Five Yoga Lessons That Are Helping Me Rehab My Frozen Shoulder
“But you can’t have a frozen shoulder. You do yoga!”
I heard this from some of my friends several weeks ago after I was diagnosed with a frozen shoulder. Come to find out, even a dedicated yogini can get a frozen shoulder. I’m living proof.
Now, if you aren’t familiar with this shoulder affliction, yay! I hope you never have to deal with it. Frozen shoulder is one of those really weird medical conditions that seems to appear out of nowhere and is hard to detect because it creeps up on you.
The really frustrating thing is no one can tell you why you ended up with it. Not the doctor. Not the physical therapist. No, not even Google can tell me why I got a frozen shoulder. But I did.
Frozen shoulder most commonly affects women between the ages of 40 and 60, although men are not immune to the condition. It could be the result of a previous or recent injury. It could be related to diabetes. It could be virus related. It could be a hormone imbalance. It could be because you didn’t move enough after a surgery. It could be because you got up on the wrong side of the bed. OK, I made that last one up. The truth is no one knows why some people develop a frozen shoulder and others don’t.
So what is adhesive capsulitis (the fancy name for frozen shoulder)? Basically, it’s a condition where all the tissues around your shoulder shrink wrap themselves to the joint, which severely restricts your range of motion. Scar tissue forms, and then, my friend, you are in a heap of trouble.
Is it painful, you ask? This pain is unlike any pain I’ve ever experienced in my life and has brought me to my knees on more than one occasion. Yeah, it hurts.
So what does a person do if they develop a frozen shoulder? Well, they can wait several years until it decides to clear up on its own, they can opt for physical therapy, or they can undergo a surgical procedure (while the patient is under a general anesthesia the surgeon goes in and ‘breaks’ everything up…ouch!).
I chose the physical therapy route because 1) I am not a sit-around-and-wait kind of person, 2) I don’t relish the idea of someone ‘breaking’ parts of me while I am knocked out, and 3) I am already used to working with my body through yoga. And by applying the following five yoga lessons to my physical therapy sessions I am seeing fantastic results in just a few weeks.
Yoga taught me to start where I am
Every time I step onto the yoga mat I take a few moments to assess where I am that day, both physically and emotionally. Come to find out, there are subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) differences in our bodies and minds day to day.
Why is it important to take stock of ourselves before we practice yoga? Because when we take the time to check in with ourselves we are better able to focus and the chance we will sustain an injury while practicing is greatly reduced. I wrote more about this in a previous article, Daily Differences.
Becuase I am used to recognizing these daily physical and emotional shifts I was able to honestly assess my shoulder situation when I began therapy. Wanting my shoulder to be completely healed is a great goal, but it really doesn’t help me at this point. I have to start where I am today to get to where I want to be in the future. I am starting from a place of damage, and that’s just the way it is.
Yoga taught me you can’t force things to happen
When I began studying yoga nearly twenty years ago, I was already in my thirties and was dealing with some residual knee problems that stemmed from a car accident I had when I was in college. One posture that appealed to me early on was Virasana, or the hero’s pose. This is the one where you plop your bum down on the floor between your feet with both knees pointing ahead. Of course, that posture was impossible for me.
A couple of times I tried to force my body go into Virasana. It would have nothing to do with it and complained quite vehemently.
Once I left my obsession for this posture behind, though, and continued working on other aspects of the practice, my body gradually began easing in that direction. And one day, my knees allowed me to gently slide into the hero’s pose with no fuss.
I know I can’t ‘force’ my shoulder to get better. I can only do the work and know that one day my body will allow me to use my arm again, if not fully, then at least better than I can now. I know it will happen because I have experienced that exact process and result before on the mat.
Yoga taught me to focus on the journey
This one may sound cliche, but it really is about the journey. Focus too long on the destination and you lose sight of all the interesting things you pass along the way.
I have never had any problems whatsoever with my shoulders; I’ll admit, I’ve taken them for granted. And even though this is a journey I never expected to have to take, I recognize that this is an opportunity to facilitate a palpable change in myself. I get to witness a damaged part become whole again, one baby step at a time. And that’s pretty awesome.
Yoga taught me to coordinate movement with breath
This is a biggie. When you coordinate movement with your breath you become more mindful of what you are doing. Moving mindfully is ultimately how you get your body to trust you, trust that you are not trying to harm it further. Healing can’t truly begin until this trust has been established.
Through yoga, I have learned to ‘play the edge,’ which secures this trust. I go into a posture as far as I comfortably can, then I focus all my attention and breath on the tightness and tension I feel. Inhales keep me focused and expand the tight places, and exhales allow me to release deeper into the posture. The release evolves over several breath cycles and is sometimes quite dramatic.
I have applied this principle to my physical therapy. Instead of ‘holding’ a position for ten seconds, I breathe through it for three full breaths, all the while focusing on trust and release with each exhale. This is a game changer.
Yoga taught me to respect myself
On the mat, you learn to take everything in stride. So what if Urdhva Dhanurasana (the wheel, or full backbend) is not in my yoga repertoire? That doesn’t mean I’m not a serious yoga person. Not every body is capable of every posture, and that’s what I love about the practice. We all bring something different to the mat, and it’s all beautiful and valid.
So what if my shoulder doesn’t function properly at the moment? This is not a reflection on me. Truth is, stuff happens in life, to all of us. It’s how we deal with that stuff that matters, not the stuff itself.
So what are my fantastic results? Well, in less than three weeks I can wash my hair without wincing and I can get dressed without feeling like I just got the wind knocked out of me. I can put on my seatbelt with ease and I can pick up my cat again.
Now, these are things most of us take for granted. But I consider myself lucky to have had the opportunity to be reminded just how precious these small moments in life really are.
K. Kris Loomis has been teaching and learning from her yoga students for almost twenty years. She is the author of How to Sneak More Yoga Into Your Life: A Doable Yoga Plan for Busy People and it’s companion book, How to Sneak More Meditation Into Your Life: A Doable Mediation Plan for Busy People.
Kris is also the author of the humorous travelogue, Thirty Days in Quito: Two Gringos and a Three-Legged Cat Move to Ecuador, as well as the short story collection, The Monster In the Closet and Other Stories.
After a three year adventure in Ecuador, Kris and her husband moved back to South Carolina last year with their two cats. Kris is a determined chess player, and origami enthusiast, and a classically trained pianist. You can connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest @kkrisloomis. Receive a FREE short story when you sign up for her twice monthly updates!