A month ago I had the wonderful opportunity to be a camp leader at RG‘s summer camp for adults with spinal cord injuries at Valjieviken in the South of Sweden. There I met many fantastic people (leaders and participants), many of whom were very genuinely interested in yoga for people with spinal cord injuries. I learned so much from my experiences there, especially the time I spent with everyone outside the gym/studio. Most importantly though, I am able to answer one question a little bit better: In what ways can yoga bring relief to people who have suffered a spinal cord injury?

One of the camp leaders (and former participant) said to me during a conversation something like this “After their injuries, patients spend months in the hospital retraining their bodies, healing physically as much as possible before returning to life at home. But the parts of us that are most broken – our mental and emotional selves – receive little or no care.”

But what is it exactly that has broken apart from your body? Why are the mental and emotional injuries as, or more painful than the physical? Because, I think, up until the moment of injury you have spent your whole life building an image of yourself – creating an answer to the question “who am I?” And for those of us who grow up in Western societies, generally that answer relates to the world around us and how we see ourselves in it. We spend years creating a definition of ourselves, who we “are” and who we “aren’t”.

“I am Johnny and I enjoy mountain biking and skiing. I am a high school math teacher. I have a dog and a girlfriend and an apartment in the city. I am 185 cm tall with brown hair & blue eyes. My favorite color is green and I don’t like to eat onions.”

This wouldn’t be an unusual response to the question “who are you?” But the trap we unwittingly set for ourselves lies in the fact that all of these attributes are temporal, external and ultimately unlasting. The image we have of ourselves changes dramatically throughout our lives. Sometimes these changes make us happy, they make us feel like we’ve gained something. Graduating from university, for instance, and entering into the “real world” can give us the sense that we are maturing, that we’ve achieved something momentous and this creates and internal sense of satisfaction. On the other hand however, there are some things that cause us to change our image of ourselves in a way that is painful. The loss of a job, for example, can be extremely painful not only for the loss of income and stability, but because “If I’m not a teacher…than who am I?” In the same way, the loss of a boyfriend or girlfriend causes us pain because “he/she was everything to me”.  To some extent, even losing a favorite jacket can be painful because “that jacket really expresses who I am”. We hurt when we lose these things because we feel that we’ve also lost a piece of ourselves.

We constantly set ourselves up for this kind of injury by defining ourselves with external elements that in the end we cannot control. And that is where you find yourself after an injury, counting up the losses of those little things that you used to think defined who you are…those things that you no longer have. For a while at least, what you are left with is a lot of used to’s. “I used to be a fantastic skier”

But we can choose to know ourselves and understand ourselves and come to think of ourselves in a different way. Yoga is (and I mean the whole of yoga, not just the physical practice of asana) the journey of realizing that who you are is something so much more profound and lasting than those things you believe have come to define you.

We use yoga practice to quiet our self-dialogue long enough to see ourselves for who we really are, not just who we think we are. When we stop defining ourselves by our external attributes and our similarities or differences to other people, that is when we can experience freedom from our suffering. I believe the process of healing the heart after an injury can begin with re-thinking who you are altogether.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not implying that one shouldn’t enjoy the world and what it has to offer. By all means be passionate about your work, go skiing, love your girlfriend/boyfriend, be glad that your jacket keeps you warm and dry. Just don’t choose to let these things define you, don’t cling to them. And if they leave you, do not feel that you have lost yourself. The you, the real you will continue on unchanged for a long time to come.