the cold shoulder


an exercise in acceptance

One Sunday, I went to a vinyasa yoga class. During our sun salutations, the teacher asked us to try dolphin instead of downward dog. I don’t know why the pose is called dolphin. To me, it looks just like downward dog except that your forearms are flat on the ground with your hands. The first few times I did dolphin it was challenging, but I felt okay. However as the class progressed, it became increasingly difficult to hold it.

Each time I got into the pose, I tried to keep my forearms in line with my shoulders and parallel to one another, but I couldn’t get much traction and they kept sliding out toward the edges of my mat. My shoulders felt like they were holding much more than just my torso and after class, I was tired. The next morning, my shoulders were sore. Dime-size scabs had formed where my forearms met my elbows. Over the next two days, the soreness turned into a deep ache with occasional bursts of hot, shooting pain.

I tried to alleviate it by applying a deep-heating patch and taking hot showers. By the third day I felt a little better, so in the evening I decided to go to a yoga class. I thought that I could still participate as long as we weren’t doing anything shoulder intensive. Before class, I approached my teacher to tell him about my shoulders and asked him if I should take his class. In response, he said, “If you are feeling wise, you would give your body a break and rest awhile.” I took his advice, packed up my belongings and headed home. I finally had to admit that I had an injury. For the next seven days, I sat home leafing through yoga magazines when I normally would have been in class.

As the soreness subsided, I started to do simple stretches to keep my shoulders mobile and maintain their range of motion. Rather than attempting an intense stretch like cow-face pose or eagle pose, I tentatively tried a downward dog. After a few seconds, I felt a twinge in my shoulder so I moved into child’s pose. It was challenging to be patient with my injury and I wanted to ignore the pain and immediately return to a full asana practice. This feeling was familiar to me. Before I started practicing yoga, I enjoyed early morning jogs when the streets were quiet and the air was cool and crisp.

Occasionally, I would injure my foot or knee, but after a few days of rest, I would be jogging again. While I was recovering, I would count the days until I could return to my morning routine. Soon, I stopped counting the days and just returned to jogging after a day or two of rest. If I felt some pain I would ignore it, continuing as if nothing was wrong. I wanted to jog and the pain was not going to stop me. Gradually, the injuries became more frequent and more severe until it became so bad that if I went for a quick jog, I would end up limping for the rest of the day. Ultimately, my recklessness made it impossible for me to continue jogging.

When I began practicing yoga, I was suffering from chronic hip, knee and foot pain. Although my jogging days were over, I was happy that I could practice yoga. As my practice progressed, I started to picture scenarios of an injury side-lining me from yoga. To allay my fears, I devised a strategy to avoid getting an injury. My plan was to exercise caution when getting in and out of poses. If I felt any pain, I immediately got out of the pose. Even with my vigilance, I couldn’t prevent my shoulder injury. As I expected, the rehabilitation process was slow. At first I was frustrated because I felt as if my injury was dictating what I could and couldn’t do. Eventually I realized that I did have some choices. I could have chosen to ignore my injury and continue going to class, but I didn’t. Instead I decided to accept my condition and work within the limitations.

I did not enjoy my rehabilitation, but I also didn’t want to rush through it. My jogging debacle was fresh in my mind, and I didn’t want to repeat it; I wanted to respect my yoga practice and my body, so I chose to exercise patience and let my body decide when it was ready to engage in a full asana practice again.

Eventually, I could do downward dog and hold the pose. Shoulder injuries can linger for some time. I’m still careful when getting in and out of asanas, but I do it out of respect for my body, not fear of injury. If I do become injured, I want to acknowledge my injury and adapt to the new conditions. In my practice, my goal is to work with the reality of my situation instead of what I would like it to be.

Circumstances are always changing. The wind blows one way and then it blows another. When I am in tree pose, I try to adjust to these changes using the strength, balance and flexibility that yoga has helped me develop. I want to develop these characteristics for my mind as well.

Ann Bui lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. She hopes to one day do a handstand away from the wall.