The Problem of Pain in Yoga
This essay first appeared in Yoga International: thank you to Kat Heagburg for editorial help.
You’ve probably heard a number of translations for the haṭha part of haṭhayoga.
“Forceful” is commonly cited. Others prefer a more esoteric take: they say that ha- and -ṭha stand for “sun and moon,” or “inhale and exhale.” They propose that practice is aimed at the integration of opposing forces.
According to yoga scholar Jason Birch, the esoteric translation is probably a later addition to the early literature of haṭhayoga. “Forceful” is the older meaning.
But what kind of “force” were the originators of haṭhayoga describing?
Birch writes that the hugely influential 19th century Sanskritist Monier Monier-Williams, along with other European Indologists of his era, “confounded haṭhayoga with extreme practices of asceticism (tapas) that appear in the purāṇas” or epic literature. Together, they put forward the notion that haṭha implied the force of violent exertion or self-mortification.
Traces of this meaning elide with the “no pain, no gain” heroism of the modern fitness era—and with the notion of moving, or being pushed by teachers, toward the “edge” of tolerance—usually at the end-range of a joint’s motion. The edge is typically viewed as a potential threshold of revelation, perhaps because its shadow is the threshold of injury.
But as Birch carefully points out, the consistent refrain of the early haṭhayoga manuals is that if practices are done śanaiḥ, śanaiḥ —”gently, gently”— spiritual awakening will inevitably occur. In other words, with enough gentleness in your practice, you’d be forced to wake up. Continue reading “The Problem of Pain in Yoga”
What Do You Feel? Ayurveda and Becoming the Poet of Yourself
“What does anxiety feel like?”
I’ll ask the question in groups beginning to study Ayurveda. The first round of answers rolls out:
Worried. Concerned. Apprehensive. Uneasy. Fearful. Agitated. Nervous.
They’re all great words. But, I’ll suggest, as psychological synonyms, they might not get us any closer to what anxiety really feels like.
What does “worried” feel like, after all? How does it feel similar to or different from “anxiety”? Continue reading “What Do You Feel? Ayurveda and Becoming the Poet of Yourself”
Two Wings of Yogic Self-Care: Data and Intention (or Herbs and Sugar Pills)
Unlearning Meditation by Jason Siff hinges on an obvious but stunning insight. He says that the first of all problems in meditation is the meeting between the given instructions and the mind-as-it-is. Will the meeting provoke a confrontation, or begin a warm discussion? How will you respond to being told what to do? Will internalizing the voice that tells you what to do increase your sense of internal conflict? Will it build self-esteem, or tear it down? What’s that perfect amount of friction that will stimulate curiosity, but not inadequacy?
These are questions that resonate to the quick of our core social conditioning. They trigger reflection into our earliest learning environments with parents or childhood teachers. They bear witness to the complex of voices and impulses that constitute the developmental self. They pierce through the content of our knowledge to excavate the patterns of how we learn. Nobody but the practitioner can answer them.
Really grasping Siff’s conundrum has revolutionized the way I facilitate classes in everything from yoga philosophy to restorative yoga to Ayurveda. I now open every course with an assertion that has up till now only been implicit: that as practitioners and teachers we have to pay ever-closer attention to the relationship between techniques of care (the instructions in Siff’s model), and the contexts of care (the presentation of those instructions, and how the immediate response to that presentation will frame the process that follows).
The trouble is, the vast majority of focus in modern Euro-American yoga teaching and its adjuncts like Ayurveda is set up to deliver techniques and data. In any given training, I’d say that 90% of the explicit focus will be on transmitting information and practicing methods. The contexts of care may receive that remaining 10% of explicit attention, but they will mostly be conveyed through implicit signals: how does the instructor hold space, answer questions, confess the limits of their knowledge, be available or cloistered during breaks, etc.
This lopsided percentage seems inevitable in the context of modern yoga’s extra-curricular, continuing-education pedagogical infrastructure, which is largely transactional by nature. You see the skill set packaged as a product, choose the hours and location that fit your work/family schedule and transit situation, pay your dollars, and get the data. More transactions tender more data, which becomes a metric of progress. Evaluations of how well you’ve processed that data (or changed it to suit your purposes) are left up to the market, which elevates teachers on the whim of popularity and the smell of money. If you don’t get the amount or kind or format of data you think you want or need or signed up for, you can always make a consumer complaint.
For years, people have asked me for PDF copies of the slides I use to facilitate classes. I usually demur by saying that I’m never happy enough with them to publish them. But in my heart I’m wondering If I give you these slides, will you check out of this moment? What will they pile up next to on your hard drive? Along with many humanities professors, I’ve considered ditching the slides altogether and returning to the chalkboard, which can erased. Slides emphasize the data-products of education over the process. Yoga and Ayurveda cultures offer way too much data for any one student to fully grasp. But focused selections of data can be useful insofar as they encourage students to learn to reason, intuit, and inquire without undue anxiety.
Yoga and Ayurveda are highly interpersonal subjects that have never been taught in this type of transactional manner. The gurukula model, especially for topics like Ayurveda, demanded that learning the techniques took place within the overarching context of care. In many cases, the student lived in the teacher’s home, worked as an assistant, and witnessed first-hand how practice reflected life and vice-versa. Of course this intimacy is likely plagued with power dynamics that would be intolerable to turnkey generations, and in any case it’s virtually impossible to organize in the alienation of late capitalism. The Ashtanga community makes a valiant attempt with its emphasis on daily personal contact and the intentional organization of rhythmic ritual space. But for the most part, Euro-American yoga culture replicates rather than resists the consumer model of education, in which products take precedence over contexts of care.
Back to Siff, who applies the analysis to meditation techniques. We could apply it to asana as well. But I’ll turn it only Ayurveda for a moment. What are its easily-transacted consumer products? Self-assessment tools. Herbs, oils, daily routines, and exercise plans that coordinate with self-assessments. Mantras. Cooking rituals. Cookbooks. And food lists. Lots and lots of food lists!
I’m not denigrating the data at all. It comes to the world through a mostly-oral culture through which Indians have preserved the daily rituals of millennia. Its insights into the flow of time and the micro-macro conjunction of body and world are no less potent for being commodified.
But Siff’s challenge is this: how do we encounter this data? What is our immediate response to it? How does it make us feel?
In my time as an instructor, I’ve seen a modest share of what I would call empowered responses to Ayurvedic learning. I’d describe them as open but skeptical, curious and pragmatic. The student takes a little data at a time, asks realistic questions about its applicability to everyday life, and slowly begins to form a new and flexible perspective on biorhythm, appropriate effort, dietary sanity, technology exposure, and sleep hygiene. They look for resources immediately available to them. They begin from the premise that they’re basically okay. Warts and all, their bodies are generally self-caring and getting on with it, but could use some help in deconditioning from stress. They manage their behavioural changes in small steps, savouring and integrating each reward as it comes, with no grand goal of farting rainbows.
Often, however, and despite my efforts to resist the charge of the transactional structure in which I’m projected as a person who knows more about life than the people in front of me, the first set of responses to Ayur-data is a surge of inadequacy:
“This information is so perfect!”
“Indian things are so smart and beautiful, and here I am living in Jersey!”
“How did you learn all that stuff?”
How will I ever absorb it all?”
“What’s my dosha? I just can’t understand my dosha!”
“Why oh why didn’t I study Sanskrit in college?”
“My life is just too busy to improve everything in all these intricate ways!”
“I’d like to be a good Ayurveda-person, but my children make me crazy!”
“If only I knew what my goddam dosha was I’d know whether to eat green grapes or red grapes!”
Obviously the anxious response to data and instruction doesn’t help anybody. It’s likely to provoke old patterns of disempowered learning remembered from family or sports coaches or music teachers, or those health-fad gurus with crazed eyes who insist your life will be vastly improved if you’d only eat more avocadoes grown thousands of miles from where you live. It also allows the practitioner or teacher to magnify the stress of consumerism. Most will do this unwittingly through the seductive power of countertransference. But it’s no secret that there are teachers and therapists who consciously manipulate feelings of inadequacy.
There’s another type of disempowered learning-response, although it’s tricky to see, because it looks like enthusiasm. I call it Sari Ayurveda (or “I’m really sorry I’m not Indian Ayurveda”). The new non-Indian Ayurveda student expresses its most exuberant form by showing up to the class potluck wearing a sari, chanting mantras over rice pudding sprinkled with rose petals. I like saris well enough, and I love rice pudding and mantras, but a manic enthusiasm for cultural difference is usually more about fantasizing about a different life than integrating the life one actually has.
I’ll be the first to say that bursts of Indophilism can provide a needed break from the atomized homogeneity of the Euro-American middle class. The masala of Indian aesthetics known through global export is refreshingly anti-Ikea. But people who drive head-first into Ayurveda or yoga studies as though they’ve found the promised land are bound to be disappointed. To them, the data is like a sari: a living garment in one culture that becomes a costume in another. It’s a way of avoiding the other wing of self-care, which asks “How do you feel about how this data interacts with your actual life?”
If Ayurveda is about integrating with your environment, it will hardly do to play tourist in your hometown. It might be good to remember that Ayurveda and Greek medicine share root understandings of wellness, and that in Europe, Greek medicine localized itself to every language and herbology it encountered. Four hundred years ago, most medicine was Greco-Ayurvedic in flavour, theorized in humours and doshas, and adapted to local resource and custom. The existential question in the age of globalization is: What are my local resources and customs? I feel this is something to not only contemplate but work on through simple things like home gardening.
Data and techniques can’t entirely be separated from the contexts of care, because they inspire faith, and faith informs care. Here’s where we can add another flavour to this dyad, and speak about the relationship between “active ingredients” and “placebo”.
Are there active ingredients of a yoga practice? Of Ayurveda? Some will say breath, some will say mindfulness, some will say adherence to certain ethical principles, some will say spirals or energy or grounded femurs, some will say triphala and the neti pot, some will say regularity and dedication, some will say devotion to a guru. Some cherry-pick the list, and some go whole hog.
Everyone is has their formulas and reasons, but no one can define amounts or intensities. There’s a general consensus that yoga works through certain active ingredients, but we don’t know how to measure them, or what they do precisely, and for whom. They cannot be isolated and tested in any way that would satisfy the evidence standards of even undergrad science. This is because they are intrinsically blended with the placebo effect.
Placebo drives pharmacologists to distraction. It must be humiliating to work for years on a drug that gets marketed on the basis of beating a sugar pill in 5% of test subjects. But whether they know it or not, yogis and Ayur-people are dealing with placebo all the time, simply by virtue of the fact that they cannot say for sure what the active ingredient of their processes actually are. Perhaps some face the same disillusionment as the pharmacologists if they realize that painstaking years of exacting asana cues prove only marginally more effective in stress relief and self-inquiry than rolling around on the floor with bolsters.
