Students with injuries of all types will come to yoga. It’s important that they understand that you are not a diagnostician and that yoga is not a cure for injury. The best strategy is to remind students to stay within their own limits of movement, take rest when they need to and not push to “achieve” what anyone else is doing. Remind injured students that yoga is a practice of patience and that recovery from injury requires a similar level of patience.
After that disclaimer, explain how yoga is useful for injury treatment and prevention.
The yoga mat is a place to spend time
First, it offers a safe place for injured students to spend time. Injury will sideline a person from their regular activities. Whether “regular” is running 100 km a week or just being able to walk the dog for ten minutes, injury affects daily habits. Recovery and rehabilitation takes time. The yoga mat is somewhere injured students can spend time, be free from distraction and focus on mental and physical recovery. Changing lifestyle habits due to injury demands a lot of mental recovery as well as physical recovery. Yoga provides both.
Full range of motion for injuries
Second, yoga poses are designed to move the body through its full range of motion. Range of motion is different every day. A student recovering from a broken ankle can’t move the way he could before he got pins put in his ankle. Range of motion is subjective but the central yogic principle of linking breath with movement can accommodate any available range of motion. Keep in mind that many poses can be done lying down.
Yoga is a venue for self-care
Finally, yoga is a venue for self-care. Injured students spend a lot of time dealing with medical care and passively allowing their friends and family to help with basic chores. Yoga is a place where they can regain a sense of autonomy. The medical system tends to be highly prescriptive and also very busy. Physicians see injuries every day and patients feel they aren’t getting adequate attention. Yoga provides a platform for students to manage their own healing process.
When teaching injured students, don’t take it personally if they aren’t participating in the poses you suggest. They have made it to their mat and sometimes all they can do is lie flat on their back. Do continue to instruct the sequence that you have planned. The power of suggestion is a first step towards rehabilitating an injury.
For example, consider a student who has recently injured her knee. She can’t bear weight on her left leg and only has about 50% mobility in the knee. Child’s pose, pigeon and other intense knee-bending poses are out of the question. But by teaching them anyway, two things will happen:
First, she will remember what it felt like to have full range of motion, which is a step towards rehabilitation. Second, she will find a creative way to do something that her knee is capable of doing. The point is that you are providing a safe space for a student with an injury to listen to her body, actively contribute to the rehabilitation process and take responsibility for her own recovery.
Medical systems sometimes leave patients feeling helpless and useless. Being immobilized in a cast also leaves people feeling helpless and useless at home. The practice of yoga is autonomous and independent and for the time spent on the mat, injured students have a chance to regain a sense of control.
Yoga is a path towards self-realization. Practicing to accommodate injuries has nothing to do with physically doing the asana practice. Time spent on the yoga mat is useful for the mind and body, regardless of what state the body is in.
Exercise: Modification for Injuries
Try the following exercise with an open mind and a sense of curiosity. It is impossible to experience every injury yourself, but by imagining you have an injury and practicing yoga accordingly, you gain insight into how to teach injured students.
Try the following poses in a supine position against the wall and note what type of injuries they might accommodate:
Vrksasana (Tree Pose)
Tadasana (mountain pose)
Baddha konasana (bound angle pose)