Strength in the Broken Places

The world breaks everyone,
and afterward,
some are strong at the broken places.

~ Ernest Hemingway

About two or so years ago, there was a lot of talk in the yoga community about injuries stemming from asana practice. Interest in the topic seems to have decreased somewhat, but as a teacher and regular practitioner, I know that injuries are still very much present. Sometimes yoga is the cause, other times it is viewed as the cure. That is, we can both hurt and heal ourselves by getting on our mats.

There is a whole other blog post to be found in the question of intention and attention when speaking of injury in yoga, in the mandate that ahimsa begins at home, but I want to think here about the practice we develop while injured (if an injury doesn’t make us quit altogether). In part, my approach might be seen as a “lemonade from lemons” attitude, but it's more along the lines of poet Derek Walcott's perspective in his Nobel Prize Lecture:

Break a vase, and the love that reassembles the fragments is stronger than that love which took its symmetry for granted when it was whole. 

For me, that love is the gift of injury, even one – perhaps especially one – sustained on the mat. An injury places us inside our bodies in a way that is often missing in a wholly healthy physical practice. We take for granted that we can bend without pain, that we can reach without pre-set limitation, that we can always "work at our edge" and "progress." In its often frustrating ever-presence, an injury demands that we face how we take wholeness for granted. 

And an injury is especially challenging when our imagined wholeness is broken during this practice that is supposed to help us “yoke” our various selves together. There’s a difference between coming (back) to the mat after an injury incurred elsewhere, and in returning after an injury from yoga. I've been fortunate to have the latter happen only once – it was the dreaded hamstring injury. We were moving into Hanumanasana. I'd done this transition countless times before, so my mind was elsewhere (on the previous pose in fact, marveling at how far I'd gone in it) when a pop – I swear it was audible – ripped me from the past and forced me to confront my present. That pop, and the months of recovery that followed, certainly changed my relationship to Hanumanasana.

I loved Hanumanasana before that moment. The extreme opening, the grace, extension, freedom! I still love it, but in keeping with Walcott’s words above, I love it differently. It is perhaps not popular for me to say my hamstring injury made me a “better” Hanumanasana-er, but indirectly, it did. My injury forced me to practice with a mindfulness that we are always supposed to bring to the mat but often don't sustain. I had to learn how to strengthen the muscle in tandem with stretching. I had to pay closer attention to my already existing asymmetry, work to make it less. I had to contend not only with the new physical limitation, but also with the fear that would pinch me each time a teacher announced the pose.

We have history now, Hanumanasana and I. And in building that history, in working patiently and mindfully with the rupture in our previous relationship, I have found a new appreciation for what my hamstrings can do – what I can do – with imperfection.

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