Several years ago, as a very earnest and eager new yogini, I injured my right knee during a rather vigorous yoga class. Quite frankly, it was a class I shouldn’t even have been in, given my lack of experience in asana practice and my inability to do a lot of the postures with proper form. Unfortunately, people being in yoga classes beyond their ability and teachers keeping them safe in these classes is a real problem in the yoga community. (Which is why articles like this show up in the New York Times)
Long story short, after the injury I insisted on continuing a physical yoga practice until I literally could not go up or down stairs and could only walk with excruciating pain. Finally, I surrendered. I listened to my body, I rested my knee, which meant absolutely NO ASANA from the waist down, and slowly but surely my knee healed. It took months. Many long months.
The first of those long months I pouted. But after a few months of pouting, I got back to a real yoga practice. No asana, but Yoga just the same. Within a few weeks of a daily non-physical yoga practice, I stopped pouting. I stopped feeling sorry for myself. I stopped resenting my body and its imperfections and I started feeling compassion towards myself and especially my poor knee that had been so abused by me, its owner. And, most importantly, I felt a profound empathy for people with limited mobility and those living with chronic pain.
It was this experience with my knee injury that fueled my passion for making yoga accessible for persons of all abilities. Not only because I think that every single person can do asana to some extent, but because I know that every single person can practice Yoga whether they have an asana practice or not. Asana is just a small part of Yoga on the whole (not that you’d know it to observe how it is practiced in the West).
Throughout the years I’ve had many students approach me with questions about how they can modify their asana practice because of an injury and many times the answer is: stop. Stop doing asana for a while. Your body must rest. I can count on one hand the number of students who have accepted this answer immediately. The usual response is: “Oh no, I can’t do that”.
I do not judge this response because I know it well. I understand the reaction. And it may be that these students need to do what I did – essentially ignore their bodies to the point of debilitating pain – before they can surrender and listen to their bodies. But until we learn to do just that – surrender and listen – we are not actually practicing Yoga. We’re just exercising.
Yoga means acceptance of what is, compassion towards ourselves and others, and holding space for ourselves to heal and be whole. We cannot be healed or whole when we are hurting our bodies through an insistence on a physical practice. When we are so attached to our physical practice that we do it even when our bodies are telling us otherwise, we have allowed our practice to become yet another “thing” that keeps us from having a clear and calm mind.
A few days ago I felt a sudden and familiar twinge in my right knee. My first reaction was, “No! Not this again!”, followed by “it’s probably not that bad”. It took a few days of this (and lots more pain) for me to once again accept that what my body needs more than anything right now is rest. After many years as both a teacher and a student of Yoga, this is still very hard for me to do.
Sometimes, practicing Yoga means not “doing” Yoga, but practicing all of the things that our asana practice is supposed to teach us and reinforce about letting go, surrender, and acceptance. It means that sometimes we stop doing and we start being.