Wednesday, June 23, 2010


I never thought I’d say this, but my practice this morning was FASCINATING. It was juicy. Uncomfortable, but juicy! I’m trying to think of a good analogy and struggling a bit.

Here’s one: Have you ever gone salsa dancing in a small room with a BIG elephant in it?

Okay, me neither! But work with me here... You’re dancing, but every time you turn around, that elephant is there! You can smell her and feel her presence. You keep glimpsing her out of the corner your eye, or you bump into her accidentally or feel the swish of her tail against your back. There are things you want to do, fancy moves you want to try, but you can’t because the elephant is in the way. She’s crowding you, making it hard to breath. Every so often, you forget she’s there and then she taps you on the shoulder with her long trunk and you’re all “WHA?! Oh... it’s just the elephant.”

That’s what it felt like.

This suddenly-tight left hamstring was a flashback to my yoga past. I wasn’t always very bendy. When I started practising Iyengar style yoga in my mid-20s, my hamstrings were so chronically shortened, I could barely touch my knees in a forward bend (I didn’t use a block, I used a CHAIR). Several years later, I could finally find the floor with my fingertips, but I still had the tightest hamstrings in my YTT.

One of the nice little fringe benefits I’ve gained from practising the Primary Series for so many years is lonnnnnng hamstrings. I don’t think I fully realised it until this morning, but I don’t really ‘feel’ my hamstrings anymore in most forward bends, particularly if I’m warmed up. This became starkly evident in the assymetrical poses. Left side: there’s a pull and some sensation. Right side: nada. The contrast was fascinating.

Poses that required the legs to open at a wide angle were inaccessible, with weird exceptions. Upavista Konasana was almost impossible, but Supta Konasana was comfortable (probably because there was less emphasis on a forward bend?). Kurmasana was GONE (requiring both legs to be bent), but Supta Kurmasana was absolutely fine, right down to binding my fingers and crossing my ankles! All of the Janus were limited, but possible. The Marichyasanas were fine, even A.

It’s not absolutely dire, but it’s definitely limiting my practice. It begs the question, is this an ‘opening’ or an ‘injury’?

I vote for ‘opening’ because:

a) I kind of saw it coming

b) It triggered some kind of released-emotion meltdown (I normally don’t cry at the grocery store - honest!)

c) It’s on my left side, which is my pissy psoas side; my left side has ‘issues’

d) The pain occurred when I was very warmed up, my hamstrings are already very flexible, and I was working in a pose that is normally accessible to me. In short, I wasn’t doing anything stupid.

At the time, I told R that it was “probably just a thing” and I still think that’s the case. It’s just a ‘thing’ I need to deal with. It came up for a reason and I’ll to work through it. No doubt I’ll excavate important lessons from it.

All the same, I like to do my research on this stuff.

After a bit of Googling, I was surprised to find that the most hysterical, pessimistic accounts of this type of pain can be found on the Astanga message boards. The EZBoard actually scared the daylights out of me and most of it wasn’t helpful. I had to remind myself that those accounts spanned different degrees of severity, experience in the practice and even types of injury. Astangis tend to get twitchy about anything that limits their practice :-D

Interestingly, the sites geared towards runners, soccer players - even weight-lifters - all had calm, reassuring messages. In a nutshell: ice it, stretch it, strengthen it, give it some time and you’ll be fine.

Along those same lines, I noticed that there are two schools of thought around healing this type of injury and they can be summed up neatly: “Stretch and Strength” and “Rest Completely” I found more of the latter in the wider yoga community (not Astanga-specific). The sports medicine folks seem to favour the former approach: physiotherapy, including targeted stretching and strength work.

The common ground on which everyone seems to agree: Ice, ice baby. And arnica gel/cream.

Here’s the plan:

-I’m icing the area several times a day for 20 minutes.

-I’m working on building strength in my hamstrings (Shalabasana, physio-inspired exercises and the ‘hamstring machine’ at the gym I teach at).

-Arnica gel during the day and arnica orally at night (the pellets make me extremely drowsy).

-I’ll continue my practice, stretching the area with great care.

-I’ll modify as needed: I’m comfortable with keeping my left leg straight in most of the forward bends, but in wide angle forward bends, I’ll keep the knee bent.

And today I gave the Ganesha on my altar some mango and part of a vegan cookie.

It doesn’t hurt to keep all my bases covered!


Arturo said...

dear Kai
pobrecita. it must be the intensity and frequency of practice. i gave myself a men's holiday today :) maybe the muscles needed it.

susananda said...

I've had a pretty bad hamstring tear, I vote stretch and strengthen! Walking lots is actually one of the best things you can do to strengthen it, in my opinion. And then just carrying on with practice, the way you are.

Boodiba said...

Non hysterical advice from an Astangi hooray! :)

Ya.. I've never had a hamstring tear per se, but over all I've found working through injuries to be the best way to heal them in the opening direction, meaning once the demon is evicted I HAVE been more open. I've heard others say the same thing.

There are different kinds of pain though, as any Astangi knows. As per last winter I have at times stopped practicing Astanga for a period of time. My right knee is still more sensitive than it was pre January tweak. I'm careful with it now.

Sounds like you've got a good plan of action for the hammie.

Boodiba said...

PS: I think the offering was a good idea!

Boodiba said...

Mens holiday! :)

Kaivalya said...

I'm actually jealous of you men because you don't have to take the monthly 'holiday'. I'd rather just do my practice and not deal with the three-days-of-agony.

I bike around the city, but oddly enough, that doesn’t work the hamstrings much. Walking is a good idea.

I've been through this sort of thing before, and I'm confident I'll be more open once it heals. It was interesting to note that the sports-medicine websites said this almost verbatim and noted that 'stretch and strength' would allow the muscle to heal'correctly aligned'.

Today, Ganesha got a gummi bear!

Boodiba said...

I'm all for offerings. I think Patanjali needs a new plant. I'm a very bad plant mommy. They tend to last only about a month, but that's longer than flowers anyway.

Kaivalya said...

If I was a houseplant and I saw you coming, I wouldn't walk, I would RUN in the opposite direction. Give Patanjali a cookie! ;-)

Boodiba said...

I know I know. I think I'm am "rescuing" them from the little stand in the bowels of the subway, but then....