When I started to practice yoga, I never had much strength or flexibility, but I also never had any injuries. I was often pushing myself to try the full variation of a pose without worrying about how it would affect my body. My limited capabilities made many body positions challenging for me, but I was always able to work toward improvement. As I furthered my practice and completed my yoga teacher training, I became focused on how my body was “supposed to” feel in each pose. It wasn't until the onset of a knee injury that things changed for me.
Once I started practicing yoga with my injury, I realized there were more body movements that would cause knee aggravation than I anticipated. Poses that were one day harmless could hurt the next and movements I could make without pain were inconsistent. I knew that with rehabilitation I would be able to get back into my regular practice, but in the meantime, I had to modify what I was doing if I wanted to continue. Through this experience, I believe I became a better teacher because it enabled me to see things from a different perspective and practice in a different way than I previously had. I had come to several realizations that changed my outlook on my own self-practice and the way I was teaching. I'd like to share those five realizations with you here.
Let Go of Expectations
Once I was introduced to alignment, I became consumed with the way the body was supposed to look in each asana. I believed that the key to avoiding pain was to be properly aligned. This belief was quickly dismantled as my body became injured. Certain poses that I was once perfectly aligned in without pain would actually cause much discomfort in my knee. Even with the body awareness I have gained through years of yoga and athletics, I did not expect to be as limited as I was. Many asanas became hard for me to perform “properly” because some small adjustments would cause pain.
During my classes, I used to go around turning feet, moving arms and making adjustments that I deemed necessary to align my students better. Practicing through this injury has made me better understand the subtle differences every body has. It was then that I realized I needed to let go of how a pose should look and let the students feel it as their bodies wanted. I already understood that not every person can do every pose, but I now better understood that there was likely a reason why some students did not (or could not) adhere to some cues. I was no longer so particular about certain cues because I realized that I could unknowingly be causing pain or discomfort to my students.
(More on the practice of letting go in Let Go of Attachment With This Daily Practice From 'True Yoga' (Excerpt).)
Discover New Ways to Practice
With a knee injury, there were certain yoga poses I needed to completely avoid if I wanted to heal. The more I practiced around the injury, the more in touch I became with my body and the sensations I was experiencing. This gave me hope to change how I practiced some asanas that I had previously taken out of my sequences. I had to learn new ways to modify these poses so that I could continue practicing without pain.
I already used props in my practice and loved the assistance they were able to provide me with during this time. Through lots of exploration and trial of new ways to use them, I made several discoveries of how to get extra support where and when I needed it. This opened my eyes to modifying for pain, rather than lack of movement. I was now able to give more options to my students while teaching so that they could feel more supported in certain positions. I found I was more comfortable giving extra modification options because in my own practice they were so helpful to me.
At first, this injury made me feel bad about myself because I was no longer able to perform certain yoga asanas that made me feel “special” and “advanced.” In classes I attended, I would be jealous of others getting into certain poses that I was no longer able to perform. I felt frustrated with myself and my body and would let it affect what was meant to be a peaceful yoga practice.
Compassion for self is something that I have always struggled with for many years. As time went on, I got to understand that I should not take this injury as a curse, but a blessing. I was slowly becoming more and more patient with my body, which provided me with a greater sense of overall awareness. I came to a better understanding that some days I would be fully engaged in my practice, and other days I would not be all there. Some days I would be able to come into a more difficult pose, and other days I would be unable to perform a pose that I considered easy. I became okay with the fact that there are some asanas that I will likely never be able to perform based on my body composition.
This translated into becoming a more compassionate teacher, and letting go of what I thought was the “right way” of practicing. In my classes, I found myself teaching my students how to be more compassionate with themselves by sharing my experiences and revelations with them.
(Like Christina, here are The 5 Virtues of a Good Yoga Teacher.)
Exploration is such an important tool to teach our students and can often be overlooked by the need to look a certain way. After being unable to perform many poses the way I had previously performed them, I didn’t want anyone to feel as though they were failing or doing a pose wrong because they were unable to do it the way I was teaching. I realized that instead of wanting everyone to look perfect, I now wanted to empower them to make their own discoveries of what felt right for them.
Working through this injury encouraged me to change the language I was using during my classes. I would ask them to recognize how it felt when they moved a certain way instead of telling them what or how they should feel. I was providing more options instead of orders. It became so important for me to empower my students to increase their own self-awareness and get more in touch with their own bodies.
When I was first injured, I was upset at the fact that it would limit my physical abilities in my yoga practice. The new perspectives I gained will forever change how I practice and how I teach. I am now able to teach with more compassion, give more options for my students and empower them to learn what feels best for themselves. This journey has allowed me to experience powerful insights that may have otherwise taken many years to come into fruition. For that, I am grateful.
(Continue reading in Give Thanks, Get Gratitude: 3 Reasons We're Thankful for This Mindfulness Practice.)