The humbling and empowering nature of injuries

It happened a few weeks ago. I was taking an ashtanga class and moving into padmasana, or lotus pose. Lotus is a pretty challenging pose for me anyway and had been even more so in the past couple of months. Nonetheless, I thought I might be open enough to try it. I moved slowly, remembering to flex my right foot firmly, externally rotating my right hip and drawing my foot toward my navel first to get the alignment before moving deeper into the pose.

And then I heard a pop.

I immediately released my leg and extended it. I may have even placed it on a block. I made it through the rest of that class, but my plans for a second class disappeared. Instead, I sat in the back corner, leg propped up on a bolster, and simply observed.

I went home that night and iced my knee. Kept it elevated. Took some NSAIDs. I remembered that my friend and teacher Jenna had just had a similar experience, so I knew I needed to be careful, even though my knee didn’t hurt at the time.

Over the next couple of weeks, I tried to take it easy and be mindful about my knee. I wasn’t always successful, especially when I was teaching. I would get carried away demonstrating and wind up with pain that night. I eventually realized that the simple movement of externally rotating my knee, as well as pressure on the front of the kneecap, caused me a lot of discomfort and some pain. Even reclined pigeon was not comfortable.

Eventually, I saw my doctor, who checked my movement and asked me some questions. Ultimately, his diagnosis—pending tests—was that it was likely a tear in my meniscus. Naturally, I went home and googled the signs for this kind of injury and yup, it sounded a lot like what I had.

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Hearing the word “tear,” especially in relation to your knee, is a scary thing. I knew in my head that at least it wasn’t an MCL or ACL tear, that I didn’t have significant pain, that I could still walk, that my knee wasn’t locking out, and that all of these were good things. Nonetheless, it made me nervous. Even if it wasn’t serious now, I certainly didn’t want to do anything to make it worse. Knowing there was the possibility of a tear made me even more cautious and careful in how I moved and how I was caring for my knee.

Having an injury, any injury, can be an incredibly humbling experience.  I never realized how much I externally rotate my knee, even without realizing it. When I lie flat on my back, my tendency is to let my feet flop outwards. Can’t do that! At least, it certainly doesn’t feel great. I can’t sit cross-legged. I can’t tuck my right knee underneath me when I’m sitting, which I usually do without even thinking about it. As far as yoga goes, even child’s pose is inaccessible to me right now. It has been a lesson in learning to listen to my body and not let ego dictate what I do. It’s also been a challenge to find modifications in poses that I’ve taken for granted—let’s just say props have become very good friends.

However, the other thing I’m discovering as I go through this process is that injuries can also be empowering in a number of ways. While there are a number of things I’m struggling with, movement-wise, there are other parts of my body that I can open up and strengthen. It has been exciting and exhilarating to discover (and in some cases, re-discover) what my body is capable of, notwithstanding what’s going on with my knee. And while I just said it was a “challenge” to find modifications for poses, especially in the middle of a vinyasa flow, I’ve learned to be curious about different poses to get the same or similar benefits that work for me and how I can share them with others.

I have a follow-up appointment with my doctor this week to talk about my knee and what my options are. Chances are, I’ll just need to let it heal and take it easy, which can be the hardest part. But I’m thankful to have discovered that resting doesn’t mean I’ve hit any kind of rut in my own practice and teaching.

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I’m not quitting my day job (hashtag svādhyāya)

Over the past weekend, I not only taught two community classes, but I worked quite a bit at my day job. (Well, “day” job–the truth is, since I work for myself, I generally set my own hours and it’s not always during the day, depending on how distracted I’ve been.)  My alter ego is an attorney. I’ve been practicing for nearly seven years. Currently, I’m in solo practice, handling appeals.

Since completing teacher training, I’ve been asked by a few people whether I’m going to quit being an attorney and teach full-time. My answer has been an unequivocal “no.”

Let me explain.

There are a couple of reasons for my answer. First is the simple fact that I went massively into debt to get my law degree and pass the bar, so I might as well do something with it, right? I figure I should at least practice for a little bit, just so I can say I’m a lawyer and I didn’t take out all those student loans for nothing.

Second, I actually like what I do, for the most part. I like the legal research and writing. I like coming up with persuasive arguments. And I like to feel like I’m doing my part to help in our screwed-up system. Bonus: being on the appellate side of things gives me a lot of flexibility with hours and location–really, I just need my computer and a reliable Internet connection to do my work. And usually–unless I have a deadline or something–I can do it at any time of the day, which is really great.

But right now, for me, the biggest reason I’m not planning to quit being an attorney and teach full-time is because I don’t want to burn out on it. I love yoga. I love my practice. I love teaching it. But I remember what I went through went I first became an attorney and didn’t have a full-time job somewhere. I raced around, covering court appearances for other attorneys all over San Diego (and sometimes outside San Diego). I wasn’t really practicing law in the way I wanted to–I was just trying to make money. It was stressful and not in the least bit enjoyable. It wasn’t what I wanted to do.

