In the recent December past, what had been a constant niggling ache in my left chest wall turned into crushing pain. I’d already been practising with the chest discomfort for some months, and by this time, my right wrist was starting to feel the aching brunt of overuse. Undeterred, I rested for two days, then returned to the mat for what had to be one of the most ego-crumbling practices in my life — every other pose made me hurt, even the simplest backbends and forward folds (let’s not even talk about chatturangas). I was forced to face reality — I needed a doctor, and I needed to take time off my physical practice.
I’ll be honest: being forced to not practise sucked, but when I got that out of my head and committed to rehabilitating my body, I realised that the time away from the mat helped me to let go of my illusions of what a yoga practice should be, and it also helped to rewire the internal conversations I never knew I had on the mat. In short, my injury gave me one heck of a perspective change.
1. I nurtured the relationships with my breath and mind
There are few things I like more than a good sweaty flow, but when my pain started easing, I could only comfortably practise more hatha-type sequences. While a part of me missed flowing with my breath, another part of me was awakened to watching my breath in the static poses. Have I always taken such short inhalations and long exhalations? Is my mind always so noisy when it doesn’t have instructions to latch onto? The longer holds in a hatha practice brought my breath and my mind to the centrestage, and offered me a chance to relearn and rewire my unconscious patterns. With time, I found myself cultivating a breath rhythm that was less effort, more ease; and a mind that was a little less impatient, more quiet.
2. I re-committed to my self practice
In the early part of my rehabilitation, I could never quite guess whether it was going to be a painful practice where everything hurt, or a relatively pain-free one. As such, I took to rolling out my mat at home and practising on my own so I could focus on moving for my body, instead of rushing to keep up in a led class. My home practice became a sanctuary in which I could simply be with my pain if I needed to, and also a playground in which I had the freedom to do any asanas I wanted to try on the days my body allowed.
3. I schooled my ego
I took a vinyasa class four months after time away, practising among Homies at the studio. My arms shook in my first (and every subsequent) chatturanga, I switched to supported side plank when my wrist quivered, and I had to quiet the voice at the back of head that whispered: “You’re the teacher yet look how weak you are!” And then, the universe sent me a reminder that it’s not always about me. I got into modified forearm crow while the rest of the class worked on crow. I turned my head and watched one of my regular students uncertainly tipping the weight into her fingers and holding the pose — her first time after a long, dedicated practice. She beamed at me in disbelief and I grinned back. Was I disappointed by how much strength I’d lost? Yes. Was I a proud mama for what she achieved? Yes, yes, yes!
4. There’s more to yoga than asana
One day, our physical bodies will fail us. When the poses we know become inaccessible, how then can we still practise yoga? Distancing myself from my asana practice offered me more time and headspace to reconnect with the other limbs of yoga. I re-read books on yoga philosophy, attended workshops on pranayama, and spent a lot more time in quiet sitting practices, observing the nature of my mind. All these practices pointed me in the direction of an answer I’d always known, but perhaps hadn’t yet accessed. Yoga is not a state of doing, but ultimately a state of being.
By Leigh Khoo