The placebo carries the wide-open, negative definition of improvement not directly attributable to a given intervention. It’s thought to involve everything from spontaneous improvement to stress reduction to the shared expectation of the doctor and client that the treatment will work to the client’s faith in the doctor or drug. These sound an awful lot like the factors of a care-giving relationship.
In my work with Ayurveda clients it often seems that the active ingredients of the recipes or herbs traditionally said to be helpful are matched if not outweighed in their impact by the time and consideration it takes to learn about them, prepare them, and try out their new tastes. Let’s say a client makes a stew for themselves that has all the right ingredients in it to feel nourishing in just the proper Ayurvedic way. How much more nourishing will it actually feel if the client is also cooking for themselves for the first time in three years? Did that pancha karma treatment really do what the advert said, or could the fact that you spent a week by the beach not working have something to do with feeling better?
My work as a consultant, yoga teacher, and yoga educator is complicated by the fact that I can never really know what’s working. But it does seem that outcomes improve if I pay as much if not more attention to the contexts of care as I do to the data. The primary context is empowerment. Proper diet and herbs may well help with a person’s chronic IBS. But so can really listening to their story. Therapists have to recognize that the bright and unexpected sensations of attunement and validation and the permission for self-care may be interrupting that bowel discomfort as much as that soup or kitcheri monodiet is.
It’s poignant that drug trials administer placebos in the form of sugar pills. In Ayurveda, the sugar pill can’t be entirely inert, because it’s sweet. Madhu is the Sanskrit word for sweet, probably referring originally to honey. It’s cognate with the Greek methu (wine), and comes into Celtic as the name of Maeve (“she who intoxicates”), and into English as the honey-wine known as mead.
The context of care might have no measurable effect, but it helps when it’s sweet. The sweetness of care allows for the strange ferment of matter and mind. It relieves the anxiety of stressing over asanas and lineages and sequences and instructions and herbs, or anything else that increases the distance or tension between who you are and who you want to be.
Yogapillgate: Discourse, Transparency, Epistemology, Magic
On Saturday, LA yoga teacher and Bollywood dance instructor Hemalayaa Behl posted a blog about how people who practice yoga should really manifest better moods through dancing and naps so that they can get off all those inauthentic anti-depressant medications.
She confessed that hearing about fellow yoga teachers who use “happy pills” triggered disappointed memories of her own mother, who didn’t have the strength to pull herself up out of her mental health challenges by her yoga bootstraps.
The post was an ugly, patronizing, reductionary, ignorant erasure of the experience of vast numbers of people who already battle widespread stigmatization of medications they need, in the worst cases, to keep them alive. To her great good credit, Behl has admitted as much through a heartfelt apology.
Unfortunately, the tsunami of negative response — and Behl’s contrition — has now prompted her to remove her original post. This means that the thousands of fruitful and polarizing comments it has generated through links so far, not to mention the hours of intense work that writers like Charlotte Bell, Alyssa Royse, and Camicia Bennet put in to passionately and thoughtfully responding to Behl are now pointing at an empty space. Taking the post down steals time, energy, and insight from all of those people, and insight from those who would learn from the full exchange. Fortunately, the web cache gives it all back.
Continue reading “Yogapillgate: Discourse, Transparency, Epistemology, Magic”
Ancient Ayurvedic Penis Advice
Normally this space is reserved for extremely important things, like the workings of yoga culture within late-stage capitalism, and how the holistic wisdom of Ayurveda can either conflict with or complement biomedicine. This post might seem to deviate, but don’t be fooled. It has a crucial message, especially for readers with penises:
Please stop scrubbing your genitals like you’re using steel wool to get burned kichari out of a cheap pot. The ancestors implore you. M’kay? Continue reading “Ancient Ayurvedic Penis Advice”
WAWADIA Update #20 /// The Kaminoff-Matthews Interview: Full Transcript
This is the full transcript of my 10/13/2014 conversation with Leslie Kaminoff, Amy Matthews, and Sarah Barnaby over dinner in Leslie’s office at The Breathing Project. I published the first bit of it in an earlier update, and will pick up the action from there, midstream, breaking into our reflection on the sculptural metaphor with which film makers Lindsey and Jake Clennell open their unreleased film Sadhaka.
This transcript is v-e-r-y – – l-o-n-g: excellent for geeking out. I hope it feels like being there. My research assistant Jason Hirsch worked like a monster to get this done. He’s broken up the flow with section titles, so you can browse through for topics of particular interest. (If you support this IGG crowdfunding campaign, you can help me pay him!)
Like any vibrant conversation, this one winds in many directions and leaves many threads untied. I hope to prevail upon the generosity of Leslie and Amy again soon, to tell more stories, and, of course, ask more questions.
“The map is not the territory” Alfred Korzybski
Asana as sculpture? Is the sculpture already there?
Matthew Remski: There seems to be this central Iyengar / Pattabhi Jois divide in modern postural yoga. Iyengar goes in an architectural, mechanistic direction, and it feels like Jois couldn’t give a shit about all that. Jois wants people to move, wants people to do impossible things. To really do them, and maybe suffer pain, but to learn from the experience.
I’m gaining a new kind of respect for that, actually. Not because I think that the movements of the primary series are adaptive for human labour, but because there isn’t any belief that the body should become more ‘efficient.’ It just should become something that is able to process experience more effectively. So to me, Jois has a much more organic model. It’s like he’s saying ‘With devotion, the body will find a way to do this impossible thing. And hey — isn’t that what you’re expecting of your mind and heart as well?’
Sarah Barnaby: If we go back to the idea of sculpting the stone for a moment: I think I’ve heard it more in the context of wood carving, that part of what the sculptor’s trying to do is bring out what is inherent in the wood.
MR: I think Michaelangelo says the same thing, about marble. That there’s something within it. I’m bringing out its natural form. But he’s doing nothing of the sort, right? He just has a sense of what he’d like to see. Today, Lindsey described the metaphor to me in Vedantic terms, saying that if Iyengar’s claim is that God is in everything, or that God is everything, that the Hanuman is already sitting there, waiting to be released. So my question is, ‘Why do you have to chip away at it?’ There’s a paradox there no one ever answers. But that’s the dissonance of Vedanta. People want to say that things are perfect and they want to improve them at the same time. It causes a lot of stress. [laughs]
Leslie Kaminoff: Well then there’s the skill of knowing the material so well that you know what you can and can’t expect of it. Stones are not uniform materials. They have grain, they have imperfections, they have veins that run through them.
SB: So on the other end of the spectrum from the stonecutter shown in the trailer could be the value that some place on found objects. The artist’s role in this case is one of seeing, recognizing and bringing to light, not shaping, molding or changing. I’m also thinking of Zuni fetishes, where it’s very much about looking at a piece of stone, and seeing the animal that’s going to come out of it. They make use of all the imperfections, and the fault lines, and all that. There’s a book by Kent McManis in which he describes how the Zunis value stones that naturally look like animals, or even humans or deities. They feel that that stones that require very little carving to bring out an image are considered more powerful than those that need a lot of work.
Anatomy is Not ‘Reality’ – Just Another Map
Amy Matthews: I just had a weekend workshop, that Sarah assisted in, on the role of asana as form, as a container for exploration. I’d recently gone back to taking some kind of Ashtanga-esque classes, in that they’re based on the primary series. And, granted, the teacher who was leading the class was not saying ‘get yourself into the position no matter what,’ but it was very, very process-oriented. Like: ‘Keep moving, and do it, and be where you are.’
SB: Stay with this breath count.
AM: Stay with this breath count. And one of the things I profoundly appreciated about it was that he did not talk about anatomy.
MR: It’s very rare actually for those guys to use anatomical language.
AM: I love it. I love the way they do not talk about anatomy in their teaching, because I think that so many people speak so ineffectively and so ineloquently, or inaccurately, about anatomy. I want to practice and engage with my body, and not be in ‘the map’. Anatomy is not reality. Anatomy is a construct, that we have all bought into, to describe experience. And it’s not. It’s just one set of ideas, one paradigm. The map’s not the territory. And it’s a map. But we take it as reality, so we think we can’t teach without talking about anatomy, but I think you can be an amazing teacher without referencing anatomy at all.
MR: But what’s not a map?
AM: Nothing is not a map. Everything is a map. But I think we treat anatomy like it’s not a map – like it is reality.
MR: Got it.
AM: What we need to – what I need to – acknowledge, as an anatomy teacher, that this is my take on the world. And that you can actually be an incredible yoga teacher – you can be an amazing yoga teacher and never talk about anatomy.
MR: This is J. Brown’s point.
AM: Yeah, J. wrote to me and said, ‘Do you have to know anatomy to be a yoga teacher?’ And I said, ‘I am a professional anatomy teacher, and I say, no.’
I think we slip into thinking that anatomy is reality, because it’s the map that the medical-scientific community uses.
MR: What do you think the language of anatomy does to experience?
LK: Wow. That’s a hell of a question.
AM: I think that the language of anatomy creates a container for experience, that may or may not create a pathway for deepening the experience. And if the language of anatomy – the model, the map, the pattern of it – is one that I can drop into – I love it. I studied Latin, so I hear the anatomical language, and I say ‘Oh, I know what those words mean. It makes sense to me.’ But one of the things that I see happen is the assumption that anatomy will clarify everyone’s experience. And it does not. I thought for a long time that if everyone just learned anatomy, everyone’s experience would deepen. And that’s not true. We talk about ‘Oh, feel your femur.’ Well you don’t know it’s your femur until you engage with it and say, ‘Hi, I’m gonna call you femur. Will you answer when I say, ‘femur?’ And that bone in your upper leg may say, ‘I don’t think I’m femur. I think I’m Petunia. Call me Petunia!
MR: Or Earth element, in Ayurveda.
AM: Or Earth element! Exactly. And then, people say: ‘Oh, let’s put the chakras onto anatomy’, and they say, ‘Well, mula bandha is this muscle.’ And I think it does a disservice to the bandha model, and it does a disservice to the anatomical model.
MR: Because it’s neither.
AM: Because it’s neither. Mula bandha is mula bandha! And it might map onto a region, but mula bandha is not the levator ani, and levator ani is not mula bandha. And I can contract that muscle – or I can intend to contract that muscle we call levator ani – all I want, and it may or may not give rise to mula bandha.
MR: So we’re talking about a loss of meaning when the language goes flat for the hearer.
MR: So what makes the language go flat? And is its flatness true for everybody?
