Written by Liba Spyros | This article also appeared in the 2017 issue of Haymarket Lifestyle.

We have all experienced an injury. And I am sure we have never stood up and screamed, “Hurray, I have injured myself.” Injuries are never at a convenient time, because we feel there is never an appropriate time to slow down. In most cases, we get discouraged and frustrated by an injury; however, there are some opportunities for growth when we are injured.

In all cases, seeking the opinion of a health care provider is important. Some injuries require a time of rest for healing. There are a few cases when staying in a modified training regime expedites healing. After you and your healthcare professional have decided what is best for your body, then true learning can occur. Start by being an observer of the sensations in your body. There is only one way for your body to communicate to you, and that is through sensation. Wouldn’t it be great if our bodies could tell us what to do? “Bend your knees or your back will hurt!” We were simply not designed that way.

It has become popular to ignore warning signs of strain and stress to our physicality. Pushing through pain or stiffness is commonplace. Even the idea of popping an anti inflammatory pre or post workout is standard practice. A far better solution is to eat a diet that supports your nutritional requirements for your chosen method of exercise. Perhaps adding massages and visits to a chiropractor will assist you in meeting your physical goals. Injury prevention is the ultimate desire, but once injured, we need a new mindset for the situation.

No matter what your workout routine is, observing your breath, areas of stiffness, and muscular weaknesses are great places to start. As a former ballerina, I have strong memories of ignoring pain, blisters, muscle strains, and fatigue that could bring me to tears. Slowing down was for the weak, and honestly could leave the door open for other dancers to replace me. As a yoga studio owner, I find it revealing that these same guidelines apply to us as a culture. “No pain, no gain,” is far from a safe healthy mindset, but it is still a strongly held belief. Mindful doesn’t mean easy.
Work to your full capacity, but journey inward to listen with your mind, and central nervous system. Don’t ignore your body’s signals, because you think it makes you tough. Being wise is smart, and will prevent injury in the first place. The progression forward will actually be faster if we aren’t forced to pause for healing.

Once a trauma has actually occurred, then the lessons truly begin. Notice what you are feeling in poses. For example, how do you feel in a forward fold? Are you feeling tight in your lower back or hamstrings? Adjust to safely align your body in this posture. Bending your knees may prevent lower back strain. Ask instructors before or after class, how to safely move in any posture that causes strong sensation. Sometimes the feelings are because you are opening your body in ways that you haven’t in a long while. Other times, modifications are necessary for your safety.

Although the above illustration applies to yoga postures, the idea also applies to a gym workout. Have a trainer observe your alignment as you lift weights or use a piece of equipment. Their eye has been trained to see things that a mirror can’t point out to you. Have a dialogue with your trainer/instructor about how you feel in your movements. As a client of a facility, make sure that your instructor is watching you and the room of practitioners. If the teacher is taking the class with you, they can’t have their eyes on you. Of course, an instructor can’t occasionally demonstrate as they are leading the class, but that should not be the guideline of the class.

Research studios or gyms that have their instructors walk around the room to observe all the participants from many angles. An instructor should also have the skill to adapt their class sequence and plan for the people that show up to take class. An advanced practice for a room of newer practitioners becomes about the instructor’s ego, not the needs of the class. Seek a studio/ gym with highly trained instructors that continually improve their knowledge. Your safety is the combined effort of your skilled trainer, and your own wisdom in how you show up to train.

When you are conditioning with an injury that allows you to still safely workout, then use modifications to proceed wisely. A while ago, I strained my piriformis muscle because I let my ego get in the way of my body’s wisdom. I was amplifying a posture while all the appropriate bells and whistles were going off in my head. I knew my hamstrings and glutes weren’t ready to do this posture, but I pushed through anyway. I was practicing next to a friend, and I remember saying to her, “I broke it!”

The road back to health was frustrating, but exciting. Enthusiasm is not what we think of when we think of experiencing an injury, but what I have learned about my physicality could only have been learned through the humbling process of healing. I spent 2 months in tabletop instead of downward facing dog posture. I moved through all my Warrior 1 and 2 postures from tabletop. I used a block under my sacrum to support myself in bridge pose, and I used my breath to calm the fears that were building in my mind.

