What Injuring Myself Taught Me About Yoga
Like many others, I've experienced my fair share of injurious tumbles and scrapes.
As a toddler, I got my first stitches after hitting my eyelid on a countertop corner. In elementary school, I seemingly walked off the edge of a playground set and landed on my head. To this day I wonder if I was reaching for the pole in front of me and missed, or if I sighted something shinier and dazed out into some enchanting abyss. What I clearly recall is waking to a teacher looming over me, and a brand-new sensation of shock.
A few years later, I broke my arm on a soccer field. Then most recently at the age of 29, I fell down a fire escape, which yielded my second round of stitches—nine in my left knee and two in my chin—but thankfully, no breaks.
While I’m tending to the soreness, stiffness, and pain with self-care and doctor's visits, as a yoga practitioner, I find it somewhat amusing that I don’t have a more extraordinary story to tell. It's not like I hurt myself attempting a one-handed handstand or anything; I just tripped and fell. Though, truth be told, I’ve never been all that interested in doing poses that could potentially land me in the ER (which, all in all, is probably a good thing!). I’m simply used to doing absent-minded things and absentmindedly hurting myself. I get lost driving just about anywhere. I’ve even placed my kettle in the fridge, mistaking it for a container of almond milk. And I’ve burned my hands and knocked my knees, toes, and elbows on hard surfaces far too regularly.
But this fall? It feels different.
I now contemplate and investigate my injuries on a deeper, sometimes even dramatic and morose level.
And not just because it’s more severe than a casual bump, more consequential than placing the kettle in the fridge. Because I am older than I was when I may have thought I could float off the playground set, older than I was when I punctured my eyelid, and then later broke my arm. As an adult, I don’t shrug off my tumbles quite as well as I once did. I now contemplate and investigate my injuries on a deeper, sometimes even dramatic and morose level. I'm more aware of the fact that I will die someday, and little awakens that stark feeling quite as readily as falling down a fire escape.
I now also teach (not just practice) yoga—a methodology of healing, which includes one-pointed concentration, non-attachment, and careful placement of the body. And as a teacher, I expound in class the values of this careful placement.
I encourage my students to “exhale out tension and inhale fresh and vibrant energy.” Nearly every time they are in corpse pose, I invite them to let it all go. But when I fell face down on sharp-edged steel, I discovered a discomfort that simply could not be exhaled out. I also certainly could not use my inhales to float my body back up to standing, as if it were some balloon. And I couldn’t just let go of my fear of death.
The period of time that I lay there, waiting for someone to find me in the dark, felt like an entire lifetime. I wondered: Have I thoughtlessly failed this body? How severe are these injuries? Have I done so much damage that I will do myself in?
Flash forward, and my body is healing. While my knee won’t heal overnight, this is also not the slowest of recoveries. In under a week I am walking again.
The sewn gash on my chin also continues to remind me of the damage I could have done to my cervical spine and my head.
Overall, I ponder the root cause of the fall—that stubborn, lifelong absentmindedness. Without casting self-blame, I remember that I have been taught by my yoga teachers, and my own heart, that the link between me and a meaningful life is mindfulness. I know deep down that a practice in mindfulness is a salve that can care for and sustain the body—a safeguard that prevents it from being tossed and turned by a wavering attention to life.
Perhaps these absent-minded accidents are a gross and symbolic gesture, a whack from the Divine Mother, indicating a lifelong theme of dissociation. It was a theme I met when I began this practice of yoga four years ago, a practice that began with hot yoga.
But at that time, dissociation was purposeful rather than accidental. Even when I was nauseous, I always made myself stay in the heated room. On the mat, I would backbend so deep that I crunched painfully in my lumbar spine. I’d lock my knees. I’d admonish myself for falling out of poses, or for not practicing them “perfectly.”
Somehow, at some point, I had learned to not want my own experience. I discovered an emergency exit, that fire escape inside of me, long before I ever fell down one.
But hasn’t my practice evolved since those early days—since I began teaching, since I read Be Here Now, studied those aforementioned teachers, began sitting for meditation? Surely I am not still seeking this internalized exit. But upon self-reflection, I find it’s likely that I am.
Hasn’t my practice evolved since those early days—since I began teaching, since I read Be Here Now?
I’ve knocked my limbs, proverbially, into the rough edges and corners of my heart long before I ever crashed them into the corners of sofas and walls. I have been recklessly avoiding resting softly within my own skin.
So, as I sit here and care for this knee, I intend to become a little more aware that there is one moment, and then there is the next; careful not to skip a step. I intend to find a way to feel at home here, within this body that is healing. Healing from a lifetime of accidentally (or not so accidentally) avoiding its own presence. Learning to accept it. Maybe even learning to love it, scars and all.
Kathryn is an associate editor at Yoga International. She found her way to yoga one starry night in Portugal at Monte Sahaja (the ashram of advaita master Mooji). Now she lives at the Himalayan Institute, where she continues her studies. She views yoga primarily as a healing practice that can re-awaken a sense of wonder, purpose, and (to quote one of her teachers, Rolf Sovik) "relentless optimism."