I discovered yoga in late 1990s. I’ll never forget taking my first yoga class. It was Kundalini Yoga class. The yoga teacher was dressed in all white and wore a turban. We did a lot of breath work, chanting, meditation and sat a long time in a cross-legged position for the majority of the class. I felt like I was going in to hyperventilation with the breath-of-fire, and my left leg and left hip ached the whole time. My foot kept falling asleep. I felt miserable. I wanted exercise.
Looking back, I’m not sure how I kept trying, because it was a little bit of torture to experience the physical and mental pain when I tried to “meditate.” But, people I admired swore by this mediation thing and I was determined to find out what this magical “peaceful mind” was all about.
I took a Kundalini Yoga class twice a week for about a year. I gradually regained the sensation that I lost from my injury and that is where my yoga journey began. If it weren’t for my injury in November 1995, I honestly don’t think I would feel as connected as I do today. It has prompted me to investigate alternative therapies and it has opened me mentally. I enrolled in an in-depth yoga teacher training at Sun & Moon Yoga Studio in 2011 and have been registered with Yoga Alliance since 2012.
Attending a wilderness first aid class last weekend brought me to write this. We went over fracture care, sprains, strains, wound care and wilderness critical care and the memories of what happened to me 21 years ago keep creeping up in my mind.
24 years ago I was in an accident. On a drizzly morning on my way to work, I hit in back of someone’s car at an intersection. The first accident was a fender bender and no one was hurt. I got out of the car to see if any damages were done to any of the cars. As I was standing between the front of my car and the other driver’s bumper, another car hit behind my car and my left leg was completely crushed between my thigh and just below the knee. This also caused an open-femur fracture and I went through intensive surgery for eight hours. Luckily my knee cap was not crushed but it was bruised severely and everything else in the knee was shattered.
Four weeks after surgery, I started therapy in a heated, therapeutic pool. I could only get in and out of the water in a hydraulic chair lift. I could not put any weight on my left leg; however, I was able to work out by swimming freestyle laps and worked with a physical therapist in the water. If you have had a knee or hip replacement, gait retraining helps you relearn to stand up straight (the tendency is to lean toward your operated leg) and use both legs evenly. Gait retraining may begin in the pool, where the water’s buoyancy takes weight off the joint, makes it easier to stand up straight, and reduces the fear of falling.
From personal experience I believe that a personal yoga practice is as important as an alignment rehab regimen if you have been injured. I have scar tissue in my left leg that still remains. My alignment changed due to my left leg being shorter than my right leg. When I don’t keep up with my yoga practice, my left sacroiliac ilium joint, lower lumbar spine and left shoulder feels tight and dull. Although the fitness related activities that I’ve done over the years has enhanced my health, I still have various physical issues as a result of my accident 21 years ago. I do not have a full range of motion in my left leg and am unable to do poses like hero (virasana) and bow pose (dhanurasana). I had to modify the hero pose by putting blocks under my buttocks.
For a long time the healing slowed me down because I rejected where I am, therefore I pushed myself inappropriately in the past. Before I took up yoga, I was unable to sit in a cross-legged position but today I can. I’ve received yoga therapy, chiropractic treatments, acupuncture and personal training on a pilates reformer. All these tools do promote structural alignment, but in particular, I recommend a personal yoga practice in conjunction with acupuncture, chiropractic treatment and bodywork therapy.
From what I’ve experienced, the relief from chiropractic adjustments and acupuncture treatments is only temporary. However, a personal yoga practice, can be a permanent fix to the injury. The mind, body, and spirit changes over time, therefore, how we take care of ourselves should change too. Yoga has helped me age more gracefully, maintaining strength, balance and openness. A personalized yoga practice should have at its core this paradox of acceptance and change. I get static with the same yoga over time and I find that it is helpful to go to a new teacher every now and then. I strongly recommend a private consultation with a teacher you respect—even if you are a teacher yourself—who can look at you with fresh eyes and make some recommendations for changing your personal practice.