AM: No! No, I think that the whole point is that language is true for some people, but it’s not true for everybody. Unless we buy into the language – unless we acknowledge that a linguistic model necessitates a buy-in on some level. On some level we’ve agreed that we’re going to speak English. And that’s an agreement. I couldn’t walk in and start speaking anything else. I don’t know if you have a second language –
LK: Dude speaks Canadian!
MR: Well… I used to speak a pretty good French.
AM: Right! Well you could walk in and start speaking French, and be, like, ‘How come you all don’t understand me?’ So the assumption of some shared language is intrinsic.
LK: And anatomical language isn’t English, by the way. You could be speaking English and come out with all these anatomical terms, and you’re actually mixing it with a whole other language! You know? A language that people have different relationships to.
MR: And that set of relationships has changed over the last 150 years, because we’ve lost Latinate education, we’ve lost classics education. I think the anatomist of the 19th century –
AM: They were speaking the lingua franca.
MR: And they were reading Cicero. And so it wasn’t completely – it had other associations. Latin used to be poetry. Doctors used to be poets. And so we have this specialized separation between the two realms, that only yoga culture, that I can see, is actually trying to bring back together. The notion of the poet also being a philosopher, and also being a medic – that’s where I see our culture contributing something really interesting, but confusing at the same time.
AM: It’s interesting. But the rash of saying ‘I have to do it like the medical community does it’ – that is abdicating responsibility. And that’s where I think a language goes flat, to go back to your question. I think that a language goes flat, in a way, when people give up their personal responsibility about playing a role in how meaning is created.
Limits of Mindful Awareness and the Limits of Anatomy: Edges in Our Scope of Practice
MR: How do we as yogis interested in therapeutics deal with our scope of practice? About the fact that we have assessment and diagnostic tools that are very concretely limited?
AM: What do you mean by limited?
MR: I’ll explain. I don’t know if you saw that thing I wrote about my hospitalization.
AM: No I didn’t.
LK: You were hospitalized?
MR: Yeah, I have a deep vein thrombosis in my left calf, and it came out of this past spring, when I was doing a lot of flying, culminating in flying to London and back.
AM : Oh my!
MR: I also walked when I was in London, about 25 miles. I love walking there. But about a week after I returned, the sole of my foot was killing me. And I thought, ‘I’ve injured myself in some strange way. Is this planter fasciitis? I’ve heard about this. I wonder what I should do.’ So I do all of the massage I know how to do. I’m using oils. I go to physiotherapy. The pain migrates, and then the top of my foot is swelling.
One day I’m in a sauna, and I’m massaging my calf, and I can feel a sharp pain in the centre of my calf. And my entire yogic-Ayurvedic medicine mindset is, you know – ‘Prana must move. Plus, I have a soft tissue injury, and I’m going to bring mindful awareness to the pain.’ To her credit, the physiotherapist said on my second visit, ‘If the pain doesn’t go away tomorrow, I want you to make an appointment for an ultrasound.’ What do you know? The pain went away the next day. And then I had another flight. I went to Calgary and back.
I got off the plane, and the next day, I’m carrying my son Jacob, who’s almost two, up the stairs in the health centre – we’re going swimming. And I’m short of breath, for the first time in my life. Like, really short of breath, strangely short of breath. And I said to Alix, ‘I think there’s something wrong.’ And so I went to emergency, and they got me into CT scan as quick as they could, and found multiple embolisms in my lungs. A heavy clot load, they say. They immediately put me on – I think it’s called Fragmin – it’s an injection – and now I’m on Warfarin, which was a rat poison, originally. I’m sure it still kills rats.
LK: You’re lucky to be alive!
MR: I am lucky to be alive.
LK: That kills people.
MR: It was an amazing month. And I had a sublime experience in the hospital, too. By about two in the morning, they had a preliminary diagnosis. They kept me in emergency – I didn’t get a room or anything like that. And I had this almost mystical experience, stimulated by watching all of the doctors do their work, and dealing with all of these really ill people. The guy next to me was this homeless guy that they brought in. The internal medicine guy was interviewing him, trying to figure out, ‘Why did you skip your last appointment with the psychiatrist? When was the last time you took your meds? Why did you just urinate on the bed?’ Like, he’d stood up and urinated on the bed. It’s not that he wet himself. And then the same doctor comes and he deals with me with the same empathy, with the same patience, and the nurses had such beautiful smiles, and everybody was overworked, and everybody was in so much pain.
And then it finally occurred to me that I almost died, and that I was okay with that. It was the best night – it was a wonderful night. It was a wonderful night. I was happy to be alone.
So when I talk about our diagnostic assessment limits as yoga people, what’s first on my mind is that I didn’t have a clue about this condition.
LK: You were trying to break the clot up, which exactly what you don’t want a clot to do.
MR: Exactly, exactly. Like, I said to the internal medicine guy, ‘Well, I’ve noticed this pain the centre of my calf.’ And he says, ‘Where is it?’ And he touches me there really gingerly and I’m like, ‘Oh no, you can dig your thumbs right in there.’ And he says, ‘No, no, NO! You don’t want to dig your thumbs in there.’ I said, ‘Oh, well I’ve been doing that! Sometimes it feels better!’ And he said, ‘Do not massage your calf.’ The blood clots in my lungs are these little guys that have broken off this string that has clogged the popliteal vein.
So I’ve done a lot of meditating on epistemology – how we know what we know. And about what the limit of embodied mindfulness is, or where those limits show up, and how can I communicate to my Ayurveda students, for example, that there will be immense benefit from paying very close attention to their interoceptive states, and yet, at some point, they’re going to need the outside gaze. At some point they’re going to need some kind of expertise. I want to say to them: ‘I want you to be empowered, but humble. I want you to take care of yourself, but I want you to understand that self-knowledge is dream-state in the final analysis.’
And then, the coolest thing was, I’m getting the ultrasound on my calf. Here’s this bored imaging tech, who’s exhausted, he’s working 18 hours a day probably, he’s rubbing the little ultrasound guy on my calf, and he’s nodding, and he’s saying, ‘Yeah, there it is.’ And I realize that he’s looking at the thing using sound. And we all around this table talk about listening to ourselves, we talk about listening to the internal body, and then here’s this highly technologized form of listening. It’s listening that’s so powerful that it can draw a picture on the wall. He’s listening to me, and showing me exactly where the clot is.
So that whole thing just kind of spun me around quite a bit, in a bunch of different ways. And it made me see that, at least as far as yogic medicine and Ayurveda goes, I really feel that some kind of dialogue-synthesis is really what I want to pursue.
AM: That’s an amazing story. I think that at the same time as we look at the limits of what we do, as yoga teachers, there are limits to what the medical model can do.
MR: Of course.
AM: I heard in the way you asked the question: ‘There are limits to what we can do, but medicine holds the whole.’ I think that there’s a problem with that, an assumption that there are limits to what we do, but that medicine has got it right.
MR: Maybe –
AM: Or that they’ve got something –
MR: Yeah. They have something we don’t have. While we have something they don’t have.
AM: We have something they don’t have. I completely agree with you about self-inquiry, I can inquire about myself all I want, and there is a point at which I will not know myself, except for in relationship to other people. I can’t. Leslie says all the time: ‘I can’t see myself the way other people see me.’ For sure. But one does not negate the other. I worry about how quickly we go to, ‘Well there’s a limit to what we can do.
But then – my mother had a similar experience with back pain. She went to acupuncture, and she went to yoga, and she did all this, and finally she went to the doctor and was told she had a tumour in her spine and she has cancer. She’s had it now for several years. She’s like, ‘Why didn’t I find out sooner?’ And they say ‘Finding out sooner wouldn’t have done any good.’ And now that she’s dealing with it, she’s also enmeshed in the medical model, and doing chemo, and slowing it down. But when she does chemo she is exhausted and unhappy.
So it’s like, okay, they have these tools. And it’s great that the medication is helping you, but pharmaceuticals don’t help everybody. They might take care of the symptoms, etc. – and so she’s in this question – I think a lot of people are in, I think, about ‘Well, do I stay in the medical model, and keep treating the symptoms, or do I look at the quality of my life and say, ‘I might have less life, but I’m going to have better life. I’m going to have a good year, instead of an exhausted, cranky three years.’’
MR: And when she was feeling and inquiring into the pain in her spine, what else is she learning as she does that? I think what happens with the diagnosis is that it stops the inquiry process.
MR: You know the other weird thing about thrombosis? Vitamin K is your main coagulant factor. Guess what’s filled with Vitamin K?
MR: Everything that you would use to “cleanse” the blood in Ayurveda. Everything, down to the last dried green herb you can think of. It doesn’t even matter what it is! It’s packed full of this thing that will do exactly what Ayurveda would suggest it shouldn’t do. Most excess clotting is going to be dosha of Kapha. Solids to have to be broken up, motility is needed. The tradition turns to pungents and bitters. The pungents are okay if they’re not green, but the bitters are filled with coagulant-juice!
It feels like a failure on two fronts: I wasn’t able to see into myself, and also: I have this encyclopedic, anecdotal, very useful but largely not control-tested knowledge that, with regard to this situation, contains a fatal flaw. I could’ve massaged myself and eaten lots of raw cilantro, for a long time.
LR: Well, not too long, because you would’ve been dead.
MR: Exactly. Death by cilantro. [laughs] What a way to go!
LK: There’s a self-limiting factor to that particular treatment of deep vein thrombosis. It reminds me of the story that Elizabeth Kadetzky tells about observing Iyengar having a heart attack in the middle of a demonstration. He was demonstrating, and he had to stop, and he left. And he came back, to the demonstration.
He was clearly having a heart attack. But it was like – here’s Iyengar, right? And it was more important, for him, to be Iyengar, and do this demonstration, then to, you know – ‘Hey, maybe there’s something going on here that precludes demonstrating in front of this group of people, and I should –. ’ When you think of what’s at stake, in a man like that’s life, in a moment like that, you know, like, appearing vulnerable or sick isn’t an option.
LK: His heart had other ideas, though.
MR: So – it’s epistemology, isn’t it. We are always running up always against the limits of self-inquiry, and at that limit, there is some kind of external knowledge, that might be of benefit, and it might come from Yogaland, and it might not, but there’s going to be some sort of expertise. But this is where – does more anatomy education, or physiology education, create the better teacher? Because I see this as – if we know that the general pattern is ‘self-inquiry is limited,’ then what else would we have except challenging ourselves through continued education in other disciplines to help out? And so when you say to J, ‘You don’t need more anatomy training to be a good yoga teacher,’ the first thought I have is, ‘Well, if there’s something that he doesn’t know about his own body, isn’t it better that he apply outside expertise to his own situation, and use that as a model of openness to education for his own students?’
AM: Yes, but that outside expertise, and that other model, does not have to be anatomical.
