Why I Teach the Way I Do: From Injury to Industry

The yoga “industry” is getting more and more athletic. A practice associated with gentle breathing in the seventies is now associated with acrobatics and contortion. Advertisements for workshops and pictures for yoga articles feature advanced poses, whether they have anything to do with the rest of the page. When people hear the word yoga now, they think of lithe young women in magazines instead of someone of average build seated in a meditative pose with contentment. People don’t come to yoga classes for enlightenment or wisdom anymore: They come for the workout.

Confessions of a Hardcore Yoga Junkie

I get it though, I do. I started yoga in 2003 to meet a PE requirement. I’d been halfheartedly engaged in athletic activities throughout childhood and adolescence including dance, gymnastics, rollerskating, even colorguard, but I’d never really felt comfortable in my body. I started in yoga because I needed a PE unit and it sounded easy. The class was a medium level Hatha class, taught by a teacher primarily influenced by Iyengar, but also familiar with Ashtanga, Vinyasa, and other practices.

I stayed because I began to understand the signals of my body, how to use it in subtle and fine ways. I built confidence in my abilities. I felt better, had less back and neck pain, pains I hadn’t actually noticed were there before. My overall health improved. Although many doctors don’t believe yoga can contribute to weight loss because even the most hardcore vinyasa class doesn’t produce enough cardio, over the course of 6 months I went from a size 20 to a size 12, and within the year I was wearing a 6.

I was excited. I dragged anyone who would let me to class. I got all the accessories: the cuter mat, the cool mat-bag,props for home. I was INTO yoga. I mastered the basic poses, like Downward Facing Dog, Warrior I and II, Triangle. I knew Sun Salutation like the back of my hand. I was able to get my heel behind my head in a seated pose and was working on getting my foot to my head in full eka pada rajakapotasana, one-legged king pigeon pose. I began to research poses on my own more and more.

I began to notice that other people called poses Wrong Names. Also, they had Wrong Sun Salutations. I saw new, more interesting poses my teacher wasn’t covering. I felt stagnant and pushed to learn inversions and arm balances. I learned new Names for Yoga that my teacher, who used words like Iyengar and Hatha, didn’t say in class like Ashtanga, Kundalini, and Anusara. I found out there were many, many schools of yoga, and some of them used the same names for different poses, or called the same poses different names.

Because my class was through community college, there was a writing requirement. I used this opportunity to learn more about the history of the practice to understand when these paths diverged and why. I learned about the Yoga Sutra and the ethical principles of yoga. I learned about meditation, and that the original poses (called asana) were probably just a few seated ones. The Sutra only dedicates a few lines out of four books to them, and the only directions are to do them “sthiri” and “sukha”, with steadiness and ease.

Over the course of the first few years of my practice, I sustained a few injuries people associate with physical activity, and I didn’t think much of them. Early on I was taking yoga at the same time as Aikido and tore an abdominal muscle between the two. I was out of class for a few weeks while it healed and lost the muscular strength and flexibility I’d gained. I returned and pushed through the ache of tired, worn out muscles until the limited physicality I’d gained returned.

On another occasion I was struggling with Crow pose. I was able to lift up for limited amounts of time, but I kept pushing myself to master the pose. I used props for safety, but didn’t foresee slipping sideways, not forward. My right wrist was sprained, preventing me from continuing with arm balances, plank, and downward facing dog for quite some time. In addition, my school work suffered due to the increased pain and challenge of trying to take notes.

When I left Diablo Valley College and went on to San Francisco State for my BA and MA. I continued taking yoga with my teacher Wanda until DVC wouldn’t let me anymore. She encouraged my interest and sometimes let me assist or lead poses in class. When someone starts getting into yoga, they often are asked to teach their friends poses, so I appreciated the practice teaching, but I was always terrified to be put on the spot in front of a large class.

Pushing Through Obstacles: How Being Type A Broke my Yoga Practice

After I no longer went to DVC and became overwhelmed by graduate school. I stopped going to classes and maintained a personal practice at home. When I studied or wrote my thesis, I often sat in yoga poses. For a while, excessive baddha konasana was the only clue to my knee issues. I began to notice, while driving the 45 miles to school or walking up the 5 flights of stairs in the Humanities building, that my left knee was struggling. I experienced aches similar to those I felt when trying to get back into practice before and I figured it was just the feeling of tired muscles growing new tissue.

