Supraspinatus... Super Spin ate us?

Who’s Super Spin? What are they eating? And why am I talking about this weird hungry superhero/villain? Are they a spinning top with razor blades coming out of the sides?

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Photo from:  http://www.debra-international.org

Uhhhh, no. I’m actually not. I’m talking about the supraspinatus, one of the muscles in the rotator cuff, muscles that help keep the head of the humerus (upper arm bone) in the glenoid cavity of the scapula (simply put, the shoulder socket).

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And I’m talking about it because a couple of months ago I injured mine. As I was going down a set of stairs, I slipped, and holding onto the rail, my arm went into a funky position, bearing the weight of my body. I went about my workout as normal, but the next time I practiced yoga, I felt a suspicious pinching feeling in my shoulder and felt pain when I raised my arm out to the side.

I decided to wait a few weeks before investigating further, hoping it was just minor muscle irritation. It turned out that, after seeing a sports medicine physician and physical therapist, that I had irritated the tendon of the supraspinatus, which would require a course of physical therapy, minimizing strain on it, doing exercises to strengthen the rotator cuff muscles, and refreshing my knowledge of biomechanics. It also, as a yoga teacher, has meant that demonstrating or practicing a number of postures such as side plank, crow, or chaturanga dandasana (high to low plank) is out of the question. As much as I love doing it, bad form can strain the tendon further and I’m not willing to take the chance that one bad chat will prolong my recovery.

Injuries happen in and out of yoga practice, and I have had plenty before, both in and out of yoga. I think it’s important to be transparent about mine. Attending classes with an injury in my shoulder (something I’ve never done before) has been challenging. Not being able to do things with my body that I’ve worked hard to be able to do has been humbling. Having to, with each new instructor, tell them about my injury and be a student in class who can’t do things has been humbling. It’s also given me gratitude for the things that I can do, and new awareness of how many times the standard vinyasa flow class bears weight on the shoulders

In no way am I saying these poses are bad or that I’ve come to some enlightenment that because I can’t do something, I need to tell the rest of the yoga community to stop doing it. Hardly. There are a lot of potential benefits from building strength in the arms and shoulders. But if I wasn’t aware that, as a teacher, it’s important to vary the parts of the body doing the efforts throughout class, this experience has really brought it on home. Just as much, I wouldn’t want a student with a knee injury to be excluded because kneeling postures were the theme of the day.

It’s also taught me something valuable in my own practice, that’s really relevant to life. Sometimes things simply aren’t for you; either for a moment, or for a long period of time. For example, at my wellest, I don’t have the mobility or bone proportions to bring my elbow outside my thighs in a twist, so side crow isn’t a posture available to me. For the time being, if I want to get better in my shoulder, substantial amounts of weight-bearing postures in the shoulder aren’t available to me. Does that mean it’s time to hang up my mat and quit doing yoga? Fuck no! It means I continue to show up, even when it’s hard.

This practice is about so much more than doing the postures; in fact, the postures aren’t the point. As of my teachers has said, it’s a really advanced practice to choose not to do a posture. Sometimes it’s available to us, but it wouldn’t be wise to do it for a number of reasons. Sometimes it’s not available and we strain hoping to find enlightenment on the other side of putting your body in a certain shape. But moving your body in a certain way only gets you closer to being awake if you pay attention and stay present while you’re doing it. Otherwise, standing on one foot only makes you good at standing on one foot. So I ask you, how can you let this practice be more about learning to be well in your body than striving to get your foot behind your head because teacher said so? And what would it look like to choose your efforts based on what is a wise idea?