As a yoga teacher I have asked my class, “Raise your hand if you have an injury or chronic pain,” ….and no one raised a hand. Then I’d say, “Ok who here has back pain, has dislocated a shoulder, sprained an ankle, tore their hamstring, had knee surgery, has chronic headaches, SI joint pain, soreness in the hips/shoulder/neck/wrists?” and suddenly everyone is raising their hand. If you’re a yoga teacher, fitness trainer, physiotherapist or really any coach/leader/therapist in the fitness industry you have likely had a similar experience. Truth is, almost EVERYONE has suffered some physical pain, yet we hide it or choose to not acknowledge it.
Why do we think admitting an injury/pain is a weakness, or even worse, so NORMAL that we feel our body’s issues are not worth mentioning? It’s incredible how many people fill out forms or start a fitness class without mentioning some ache or muscle pull that’s been bugging them, or a past surgery or serious injury that they still feel repercussion from. Then myself or the trainer finds out after class or weeks later about their physical concerns/ailments. It is impossible for anyone to be able to give you the best care and advice you want if you are not honest from the get go. So first things first, let’s be honest and not afraid to share our concerns! This opens the door for discussion on healing/strengthening and for you to learn a lot more about your body’s needs.
The next step, and most important, is the acceptance of your injury for what it is: a loud and clear message from your body that it is not ok with what you are doing to it. Doing the same thing over and over again (like a yoga practice, or a specific sport, or weight lifting, or running/walking, or even sitting at a desk) can, with just the tiny bit of laziness/unawareness, result in an injury. Or trying something new for the very first time lacking understanding of the activity can result in a terrible strain or sudden injury like an ankle roll. The body is saying, “Woah! Stop right there, this is NOT good for me!”
How do you react when something like this happens? Do you stop all movement completely, afraid to cause more harm? Do you continue to move/be active as you always have been and ignore the injury (sucking it up)? Or do you adapt your activities with awareness to your injury and a decisive intention to heal it?
In the past, I always took a day or so off after an ankle roll, muscle pull, or shoulder overuse when I played volleyball, but I’d be back in the next day with the mentality to “suck it up.” So after a rest day I’d get taped up to hold my body together, and play with the same intensity, making the injury much worse. This was the reason why I ended up needing knee surgery; I tore my meniscus at the beginning of a season and instead of sitting out the next few weeks, I sucked it up for the entire 6 month season. I cried after every practice because I was in so much pain but I chose to ignore these loud and clear messages. I kept tearing it more and more, until my only option was surgery. I never treated my body like the temple it is, instead I abused my youthful body and its abilities, always pushing to its breaking point. It wasn’t until I was 23 years old that I started to realize I needed to be kinder and more understanding of my body if I wanted it to still function when I was older. I dream of being that grandmother who still climbs mountains and teaches yoga well into my 80’s. But that dream will not be possible if I continue to abuse my body, take it past its limits, and break it.
While I have not personally experienced the other reaction (to not move at all after an injury), I have witnessed many occasions of this opposite reaction to an injury. Some take their injury/pain so seriously that they become afraid to move ever again. They take weeks, months, maybe years off from all physical activity and as a result lose all their strength, mobility and confidence in their body. Our body is built to move, it thrives when we challenge it and ages gracefully when we make movement a priority in our lifestyle. It saddens me to watch people become brittle and scared to engage in activities as they get older. Their lack of movement has in return added so much fear in the mind of future injuries from something like a fall, that they have actually increased their chances of injury if they did fall. Bones weaken as we age, it is inevitable, but we can slow the process down by moving the body. When your muscles engage around a bone, they push and pull on the bone and in return strengthen it. If you have no movement and no push and pull on your bones, then your bones become brittle and are more susceptible to break/fracture. So move past fear with the motivation that you are actually less likely to get injured if you move than if you don’t! Start small, gradually increasing the challenge, and watch as you realize new strengths and enjoyment in your body.
I have personally been dealing with SI joint pain, lower back pain and a hamstring pull (all on my left side…coincidence I think not!) for the past year, and instead of reacting with a “suck it up” attitude like I did in the past, I have adapted my physical activities to facilitate healing. I started to realize how much pressure I was putting into my lower back in backbends/transitions in yoga because of laziness to activate my core in these precarious positions. Now instead of dumping all the weight into my lumbar spine and SI joint, I take some load off by bending my knees and intensely activating my abdomen muscles. I also have a tendency to hyper extend my knees, which over time resulted in a hamstring pull. So now I am extremely aware of my legs not locking out when my legs are straight and engaging my quads as I go to a forward fold to support my hamstrings. I have adapted my activities in ways that I can still enjoy the activity, just in a different way that heals the body instead of injures it further. I am listening to the messages my body is sending me which is not only providing healing to my body, but also healing to my mind.
Ultimately, there is no right or wrong, but there are extremes that are unhealthy. One of those extremes is the complete lack of connection and respect to our body, the other is the complete absence of movement out of fear, resulting in the same disconnection. Be somewhere in the middle:
Enjoy the challenge of exploring your body’s limits, but don’t push past them.
Enjoy the ability to rest and take time to heal, but realize that healing takes stillness as well as movement.
Enjoy your body. We’ve only got one. Treat it like the temple it is and develop it to the best temple it can be.