AM: I hear in your question again, ‘If I don’t know enough, I have to go outside, and the thing outside I have to go to is anatomy, is a Western model of anatomy – anatomy, kinesiology, physiology, in the Greco-Roman, Western medical model.’ I agree with the basic question about inquiry, and that if I can’t know myself, and the process of inquiry continues to be important, then where am I going for that inquiry? And I think that what happens is that people go to anatomy and they stop inquiring because they think they know. And so –
MR: Yes. Have you seen people attain a high level of anatomical education and say, ‘I’m over it – I’m going to keep using this, but I don’t feel like I really know anymore?
LK: I think that’s what you’re hearing Amy say right now.
MR: So that’s what you’ve done.
AM: I think that’s what I’m doing!
MR: That’s what you’ve done.
AM: That’s what I’ve done –
MR: So do you communicate that to your students? That narrative?
AM: And I communicate that – I think I communicate that narrative to my students.
MR: So you say, this is all my uncertain experience –
AM: I say explicitly, the map is not the territory. I’m telling you a model of reality, and –
MR: – and I know it really well.
AM: I know it really well –
LK: Well enough to know its limitations.
AM – and that it doesn’t work for everybody, and half of what I’m telling you is going to be proven wrong.
LK: She just doesn’t know which half!
AM: I just don’t know which half. Which is said in medical schools all the time. So I didn’t make it up. I just took it on. And I said, ‘I’m telling you all this stuff, I’m telling you like I believe it, and I am learning new stuff all the time, and I’m having to change what I know. I’m having to change what I say. And I’m having to change what I know.
MR: So you model educational openness.
AM: And the further into it I get, the more of a mystery it is.
SB: I also feel like the way you’re teaching anatomy is like, ‘Here’s a container for experience – we’re going to go through the bones of the body, and see if you can find those bones, and ‘what does that do for you?’ But not necessarily learning it to learn all the names so that you can do a particular thing with it. It’s to take the map and compare it to your experience and see what comes out of that inquiry.
AM: And develop flexibility around entertaining other models. Not because that model is right – that’s the model I teach, because it makes sense to me and I love it, but I think it’s also really important to say: ‘If the way I talk about this doesn’t make sense, if this language, if this isn’t your experience, it’s fine! And if you’re paying to be in my class, or you want to learn this, then come and get inside my world with me, not because I’m right, but because you’re curious.
MR: Because I’ll help with curiousity.
AM: My job is to make you curious.
LK: One thing Amy’s very good at is not shutting down people’s questions. Not throwing answers at people’s questions. Some questions are so good, they need to keep being questions. This is a fundamental question you’re asking here. And I’ve learned how to listen for those questions a lot more since having these interchanges with Amy and seeing how she does that. You know, there’s a tendency as a teacher to want to give an answer, but if it’s a good enough question, it’s, like, ‘wow.’
MR: Yeah, and wanting to give an answer has a whole psychoanalytic shadow to it: ‘This is what I need to perform the knowledge of,’ and –
AM: And to me, it goes back to the babies. And parents come in and they’re, like, ‘Look, my baby can sit!’ And I’m like, ‘Do they know how they got there? Do they know how to get out?’
The fact that I can recite something – and I’m blessed with a sticky brain, and I can rattle off the names of all these things –that doesn’t make me skillful. What makes me skillful is how I’ve learned to say, ‘I don’t know!’ Because that’s what I didn’t come in being very good at.
MR: Yeah, nobody does. You’d have to be born without anxiety to be good at that from the beginning.
AM: Well I think babies are born without anxiety. I think we pick it up really fast. But I don’t think we’re born anxious.
Standards of Safety – Can Anatomy Help Establish Injury-Prevention Standard? Can Chakras? Plus: “No Cure for Mortality”
MR: To make it a little bit less abstract: in kinesiology, people will use the Beighton scale for flexibility assessment, or hypermobility assessment. I don’t know how it works, but it’s like nine out of ten joints, or seven out of ten joints, have
AM: You can do this, you can do this –
MR: Exactly. And then that is statistically predictive of a whole range of possible joint conditions, and then it becomes an invitation to genetic testing for all sorts of conditions like Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, and other stuff involving collagen formation, and all of that. Now, this is kind of getting into standards and regulation, right? My question is heading that way, because I’m bringing up a specific tool, but I’m saying, ‘Wouldn’t this be good for many people to know?’ It sounds like you guys are in the anatomist’s position of knowing many things about range of motion, safe action, intelligent action – but – I know you Leslie, for sure, don’t want to impose the idea that there should be certain standards for what people should know.
LK: I don’t personally want to, and I don’t think any sane person would want to be that person.That’s the way I would put it. Because I’ve seen the people who want to be those people, and they’re not sane. I’m not going to mention names.
AM: ‘Sane’ is such a huge word to use, Leslie.
LK: Well, sure, I’d be crazy to think that you could be a judge!
MR: But what I’m saying is, ‘Aren’t there certain tools that would probably, that would likely improve classroom safety?’ And if there are, and if there are, why not encourage people to use them?
LK: Scope of practice.
AM: Okay. The first question is, ‘Are there tools that could improve classroom safety?’ And I think the tool of becoming an expert in anatomy, and telling someone else about how they feel about what they’re doing, is actually inviting the participants in class to not take responsibility for their own experience.
MR: If the anatomist tells the person what they’re feeling.
AM: Right, if the person says, ‘This isn’t safe to do.’
MR: But then we get into the problem of feeling. And people can do unsafe things without feeling they’re unsafe.
AM: Absolutely. People can do unsafe things without feeling they’re unsafe, and that is a really interesting and paradoxical question. And I’ve watched that thread run through your blogs.
I’m going to go on a little tangent here, but I think it’s related. I’ve also seen in people’s responses to your blogs a miasma of ‘naming’ hypermobility as a condition, to take just one example. And we make it a thing. It reminds me of how Western medical diagnoses are getting exported to other cultures –
AM: – and that they’re actually – before they had the diagnosis, before they had the language, they didn’t diagnose it as that thing, and that the thing actually didn’t show up. So there’s this co-creation of conditions that happens.
MR: Yeah. The label of ‘PTSD’ generates presentations of PTSD in rural Africa, where the label had never existed.
AM: ‘PTSD’ creates PTSD. Right. Exactly. And I think also about –
SB: Anorexia didn’t show up in South Korea until it was available as a diagnosis.
LK: Whiplash in Norway. They don’t have it.
AM: Our experience is fundamentally shaped by our model of it. And I have some really deep questions about the medical model determining what’s safe. Or the anatomical model. And that, again, I agree that there’s some outside perspective that is important, but to go learn anatomy so that I can tell someone else how to do something safely – it doesn’t make sense to me, because it still privileges the anatomical model as holding all knowledge.
I would like to go learn how to engage with a student. And if my way in is through anatomical language, great. But if someone else’s way in is through, ‘What is your breath doing? Do you feel the flow of prana?’ I don’t have to say, ‘You’re blowing out your medial collateral ligament!’ Because along with blowing out the medial collateral ligament, there’s imbalanced joint space, and there’s leaking prana, and there’s whatever –
LK: How does your knee chakra feel?
AM: If the knee chakra’s out of balance, like it could manifest in so many different ways. So I do think that it’s important for a teacher to know how to engage in dialogue with a student about something they have a question about. But then the medical model is not the absolute, essential way in.
MR: I don’t believe it is in terms of description. But when the ACL is blown out, describing what’s going on in the knee chakra isn’t going to fix it. So, in other words –
AM: What is?
MR: – so we’re talking, we’re talking about the –
AM: But wait, what is going to fix it?
MR: Well, I’m not sure, because I’m picking an example where I’m assuming that arthroscopic repair is working –
AM: But why isn’t appealing to the knee chakra going to fix it? I don’t actually agree. Because – this I know anatomically – people can function without an ACL.
AM: And so – if something is broken – if some tissue is actually torn – but engaging with what I consider my knee chakra brings me into an inquiry about my knee, about where I can keep a clear pathway of energy, and that brings me…
MR: How you can move it and how you cannot move it.
AM: How I can move it and how I can not move it. I think that inquiring about my knee chakra will help me not further damage, or – do you know what I mean?
MR: Sure, but it’s not going to go in there with arthroscopic method and suture it back together! So what I’m saying is…
MR: – we’re arguing on the description side of the event, and the other side of the event is treatment.
AM: Right, but even there –
MR: And yogis are ending up defaulting on the treatment side to the arthroscopic surgeon, who makes his living by ignoring all of your babbling about the knee chakra, and getting down to fixing the damn ligament.
AM: Mmhmm. And then, I’m gonna argue, if they’re not in touch with their knee chakra, they’ll blow it out again.
MR: Okay, sure. Cool.
AM: They’ll do it again. So, again, the knee surgery is really great for fixing something in that moment, but the number of studies about the reoccurrence of pain after knee surgery is huge!
MR: Because the surgery isn’t going to do –
AM: Because the surgery isn’t going to fix the underlying problem which is that they’re not in touch with their knee chakra.
LK: Assuming they weren’t playing touch football when they did it, if they blew it out in the yoga class, what made that knee vulnerable to injury in the first place? The surgery isn’t necessarily going to change that at all.
MR: Let me tell you about a story that I’m working on, that kind of gets right to this. Nancy Cochren – she’s on record for this – she’s 33 now, she had her first baby 18 months ago, no, two years ago. She had an Ashtanga Primary Series practice that was quite vigorous, never had an injury. She loved it, it empowered her, it gave her a sense of expansive embodiment after all of her martial arts training, it was wonderful. She gets pregnant, she has her baby. Her labour was induced, because she was at 38 weeks and had a stretch and sweep; the gynecologist breaks the membrane. And so they send her to be induced right away. So no preparation for labour. She’s thrown into a forced, medicated labour. And during the birth, the nurse practitioner and her husband draw her legs up and over into a kind of almost yoga nidrasana. I haven’t heard about this in birthing stories that much. I suppose that, in the room, in the moment, people do whatever they think gives the woman more room. I’m not sure.
She felt wobbly in the pelvis, for sure, as she recovered in the days following. She had burning in the pubic symphysis, she was told by the medics that she might have a little bit of diastasis, they were going to monitor it. But she was very eager to get back to practicing. So two weeks after giving birth she arranges to leave baby with her husband and she goes and rolls out her mat in a gentle hatha class. And she gets tired at a certain point, she goes into child’s pose, and there’s suddenly something wrong in her left hip.
The pain then migrates to her left hip. This progresses over several weeks. And then it’s in both hips. Her mobility decreases, becomes more painful, it starts waking her up at night. It takes about nine months for her to get the imaging that can confirm bilateral labral tears. So both front 1.5 cm long in the same place on each side. Of course the doctors don’t want to say what caused it – yes, labral tears happen during childbirth, it’s not common that they happen on both sides, it’s not common that they happen on both sides, and my thought was that ‘I wonder if the tears are more a reflection of the symmetry of her practice, than her birth trauma.’
