Right now in one of my weekly yoga classes for figure skaters, we have a hodge podge of injuries.
One skater has a hairline fracture of the wrist, another with a strained foot, and another with a strained hamstring. Then, I have my own injury that has plagued me for months–a gluteus medius tear that will be surgically repaired in a few days.
Thank goodness the days of “no pain no gain” in youth sports in the US are disappearing (even if that attitude still persists in many parts of society and in many sports cultures across the world).
As my teacher at Yoga East always say, “no pain, no pain” is a much better way to be.
Of course, sometimes kids say “owww, it hurts” every time you ask them to use a muscle, and learning to distinguish between effort and the accompanying discomfort vs. actual pain is part of the process of being human and especially of learning to be an athlete.
This need for awareness is a major reason why I believe that continuing to practice yoga (in an appropriate, non-harmful way) while injured is so important.
I give options to all of the students, especially those with injuries, and let them know that they are in charge–if they don’t feel comfortable trying something or begin to feel any pain, then we need to stop and find a different option for them.
We also have been incorporating more exercises for the other limbs of yoga (yamas and niyamas, pranayama, dharana, pratyahara), which are crucial for a well-rounded practice.
After all, the essence of practice is simply exploration and awareness of the mind and body, not perfection.
How Figure Skaters Can Do Yoga While Injured
To be honest, I don’t always follow my own advice and haven’t practiced very much asana during the last few months of this injury.
I understand that there are lots of reasons someone might choose not to do a physical practice while injured: lingering perfectionist feelings of not wanting to practice if it can’t be done well, fear of one’s lack of self-discipline or self-awareness, fear of making the injury worse, the discomfort of and mental effort it takes to come up with a practice for oneself within their current limitations, or any number of other reasons.
There was a period where my doctor wanted almost complete rest (as little activation of the gluteus medius as possible) to see if the injury would heal on its own. I didn’t trust myself enough to completely avoid that motion, I couldn’t face the mental effort of working out a practice within the restrictions, and frankly, I was angry that I wasn’t able to do the physical practice that I wanted to do.
So, since I really wanted to avoid surgery and was full of excuses, I avoided all asana.
Now I realize I could have and should have made the effort to practice within those parameters. If I had, I would be feeling a lot better mentally and emotionally right now.
sthira sukham asanam
If you follow the guidelines of yoga sutra 2.46 - “Yoga asana should be steady and comfortable”, and you follow the first tenet of yoga – ahimsa (non-harm), then you can find yoga poses that are safe to practice, even while injured.
A skilled, experienced yoga teacher can offer options to the student, and the student, armed with self-awareness and honesty, can move through the practice with intention.
(Be sure to follow the instructions of your health care practitioner and avoid anything that goes against those instructions and/or anything that may further strain the injury.)
Often, practicing with an injury will include more PT-type exercises (which are often done as warm-ups in yoga classes anyway), and may also use even more props than usual. For a foot injury, for example, many poses can be done in a chair, thus avoiding stress caused by standing.
For a mild hamstring strain, folding poses should be done with bent knees and yoga blocks as supports for the head and hands, where necessary. In my case - a torn gluteus medius tendon - I have to choose what can practice. Kneeling poses, a gentle cat/cow, Tadasana (Mountain Pose), Uttkatasana (Fierce Pose), Navasana (Boat Pose), almost anything for the upper body while seated (albeit with limited range of motion for twisting and leaning) are safe.
Another great option for an asana practice is incorporating mudras - which are basically postures for your hands and fingers that are said to open the arms and shoulders and adjust the flow of energy, even promoting healing and balancing the elements.
Figure Skating Mindset Work is Especially Important After Injury
Whether or not you are restricted in your asana practice, you can always practice the yamas and niyamas. These are the first two limbs of Patanjali’s 8 limbs of yoga, and are the foundation of everything a yogi and a skate must do for a happy journey.
(Check out my previous post for a more detailed explanation of the 8 limbs and another article that explains the yamas and their application to skating)
In all of my classes, I try to include at least a mention of the yamas or niyamas.
Sometimes I make slips of paper with different words related to the yamas and niyamas and their application to skating. Then, we start class by drawing a slip of paper and discussing what each word means to us and how we can apply it to our lives on and off the ice.
If you aren’t able to take a class, you can journal about each of the concepts under the yamas or niyamas–how you interpret them and how you can apply them. Concepts such as gratitude, non-harm, contentment, surrender, non-attachment, and right use of energy are all covered, and what better time to dive deep into mindset than when you are frustrated with an injury?