I’m a very earth-element person, who is oriented toward transitions from one season to the next. My rhythm sways, as if I’m moving with the rhythm of the earth. The solstices and equinoxes that I attend regularly embodies the rhythm of transition, and these Native American ceremonies embrace that change because I tend to hold the past in the present moment. Yoga has kept me grounded until the circle starts again the following season. Embracing the earth element heals me physically, emotionally and spiritually.
Yoga teacher training has shown me how to be involved in my own healing. I’ve observed things in myself that I haven’t noticed before. Typically, I am a person with a high energy level. I give selflessly of my time and energy to others, frequently putting others’ needs before my own. From an energetic expenditure perspective, the energy I have dramatically exceeds the energy returned. This leaves my energetic body depleted over time until the physical body finally follows. The stress causes indigestion and that has led me to conclude that major behavioral shifts must take place in me to reverse the flow of energy so a balance is achieved. By practicing yoga that balance is achieved and my body’s ability to heal itself is enhanced. If you do require some effort to measure your available energies, one’s personal yoga practice should bring in energy, not deplete energy by being overly stressful. Understanding what’s happening inside you will help you heal and keep healthy.
The body is constantly adapting to its environment, experiencing an ever-changing chain of events. When one part of the body experiences a trauma, this complex set of interactions is altered once again, potentially leading to further injury and trauma in adjacent locations.
My tight left adductor muscle strongly affects ‘hip opening’ creating an imbalance. Therefore sitting in a cross-legged position feels tight on my left knee. The discomfort is caused by a misalignment of my pelvis, tension in the large muscles of the hips and pelvis (which may cause the joint to jam or stiffen), or a strain (which is often due to looseness or hyper-mobility in the joints). My left sacroiliac joint is stiff and the other is hyper-mobile, creating an imbalance that has caused discomfort in my left side. My pectineus muscle has been shortened due to my accident. This also causes some external rotation at the hip and prevents my hip from opening fully as it is still adducting the thigh, tightening the head of the femur into the hip.
My left knee and hip have disrupted my normal walking gait by causing stiffness and restricting joint movement, thereby weakening certain muscles. A person’s usual pattern of standing, walking, or running may also invite joint problems if weakness occurs in key muscles and poor alignment. Such bad habits throw off the gait. It may have taken many years of walking or running with an abnormal gait before knee joint and feet and hip injury occurs. Improper running leads to injury because it involves greater force with each stride. Initially, the proper gait may feel odd; you will most likely need practice and continued instruction before it becomes comfortable. Yoga will strengthen muscles you may be trying to avoid using.
Although many people adopt the practice to ease stress and improve overall health, a growing number have specific medical aims and are following the recommendations of their clinicians. According to a study in the journal Spine (Sept. 1, 2009), yoga therapy can reduce pain and functional impairment in people with chronic (lasting more than three months) low back pain. This condition is notoriously difficult to treat, and not surprisingly, one of the most commonly reported reasons for turning to alternative and complementary therapies. Yoga has shown promise in treating the condition, but not all studies have looked at the same form of yoga. The Spine study tested a form called Iyengar (pronounced eye-en-gar) yoga, which is based on the teachings of the eponymous nonagenarian B.K.S. Iyengar.
Most yoga taught and practiced in this country is hatha yoga, which combines three elements: classic poses (asanas), controlled breathing, and deep relaxation or meditation. Iyengar is a type of hatha yoga involving the use of props such as blankets, blocks, benches, and belts to help people perform the poses to the fullest extent possible even if they lack experience or have physical limitations. The emphasis is on precise physical alignment, with trained teachers adjusting everything from the position of the shoulders to the angle of the toes. Recent research studies have confirmed the benefits of yoga.
The gentleness of Iyengar yoga makes it a good form of activity for those with physical limitations, including the disabled and people who are older or don’t exercise.
