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Brokeback Students

I went into my training session this week expecting to learn how to teach people who are recovering from injuries. I left with a heightened fear of hurting someone, and a little injury of my own—a sprained ankle.

OK. So I didn’t really sprain my ankle, but my teacher assigned all of us to approach our yoga practice for the next week like we’re nursing an old injury. I was assigned a sprained ankle (not to be confused with a strained ankle, an injury to a tendon rather than a ligament).

The mock injury may prove to be confusing and annoying (and I hope a great learning experience), but I’m more concerned with how I will handle it if someone with an injury I’m only vaguely familiar with walks into a class I’m teaching.

Darren gave us two rules of thumb for handling students with injuries:
1. Unless your name has an M.D. at the end, never EVER diagnose.
2. It’s OK not to know everything.

It’s a good thing that I’m not expected to know everything about injuries—because I don’t. In fact, even after we went over a list of injuries and what poses to avoid for each type of injury, I don’t feel like I know nearly enough to suggest pose modifications confidently. And even if I did know everything about yoga and injuries, how do I give all of my students the attention they deserve while I cater to one recovering student?

I’m still stumbling over my words trying to describe a Sun Salutation. If I have a hard time explaining simple movements to healthy yoga students, how am I supposed to guide someone nursing a pulled muscle, or even a hernia?

All of this was overwhelming enough, but then Darren proceeded to share his teaching horror stories with us. He was teaching when a student dislocated a shoulder in the middle of his class. One of his students had been practicing yoga for years before he pulled up his shirt to reveal a big bulge protruding from his gut and said: “I think I might have a hernia.”

I was going into freak-out mode when Darren reminded us that these are not common occurrences. In fact, there is a lot to be learned from students who have had injuries because many of them will know what they are (and are not) supposed to do. I took refuge in the principle that if I remind students to listen to their bodies and avoid anything that doesn’t feel right, they will most likely succeed in protecting themselves from further injury.

I’m not so nervous about this issue that I fear teaching, but I did buy a few more books on the subject. I have every intention of lugging these books with me to every class I might venture to teach until I feel more confident with injuries.


what it relief it was to read this post! i just completed my teacher training course in India and i don't feel i know enough to teach anyone yet!! during the course, every soon-to-be-teacher highlighted their individual aches and pains and i thought 'how on earth am i going to remember everything for every injury'. when i worriedly voiced this to my teacher, he kindly said, 'you don't have to. the student will know what to do with their body.' your post has reinforced this. thank you!

I love reading these posts as it reminds me of my own journey through the teacher trainings I've taken. I tell my friends that I'm on the lifetime teacher training program of Anusara yoga because when I first fell in love with yoga (it was in 1997 with Amy Ippoliti) - I decided I wanted to teach it so that I could become it - the "embodiment of Yoga." How humbling looking back on the past 9 years and seeing how much there is to know and learn and embody. What a journey I'd be embarking upon and am still on as I dig up every thing in myself and work with others from a place of respect for wherever they are coming from. Not easy.

I came from training at St. Edward's University in Austin, Texas where I graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in Biology. And my wonderful professors taught us this:

"To master, teach."

And that's what we are doing - in sharing the practice - I watch my relationship to everyone in the room. Where are they coming from, where am I coming from? I realize that I can't solve all of their problems in class or at a workshop or a retreat, but if we can have a little bit more joy and depth of understanding then that's enough.

I love Darren's advice about not acting as an MD - my mother is a physician and I grew up with physicians all around me - who diagnose illnesses and injuries. And I have learned not to diagnose - to just allow the student to see exactly where they are. Because ultimately the true guru resides deep in their hearts and we are just leading them there as teachers.

As "adventure guides" as John Friend says in his Teacher Training manual.

om shantih!

Thanks for your blog, Erica. I've only been practicing for a few months, but in the past I've had various small injuries from running (an ankle sprained multiple times and a hamstring tear--maybe; it was never diagnosed by anyone with MD after their name), and I sometimes feel the remnants of those injuries during a yoga class. Something in your blog entry here hit home with me: it was the part about letting students know they can listen to their own bodies and maybe learn as much about what to do or not do as the teacher would know in their specific case. Good teachers have made my yoga practice healing of those old injuries by telling me that my body is my teacher too.

Hi Erica,
I've been teaching yoga for 10 yrs or so and I've been a nurse for 20+ yrs. However, when teaching yoga, I don't bring my nursing skills to the classroom (and still, nursing is NOT an MD!).
Not to scare you, but I have had a lot of students with illness/injury. Quite frankly, many should not be in class. At some point, I found certain students consuming all of my time and it was not possible for me to give adequate time to the rest of my class. (and this was a modest size class of 10-12 people) For example, a lady with MS, needed one on one attention and insisted on coming to an intermediate level class. It was very hard, but I finally had to suggest beginner level or private lessons to her (which she did not want and left). This will happen-people need to be told when they are pushing too hard. I am not a physical therapist or a doctor. Always remember to ask at the start of every single class if anyone has any injuries, aches/pains, illness'-old or recent that you need to know about. It is amazing how many times I get half way through a class and someone suddenly remembers to tell me they had neck surgery or a back injury!
I too am reminded just about every time I teach, that I really don't know much of anything :)

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