Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Chakrasana FAIL--Gifts and lessons

Injuries.  They're physically painful and, in the past, I used to only see them as these things that were preventing me from doing the things that I loved--or at least from doing them without pain (I ran entire track seasons with excruciating shin splints and nearly torn muscles).  Now, initially my first thought still tends to be: "Seriously?  Another injury?!  This sucks!  Why does this always happen to me?!!"  I let myself feel upset and a pissy for a little while, and then I let it go and try to see exactly what is it that my body is trying to tell me?  Because that's what an injury does--it literally forces you to take a pause in your "normal routine" and gives you the opportunity to gain a new, or deeper, understanding of some part of your life and, if you're really paying attention, instill a deeper sense of gratitude for the things that you have in your life and what you are capable of.


(1) The muscles in your neck do a lot of work!  It takes a lot of effort just to hold that 10 pound ball that is your head in an upright position--let alone move it.  Add in a job where I sit in front of a computer and I am suddenly very aware of how often I lean/sag my head forward towards the computer.  I've been learning how to sit with my head in a more neutral position while I'm at work, because, really you don't actually need to lean your head forward to look at the computer.  Granted it requires less muscular effort to let it hang forward than it does to hold it neutral, but the leaning forward pulls on the muscles and felt like it actually weakened them.

(2)  I overuse the neck muscles.  Ok, that's not exactly a "new" lesson, but it's one that I've really felt now as opposed to just knowing it in my head.  The pain that came whenever I had to use my neck muscles was a pretty good kick in the...well, neck, lol, to let me know when I was using my neck muscles and didn't need to be.  For example: abdominal work.  I went to a Forrest yoga class last Thursday and during the abdominal work section I got a nice little jolt whenever my body tried to "cheat" and lift with my neck as opposed to my abs.  Talk about learning the hard way!  Again, this isn't exactly new, I know my abs don't actually like to do work when they're supposed to--it will recruit from my neck and my back instead.  But, now that both of those areas have "body tweaks" they have no choice but to do the work ;-) 

(3) Related to number 2 is I get to learn how to properly use the other muscles in my body since the one I overuse is injured.  Example: twists.  Again, I know that I'm supposed to twist through my core first and then the neck follows, and I actually do a fairly good job of making sure I don't just turn through the neck.  But...I do have one side that is harder to twist on than the other and apparently I use my neck to do it.  So, again, now the twist has to come through my core first.  The other place I've noticed that I really overuse the neck is in Up Dog, even if I'm not letting my head drop back.  It's been difficult to get the lift through the upper part of the back and I can feel now that I've been trying to pull it up with the muscles of my neck.  Now, I've been focusing on getting more lift in that pose by actually using the breath--instead of the neck muscles ;-)

(4) Forrest Yoga is a very intelligent practice.  I've still been practicing the Ashtanga series but since I hurt my neck I've had to bring in some aspects of Forrest Yoga.  Such as: keeping the chin in line with the chest during twists and not turning the head at all so that you can't do all of the turn in your neck.  Also, 2 words: Turbo Dog.  I think this is a genius pose.  It's down dog except you bend your arms.  Not all the way down to the floor, just enough so that you can feel the muscles on the side of the ribs turn on (specifically, your latissimus dorsi muscles).  It's wicked hard and that has been my down dog for the majority of my practice since I injured my neck.  Why?  Because it has been the only way I could get the upper muscles of my trapezius to not grip around my neck.  Also, it feels like strengthening that muscle has given my very open shoulders a little more stability because the shoulder muscles aren't having to do all of the work.  Lately I've also been noticing the inside of my elbows starting to get sore and I've heard from a couple of body workers and other teachers to not lock my elbows in poses where the arms are straight.  So having to keep that slight bend in my arms during down dog has been helping there too.