LK: They could’ve been there long before she got pregnant. There’s no way to know.
MR: They could have.
LK: If she was able to track in such a way that she never noticed them, then things get destabilized, the pelvic joints become a lot more mobile –
MR: And inflammation happens.
LK: Yeah. Your body will avoid at all costs tracking through damaged joint tissue. You can make these adaptations without even noticing it. Until you can’t.
MR: Because, with a labral tear, there is no pain. There is no localized pain.
LK: Yeah. And you can track around it, and –
MR: So are you suggesting that with no conscious awareness of pain – because cartilage is not innervated – that neurologically, subconsciously, you’re tracking around the potential injury site?
LK: Your body doesn’t want to go bone-on-bone, ever, if it can avoid it. You see this with a hip that’s going arthritic. When you hit what feels like a muscular spasm, it’s just not permitting a certain range of motion, that’s my signal that the body is protecting a certain range of motion in the ball-and-socket from hitting bone-on-bone. It’s the same principle of a trick knee when you tear your meniscus. And the knee will buckle or lock rather than letting you track through the torn tissue, it’s a –
MR: But in both of those cases, there’s probably an awareness that pain is near, right?
LK: It’s the awareness of everything your body is doing to avoid that bone-on-bone pain.
MR: Okay, got it.
LK: That’s like the one when I picked up Lydia’s leg, and I found that spasm, and I said, ‘Well, sorry, but after 12 years of helping get through that damaged hip joint, it’s time for surgery.’ It was just so obvious. It wouldn’t move. So my guess is, she got destabilized during the delivery, whatever, and she just couldn’t compensate for it. I mean, this is just a story, obviously, but, you know. I think a lot of people who practice ashtanga have torn up their joints in various ways, and they don’t notice it. Or they notice the pain, and it’s, like, okay, that’s just some of the pain I’m dealing with and, you know, keep going.
MR: But the labral pain probably is going to amplify and accelerate over time.
LK: Well, it’ll cause you to compensate, which creates an imbalanced joint space, and then, you know, how long can you walk around with that before you just can’t? But, you know, there’s no way of knowing! I mean, it’s the same thing with discs – ‘Oh, I blew out my disc when I bent over and picked that thing up’ – how do you know that?! Did you have an MRI the day before, and it was clear, and then – you know, there’s no evidence, it’s just correlation.
You know, there’s two threads that I kind of felt hanging from our previous conversation which, if you pull on them separately, I think will help clarify some things:
There is yoga as a practice that brings us more into our experience of aliveness, and everything that entails, including the stuff that we can control, and the stuff that we can’t control, and appreciation that there is both of that, you know, and the relationship between the two. As you know, that’s my whole take on tapas, svādhyāya, and isvara pranidhana.
LK: But, you know, then there’s that other thread, which is: there’s no cure for mortality. This is what Atul Gawande’s new book is about. It’s called Being Mortal. Gawande points out that the medical profession is not really trained to deal with the reality of mortality. The fact that life ends! And the problem I’m seeing, after all these years of dealing with this is, you know, you could be pursuing any pathway, whether it’s Christian Science, or Scientology, or yoga, or surgery, or having wheatgrass pounded up your ass, for anything that could be wrong with you. And nothing will shift the fact of your mortality one iota.
But at the same time, people get better! Bodies are unpredictable! You can never really know an outcome with the body, because the way our minds and emotions interact is so complex, we’re just beginning to understand just a little bit of how to even ask the right questions. There’s just starting to be really, really good research done around placebo. Everything has to beat placebo now, to prove it’s good!
MR: And a bunch of common and accepted things aren’t beating placebo when they’re studied carefully. So why can’t we harness and mobilize this incredible force?!
LK: Well, exactly – but that’s what we’re doing – that’s what all of these things do, including surgery! And so, people will get better pursuing any number of things, no matter how wacky they are. And then it starts to build up the mythos around this particular thing, about how effective it is. And every method is going to have failures, and successes. None of which are attributable to the actual method in many cases, because people’s bodies are unpredictable.
MR: Also the method is confounded by the thousand other things that changed when they started doing the thing they’ve become religious about.
LK: Exactly. But we are really, really reliant on our stories to help make all of this comprehensible. There’s plenty of studies that show that sham surgery is very effective. How much of that effect is attributable to what goes on in real surgeries?
AM: And in some cultures that prayer is really effective.
LK: Unless it’s not. Right? And so, that’s one of the threads – mortality is not curable, and everything works some of the time, and nothing works all of the time.
AM: I would point out that even the idea of mortality is context-driven. That not every worldview looks at mortality as a big deal, or something to orient around, or avoid. Or even as something that exists. But just that the modelling around dying –
LK: The fact that this physical body will cease to function at some point is not a context-driven conversation.
AM: No, but the weight that is given to mortality, that you say mortality with this weight, that it is a factor in our conversation, that it is a factor, I know what the word means and that we do all die, but that it has weight in our considerations, is a culturally-driven event. Some people, some cultures, care differently about mortality, or they give different weight to it.
LK: Like the culture that yoga came out of?
AM: I don’t care which one! I’m just pointing out that everything we say is driven by a context!
LK: Sure. But it is an interesting point to look at India, and the concept of mortality that’s prevalent there, the fact that you have many, many lifetimes to get it right, and how that longer timeline is going to contextualize a momentary ache or pain or injury, or even a disease, in terms of that broader perspective. We certainly in the West have a little different relationship to that whole conversation.
Mortality as a Lens – Yoga as an Existential Perspective
AM: This summer, I was at a workshop with an embryologist from Europe named Jaap Van der Wal, and he’s very oriented toward an anthroposophical take on things, and he was talking about embryology and the process of embryology, and the idea that to be – he’s talking about the placenta, and how, as an embryo and a fetus, all of our nourishment comes through the placenta when we’re in the womb and we’re in this complete environment, and that to be born, we have to give up something that was essential to our life, that we co-create our placenta and then we have to leave it behind. We have to completely transform the way in which we take in nourishment.
LK: And get rid of waste.
AM: And get rid of waste. And he read this little story about twin fetuses talking to each other, and saying, ‘You know, I hear that out there, after birth, people breathe.’ And the other embryo’s like, ‘No, I’ve heard that too, but like, why would we breathe? We have a placenta.’ And the other one’s, like, ‘I hear there’s a mother.’ And it’s like, ‘Who’s mother?! What? Who needs a mother? People are just making that up to comfort themselves.’
And all of these things that we, from our perspective, think are true, and know that the fetus is engaging with, they don’t believe in, because they don’t have any – and then , the idea of being born is one of – you give up everything you know. In a way, you die to what is, and you come into this other way of being in the world. And he was suggesting that we consider what might be after this, and what might be our placenta in this life, and that, as a fetus, you can’t even conceive of air as air. And that radical shift in the capacity to conceive of how we get sustenance was really striking to me. So when you say this about mortality, I’m like, well, the fetus thinks their life as they know it is ending when they are born.
SB: The only life they could know.
AM: The only life they could possibly know ends when they are born.
MR: Wait a minute. Let’s acknowledge that we’ve turned the two fetuses into conscious, cognitive beings, right? That are considering these questions. I mean, the analogy is very colourful –
AM: It goes to an assumption.
MR: I appreciate it, but –
AM: But —
MR: Well we have to turn them into us for it to make sense. Which is what we do with babies.
LK: And we have to turn death into something it isn’t, in order for that to make sense, also.
AM: Okay, those are two different things. I’m going to go with the fetus, and say I have no idea what the fetus experiences, and all I can do is connect with my own experience, but it’s also true that whatever comes after this way of being, I have no way of knowing. And as different as the fetus’ experience is from mine, to consider that there’s something else that’s as different as this is, the magnitude of the transformation on a physical level that has to happen, much less whether there’s cognition or self-reflection or awareness – because there’s a whole other conversation we could have about consciousness and how we define that, between fetus and newborn and adult, and I don’t know what death means – when you say we have to turn death into something it isn’t –
LK: Well, at least from my set of beliefs, you would have to believe in something like a ghost-consciousness that can exist independently of the physical body.
AM: You would have to believe that, why?
LK: To imagine that there is something else to be transitioned into after the death of the physical body. That there’s something left of us, of who we are, independently of the physical body ceasing to exist.
AM: Our physical body doesn’t cease to exist – it dissolves as it is, and transforms into other things. Nothing ceases to exist. It’s transformed.
AM: And the magnitude of the transformation is something I can’t conceive of. And I don’t think I have to believe in ghosts to think that a transformation could be something I can’t conceive of. In a similar way that we can’t really conceive of what a fetus can imagine. And so the shift to imagining what it’s like to be on the planet, in gravity, breathing, might be as huge, partly because of that shift in consciousness.
MR: We have gone to the biggest question possible. And these noodles are really good.
LK: Well that was that thread I was pulling on – I used the word mortality. You know, people come in with problems that, one way or another, are related to asana practice, either they occurred as a result of something they did in their asana practice, or it’s preventing them from doing their asana practice, right? There’s always this – not always, but frequently – mystification about why did this happen?
My standard response for this is, ‘Well, you’ve never been this old before.’ Which you can say to anybody; you can say that to a fetus and it would be true. But there is this constant factor of change. Every moment of our lives, every day of our lives, we can become more capable of doing certain things as we become less capable of doing other things. I think an effective yoga practice puts us in touch with that reality. And it also can teach us that the greatest accomplishment in your yoga practice may be the ability to not push yourself into something today on that mat that you were able to do yesterday, because you’re listening.
MR: And you’re a day older.
LK: And you know you’re a day older, you know that that’s a factor. Yes, you could push, but maybe you’ve learned from your experience that, ‘Well, the last time I did that, it took me a week to recover, and I don’t want to do that again.’ It’s the whole heyam dukham anagatam thing, right? That’s a very mature attitude. Most folks who come in when they’re hurt, they just want to be fixed, so they can get right back to doing pretty much the same thing that hurt them in the first place. And to me, that’s not yoga.
MR: Because it has no existential view. Because it doesn’t say, ‘I’m mortal.’
LK: No, it doesn’t take the nature of our human existence into account. And that, incidentally, is why I have a hard time identifying Iyengar’s method as yoga. It’s definitely a very sophisticated way of working with the body, and whatever principles of alignment he came up with, but how is that different from physical therapy with props and ropes and body positions that we identify as asanas? I know he’s said a lot about it, he’s written about it, he has his own philosophical view – I’m well aware of all that.