Current physical activity guidelines for older adults emphasize improving balance and flexibility in addition to strength and cardiovascular fitness. Taking a yoga class may help many people meet those guidelines. One study looked at the effects of a nine-week program of Iyengar yoga in 24 women between the ages of 59 and 76, none of whom had previous experience with yoga. They performed simple, classic Iyengar poses. At the end of the program, the women walked more quickly, with greater confidence, and had better balance and flexibility.
Many people suffering from a back injury experience sciatica. According to PubMed, the National Institutes of Health’s online resource “Sciatica refers to pain, weakness, numbness, or tingling in the leg. It is caused by injury to or pressure on the sciatic nerve. Sciatica is a symptom of another medical problem, not a medical condition on its own.” I had a symptom of numbness in my left foot. It felt like I had gel on the soles of my feet. I took a B vitamin every day for the nervous system and it took three months for the numbness to go away. I never had this before and I may never understand why I had this numbness in my feet. My only guess is that I overdid it on my sciatica nerve from a yoga pose where my form wasn’t correct. When there is pressure or injury to the nerve, it can be a bit confusing as to its source. Pain that radiates from your lumbar spine to your buttock and down the back of your leg is the hallmark of sciatica. However, sciatic pain will sweep more to the out-seam of the leg and travel down the side of the leg to the foot, or maybe only travel part way down the buttock and back leg.
Another musculoskeletal concern I have had is a shoulder injury. It took two years for me to get rid of a rotator cuff pain. Like hamstring tears, rotator cuff injuries are easily re-injured. That happened with me multiple of times and my healing was delayed. It is acceptable to work through mild shoulder discomfort—and this may be necessary to increase range of motion—but any sharp pain, or an increase in pain after the practice, means you have gone too far. I had rotator cuff pain, especially when I went swimming. It would hurt when I did breaststroke or freestyle strokes. However, swimming was the best therapy when I went through rehabilitation on my left leg. The same is true with your yoga practice. A gentle asana program to build shoulder muscle strength will gradually restore range of motion, improve alignment, and foster relaxation.
Since these injuries can make it difficult and painful to lift the hand over the head, one may need to avoid poses such as Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward Facing Dog) and Adho Mukha Vrksasana (Full Arm Balance). In more severe cases, students may have difficulty even bringing their arms parallel to the floor as they prepare to move into standing poses. Some poses can be modified, however. For example, a recommendation would be to do Virabhadrasana I (Warrior I) with the hands on the hips rather than stretched overhead.
Some students should avoid such poses as Chaturanga Dandasana (plank) entirely, and be very careful of those such as Gomukhasana (Cow Face Pose) and Reverse Namaste, in which many students poke the head of the humerus bone too far forward to be safe. Due to the weight bearing involved, Chaturanga (Four-Limbed Staff) is one of the most dangerous poses for the shoulder if the student has this common postural habit. For these students, repeated cycles of Surya Namaskar (Sun Salutation) that includes full Chaturanga, especially when they are done quickly, is recommended.
As with many injuries, nature and time may take care of the problem—if you stop doing the action that hurt them in the first place and avoid contraindicated poses during their rehabilitation. Such students will also need a gentle asana program to build shoulder muscle strength, gradually restore range of motion, improve alignment, and foster relaxation.
My goal is to be a yoga teacher that gives instructions that are individualized, with adjustments made for age, experience, body type, physical condition, and medical problems. I teach mixed styles such as Vinyasa, Hatha, Yin, Interval, and restorative with props. I also offer private sessions for Thai Yoga Bodywork. I like to look at a person as a whole. Each person is unique depending on the proportion of the earth, fire, air and space, – forces that shape us (Ayurveda). For me, air and water are my main forces (I’m a Vata). Others will be different. I would encourage you to listen for the creeping things in body and mind and meditate on allowing emotional and physical discomforts to flow through. With patience it will eventually dissipate.
Everyone’s river is different. Make yours one that moves silently. The river will expand to meet the sea. The rapids are the past, flowing slowing in to expansion. It works the same way in us. What arise in the emotional body can be worked through by becoming aware of your breath. You can work through irritation, impatience and anger in small ways. Notice what is arising in you when you sit still.