As published in The Huffington Post, March 25, 2015
I had an epiphany moment over a year ago concerning my yoga practice and aging. I was teaching one of my many yoga flow classes during the week, still in great health and physical shape for 70 and thinking how grateful I was that I didn’t have any physical issues. Then suddenly, out of nowhere, I had a moment of panic as I descended from plank pose into chaturanga. I couldn’t hold my body above the floor and move into updog because my right arm and shoulder collapsed. My chest hit the floor with a thud. The pain was palpable.
I brushed it off with “I’m having an off day.” Right shoulder must be more sore than usual. I’ll return to my perfect practice tomorrow. Hey, I’m the queen of chaturanga to updog and nothing can stop me after 20 years of practice.
Limited arm and shoulder movement persisted accompanied by daily pain. Although I tried to ignore it, the reality was that I was going to have to modify my practice and consult an orthopedic surgeon.
An Athlete’s Journey
“Twenty years of yoga and a lifetime of athletic endeavor have caught up to you, Joan,” my orthopedic surgeon told me as he looked at my MRI results. “You had a long run.”
“Don’t put me out to pasture yet, Doc. I’m not finished,” I said.
“I see lots of people come through my office with the same injury,” the doctor said. “Just know that it’s common with athletes. It starts with arthritis between your shoulder blades in the supraspinatus muscle. Your supraspinatus tendon is torn in several places and your have tendonitis in rotator cuff. You also have an impinged bicep tendon and your arm has limited range of motion.”
Just shoot me, I thought. They shoot horses, don’t they?
“My yoga practice is going to have to change, ” I remarked to the wall.
Revising My Yoga Practice
I was always attracted to a yin yoga practice, a deeply meditative and reflective practice in which floor-based postures are held for extended periods of time. However, I also liked my dynamic yang practice because my muscles were strengthened by repetitive motion. It seemed that my injury was going to be a blessing in disguise; it gave me impetus to explore the practice of yin yoga in part as an alternative to yang.
Here are five ways that I mindfully modified a vigorous 20-year yoga practice that now keeps my mind, body and spirit fully integrated and brings me less physical stress with more of the same joy:
1. More Yin Stretching
When I practice or teach yoga, I always begin by stretching. Muscles need to be warm to function effectively. Previously, my stretching usually involved about 5-7 minutes of twists, cross-legged forward bends, stretching with arms overhead and doing a twist in both directions and side bends. I’m now extending the stretching period to 12-15 minutes that includes an extended forward standing bend with arms over head and some knee flexes from side to side. I find that my flexibility has increased over the past year. Score one for injuries.
2. More Restorative Postures
Bringing the body to balance and flexibility is a benefit of any yoga practice. However, an extended focus on restorative yoga postures is a grounding and calming experience. It’s a way to let go of mind clutter and decompress from a stressful day. Putting my legs up the wall is my favorite posture to fully open my heart and pay more attention to my breath. Child’s pose is another way to be fully present to your mind, body and spirit.
3. More Neck Rolls
Neck rolls sound simple, right? You may think it’s kind of an okay thing to do in yoga, but the neck roll movement is so very important to the base of our neck, upper back, shoulders and to the all around line of our spine. One intention in yoga is to keep the neck vertebrae in line with the vertebrae of the spin, which forms a straight line from the crown of the head down to the lumber and sacrum. So now I spend more time with head rolls rather than glossing through it. I find it has a direct correlation to a more perfect siting and walking postures.
4. More Knee Work in Chaturanga
The days of letting my body down to the floor in plank pose is over. Even though I have achieved more muscle flexibility with physical therapy and a release of the impingement of the bicep muscle is decreasing, I am not attempting to push my body into a position that it doesn’t want to go. So I have been putting my knees down first on the floor and putting less weight on my back, shoulder and arms as I let myself down to my mat. I still strengthen all the muscles involved in the upper back and arms but without the added physical stress.
5. More Time in Savasana
Sometimes I cut time off from the last pose in a yoga practice, even thought I was taught that Savasana or corpse pose is the most important posture in a yoga practice. I would get antsy because I had to be somewhere — where I don’t know. With a more meditative and purposeful yoga practice, I am able to give Savasana its due and mindfully respect its benefits of letting go and gaining acceptance as I end my practice.
ADJUSTING TO ACCEPTANCE
During the last year, I adjusted my yoga practice to reflect my physical limitations, and that adjustment has brought acceptance, surrender, joy and more mindfulness to my practice. In fact, my physical injury has taught me more about the meaning of yoga than I could possibly imagine. I cherish more deeply my longevity in yoga and meditation and honor my body with greater awareness of my limitations. I no longer hold on to the perfect. I am simply grateful that I have so much mobility at 70. Like life, a yoga practice is constantly and perfectly in transition.