AM: But how is it not yoga?
LK: I think it has to do with how one defines yoga, how one would define yoga in such a way that asana practice could be a part of it.
AM: Well how are you defining yoga, then?
LK: Well, I always go back to the definition in Patanjali – tapas svādhyāya isvara pranidhana – and if the main guy who put this alignment system together can be more interested in performing in front of a group of people than in taking care of his body, which is obviously having a heart attack, it makes me wonder where he’s coming from.
MR: Well, I personally think he’s thinking: ‘I have made my entire being out of a performance of the thing I was forced to perform from the age of 18, when I was penniless.’ Yeah, he found his life in the performance of asana.
AM: And if that’s the case –
MR: – that’s okay with me!
AM: If that’s the case at that moment, then that’s his yoga. I’m not sure how being more attached to doing something that brings you satisfaction, for whatever reason, that has become his satisfying thing to do, that he felt fulfilled in himself to perform. Now we can question that that’s where the fulfillment comes from. But that he chose to override a signal from his body, to get that satisfaction, I’m not sure I would say that’s not yoga. If it’s framed like that.
MR: I would agree with you, if it’s transparent. If he says, ‘Fuck it, I’m gonna keep performing.’
MR: Sometimes I think the same thing about the guys on Jackass. They’re like ‘Dude! I know I’m going to staple my scrotum to my thigh, it’s going to hurt like hell, but it’s gonna be really cool. It’s gonna be awesome. I’m never gonna feel like that ever again, and this life is what that’s for.’ And that’s a valid Tantric perspective. But I don’t know – it’s very difficult to assess a person’s freedom in that. It’s really difficult to hear somebody say ‘fuck it’ and know they’re being honest and transparent.
AM: Yes, absolutely.
MR: It’s rare!
LK: The denial version of it is the easiest one to understand, because we’ve all been there.
MR: It’s true.
AM: But I also think giving the space to what each person brings to the experience. Take my experience of being in an Iyengar class. Not Iyengar’s experience, but my experience being in an Iyengar class, is one that I would call creating yoga, where I’m invited in the rigidity of the structure to experience myself in that moment, in my body, in space, in gravity.
LK: Is that about the system, or about what you brought to it?
AM: It is an experience that arises in Iyengar method, that I have found in other places, but I had an experience there about structure that’s different than anything I had anywhere else. I can go create it for myself, and it is what I bring to it, that’s all anything is, but I don’t think we can say that a system is or is not yoga. I would argue with that.
MR: What I got from it, which was very helpful for me, and which grounded my first yogic education, was cognitive short-circuiting. The complexity of the action cues was so bamboozling, was so complex, seemingly arbitrary – and now we know that it changed all the time, so it was arbitrary –
AM: It was arbitrary.
MR: And that was its point – and this is where the patriarchalism of it comes in; there’s this assumption that he was teaching a knowledge, that was somehow formed. It’s not true! I think that what he was doing at least in part was teaching a series of improvisations, and even confusions designed to cognitively overwhelm a person, so that they had no conscious agency over movement or proprioception anymore. That can be experienced as bliss.
But I’ve never heard any Iyengar teachers actually say that. They’ll say the instructions led to a particular experience. But the instructions could’ve been anything. Tell me to move my skin this way! Tell me to move my hair that way! It doesn’t matter. But if you’d give me enough instructions, that part of me that wants to try to be a better person gets overwhelmed. That part of me that wants to try to follow instructions and wants to attain something gets totally smashed.
AM: Flooded, we call it.
MR: Flooded, flooded. And that was a positive experience – for a while. And then it wasn’t, because like a drug, you can only experience that a couple of times before it either doesn’t work, or you just get pissed at the guy, or –
AM: Or you have to go seeking more sensation, or more flooding, or more disorientation.
MR: Or less. So then I turn around and say, ‘Now I’m going to go to the Vanda Scaravelli people, because they’re just going to let me roll around on the floor, right?’ You know, and move my pelvis in a wave. And that’s opposite. It’s not about me losing my mind, literally, because I’m trying to accomplish something perfect. It’s a matter of letting myself not be perfect – in a completely other direction. Letting myself be an infant.
AM: What I heard you say, Leslie, was: ‘Why is Iyengar more yoga than physical therapy?’ And my argument is, either could be a yogic experience, or not, depending on what we bring to it.
LK: Yeah, but what we bring to it is what we bring to it, it’s not necessarily something that’s built into the system, as such.
AM: No, no. But it doesn’t mean that Iyengar yoga is not yoga, either.
LK: I’m not saying that. I said I had a hard time seeing how it’s yoga. Maybe that’s more a statement of my own limitations. Because every time I’ve tried to take a class, it made me so repulsed that I wanted to get as far away from it as possible.
Now is that something I should examine in myself? Should I keep inserting myself into those situations, and find out what it is about me that doesn’t want to be completely OCD about where the 310th follicle of hair on the left edge of my right kneecap needs to be? You know, that’s how it shows up – it engages the part of my brain that I so want to be disengaging if I want to get to a place of equanimity in myself.
AM: But it doesn’t work for you, doesn’t mean it’s not yoga.
LK: Well that’s why I said, I had a hard time seeing it.
AM: But it comes out as ‘it can’t be yoga for anybody.’
MR: But here’s something: ‘It engages the part of my brain that I want to get away from.’ You know that thing about the muscle that’s in spasm: it’s actually aided through the contraction.
LK: Because it finally fatigues.
MR: Exactly. Like, my OCD with regard to detail-orientation and wanting to get everything right was precisely exhausted by that. But, yeah – it only happened a couple of times. And then! And this is a big thing – we attribute – I think we can have epiphanic experiences, through particular methods, that can only actually work once or twice. And then we keep pursuing them. That’s one of the things I’m trying to pursue with the notion of the plateau that people get to. I’m hearing dozens of stories of people who get to a certain level of attainment, or comfort in their bodies, about five years into their asana experience, and then they keep driving towards the sensation that they had in the first two. And that fits into the mortality argument, doesn’t it? The expectation that the sex I had at 19 is going to be available forever.
LK: Oh, yeah, if only!
Finding the Limits of Anatomy Education
AM: I hope not! To me, that is the same question as, ‘Oh, if I want to know how to keep my students safe, I should study anatomy.’ The idea that there is a way, and that that one clarifying experience will always be a clarifying model. That – when I went to this new kind of yoga class, I was met or I was challenged in a way that gave me a new experience. Okay. That thing has to keep giving me that experience – it’s a similar mindset to, ‘I just have to find the right model – I’ll learn anatomy, and then I’ll know.’
The thing is, at some point, knowing anatomy will fail me at meeting a student about being safe. Because – this is the other argument I have, to go back to the learning anatomy thing – that anatomy teaching, the instruction around “correct” anatomy, is wrong. It is wrong. The things that are being taught about anatomy and alignment, they are incorrect, and they are not promoting health.
MR: Can you give an example?
AM: Keeping the knee over the foot.
LK: Squaring the hips.
AM: Squaring the hips.
LK: Tucking the tail.
AM: People interpret the keeping the knee over the foot idea as ‘you can’t hurt your knee if the knee is over the foot.’
MR: Got it.
AM: It won’t make your knee safe! It is not true! And, in fact, it might hurt your knee more than not letting your knee be over your foot.
MR: You’re talking about anatomical aphorisms that cannot be universally true.
AM: Because they’re situational.
LK: And they’re taught as if they could make the practice safe, if you just follow these alignment cues.
MR: Okay, I’m starting to understand you guys a little bit better.
AM: And how do we tell the bullshit from the truth? Because people go, ‘Oh, you do this and then you do this and fresh blood goes to your joints.’ It doesn’t. It doesn’t. And slowing your heart rate down is better – it’s not.
LK: Or: “Breathing deeply is always better.”
AM: Right. “Breathing deeply is always better.” But it’s not.
SB: “Space in the joints!”
AM: “Space the joints, make space in the joints” – it’s bad for your joints to make too much space. “Straighten your spine for it to be healthy.” It’s bad!
LK: Yeah, always “Straighten your spine.” Sure!
AM: There’s really concrete things that are being said, even – right out of doctors’ mouths!
Leslie: Against Standardization for Yoga
LK: Desikachar’s insistence, right across the board, always has been that yoga is relationship, and that the primary vehicle for the transmission of yoga, and what yoga is in itself, is relationship. And the more highly you value that as a fundamental principle, the more sensitive you’re going to be to anything that comes into the field that interferes with that.
I mean, insurance reimbursement? That’s third-party reimbursement. That’s a third party to the relationship. Regulators, the government, insurance companies, legislators, all of these people that get involved in the regulation discussion are people who, by their very nature, are going to intrude themselves into that relationship. And so it’s like the fundamental ahimsa that we would practice, with regard to our field as a whole, is to not – is to protect that, is to not allow any of that interference.
The interference would come in the form of price controls, what you can and cannot teach, who can teach, who cannot teach, who can teach people to teach, who can’t teach people to teach – all of this involves other people making judgments about who is and who is not qualified to do these things, and how much they can charge, and what they can and cannot do, and that’s always been the case. I mean, think of a doctor, it’s a similar thing – if the medical profession held the doctor-patient relationship as sacred, would they have invited or permitted all of the things that have since happened into their field? Even though, yes, it may be more lucrative to go down this road. But it has the potential for destroying the very thing that’s at the heart of what we do, the doctor-patient relationship.
MR: But it’s not just been destroyed because it’s more lucrative to collectivize – it’s also been altered because it’s smarter to share knowledge, and –
LK: It’s not about not sharing knowledge – it’s about understanding what the core value is that you have in what you’re doing, and I can’t – I’m not a doctor, I can’t speak for doctors, I can certainly observe how the practice of medicine has been just disemboweled, legislatively and every other way, in our society.
MR: So you’re thinking about old doctors that you knew that were educated maybe in the 40s, or pre-war, or something like that.
LK: Not even that, I’m thinking about the doctors to this day that are just quitting, because they just can’t stand it, they can’t deal with it, they don’t want to deal with the system as it is. Think of all the Canadian doctors who moved to the States when they nationalized health care in your country, you know? There was a huge wave of people who just didn’t want to work under that system. Or the fact that there’s a whole parallel system that’s developed, for private pay, alongside the public –
MR: I’m not quite sure who uses it, though. I mean, it’s very – we’re talking about the one or five per cent, or something like that.
LK: Sure. But they’re subsidizing the practices of these people who are able to afford to offer it elsewhere, because that percentage of people can afford to pay them, directly.
