Sometimes the thing that seems like a step backward is really a step forward…. 

I was turned away from my advanced practice yoga class today. Falling on a Monday morning, it sets the pace for the week ahead. It’s something I look forward to, a cornerstone of my routine. Leaving the apartment, I had the beginnings of a headache and it was pouring rain outside. Definitely one of those days I gave myself props for making the effort to go to class. I even vocalized my prop-worthiness to my doorman as I pushed the building door open to brave the elements outside. Trudged all the way there, staring at my increasingly sickly UGG boots along the way, feeling the rain water seep through my down coat, almost wiping out twice from the residual February ice lining the sidewalks. But I made the effort, and made it there, cheerily greeting the woman attending the desk outside the studio, joking with fellow attendees about the weather in the elevator ride up. And I was no sooner patting myself on the back and rolling out my yoga mat, that I was rolling it up again and putting it back in its bag.

Yesterday I went for a run, 30 minutes of steadily increasing pace on the treadmill. It had been a while, but I was craving the feeling of executing what I generally consider “boring cardio,” for the sheer motivation required to execute, for the feeling afterward when you’re humming to yourself or straight up singing out loud, excited for no reason in particular, and if mindful in that moment, acutely aware of the runner’s high coursing through your body in the form of endorphins. Good reasons to want to run. And it had been a while because I suffered a serious hamstring injury almost a year ago, ironically in a yoga class, where I overstretched my hamstring muscles so severely in my exuberance that I left them torn and woeful. And in the aftermath, so addicted was I to this physical exercise routine I had culled together that I didn’t stop yoga right away, I didn’t remove the treadmill from my existence. A virtual denial of my body’s limitations and its need for recovery.

In retrospect the mindless choices leading to the injury were backed by good intentions. That fateful day, class was being led by the owner of the studio (a guaranteed higher octane class) and just to my front right practiced a young woman whose gumby bendiness inspired me to will my body to work as hers did, fluidly sliding into splits and folding her body over legs stretched outward at 180 degrees. I don’t think my body has ever contorted that way, not even at my most flexible (circa 5 years old). She was Cirque de Soleil, I was Jerk de Soleil. So in focusing not on my own body, on its internal states and limitations, and my mind’s responsibility of it as a vehicle, but on the gymnast and studio owner’s presence (perhaps wanting to impress her), I overstretched my poor hammie and am still relishing the consequences. Notice my choice of wording-relishing, not suffering. Because in this injurious event lay several important lessons, which I’m still learning and embracing. I hopped on that treadmill yesterday, and enjoyed all the benefits I knew I would: a sense of accomplishment, the endorphin rush, a highly inspiring conversation afterward because my brain was primed for creative thinking (for more on this, I suggest the book “Spark” by John Ratey, M.D. Exercise makes you smarter). But I also wondered how my leg would react, how healed I was. I hadn’t felt any pain in months, but I also hadn’t taxed it in the ways I knew I shouldn’t. Running being the primary example. And over the course of the evening, I felt the pull set in as I walked, the agitation in the muscle as the old injury flared up. Oh boy.

And then I woke up this morning, got myself to yoga class, and felt that nagging pain in my hamstring every time my left leg pulled forward to contribute to my stride. Upon entering the yoga studio and greeting the studio’s owner and teacher of the advanced practice, she asked me how I was. Another opportunity to be mindful: be honest about “how” you are. No one really wants a canned response, though they come so naturally to us, like breathing, on autopilot: “How are you?” “I’m fine, you?” You’ve no doubt encountered the most overt consequence of the autopilot response: “Happy birthday!” “Thanks, you too!” The point is, in response to her question, I honestly replied “I’m well, but well, I got on the treadmill yesterday and the hamstring is not happy today.” She replied that we’d actually be doing a lot of deep hamstring work today, splits and “the exact poses that will tax your leg in exactly the wrong ways.”

I just stood there for a moment, wondering how to process this. I had encountered poses before that I had to tweak, avoid, or practice in much milder forms while my hamstring was on the mend. But her implication was that this class was so themed around hamstring work, to avoid the poses that might aggravate my poor leg would basically mean I was more observant than participant in that class. Any avid yogi knows that’s tantamount to torture. We go to meld mind and body, not to focus our minds on other bodies. But I listened and heard, rolled up my mat, and said “thank you,” with the deepest gratitude from the deepest level of my cells. “Respect,” was my next word, to acknowledge myself for making the choice to honor my body’s need for recovery over schedules, routines, or anything I might want to prove by powering through the class anyway. Being a hero meant I wouldn’t try to be a hero. It meant leaving that class, even though it felt completely awkward to do an aboutface, especially among such motivated, avid practitioners.

As I prepared to leave the room, one of my friends and fellow practitioners gave me a hug to say “hi,” and I joked “before I say goodbye.” Another gave me a smile of sympathetic resignation, her face saying “sucks, but good call.” And as I crossed the threshold of the door, my teacher pulled me into a hug, told me to go home and work on poses to knit the hamstring back together, cared enough to tell me to send a video. In part I’m sure so I would still feel a part of the practice, in part to hold me accountable to my healing. And in that moment I was fully empowered in my choice to leave mindfully, not in a space of rejection, but elevation. I was grateful for how my mindfulness practice was serving me in making the most optimal choice in that moment, for how the crux of all that yoga practice was actually now bearing its fruit in the form of practicing the union of mind, body and spirit rather than disconnect which leaves us vulnerable to injury. For the spiritual study that allows humility and intuition to override ego and rigidity. And finally for the community of practitioners around me who I felt held by, so supported in that decision because they got “it.” Knowing how hard it was to make that choice. How, in making it, I was being a true yogi. Living the practice of yoga off of my mat, which is the whole point. It’s a way of life, not just an hour in your day. Sometimes you need to back off to move forward.