I recommend picking one concept per week and setting that as an intention and something to contemplate. You can journal about every day or two and see how your thoughts and ideas develop throughout the week.
it is normal to feel sad, frustrated, angry, scared, and left out while injured. The mindset work of the yamas and niyamas can help.
Use Breathing Exercises to Keep Lungs Strong and Manage Anxiety While Injured
Simple pranayama exercises are perhaps the most tangible exercises for skaters because the benefits are so clear. This is why I try to include a bit of it in every class I teach, especially when it’s after a long skating day, or when different injuries make an intense asana practice impractical.
Not only can breathing exercises teach skaters how to breathe properly, they are designed to stimulate the vagus nerve and activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which leads to a number of benefits, such as lower anxiety, increased lung capacity, better mental clarity and concentration, improved digestion, higher quality sleep, clearer sinuses, and more.
Just be sure to do a light warm-up and opening of the side body and chest to prime the intercostal muscles (the muscles that expand and contract the rib cage) before the practice.
Intentional Relaxation Promotes Awareness to Help in Injury Recovery and Healing
Practices such as Restorative Yoga and Yoga Nidra may look just like nap time, but they are special subsets of yoga especially helpful for rest and recovery.
By definition, restorative yoga is an act of self-care that promotes a grounded state by placing the body in comfortable postures supported by props for an extended period of time to allow for the release of muscular tension, bringing about a downshift in the nervous system (aka relaxation response). Most restorative postures are done on the floor, with the head and the heart close to the same level.
In restorative yoga, we are aiming to allow the brain to rest, which in turn, allows the body to relax. And in a restorative practice of at least 15-20 minutes, the brain can move into an alpha wave state, which is crucial for balancing the left and right hemispheres of the brain. In this state, the heart rate and blood pressure decrease, as it is associated with a deep relaxation response.
Restorative yoga and the alpha wave state have been shown to help boost attention, lower depression, reduce anxiety, foster creativity, relieve fatigue, and improve sleep.
Yoga Nidra, or yogic sleep, is another form of deep relaxation that is safe for anyone to practice. It is designed to take the yogi into a state of consciousness between waking and sleeping, and it is usually done by guided meditation.
Yoga nidra allows us to access the delta brain waves–which are responsible for the healing and recovery that happens during sleep–while awake. Numerous studies show many measurable benefits of yoga nidra, particularly for managing stress, anxiety, and insomnia.
For athletes, yoga nidra can be especially beneficial because, when led by a skillful teacher, a yoga nidra session can be used to help release deeply held harmful beliefs or fears.
Some scientists such as Dr. Andrew Huberman recommend one short session of Yoga Nidra per day.
I do one 20-30 minute session of either Restorative Yoga or Yoga Nidra early every afternoon to give my brain a break, so I can continue to function throughout the afternoon and evening.
Both Restorative Yoga and Yoga Nidra are deeply important for healing and recovery and are great practices for all skaters, whether they are injured or not.
Up Your Mental Game in Figure Skating Through Concentration Exercises
The sixth limb of yoga - dharana - involves concentration and focus exercises, which are similar to exercises often used in sports psychology.
Practicing journaling, positive self-talk and affirmation repetition, mantra meditation, visualization, candle gazing, and other forms of meditation practice are all incredibly valuable and are safe for anyone to practice.
Not all injuries require complete rest, so skaters, coaches, and parents have to be smart about how they manage training.
Learning to control our self-talk and direct our focus to where it is needed–away from distractions and to the task at hand–is key to being able to train and perform through injury.
If a specific foot injury continues to hurt but only on a lutz, for example, the program content may need to be modified (and sometimes right before a competition) so the skater can still compete.
They must be very strong mentally to be able to shut out the doubts and racing thoughts that can arise from last-minute changes and the fear of pain.
Dharana practices help prepare skaters for these moments and so many others.
Skating and practicing yoga through an injury can be very frustrating, but when done intentionally and with the proper guidance, it can help deepen your awareness and your skating and yoga practice, allowing you to keep training, growing, and doing what you love. Luckily the 8 limbs offer us a holistic approach to practice that helps us tend to the entire mind-body sensory complex.
Get easy-to-implement yoga tools to help transform your skating journey with my FREE GUIDE: Anti-Anxiety Tools for Skaters.
Author // the skating yogi
My name is Sarah Neal. I have been immersed in the world of figure skating for over four decades. I have seen firsthand the abuse that happens at the higher levels of our sport and experienced how that trickles down into unhealthy training practices and habits at the grassroots. I have seen this play out in the operations of the very institutions that control our sport. Whether for a profession or hobby, pursuing skating should be a joyful, rewarding process, an opportunity for athletic and personal growth, and a place to build lasting friendships.