeous Instagram photo.

This writing isn’t about that. This writing is about how we can maintain a full lifetime of yoga, steadiness, and equilibrium with a body that feels each posture from center and throughout all limbs. It’s about how we can practice asana in a way where intensity isn’t concentrating stress in one part of the body, but rather how close we can stay to ourselves while yoga pressurizes us as a whole from the inside, and while in the midst of that pressure we can mind equanimity.

The end game of yoga is that we are not separate. Applying this to our asana practice, if a feeling is so much more intense in one part of the body that there is no awareness in the rest of the body, it’s time to retreat. Take a breath, go more deeply into where you are with attention, awareness, a sense of wholeness and the capacity to feel all of it. Not only are we not separate from each other according to the teachings, no part of our body is separate. The body is one whole thing. And the body is part of everything.

Our body is profoundly resilient and adaptable and is always moving toward equilibrium. I know that not using my body as a result of this tear in my hip is not a great strategy. I don’t need to be afraid to use my body, and I would so much rather have an issue from overuse than underuse. Today, I work harder than I ever have in my practice, and at the same time…my practice looks totally different. For my body, working hard and advancing isn’t being so flexible that I can get my leg behind my head, because for my body that is fairly easy. For my body, working hard and advancing is countering my flexibility, being able to contract a muscle I didn’t think I could, and feeling my body as a whole unit instead of random parts and pieces. To me, that is more challenging than anything else and is a maturation of my practice.

Advanced is also a daily practice of gratitude so that I don’t turn against my body. Yoga has allowed me to have this injury and yoga has supported me in staying interested in my body even with this perceived limitation. Keeping an internal environment of friendship is crucial in making sure it’s not just the loud kid that gets the attention…but the quiet ones receive care and attention too.

I say “listen to your body.” I’ve said it for years. Teachers say it to me while I’m a student in class. Doctors say it. Colleagues say it. Parents say it. It’s really important to listen to your body and we can hear so much in doing so. Body does know best and in yoga it’s a really significant instruction.

However, the thing about “listening to your body” in yoga asana is that if your body has been practicing for many years doing the same postures the same way hundreds of times, resulting repetitive stress injuries usually don’t present with pain until the injury has already settled in. Even if you are truly consciously listening to your body, the nature of modern yoga creates an environment of vulnerability in some bodies that isn’t even felt until long after it happens. In a practice where we have much repetition over time, we’re beginning to see hard evidence that the things that we are repeating need some refining.

As teachers, we can do better than “listen to your body.” As teachers we can start to learn about the imbalances in yoga sequencing (why do we forward fold so much and why have I now officially done 9 million chatturangas in my lifetime?). We can know which joints in the body are continually stressed over and over and figure out how to cue a posture in a way that lessens the pressure on an area. We can approach our teaching as a skill that is always evolving and constantly being cleaned up as we change what doesn’t work and default back to the basic biomechanics of how we were born to move.

My 200 hour yoga teacher training teacher, Kim, was always going against the grain in this arena, long before anyone wanted to hear it. And today, 10 years later, my 300-hr teacher Jason Crandell has been going against the grain in his intelligent and intuitive way, and is helping me wake up, again, to this practice of yoga and all the ways it continues to challenge me to expand.