I fear the same thing if I were to teach yoga full-time. I’m not under any illusions about what that would be like. I have friends who teach yoga full-time. I’ve seen what some of them have gone through, even the ones who would be considered generally successful. I know the work and effort they’ve put into it and continue to put into it. I’ve also had at least one friend burn out. I’ve heard of some of the sacrifices they’ve made and the truth is, I’m not ready for that. I’ve already been through it, in a sense, when I started my own law practice. I’m not prepared to embark upon another career with that much uncertainty. I don’t want yoga to be a source of stress in my life. Yoga is what keeps me sane and I’d like to keep it that way.

In thinking about this question, as well as other events in my life, I realized something: my career is not my passion and I’m okay with that. For years, I thought I wanted/needed to be passionate about my career. After all, we see things like this all the time, don’t we?

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I used to think that was the goal. I used to think I needed that. Now, my perspective is a little different.

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For me, my passion and my career, my life and my livelihood–they’re separate. And knowing myself like I do now, that’s how it should be. Growing up, I had a tendency to go all in on things and burn out. That’s what happened to me when I thought I needed to be crazy passionate about my job. Don’t get me wrong–I’m passionate about the cause I serve in the work I do. If you know me, you know that. But it doesn’t consume me the way I previously thought I needed it to. It’s not my only passion. It’s not my life.

So when I say I don’t want to teach yoga full-time, it’s not because I don’t love it. It’s because I don’t want to lose my passion for yoga. It’s because I still want to love it in the years to come. I’m accepting who I am, even if it’s not who I thought I would be, and loving her all the same. (Hashtag svādhyāya.)

Maybe things will change. Maybe they won’t. Regardless, right now, I am both an attorney and a yoga teacher and that will continue for the foreseeable future. Both experiences shape my perspectives and shape my life and I’m not willing to give that up just yet.

Ego, ahimsa, etc.

When it rains, it pours. And sometimes that’s your own doing.

A couple of weeks ago, I rolled my ankle pretty badly while doing some acro. I fell out of a pose in a washing machine and landed with my ankle rolled. At the time, I didn’t think too much of it. It hurt, but I could walk, so I figured I’d be fine. After all, it’s not like I haven’t rolled my ankle before. (I used to wear heels everyday and walk on uneven pavement. Combine that with a natural klutziness and, well, you get the idea.)

The washing machine I was doing was one I hadn’t done in quite some time. Moreover, I was doing it on my weaker side. Had I done it on my stronger side? No. I just decided to jump right in.

Oh, hello, ego.

By the next day, I realized my ankle was worse than I thought. But I still had to teach two classes that Saturday, so I did, trying to be careful about the weight I put on my ankle and the postures I demonstrated. If I could, I was keeping my ankle elevated and iced. I skipped practicing yoga on Sunday and Monday to give it a chance to rest. All the things I should be doing, right?

Last Tuesday, I was feeling better, so I decided to go to the Buddhi Flow class at 5:30 p.m. with Carolina. As a general note, I’m good about taking days off to heal. What I’m not good at is easing back into things (as evidenced by the initial injury.) But that day, I was mindful of my ankle and resolved not to overdo it on standing balancing postures or anything else that might compromise the healing process. And for the most part, I did, but I was so focused on my ankle that I forgot other parts of my body. I was so careful not to put any additional pressure on my ankle, but I did not exercise the same caution with my wrists and hands, in large part because I was just so eager to do something that I then overdid arm balances and inversions.

Ego, my old friend.

By the end of class, I was sore. Within the next few days, I realized that not only did my wrists hurt, but I had somehow jammed or strained one of my fingers. (Hence, the above photo.) I’m constantly accidentally still twisting that finger and putting pressure on it, just by doing normal things, which is making recovery agonizingly slow for me. It also doesn’t help that, in my day job, I do a lot of typing.

What did I learn from all this?

  1. No matter how long you’ve been practicing, no matter how advanced your practice, you can still be prone to the same beginner mistakes. In my case, I’m usually so diligent about where I’m putting pressure and weight in my hands because I’m prone to tendonitis in my wrists. Yet in that one class, I forgot all of my precautions in my desire to feel like I could do something.
  2. Ahimsa, ahimsa, ahimsa! Non-violence. Toward yourself. Take care of your body. Let your body rest. Listen to it. If you don’t, it will force you to. You hear teachers say this all the time, but we all can still make this mistake.
  3. Always keep ice packs in your house.
  4. It’s a constant battle against ego, even when you don’t recognize it as such. I thought it just felt good to get on my hands, since I couldn’t do much on my feet. It felt good to be able to do something. But really, it felt good to be able to “do something.” As in, I want to do things, let me do things, I don’t care about the results. Let me feel pretty and accomplished! Ego exists in all of us. I’m not going to say you should never want to feel proud or that you should never want to be admired. It’s natural to feel that way. But, as I learned over the past week and a half, when ego takes over and trumps mindfulness, the results usually aren’t good.

So, in sum, be mindful of your body and its limitations, even when you don’t want to acknowledge them. Take care of yourself, even if it means not doing things you want to be doing. A small voluntary break or step back early on can prevent a longer, involuntary break later.

And seriously, self, try not to overdo things. Please? I’ll help you out with that.