At the pre-op appointment, the physician’s assistant looked up at me and asked: “You’re a yoga teacher?” At my nod, she told me: “No yoga poses.” I didn’t say anything.
Almost four years earlier I had fallen and was told that I had sprained my knee. I simply iced and elevated the leg for awhile. For three years I continued to practice and teach yoga poses. There came a time when I could no longer progress in my poses. My right knee was not able to fully flex or extend, meaning I could not place the right foot on the left inner thigh in Vrksasana nor balance on the right leg. Encouraged by the senior teachers at my Introductory I Assessment, I found a doctor who was taking yoga classes with his daughter. He ordered an MRI. It was then that I was told that I had completely ruptured my right ACL, one of two ligaments between the femur and the tibia.
This brought me to the surgeon’s office and someone telling me not to practice yoga poses, something I had been doing since 1993. I did not ask why. I knew that I would most likely ignore this admonition. I have been adapting poses using the Iyengar methodology even before I began to teach in 2002, which includes a class for people with Multiple Sclerosis.
Three days after surgery a yoga friend/teacher stopped by to check on me. With my right leg swollen and numb from mid-thigh to ankle, I had her spot me in AdhoMukha Svanasana over the back of a folding chair, feet up the wall, arms stretching toward the floor. Yes, there were a lot of poses I could not do as the leg could neither bear weight nor bend at the knee. But there were also lots of poses that I could do.
Ten days after surgery, I attended my first physical therapy appointment. Again I was told ‘no yoga poses.’ Again I did not ask why. Yet, the second exercise that they gave to me had a remarkably familiar feel to it. They called it ‘Quadriceps Sets.’ I was told to: Sit erect with your legs stretched out in front of you, hands alongside the hips. As you stretch through your legs, tighten the muscles on the tops of your legs, opening the backs of your knees. Did you guess which yoga pose it was? Yes, it was Dandasana. As I continued therapy I found a number of their exercises had a resemblance to yoga asanas.
The focus of the physical therapy was to strengthen the quadriceps, hamstrings and gluteus muscles of the right leg – all needed to have a stable knee. After a few therapy sessions I finally asked the therapist why no yoga poses. She replied that they did not want me to torque my knee as the repair would not sustain the action. I then went through some of the basic yoga poses while the therapist watched my knee and when she thought I was twisting my knee, we modified the pose or eliminated it for the time being.
While their work was focused on my right knee and leg, I would also practice the exercises on my left leg. I wanted to stay in balance as we are taught to do in yoga. And I found that the left leg helped to inform the right leg on what to do. I worked hard in those therapy sessions. Afterwards I would feel tired and drained. Sometimes I would leave the sessions feeling sad and weepy, as if something was incomplete. When I mentioned this to the therapist, she suggested that I eat a piece of hard candy. I would go home and practice poses that would open my chest such as Supta Baddha Konasana.
Four months after surgery I returned to teaching yoga asanas, which proved to be more painful and difficult than I had imagined. I used a chair to demonstrate the poses when I could. Other times I asked a student to demonstrate the pose for me. I found a way to present most of the poses that I wanted to teach.
In my personal practice I began adding poses as I soon as I physically could. I was surprised to find familiar poses such as Utthita Trikonasana difficult to balance in, so I would practice them at the wall. Some poses that I had lost when I damaged the knee such as Virasana took a longer time to come back. Where once I could almost sit on the ground between my heels, after the fall I was using two blocks and now I am slowly getting closer to the ground, often using one block.
By the fourth month of therapy I knew that I had to be more proactive, to take charge of my own rehabilitation. I sought out the counsel of a yoga teacher who was also a physical therapist. Her advice began to guide me in what I needed to do. I also spoke to other yogis who had had a similar surgery and was encouraged by their advice: to go slow, not to rush into poses such as Virasana or Ardha Chandrasana, let the knee heal.
It has taken almost a full year from the date of surgery for me to move easily and begin to return to some of the poses that I had had to modify or leave out of my practice. I have learned the importance of strong legs in my practice, the need for patience in my life, and the value of Yoga to me.
Yoga is more than the practice of the asanas or poses. It is a complete philosophy from ancient India. Just as when we fail to practice the asanas, our body begins to feel at dis-ease, so will our mental health, when we fail to remember the other aspects of yoga.
We often go through our busy lives unaware of others around us and the effects that we may have on them. I was made aware of the effect of my words on others several Christmases past. With aching feet, I was frustrated at my failure to find the "perfect" gift for my family members. I stopped at a local grocery store for items for my supper. When the young cashier asked me how I was, I honestly told her I was cranky from my shopping. She froze not knowing how to respond to me. The man behind me looked at me then down at the floor, not knowing what to do. I had made two strangers uncomfortable with my words.
I was determined to never do that again. When people tell me to have a good day, I tell them I am having a great day, and that, in fact, I have a great life. I see first surprise, then, delight in their faces. And their day has improved. I am not a pollyanna. And I do have my worries and frustrations. But, you know what? I do have a great life, filled with many great days. Many of the people, tellers and cashiers, friends and strangers, now smile when they see me because they know that I will be positive and friendly toward them.
The first pada or chapter in Patanjali's Yoga Sutras brings us sutra I:33:
The mind becomes clear and serene when
the qualities of the heart are cultivated:
friendliness toward the joyful
compassion toward the suffering
happiness toward the pure
and impartiality toward the impure.
(translation from Alistair Shearer)
Try this experiment: Each day for a week, when you get up, resolve to feel friendliness toward others, compassion to those who are not happy, happiness for those who are successful, and non-judging towards those who have chosen poorly in their lives. Observe how this makes you feel.
It is September, the beginning of fall (9/22) and a new school year.
It is time to come inside, from beaches and mountains, travels and vacations.
It is time to begin anew your yoga asana practice.
It is time to return to your mat.
The purpose of yoga is to bring silence to the mind, to not live in the past nor in the future but to be present. Each time you come to your mat, come with a beginner's mind. Remember as a young child your wonder as you discovered the world. Come with that same wonder to your mat.
Bring nothing but your willingness, desire to practice the yoga asana.
Sutra II.12 tells us that 'practice and detachment are the means to still the movements of consciousness.' Abhyasa and vairagya. Abhyasa means repeated practice, vairagya means freedom from desires, detachment, renunciation.
And, I.14 'long, uninterrupted, alert practice is the firm foundation for restraining the fluctuations.'
Long, uninterrupted, alert: long means over a long period of time, years; uninterrupted means don't stop your regular practice, keep going; and alert--pay attention, listen to your body.
Detachment: free from desires and passions, not being attached to what success or failure we had on our mat yesterday or what we hope for tomorrow.
Be committed to your practice. Students say they don't have the discipline to practice. It is not discipline--such a guilt-inducing word--but commitment. Commitment is the state of being obligated, something pledged. So pledge yourself, obligate yourself, commit yourself to your practice.