I have been teaching a gentle style of hatha yoga for four years. Six months ago I was involved in a car accident and was diagnosed with grade 1 whiplash. For the next couple of months I had to alter my yoga practice significantly to avoid using my right shoulder, which needed time to heal. As a result, I stopped practising Downward Dog and Sun Salutations and made many modifications. I continued teaching my twice-weekly classes, but felt inadequate as a teacher, because I couldn’t demonstrate some of the asanas. I also started to lose my “mojo” as a teacher, feeling less inspired in class planning. I am still recovering from this accident and must be careful not to aggravate my shoulder injury. I gather that as I get older, and possibly have other injuries, I will come across this issue again. Is there a way to get through a time of personal healing, whether it is physical, emotional or mental, and still feel competent as a teacher? What strategies can you suggest? Katherine – Sydney, NSW
Dealing with an injury is a challenge, especially when it impacts on our livelihood and the things we love to do! Whiplash injury can cause damage to the soft tissues: ligaments, muscles, tendons or joint capsules. Recovery may take many months. First, to speed up your recovery, seek treatment and advice from an experienced practitioner. Whiplash injuries require appropriate strengthening exercises and lots of rest, so include a regular Yoga Nidra session in your personal practice. Crucially, you have been honouring your body by modifying your personal practice. Ahimsa reminds us not to do any harm to our body, and this includes while teaching a class. Continue being compassionate with yourself. Interestingly, cultivating compassion for oneself actually strengthens the compassion pathways in our brains.
Let the class members know that you are recovering from injury to inform them as to why you are teaching the class in a particular way. This also educates them how to deal with an injury and honours the concept of sometimes doing less rather than more. Yoga Sutra 2.46, sthira sukham asanam, teaches us to be steady and at ease in our asanas. Explaining this sutra will encourage the class participants to accept more readily their own physical limitations.
As a teacher, it is not necessary to demonstrate all asanas. Indeed, some teachers teach with a disability and others teach asanas they may no longer be able to do. Accordingly, even though it is advantageous to demonstrate the asanas, there are some other options. One option is to teach some asanas, such as Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward Dog), by giving very clear verbal instructions. On the other hand, ask a class member to demonstrate the asana or lead the Sun Salutations. When teaching asanas such as Virabhadrasana II (Warrior II Pose) or Vrksasana (Tree Pose), demonstrate the variation that is comfortable for your shoulder and suggest other arm options for the class.
Be creative and inventive. Explore a variety of asanas you may not normally teach. Learn more about the anatomy of the shoulder. Moreover, there are many facets of yoga that can help you stay fresh and engaged as a teacher. In the class, delve into the Yoga Sutras, pranayama, mudras, chanting or various meditation techniques.
On one level, how we deal with our injuries reflects our attitude to life in general. Having an injury is an opportunity to put yoga wisdom into practice. Yoga wisdom teaches us about non-attachment and non-permanence. Much of our suffering occurs when we do not accept how things are at the moment. Our egos become attached to wanting to have things a particular way or desiring a specific outcome. Accepting an injury as it is opens us to asking: “How can I best deal with this situation?” Knowing we are doing our best at any moment eases our suffering.
An injury is a reminder of impermanence. Eventually, even without injuries, our bodies and its needs will change. What we are able to do at age 30 will be quite different to what we will be able to do at age 80! If we follow yoga wisdom, we gradually learn to respond skilfully to life’s challenges. Essentially, living spiritually includes accepting things as they are at this moment, responding appropriately and practising non-attachment to a particular outcome. Plus, cultivating compassion, equanimity and especially patience!
Karen Nicoll trained with the IYTA and has been teaching yoga in Newcastle since 1984. She leads retreats and workshops around Australia.
Related: How to start out as a yoga teacher