Being a determined person, I pushed through the sensation because of my responsibilities. After a couple  of weeks, my right knee began to hurt as well. I didn’t have time to go to the doctor, so I just took some ibuprofen and pressed on. I’d read enough Yoga Journal articles to know that whenever you slacked off on practice, you’d experience aches and pains that could be obstacles, but through the principle of tapas we should push through it. I continued to do my best, taking breaks, using the elevator when needed.

After a while, it was more challenging to walk on either side. I tried assorted knee braces from the drug store, but couldn’t find anything that really helped. I went to the doctor who recommended icing and staying off it for a while. When that didn’t help he said I should see an orthopedist, who said I needed to do a few exercises at home and I’d be fine. After a few months, I left this doctor for one who took Xrays. He put me on a naproxin regimen after I’d spent 6 months being prescribed 20-30 ibuprofen a day. He also had me do hours of PT on-site every week. This lasted a year.

In a short time I’d gone from someone who felt confident about her body awareness and health to someone who had to crawl up the stair when she got home. When I took elevators instead of stairs, strangers made comments about my fitness level or my weight, which was rapidly increasing. I began to wear my knee braces on the outside of my clothes to reduce the continual commentary at school, the BART station, the mall. When I took vacations we would find escalators out of order and have to choose between finding another, long, circuitous route, or cancelling plans later due to pain. My first orthopedist told me that the only help would be to sell my car (a stick-shift), quit commuting (to my final year of graduate school), and sell my house (a split level with entry downstairs).

My resolve and determination, that fire that had allowed me to be a a self-taught Network Engineer and homeowner in the Bay Area by 21 and helped me figure out how to go to college after the tech bubble burst, was of no help. No matter how much I pushed myself, I would heal at the pace I healed. It was long, arduous, and painful. It felt like I would never get better, and I no longer trusted the determination that had contributed to the injury’s severity.

Meanwhile I desperately needed someway to cope with my body betraying me before I’d even turned 30. Although I had a 1-2 hour commute, several side jobs, and hours of doctors appointments and physical therapy each week, I was struggling to finish graduate school and my thesis. I was drowning, not only under the pain and frustration, but under the constant comments from strangers on the street, and the lack of support from my doctor who wouldn’t even tell me my diagnosis, simply sending me off with a piece of paper. My body was something I could not control and didn’t seem to own or even know. I was a grad student brain ferried around medical offices by a marionette-body itself controlled by prescriptions.

My self-concept, already damaged by weight gain, criticism, a pessimistic diagnosis, and lack of understanding and support from people who told me to just walk it off, was further degraded by a lack of yoga.

When you are healthy, and willing to push yourself into fancy poses, you can find a class anywhere. When you have an injury, you are told you can come to class, but often spend it in Child’s Pose. Many teachers were doing Vinyasa classes, and didn’t have the class time or knowledge to tell me how to modify poses to suit my injuries. Many hadn’t been trained in pose modification or injury management at all, instead spending time of what they thought a perfect pose would look like. Some of them learned biomechanical principles that were just plain not true. None of them seemed to have ever been injured, and they viewed their bodies as permanent temples, unchanging and perfect. They had no idea what it was like to watch that temple crumble no matter what you tried.

My Students: Overcoming Type A Tendencies Instead of Feeding Them

Many of my students over the years have also never experienced this sensation of body-mutiny, or experienced how much it can undermine one’s sense of self. As a result, they often feel that a slow-and-steady approach to learning poses is too boring and time-consuming, wanting instead to rush into advanced practices they see on exercise videos and in magazines. They don’t care if their shoulder girdle is ready for the arm balance or inversion, or that over half a million people require surgery to their rotator cuff every year, that certain practices and attitudes are more likely to result in injury, or that pushing themselves into poses they haven’t built up to can cause serious, permanent harm. They don’t know that the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons have released guidelines for yoga, after seeing an increase in significant injuries to joints, or that those guidelines suggest slowly learning the fundamentals including breathwork before even worrying about flexibility.

Unfortunately, some of these students, who are more concerned with competing for a Yoga Journal cover model spot than just accessible, healthier living, will find out about these facts the hard way. Not all, for certain, but some of these students will learn about degenerative disc disease or thoracic outlet syndrome after an ill-advised headstand, shoulderstand, or plow pose. Some will learn about knee problems after pushing to do supta virasana, supine hero’s pose, with the feet out to the side of their hips and a torque at the knee, just like they saw in a book somewhere. Some of these students may merely be struck by a circumstance unrelated to a yoga injury, and find their body will never function quite the way they were used to again.

And if and when that happens, we will have a home for them to learn their practice all over again.

Because that is why we’re here.