MR: Let me back out of that political thicket to bring up the issue of exceptionalism in the yoga world. I’m interviewing J. Brown and he says, much like you guys do: ‘I don’t believe that more anatomical training is going to make me a better teacher, although I’m going to pursue it. Even without it, I believe that I have, on my own, intuitively, by using the listening tools that I have, by understanding what I understand about the intimacy of relationship, I have built a protocol, a method for myself, by which I am very sure that I keep my students safe, and I allow them to grow at their own pace. And I said, ‘I think you’re an exceptional dude. I think that this frontier approach may be true for you – we have no way of saying –’
LK: Well that’s the thing – there’s no way to know that all the students are safe.
MR: Yes, there’s no way to know, but what I’m trying to ask him is: ‘The fact that it works for you is great. But if we think towards the commons a little bit more, how can we make it good for everyone, or for more people?’
LK: You can’t. And that’s not a goal that anyone should have who understands what we do. You attract people to you, and your system, and your way of thinking, your way of teaching, who feel an affinity for it. And some people will come and they will stay; some people will come and they will go, which, by the way, is why you cannot know that it is safe for everybody –
LK: Someone comes and has a bad experience and hurts themselves –
MR: They don’t come back.
LK: They don’t come back and you never hear about it. So that is an endemic, profession-wide issue, that we all just need to acknowledge. That we do not get the very feedback we need, in order to make ourselves safer.
MR: So let’s take that issue – would you say it would be good for everybody to create better feedback mechanisms?
LK: Well to do everything they can to acknowledge that that’s an issue, for one thing, and to create whatever mechanisms are available. We did that –
MR: Why is that not a social policy statement that you’re making, then?
LK: Social policy?
MR: Well, cultural policy. I mean, it sounds like, ‘Here’s a good idea for everybody to do.’ Wouldn’t that impose on people’s individualism?
LK: Did you hear me say that everyone should do it? Or than anyone has the right to say that everyone should do it?
MR: Well what did you say?
LK: I said it’s a problem in our field. And the degree to which we don’t acknowledge it or recognize it is the degree to which we’re not being as safe as we could be. I talk about this wherever I go, wherever I teach.
Number one, to set an example, to let people know, we are open to their feedback. We have created an online survey form that we encourage people to log into and deliver feedback. And I tell them: ‘Look, we’re happy to hear how much you enjoyed this.’ But people are willing to tell you that to your face right afterwards. Sometimes you don’t realize until, like the day after, or the week after, that something I said didn’t sit right with you, and it’s whatever, and you can completely anonymously – you don’t have to leave your name – deliver that feedback, on this survey form that we created. And I got some pretty rough feedback. You know?
MR: That’s awesome, I’m glad you did that.
LK: Lydia would be reading it, and she’d go, ‘Okay, I don’t think you want to read this, let me paraphrase it for you.’ Because she knows how emotionally sensitive I am. And it’s true, in that sense – this is stuff that ties a knot in your gut when you hear it, because it makes you doubt things. But it’s what we need to hear. And so, because we have opened ourselves to this feedback, and because we have gone to every pain that we can to let people know that we really, really want it, over the last year-and-a-half, or however long it is that we’ve been doing this survey – I think it’s close to two years now – we’ve gotten fewer and fewer negative comments, because we’ve really taken to heart the things we’ve heard.
And I really examine myself, I say, ‘Well, I’m hearing this thing consistently. This is a similar complaint I’m hearing, you know, from people, and this is something I need to look at. I need to change this thing about how I’m teaching. And it’s gotten better and better and better. But unless you really go out of your way to let people know you’re open to critical feedback, they won’t deliver it. Because we have issues with educators, we have issues with people in the front of the room that have power. And it goes way, way back, to when we were first starting to be educated, and all of that is going to be projected on us, as yoga teachers. And we have to recognize that. We have to understand that. And letting students know, in whatever way we can, that we are willing to hear this difficult feedback if they have it to deliver, and giving them a way to deliver it, anonymously if necessary, is really, really important.
MR: Okay, I –
AM: Can I just interject? When you say ‘we,’ you mean ‘I.’
MR: This is exactly what I was going to say!
LK: No, when I say ‘we,’ I mean me and Lydia.
AM: No, I just think that you’re saying ‘we,’ and I think this is something that you are doing, as a teacher, and you and Lydia may be reading, but it’s not you as a community of people doing it. You’ve done this yourself.
LK: No, when I say we – Lydia and I came up with this, and we’re a team in implementing it, but –
AM: Yes, but as a teacher, you are not a ‘we’ of teachers; you are a ‘you’ of teachers. It’s a position you’ve taken yourself, and it’s really valuable, and I’ve done it a different way. But I haven’t done it that way.
LK: Yeah, so the ‘we’ actually was an actual ‘we,’ it was me and Lydia.
AM: I know, but when you say as a teacher, you’re changing your teaching –
MR: That’s exactly what I was going to ask, because –
LK: Like, I don’t presume to be talking for Amy here, although I know she recognizes the issue as well.
MR: Even to recognize something as an issue means that we share it, that it’s shared.
LK: The ‘we’ meaning ‘me and my students?’
MR: Ah, everybody who’s interested in this stuff.
LK: Everybody that I think is at least introduced to the idea goes, ‘Wait a minute, you know, that’s true.’ When I read Glenn Black’s section in The Science of Yoga, I was like, ‘What the fuck?’ He’s claiming to William J. Broad that he’s never hurt a student in one of his classes. And he’s never been hurt. And my immediate reaction is, ‘That is such utter bullshit.’ And later on in the book, he comes back to Broad and says, ‘Oh, by the way, I just had this neck or back surgery.’
MR: Yeah. I’m bionic now.
LK: Right, because I fucked myself up in my practice.
LK: So we have an over-inflated sense of our own safety and efficacy because of this issue people – students – have with delivering negative feedback. It’s a built-in problem, it’s a built-in problem with medicine, it’s a built-in problem with anyone that’s in authority. It’s a built-in problem in the church, it’s a built-in problem in the educational system across the board. Anyone that’s in authority is going to – there’s going to be this dynamic that makes it pretty difficult for people to give them negative or critical feedback.
AM: Or – I agree, in the big picture, and as you’re saying this, I’m asking, ‘Oh, how have I done this?’ Because you say ‘we’ and I’m like, ‘Uh, you and Lydia,’ but then I don’t think it’s a negative feedback question so much, though that is what people have trouble doing, but an authentic feedback question, and a space for people to have their own experience, whatever it is. And so –
LK: How do they even know what their feedback is in the first place?
AM: How do they even know what their experience is in the first place? We’ll do an experiment in my classes. I’ll go around and everybody has to say something about their experience. And I say in the beginning, ‘You can say, ‘I don’t know, I didn’t get it.’’ And it takes two or three classes, usually, for some people to start saying, ‘I didn’t get it at all.’ And I say, ‘Okay.’ I say, ‘Okay! Thanks!’ And then the next person. And we accumulate now 35 people in the room saying, ‘I got it!’ ‘I didn’t get it.’ ‘I had this profound experience.’ ‘I heard music.’ ‘I smelled chocolate.’ The whole range of it! But I’m doing it really consciously, saying, ‘Yes, yes, yes, yes, great, yes, yes.’
LK: No judgment of their reaction.
AM: And what’s great is they’re sharing their experience. And what starts to happen in the room is anything goes. And I think that is an experience that people don’t get to have very often. But I think it’s teachable. And I think that’s what I’m teaching in my anatomy class. And that’s how I think I’m going to change the world. Not by teaching anatomy. But by teaching people to have their own experience, in whatever thing it is I’m teaching.
LK: And do you think, that if people in that environment had an opportunity to fill in an anonymous survey down the road, some of them could potentially say, ‘Amy – all she’s ever asking us to do is talk about our experience, and I just wanted to come here and do x, which is, like, different from that.’
AM: Yeah, totally! I mean, they still might not –they don’t have to like it. But I think there’s something radical about saying, ‘What is your experience?’
LK: Well that’s what transformed J! That’s the question Whitwell had asked him –
Relatedness as a Guard Against Injury
AM: What I heard you say, Leslie, is that relationship is the vehicle for yoga. I would also say that yoga is the vehicle for relationship, which I think I got straight from Mark Whitwell. I studied with Mark really intensely for a couple years, and then went to Body-Mind Centering, and got Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen, and understood the body as a vehicle for that relatedness. To me the two are inextricable, in my own take on the world.
So to go back, then, to the question you asked of Leslie about the place of anatomy training –here’s a story I tell often about Mark. When I was studying with him, I would be late sometimes for whatever we were doing, and he’d say, ‘Why are you late?’ And I’d say, ‘I’m studying anatomy, I’m taking this anatomy class.’ And he’d say, ‘Why?’ And I’d say, ‘I don’t know enough; I need to know more anatomy to teach.’ And he’d say, ‘That’s bullshit. You’re a teacher; go teach.’ ‘Okay, okay.’ And I’d be late again, and he’d say, ‘Why are you late?’ And this went on for a couple of years, and he was my teacher, so I was like, ‘What is this question about?’ And finally I went to him once, and he’s like, ‘What are you doing?’ or whatever. ‘I’m taking this anatomy class.’ ‘Why are you taking an anatomy class?’ And I said, ‘I love it, Mark. It’s fascinating.’ And he said, ‘Great.’
MR: He said okay.
AM: He said okay. And so if someone came to me and said, ‘I’m a yoga teacher, and I want to know more about anatomy, because I love it,’ or ‘I’m really curious,’ or ‘I want to know this model,’ then –
MR: Then you know the language is going to be alive for them. It’s not going to flatten out.
AM: Exactly! I don’t think people shouldn’t study anatomy! I want everybody to come play in the sandbox with me! I mean, I’m like – I am so grateful to have other people who want to do this with me. But the idea that they are insufficient without it is so profoundly troubling to me. And the idea that anatomy is what will make me a good enough yoga teacher is distancing me from showing up as a person, as a teacher, in that relatedness –
SB: Some idea that knowing anatomy will keep your students safe, will guarantee that is –
AM: What will keep the students –
LK: You can’t keep students safe, there’s no way!
AM: Well, I’m going to say a different thing. What will engage the students in their safety is the relatedness, and my capacity to listen. And people come to me and they want my anatomy expertise, and I’m like, ‘All I can do is see you. But I’ll be with you, and I’ll see you – with my knowledge and my experience,’ but really what they want is me. My me-ness. My anatomy knowledge is not what makes me a good teacher.
LK: Because you’re teaching wisdom, not information.
AM: It’s my presence. It’s that I show up. And anatomy, and embodiment, and body-mind centering, has been a way in for me to be present, because that’s my path. Someone else could meditate, someone else could study chakras, someone else could study Ayurveda. So that’s my problem with thinking teachers need more anatomy training. If they want it, great. But they’re not insufficient without it.