Here I was an instructor, a co-owner of the studio, and yet I had to modify my poses. I had to let go of performance ego (left over from years of dance), and truly practice what I had been preaching: “It is your practice, so don’t look at anyone else’s mat.” “Listen to the sensations your body is sending you, and move accordingly.” “Let go of performance evaluation.” “Everyday is a new day and your body shows up differently everyday.” I could go on with these messages that I speak to the people in my classes. But, it took a lot of resolve to be wise and not push my body during this time of healing. I also worked the modified poses to the full potential of my strength. I didn’t just hang out in tabletop; I worked my strength. I held in my abdominals, activated my arms, sent my shoulder blades toward my sitting bones, and strengthened by hands. I worked hard exactly where I was.

The reward came 2 months later when I amplified my practice back to my regular postures. I couldn’t believe it, I was stronger than I had been 2 months prior. By working each posture to my fullest potential, while being safe and conscientious about alignment, I had achieved more than I would have in my regular practice. What a lesson that was for me as an instructor and as a student.

Working my strength in my modifications was about taking care of my body. Keeping it strong while healing. However, my observations were the paramount lessons. I learned where there had been imbalance in my movement. When an instructor gives a cue for alignment, I take it to the extreme. If the cue is, “lift your sitting bones toward the ceiling in downward facing dog,” then I exaggerate that cue in my body. My sitting bones were reaching and extending to the point that I was stressing my lower back and hamstrings. In a forward fold, I made sure I reached the maximum point of my stretch even in the warm up section of class. If my nose could reach my shins, then offering less was not working to my edge. Little by little, I was straining and misaligning my body. My injury wasn’t actually from that one posture, it was from 2 years of not taking care of myself.

Letting an alignment cue be a guideline for the practitioner’s body is what the instructor is trying to achieve. As instructors, we can’t feel how you are feeling in a posture. Those signals are internal and personal. I have learned how to take the alignment cues and make them work for my body. I have long hamstrings, but my lower back prefers if I bend my knees in a forward fold until I am through the sun salutation portion of class. Through this process, I have come through on the other side of my injury with greater body awareness, a smarter practice, and a much stronger body. The most valuable lesson was that, “more doesn’t always mean better.”

Wise effort is the key to a healthy practice that has longevity. Wise effort doesn’t mean slacking off. It means that you will stay off the injured list and you can keep practicing everyday without being on the sidelines. My chiropractor and massage therapist are also part of my health regime. I no longer view them as an extravagance or an indulgence, but a necessary part of my preventative health team. Keeping myself out of crisis is better than getting myself out of trauma.

Perhaps the most obvious part of healing and prevention is a diet that works for you and your unique body. As a yogi, I prefer a plant-based diet. The deeper I get into my yoga practice, my dietary desires are leaning this way. Again, not every diet is for every person. In a yoga practice, you train yourself to tune into the communication between mind and body. If we are keen listeners, we start to learn which cravings are emotional and which are physical. A heated yoga practice fosters the need for increased water intake. Soon you start to realize that you want more high water content food. So after class, a nice juicy pear may be a better choice than French fries.

When we really need to question our choices is when we start to fight the body’s natural healing process. For instance, it makes no sense to eat sugar, which causes inflammation, if you are going to follow that sugar later in the day with an anti-inflammatory medicine such as Ibuprofen, or Acetaminophen. Take notice of everything that passes your lips. You can either support your healing process or impede it.

Developing an awareness of our physicality, observing how we move, breathe, and think is the start to a lifetime of safe fulfilling workouts. Is your natural response to push past a healthy point of effort or do you give yourself too much slack? This knowledge is powerful information. Are you someone who works out so you can eat whatever you want? Or, do you use nutrition to help your body stay in peek form? The former works for a while, but you may start to notice aches, pains, stomach issues, etc creep into your life. When that happens, it may be time to eat to win. “Let thy food be thy medicine, and thy medicine be thy food,” Hippocrates.

Although injuries are a real setback, we have an opportunity to use the injury as a treasure map to greater knowledge of our bodies, minds, and spirits. With this mindset, our setbacks become less about what we can’t do and more about what we can do. Keeping a positive outlook on the situation will allow you to see the good instead of the bad. In the end, you will gain invaluable wisdom that you did not possess prior to your injury. Again prevention is preferred; however should an injury occur, try to enjoy the treasure hunt.