In August 2000 I was rear-ended while stopped in traffic on the beltway. I was hit so hard that the grill of the pickup truck left an impression on the back of my minivan. Besides the expected whiplash, I had other serious, though not crippling, musculoskeletal injuries. For several years after the accident, I was constantly aware of how I moved, sat, and positioned myself for sleep. Bad posture and wrong movements exacerbated the discomfort.
At the time of the accident, I was taking a yoga class or two a week plus the occasional workshop and was teaching eleven classes. Yoga was a huge part of my life and I refused to allow the accident to take it away from me. In the past three or four years, the discomfort has subsided and I credit most of the improvement to a regular yoga practice.
When we are injured, the common and normal reaction is to protect ourselves from further pain. It is very easy to stop moving in the ways that hurt and stay with movements that cause no discomfort. Though the short term effect is a decrease in pain, the long term effect is the opposite. Muscles that are not used become weak and less flexible. We compensate by recruiting other body parts, moving them in ways they are not designed to move, which over time causes those muscles and joints to become achy and sore.
Yoga postures challenge us to move outside of our normal patterns. They also require us to balance strength and flexibility by strengthening areas that are too mobile and creating flexibility in areas that are stiff and tight. After the accident, I could immediately feel when I was doing a yoga pose incorrectly because I had instantaneous feedback. Either the area where I was injured became uncomfortable or whatever I was using to compensate for my injuries would feel overstretched or fatigued. At first I could only do the beginning level poses, but over the years, I regained most of my flexibility and strength and in some areas exceeded where I had been before as my body became better aligned. Although I will always have to be careful in some poses, I am doing far better than the medical community predicted. In talking with other yoga practitioners, I am not alone in experiencing these benefits of a regular yoga practice.
Whenever we suffer an injury, physically or emotionally, we want to protect ourselves from additional harm. It is natural to create all types of shields and compensations and to avoid situations where we could be hurt again. Though we may have no control over an injury’s occurrence, we do have a choice in how we react. We can allow the injury to define us, becoming part of the way we picture and describe ourselves, which at the beginning is understandable as we find a new normal. However, over time, we can either keep our protective shells or stretch beyond them. Though staying protected is easy and comfortable, it limits us in the long run. To stretch beyond our comfort zone is difficult but the long term rewards are worth the challenge.