(1)  I said in my last post that this injury has felt like it was truly a gift and the big reason isn't because of all the great little lessons that I'm learning.  It's because it has made me fall in love with my home practice.  During the last week or so that I've been healing my neck injury, I've been practicing primarily at home and it's been so good.  In one of the posts that I wrote about my last day of teacher training, I said that the thing that I wanted to take with me from the training was my home practice.  Well, that didn't really happen.  I've been pretty much living in the Mysore room since the end of the training.  Which has been great, but it's almost like I haven't stopped to come up for air, almost like I haven't really processed all the yoga asana that I've been doing.  Home practice has always been a "weak" area for me.  I didn't start out my practice of yoga with a home practice and I've never really had one during my 2 1/2 years of practice.  The training forced me to practice more at home, in order to write my sequences, and I discovered that I practice very differently when I'm at home.  Even if it's the same thing that I practice at the studio (i.e, the Ashtanga series).  There's just something about the way I practice at home that makes everything I practice seem more easeful, less strenuous.  My shoulders never feel tired in down dog and I relish in holding poses for longer--and it never feels strenuous.  Well, with the exception of one pose: Vira (Warrior) 1.  I don't know what it is about that pose, I just don't like it.  It's almost like I feel  I think that's the right word.  Which doesn't make too much sense because it's the same arm position as one of my favorite standing poses: Utkatasana.  That's right, I discovered during this past week of home practice that Utkatasana is one of my favorite standing poses.  I've never felt that in a studio class or when I practice in the Mysore room.  But when I was practicing at home, I swear I could feel the energy from the work in my legs slowly travel up my body and just energize the whole pose. 

It feels like the biggest difference between practicing at home and practicing at the studio is that I am more relaxed at home, so everything feels a lot better.  I'm learning a lot about where I hold most of the tension in my body--my shoulders.  I swear that part of my body doesn't know how to relax when I'm around people.  Again, not a new concept but without the home practice to compare it to I don't think I would have known exactly how much that tension is blocking the energy from moving freely around my body.

On a related note, the other gift I got from this injury, and as a result of my home practice, was really getting to appreciate the genius of the Ashtanga Series.  After getting injured while practicing it, it kind of felt like I got to fall deeper in love with it.  Corny, right?  :-)  But I don't think I ever really felt what the Ashtanga was doing in my body and the effect it was having on my mind until I practiced it at home.  I could actually feel the ujjayi breath helping to warm up and open my body.  I have never actually felt it do that before!  And as I progressed through the series, I was actually able to witness my mind gradually growing steadier and quieter and feel when it actually "dropped in."  Funny thing about practicing at home, there are less distractions.  No other people to watch and listen to, no teacher.  Just you.  So, there are less outside distractions which makes it easier to see how many internal distractions there are.  At the studio, it always feels like it's super easy for me to just "drop in" to the practice.  Might be true, but it's more likely that my mind has just found some external thing to attach itself to--the teacher's voice, the music (if I'm in a class that plays it), other people, outside sounds, etc.  At home--there's none of that (I didn't play any music).  Just you and what's going on in your head.  Takes the practice to a whole other level.  That being said, the most important thing for me to do during that time, and the hardest, was just to start.  It didn't matter if I just layed on my back on the mat for a little while and just started with deepening my breathing, the most important thing was to get out of bed and get on the mat--if I didn't, I would stay asleep ;-)  Oh, that's another reason the dristhi is so important at that time of day, if I didn't focus my eyes on something, I could feel my body being resistant to waking up.  But once I actually got was so good.  It was really hard to get myself to stop when I knew I needed to in order to get to work on time.  It was really sweet, it felt like I could keep practicing for hours and not get tired.

