During any respectable teacher training, the topic “yoga & injuries” is an important subject, from the angle of injury prevention as well as from the perspective of practicing with existing injuries.
Whilst I studied this during my 200-hour teacher training and additional yoga anatomy courses over the years, my single best lesson was the frozen shoulder I sustained in 2015.
Sharing my experiences with you, the mistakes I made as well as the positive decisions I took, will hopefully help those of you suffering from a similar injury.
In February 2015 I had a seemingly harmless scooter accident in Bali. I slid over a bit of mud on the road and fell on my left side, hitting the tarmac with my arm and shoulder and the side of my – thankfully helmeted – head.
Though I felt a bit bruised on the left side of my rib cage – probably because I elbowed myself upon impact – I didn’t think anything of it and travelled home as planned the next day.
Over the course of the following weeks, the pain in my ribs disappeared but I noticed a slight pinch at the front of my left shoulder joint. So I went easy on the yoga practice and decided that rest was the best thing to do.
I basically ignored the growing pain I felt in my shoulder, not only because I thought it would go away by itself but also because I was busy moving from Egypt to Australia.
Aside from a couple of random visits along the way to a physiotherapist and a chiropractor who couldn’t really help me because I was on the move, I pretended everything was in order which in retrospect of course wasn’t the case.
The sharp pinches in my shoulder were gradually becoming worse, especially when I was making sudden or large movements with my left arm. I tried to give my arm more “rest” by using it less. Consequently, my range of motion became more and more restricted. Within a few months, I could hardly extend, flex, internally rotate or externally rotate at the left shoulder joint at all.
In normal English, I couldn’t put my left hand in my waist, lift my arm high enough to shave my armpit, make a pony tail or pull the car door shut. By July 2015, it was even too painful to bring a cup to my mouth, open a jar, sleep on my left side, hold the steering wheel or shift gears, which in Australia you do with the left hand.
The pain would sometimes shoot down from the front of my shoulder around the shoulder joint, into the armpit, down my biceps and sometimes even reach my fingers.
One day, while cooking, I burned my left hand and in reaction, jerked my arm back. The ensuing pain was so extreme that I sat crouched on the floor trying to fight back my tears for a good two minutes. And it was not because of the burn.
Needless to say that by then I was unable to do any kind of yoga. Poses requiring the slighest arm movement were impossible. Even gentle, reclined and supported shoulder openers were not an option.
When I settled in Australia in September 2015, I finally had the time to do something about it. I saw an osteopath who advised me to get an ultra sound in order to confirm his suspicion that I had a frozen shoulder and an inflammation. Up until then, I had not even bothered to get a proper diagnosis.
The exact location of where I felt the impingement initially.
Adhesive capsulitis (frozen shoulder joint capsule) and bursitis (inflammation of the bursae) was the verdict. The first thing the GP advised me was to get a cortisone injection to reduce the inflammation.
I declined respectfully and went on a full fledged vegan diet, topped up with extra ginger, turmeric and garlic. Two weeks later, the inflammation was gone.
The inflammation was the biggest cause of the pain that I felt when trying to move. And if you can’t move, you can’t open a frozen joint. Now that the pain was gone, I was ready to start defrosting my shoulder.
Having read that a frozen shoulder can take several years to heal, I would, in my darkest moments, fear that my career as a yoga teacher was going to freeze too. However, the Health Coaching course that I had started, opened up a world of healing, food-based alternatives for me.
I continued a highly anti-inflammatory diet, with lots of green juices, no processed foods, very little articifial sugars, powerful supplements like Juice Plus, golden turmeric paste and healthy fats in the form of nuts, seeds, avocados and fish oil. Instead of asana practice, I took up running, the only physical activity I could think of that didn’t require shoulder “effort”.
The osteopath would (usually) gently work on the range of motion of my shoulder, loosening up the connective tissues around the joint and releasing tension from neck, spine and pelvis. An acupuncturist helped by bringing my energies back in balance, needling in my hips, legs, fingers and feet and sometimes even putting electric voltage on the needles.
The “dead” feeling I had had in my arm for months (despite the pain), was slowly dissipating and it was coming back to life. Deep tissue and hot stone massages further helped the releasing of tightness in my shoulder.
One interesting recommendation came from the acupuncturist. Traditional Chinese Medicine does not just focus on and treat the “afflicted” area, but considers any illness or condition an imbalance of the entire body. During the treatment he suggested that I stop using hormonal contraception.
Observing that I had a strong constitution and was living a pretty healthy lifestyle already, he repeated word for word what an Ayurvedic doctor had already told me two years prior: the only thing that was possibly creating an imbalance in my body was the IUD.
And though it was the physical trauma of the accident and my subsequent ignoring of the injury that caused the frozen shoulder, it was very possible that a hormonal imbalance was impeding the healing process. So I said goodbye to my Mirena and after 25 years of birth control, hello to a body free of artificial hormones (and hello to PMS, but that’s a different story).
Bit by bit, my shoulder thawed. I introduced asanas into my life again with restorative poses and plenty of props. Slowly but surely, I was able to join gentle Vinyasa classes, although for the longest time all my down dogs were three legged dogs (one arm, two legs) and my trees would have one very sad branch. Planks, chaturangas and upward facing dogs also started coming back into my practice.
My left arm, which had visibly lost muscle mass, was growing back in strength. I got back into my Ashtanga practice and by June 2016 I was able to do a solid headstand again.
It took another full year for me to be able to open my left arm properly in poses like Revolved Triangle, for the combination of abduction and extension was the most stubborn one to master again. I cursed my way through a lot of shoulder openers Yin style to get there.
Broken Wing, or Evil Shoulder Opener, as I prefer to call it.
Yet here I am, two and a half years to the date after the scooter accident, roughly two years after I started regular treatment and adapted my lifestyle to my situation. I finally feel I am back where I was before the frozen shoulder.
Did I heal thanks to the osteopath? Or was it the acupuncturist? Would I have healed just as fast if I hadn’t gone running? Was it really necessary to stick to an anti-inflammatory diet? Was the removal of the UID of any use? Would simple massages have been enough? Was it the restorative yoga that did the trick or should I have pushed harder in my yoga practice to heal sooner?
Who knows. If you thought this article was only going to be about yoga poses, I guess I tricked you into it. Yoga asanas are not a miracle cure by themselves. It’s always a package deal. Yoga is about how you live your life, not just those 60 minutes per day on the mat.
This frozen shoulder has been the best teacher I have had.
I learned how to heal naturally (I did not take a single painkiller or other pharmaceutical in the process), was taught patience (still not my strongest virtue), experimented with modified yoga poses and yoga styles to adapt my practice to my capabilities, was introduced to therapies and healing methods I had never needed before. And I now also know from my own experience that ignoring a problem is not going to make it go away.
These lessons have not only made me healthier and happier, but also a more versatile and multi-faceted teacher and health coach. I hope that they can be of benefit to you just as much as they have to me.
Comments or questions welcome!