Two weeks before my final exam in my teacher training, I injured myself. In the middle of my home practice, I pushed up into an inversion that I wasn't warm enough to practice, and I dumped weight into a weak part of my back.
It was a strange feeling: a loud, bright yellow crease in my lower back. If it made a sound it would be a loud, brassy jazz smear. I came out of the posture to my hands and knees, brought my big toes together and sank my hips toward my heels to rest in Child's Pose.
I heard a teacher once distinguish resistance from pain: resistance challenges you, requires you to deepen your breath to work with it. Pain takes your breath away, she said. On my knees, I tried to inhale, and felt the same loud, bright shriek in my back. Okay, got it. Pain.
If you're anything like me, you hate being in pain. It's exhausting: it takes everything you have just to live a regular life; it's impossible to get comfortable, so your body has trouble relaxing. On top of all this, your ego has a field day. How could you allow this to happen? you say to yourself. You're careful, aren't you? You did everything right; you know better. And yet, here you are, walking like a question mark, trying not to feel stuck in a quagmire of self-pity and still wanting someone, anyone, to feel sorry for you.
I believe our bodies are a microcosm of the macrocosm; I also think our bodies are machines. No matter how thoughtfully, how lovingly you tend to your machine, sometimes it springs a leak or pops a spring. Nothing went wrong: it's just a fact of existing in a body. Blaming yourself for injury just creates an aversion to the experience that compromises healing.
In the course of this injury, I spent a lot of time really frustrated with my body for not living up to my expectations. At some point, I remembered that my frustration was a form of abandoning myself. One day at a time, one slow, achy walk to my mat, one frozen bag of peas at a time, I was able to find more compassion for myself. I was able to remember that healing is as human a practice as hurting, that injury is a part of life, and that it's important to deal gently and thoughtfully with myself as I heal.
Injury requires attention. It requires slowness. My teacher often says, "Where your awareness goes, your prana follows." I'd bet that injury is a prana-depleting activity, but healing has to generate some prana, because, man, it requires you to tune in. You have to send all of your energy to that part of you, to breathe, to ease pain, to build strength, to ride out inflammation. In that slowness, you get the chance to really get to know yourself. Rather than splitting, you can tune in and be present, even when it sucks and it's hard to. What a gift that is. How great to be able to practice staying present in the midst of great struggle or loss.
Injury also presents the opportunity to connect more deeply with other limbs of yoga. I'm guilty, like so many others, of indulging in asana at the expense of my pranayama or samyama practices. Struggling to find comfort in my body makes it tough to put myself through too many salutations, or force an extra set of standing postures. I took the opportunity to experiment, to see what kinds of poses and sequences could bring comfort, and more than that, what I could learn from working with my breath, or with mantra. I prioritized the subtle practices over the physical ones. It's left a lasting print on my daily practice. After all, if yoga is the stilling of the fluctuations of the mind, so that my consciousness can abide with the Self, I don't need more Up Dog-Down Dog; I need more quiet.
It might sound woo-woo; it never really feels good in the midst of pain to creep my way to my mat and practice what I could. But every time I made it there, I was grateful that I'd done so.