I have a handful of people who live at the condo building where I work at that I chat with about yoga whenever we see each other.  I was talking to one of them who mostly practices yoga at home about my recent exploration of a home practice and some of the best benefits of practicing at home: not having to carry multiple bags, being more relaxed, more room/opportunity to explore things in the practice, getting to eat breakfast at home, getting to ice the injured body parts directly after practice, the body not getting all cold and tight before practicing because of having to travel outside in the cold with multiple bags, and all of the other things I discovered during this last week.  What's really cool is that after our talk she said that she was inspired to start setting aside a dedicated time to do her practice at home, as opposed to the sporadic "gentle stretching and handful of standing poses" that she usually does (her description, not mine).  And, seeing as how she actually utilizes all of the "yoga tips" that I give her, she probably will :-)

So, going back to the studio after all this was kind of bizarre.  I went to a Forrest Yoga class that ended up fairly crowded and I felt like a deep sea fish that had been brought up to the surface too quickly!  I could feel that I was really on edge, I felt mildly claustrophobic and I couldn't seem to relax even for a moment.  The air in the room even felt scattered!  I almost, almost, just wanted to keep doing my own home practice.  But, I realized another thing after my talk with the resident of the condo.  I was telling her about my experience with Utkatasana and she didn't know what it was (because she didn't know the Sanskrit word for it).  So, I showed her and I described what I was doing, very simply, "bend the knees, weight in the heels, arms up."  That one instruction of "weight in the heels" was a light bulb moment for her!  She always felt like there was too much weight in front and had never been given that instruction before (again, she practices mostly at home) but hearing that one instruction totally changed the pose for her!  And that's why we go to classes--to learn from teachers.  Kate (my teacher) came back from her trip this weekend and she gave me one simple instruction for Trikonasana, "relax the toes (back foot) and put more weight here" "here" being the outside edge of my foot.  That one instruction changed the pose for me, I could feel that one little shift help open up that entire line of my body!

So, now I feel like it's time to figure out how to combine those two things: home practice and classes at the studio, with my teachers.  They both feel like they're important elements of a full yoga practice.  At home is where you integrate everything you've learned and start teaching yourself things about yoga.  At the studio is not only where you learn from your teachers, but it's also where people can see you and learn from you.  I've had people tell me before that they've learned something just by watching me and I've also learned from watching other people.  It's also one of the places that I get to share all the information that I've learned, both from the training and from my practice, with the people I practice with (when it comes to the subject of yoga, I talk just as much as I write, lol).  So, once I come back from my 2 week vacation back home (that's going to be interesting, but a subject for another time) I feel like I need to pull one day aside for a home practice.  It's weird, even though I know how great a home practice is I can feel that I'm still resistant to it.  But it's definitely time.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Chakrasana FAIL

I had started about 4 other posts before this one that, obviously, never got published.  There just wasn't a whole lot to write about.  Nothing new and exciting at work.  Still not teaching.  Though I started going to physical therapy to hopefully resolve my low back issue, there was nothing remarkable on that front either.  My practice was moving along nicely and my teacher gave me Krounchasana (the second pose of Intermediate) a week after she gave me Pasasana.  Pasasana was coming along nicely:  heels on the floor, balancing and binding without needing an assist about a couple of weeks after she gave it to me.   Back bends?, still not much going on there because of the chronic low back stuff and the light-headedness.  So, there was a bit I could talk about there too but I was getting tired of talking about it. 

Either way, practice was rolling along nicely until I rolled/crunched my neck during a chakrasana 2 Thursdays ago.  I don't know if it was because my ponytail got in the way (now I know why my teacher wears her hair in braids...I really need to learn how to braid my own hair), if I just didn't push into my hands at the right time or if my neck muscles were just tight to begin with.  Either way, there's was a significant crunch feeling along the left side of the neck with accompanying pain that radiated up the neck, down the upper back and across the top of the shoulder.  I stopped, checked to make sure my arm still worked and tried to assess what happened and how bad it was.  Just holding my head upright felt like work and the pain was pretty intense.  The person who was subbing for my regular teacher suggested to try continuing with the practice to see if movement help.  I tried to lower down into a chaturanga and the pain shot through my neck and into my head.  Big time NO to movement.  I stopped practice, gingerly closed with the last 3 seated poses and rested with my head supported in savasana, trying not to cry and to just rest and breathe.

