I am no stranger to a sore ankle. In just over a year, my lanky limbs have stumbled over themselves and caused 3 separate ankle injuries. The first time I sprained my ankle, I was 10km away from the finish line of a 500km charity cycle across Southeast Asia. The second time, I broke my ankle just hours into a romantic getaway. We spent most of the weekend at the hospital! I was then immobilised in a Moon Boot until the week before I was to lead a work trip trekking the Inca Trail, Peru, which sure put a complete stop to my training plan! And now, just 2 weeks from what will be the most intense and transforming yoga practice of my life at the source of Ashtanga, KPJAYI Mysore, I have sprained the same ankle. Although it feels quite personal and planned by the universe to spite me, approximately 200,000 people sprain or break their ankle each day!
During my second injury, I saw my GP, physio and sports doctor all of which offered up conflicting information. My physio wanted me immobilised for months, while my sports doctor wanted me up and moving as soon as possible. There remains many different perspectives on correct healing practices, from the RICE (rest, ice, compression, elevation) method, to the complete opposite MEAT (movement, exercise, analgesia, treatment).
I am personally critical of the RICE method, as many movement specialists share. Too much rest can restrict circulation, decrease mobility and often weaken the area from disuse. Many of the benefits of RICE are temporary and simply disguise pain. While MEAT increases blood flow and natural immune responses for injury, which allows for a more stable and long term return to full functionality.
The best piece of advice I can offer from my experience is to simply follow your pain. If weight bearing or movement hurts, stop. If it feels possible, start, with the guidance of a professional you trust.
Early exercise and movement can play a vital part in healing. Here are some yoga exercises I have personally used to rebuild strength and improve flexion.
Poses To Play With
Tadasana – Mountain Pose
The foundation poses of the standing series in Ashtanga. With Tadasana practice grounding down on all four corners of both feet. Notice if on your injured foot there is any areas which are not connecting with the ground as usual. This is normal. Usually to avoid discomfort we slightly change our walking habits. With time and practice try to work with re-grounding your foot as per usual. Balance is also key in recovery. Practice in Tadasana swaying from your tip toes to your heels, slowly. Gradually build towards doing this with eyes closed. This will engage your injured ligaments to rebuild strength.
Dandasana – Staff Pose
The seated version of Tadasana. Engaging the whole of both legs, practice flexion of both feet from pointed to flexed back. Notice if you have lost any mobility in the injured foot. Work with this at least once a day as you begin to see progress.
Sarvangasana – Shoulder Stand
A great pose to keep the foot elevated, which will temporary relieve swelling and pain from the injury. A great exercise to practice whilst in Shoulder Stand is Alphabet Spelling. Simply spell out the letters of the alphabet with your injured foot. This allows you to test out all different angles of your mobility, you will notice which directions are blocked and which are comfortable.
Poses To Work Towards
Utkatasana – Chair Pose
This pose requires your injury to be quite far along in recovery, so please don’t force it. Begin instead with your hands simply to your side or out in front of your body, rather than the traditional pose of above your head. Bend both knees into Chair Pose and pay attention to if you are able to bend your knee over your injured ankle. Flexion here is often limited, which is both physical and mental. However, the more you practice this, the more your nervous system will trust the movement and allow for greater access.
Virabhadrasana A and B – Warrior 1 and 2
The same movement of knee over ankle is possible in lunges such as warrior 1 and warrior 2. These poses are usually part of a vinyasa flow, so please be carefully getting in and out of the lunges, don’t rush!
Pascimottanasana – Seated Forward Fold
This forward fold is a great way to activate your upper legs and to keep your hips and hamstrings happy. Keeping your ankle in a neutral, pain free position, practice a very passive version of this stretch while your ankle heals. When you feel ready, practice pointing and extended back the foot in this pose to access ankle mobility.
Poses To Avoid
Padmasana – Lotus and Half Lotus
Ankle twists and sprains usually occur when a tendon or ligament is overstretched or torn. The angle required by your ankle to get into half or full lotus will put too much stress on an already stressed area of your body. Unfortunately this is a no to Ardha Baddha Padmottanasana, Arda Baddha Padma Pascimottanasa and Eka Pada Rajakapotasana (Pigeon Pose). You can still practice great hip openers, that also work with the outside of your ankle. Try Badhakonasana (Butterfly Pose). Use a supporting bolster or blanket rolled underneath your injured ankle, just for extra protection.
Knowing the best course of action to take for a safe and speedy recovery can be difficult. The most important element of yoga to practice is Ahisma (no harm), this of course includes to yourself! As yogis, especially Ashtangis, we tend to rely on our yoga routine for our overall health and wellbeing. However, you need to be flexible and compassionate towards yourself and the temporary changes to your practice. Try to focus on other restorative yoga tools such as yin, yoga nidra or meditation!