After I got up it was still pretty bad.  It was painful to just hold my head upright and there was intense pain whenever I tried to move my head in any direction.  I iced as soon as I could and took 600 mg of Ibuprofen and continued icing throughout the day (yay for a freezer with crushed ice at work!).  Even though it was really painful and definitely scary, I decided that I would wait until the weekend was over before making a decision about going to see a doctor and just give my body a chance to rest and do its best to heal itself.  Little side note of irony: a friend of mine did the exact same thing during her Mysore practice a couple of weeks earlier!

After 2 days of icing and 2-3 rounds of 400-600mg of Ibuprofen a day, it started feeling better.  I had a little more mobility and it was not as painful to just hold my head in a neutral position and most of the pain was localized around the muscles on the left side of C7 (lowest vertebrae in the neck). Though I did scale back the Ibuprofen on Sunday after talking with the body worker who helped me with my shoulder during the summer.  She reminded me to be careful with how much I move my neck when I take the Ibuprofen because the medicine masks the pain.  Good point.  That's the reason that I never take Ibuprofen before a practice if I have an injury: I need to feel what is causing the pain; the pain is my body's guide to moving correctly.  Which speaks volumes about how my view of injuries and the body has changed from when I used to run!  Anyways, I was going to just keep resting and not try practicing until the pain was gone completely, but the rest of my body was cramping up and feeling pretty tense, not to mention my mind felt like it was kind of on edge.  So, on the Sunday following the chakrasana mis-hap, I practiced a few suns and some standing poses at home and it went surprisingly well, as long as I kept my head in a neutral position and didn't use the muscles in the back of the neck too much.  The rest of my body and my mind was extremely grateful for the movement.  I also sent out an email to one of the bodyworkers at my studio asking for help.  Even though it was doing really well on its own, I was starting to get some nasty tension headaches traveling up the left side of the head, and I just wanted to make sure that it wasn't serious.  I got an appointment for that Tuesday and continued practicing at home, just carefully making my way through as much of the Primary Series as I could without pain (which was just up to Paschimottanasna).

By Tuesday it almost felt normal and I was wondering whether or not I should keep the appointment...until I had to jerk my head back to avoid something falling on me.  Ouch!  Nope, not back to normal.  I was also surprised at how sensitive to the touch it was when Nicole (craniosacral therapist and "miracle body-worker") was working on it.  Most of the time she actually focused on the muscles under/around the left shoulder blade (which makes me think that my thinking that I pulled the upper muscles of the trapezius might not be too far off--especially considering the trajectory of the pain and the shape of the trapezius muscle).  She also worked inside my mouth, on the muscles of my jaw to be more precise.  I'm not going to lie, it was really weird to have somebody outside the dentist put their finger inside my mouth, lol.  But, she thought it would really help the neck to have the jaw muscles relaxed.  Can't say it didn't need it.  I know I clench my jaw at night and I noticed that morning that it felt really tight when I tried to yawn.  When the hour finished it was hard to tell how much help it had done until I yawned!  Holy cow!  I knew it was tight but I had no idea it was that tight!  It sounds weird but it felt like there was so much freedom and space in my mouth and jaw.  It was quite remarkable.  Even better, there was minimal to no pain in my neck when I woke up the next morning!  It was mostly just a general feeling of stiffness.  My neck definitely still has a ways to go though because I could still feel pain when I moved it in certain direction which she said would be the case, that I would still feel it back there.  But it was definitely significantly better after the work that Nicole did on it and the headaches going up that side of the head have dissipated.

So, I am now working with another injury.  Annoying?  Yes.  But, this time around it has truly almost felt more like a gift and less like an injury because of how it has effected my practice.  Which I will cover in the next post because this one is too long as it is  ;-)