LK: You know, there’s an old saying in engineering that you can do your very best to make something foolproof. But there’s no way on earth you can make it damn-foolproof. And some people are so committed, on whatever level, to learning their lessons by hurting themselves, no amount of medical training – you can have the world’s greatest orthopaedic surgeon teaching a yoga class –
MR: Well this is where –
LK: How qualified does someone have to be, who’s teaching a class, to, you know –
AM: And I don’t think that’s what yoga’s about!
LK: It’s totally not!
AM: I don’t think yoga’s about anatomy!
LK: It’s not; it has nothing to do with it!
AM: I think yoga’s about experiencing your body.
LK: Yeah, and holding a mirror up for people.
AM: I mean, if we’re talking about on a flesh, incarnate level, which not everybody is – but that’s the level I’m operating in – it’s not an anatomical event.
LK: You can’t do it without anatomy.
AM: Sure you can.
LK: Well, you have to have a body.
AM: But having a body is not anatomy. I have a body. It may or may not know that it’s bones and muscles. I could not know any fucking anatomy, and have a deeply embodied experience. People have profound experiences all the time –
LK: That’s what got me started. I didn’t know shit about anatomy when I did my first Sivananda class, and was in my first savasana, and I’m like, ‘Woah –’
MR: – ‘what happened?’ – I remember that first feeling.
LK: I’m lying down, and I’m not going to sleep, and I’m not quite awake, I’m not quite asleep. And I’m – I guess this is – well – relaxed? And to recognize that as a concept, when I’m, like, 19 years old? Wow. I didn’t know anything about – I knew I had a head, and arms, and legs, and a spine. That’s about all I knew of anatomy. And by the way, that’s about the most anatomical language I’ve heard Desikachar use.
He was trained as a structural engineer. But he didn’t teach from an anatomical perspective. He would say, put your leg here, put your arm there, you know, he used anatomical terminology that a four-year old would know. And that’s the anatomical language he used to teach what he did. He didn’t say, ‘diaphragm,’ he didn’t say ‘rib cage,’ He’d say ‘chest, belly’ maybe. That was about it!
MR: It’s interesting. I wonder if there’s something about invoking the four-year old simplicity in embodiment that offers a consolation to somebody who overthinks.
LK: It did for me.
AM: Well I think it offers access, in a way, that the more specialized anatomical language gets, the more exclusionary it can be. And I think there’s a little bit of an assumption that anatomical language is somehow ‘real,’ in a way that everybody will get it. Or that if I say ‘your scapula’ and I show you what it is, you’ll know some deep truth about that bone, there. And it’s not a deep truth.
Integrating Paradigms – Yoga as ‘Being in the Question’
MR: So I’m following Nancy Cochren to her hospital appointments. She had cortisone shots in both hips. And then – do you know Monovisc?
LK: It gets injected right into the capsule.
MR: Right into the capsule! You have to sign a big waiver about infection and all that. But, it has to be so specifically targeted that it has to be done with –
LK: – with radiographic guidance, yes –
MR: – with an x-ray trained on her, which she’s watching.
LK: Yeah, you can see the neon going in on the screen –
MR: SHE’S WATCHING. She’s watching an 18-gauge needle, five inches, going in.
LK: Did they do a spinal? Or local –
MR: Nope, local freezing.
LK: Did they spray it?
MR: I don’t know, I think the freezing was injected. Anyway, so she can see it go into the capsule, and nudge against it – that’s how clear the – and then –
LK: *pop!* *pop!*
MR: So this is exactly where yoga meets the clinic. The yogi is awake to her body, whilst it’s frozen, and they have a visual of what’s inside of them, of something inaccessible to them normally, that they have learned to explore through interoceptive mindfulness. They’ve learned to explore it through prana, through breath, through every technique that they used to pay attention to sensation, and now they’re watching somebody have a different kind of access to the joint.
LK: That experience has got to be very different for someone who’s been practicing yoga than for your average Joe.
MR: That’s why I find it so compelling. The story ends there, as far as I’ve written it. It’s wild, it’s such a beautiful thing. It was like my moment with the ultrasound on my thrombosis, that I feel like we’re on this threshold, we stand with one foot in either paradigm, and we’re either in conflict, or we’re trying to see – what do you know that you can tell me, and what can I tell you about.
AM: Two things. One is that I hear us saying ‘yogi’ like we know what it means. And I don’t think every yoga practitioner is going to have a different experience of that than a layperson. I think some laypeople would have a pretty profound experience of that as well. And the assumption that because we’re practicing yoga, we have more insight into our bodies, is not always true. Unless we define ‘yogis’ so broadly that it’s ‘someone who’s engaged in inquiry.’ I think that we could take someone from any other practice, or a musician, or – anyway, so what I think then brings us to that place where we’re in this threshold, and what to me then would be being a yogi would be being in that question. If there’s conflict, then I’m not doing yoga. In some way, because I’m not engaged in the question. If I think I know what I’m doing, and the medical model is somehow in conflict with it – oh, I don’t mean that – I mean, if I can’t acknowledge that ultrasound, and radiation, and all of that serves me in some way, then I don’t think I’m in the inquiry in a way that’s got –
MR: I’m not in the 21st century either.
AM: Not in the 21st century, and not in the question, in a way that I would think is fundamental to doing yoga.
LK: I think it’s even more basic – I think it’s a place where you can question your own reactivity to a situation, and not just have your reaction be the situation. I think it’s having that little window of consciousness that separates what’s happening from how you’re reacting to what’s happening, and being able to recognize that.
AM: Well that’s what I mean by inquiry. And I don’t think everyone who does yoga is in that question.
LK: I don’t think everyone who practices asana is in that question. Everyone who’s doing yoga by definition is in that question.
AM: By that definition, yes, fair enough. But I don’t think all the people we are including in a blanket statement of ‘yogis’ would fit into that definition.
LK: The people who would call themselves yogis, versus the ones who we would call yogis.
AM: You would call yogis. I don’t call anybody ‘yogis,’ I don’t use the term.
LK: [laughs] I will leave the ‘we’ out of this conversation from now on.
MR: It’s interesting what happens with the “we”, eh? What happens? For you Leslie, because it doesn’t actually reflect your libertarian meaning, it might just be a colloquial tic, right?
LK: I like to think that my personal opinions are bigger than just me, so that’s, you know – just so you know, I’m normally surrounded by people who, 75% of the time would probably agree with most things I say. So ‘we’ is really an approximation –
MR: – mingled with confirmation bias.
LK: Exactly. Precisely. But I’m aware of that, so it’s a yogic view, more or less.
AM: You go on thinking that, Leslie.
LK: [laughing] Yeah! There you go!
Wonderment and Inquiry Bump Up Against Technical Proficiency and Training
MR: I think we also stand in such an extraordinary age, because Nancy can look at that radiography, and we can see videos of ourselves undergoing heart surgery, or I can walk in while my son is being born by his almost-emergency Caesarean section, and see that my wife is open on the table, and I’ve never seen such red in my life.
We’re in an age in which we can see inside. And I think that the alienation that we feel towards biomedicine is that somehow medical training has been functional to the extent that they have lost their absolute, utter wonderment at what they are doing. “They can’t – they cannot be as awestruck as I am. They cannot be going into rapture as I am.”
LK: That would be counter-productive for what their job description is.
MR: It’s so sad, actually, that an almost-miraculous experience can feel flat to the specialists who are performing it, and then somehow the population absorbs the sense of flatness, in a way, because the surgeon does not communicate, typically, wonderment. I’ve met a few who do, but –
AM: But I wonder, I wonder –
MR: It’s like the training takes away their poetry, right?
AM: And that’s what I wonder, if there’s some co-created thing where they’re not allowed to wonder, because then they lose their expertise. And what we demand of the doctors, as a culture, and what we ask of our teachers – I mean, I haven’t ever held anyone’s life in my hands like that, but I feel like one of the things I run up against is people come up to me and they want me to tell them the answer. And I say, ‘I don’t know.’ And they are sometimes profoundly disappointed. And broken. And they take it personally, and then I feel bad because I let them down, and I let them down. So I can’t imagine the pressure on surgeons who have to be, like, ‘I know what I’m doing.’
MR: Yeah – can you imagine doubting yourself beside the operating table?
LK: Can you imagine opening someone’s body, and going, like, ‘Woah!’ That’s not going to inspire confidence!
AM: Yeah, but, see, I think that’s a cultural phenomenon, because it should, in a way.
MR: It can’t with the training. Training is desensitization. Is that part of what you’re saying about anatomy?
AM: That’s part of what I’m saying about anatomy!
LK: Look, you gotta see this.
[LK breaks out a book of surgical pictures.]
MR: Oh, the colours.
LK: I mean, you can’t look at this and not get a physical reaction. You know? And that’s why I so admire doctors, and particularly surgeons, who deal with this every day. This is, like, they have trained themselves to be a person who can take a sharp instrument – I mean, if I were a surgeon, I could use this [holds up a steak knife] to do something useful to your body. I mean – that’s, like, fucked up!
MR: They’ve turned horror and violence into medicine.
LK: That’s what ‘ana-tomy’ means – it means ‘to cut into.’ That’s what the word means! ‘To cut into!’ All we’re talking about is different ways of cutting into the body! You know, with consciousness, with emotion, with focus – that’s all anatomy. You get chakras, and that’s anatomy – you’ve got a sharp instrument, it’s just your consciousness cutting in. The Western anatomy uses a knife to cut in. This, by definition, has to be used – well, on a live body, really really carefully, so that it doesn’t become a dead body. But what we do in the cadaver lab, you know, it’s like, the more you use this sharp instrument on a cadaver, the dead-er it gets. I mean, by the time we’re – at the end of a week – the cadaver’s in pieces, it’s in bags it’s in piles.
AM: Dead-er – what is dead-er? How do you get dead-er?
LK: Dead-er means it has less – it looks less like it looked when it was alive. I mean, dead is dead, let’s face it. Wait, there’s that one prana that remains –
AM: I’m really curious about that.
LK: There’s that one prana that remains in a cadaver. I call it the structural prana. The rib cage will still spring open when you divide the sternum.
MR: Got it.
LK: There’s the pressure zones that are still there, until you penetrate the pleura, you know? When you pull the hip socket out of a joint, it’ll still go, *pop!* There is still a suction force holding it in place. There is still, you know, potential energy stored in a cadaver’s body. By the time, at the end of a sixth day with Gil Hedley, all of that is gone. And it doesn’t look anything like it did, and there’s nothing holding anything together anymore. So there is still a prana in a cadaver.
MR: You’re talking about entropy.
LK: Yeah, I mean, entropy accelerated with a sharp instrument. That’s how we learn anatomy, in that context. You know, there is all of the tensile connections between the skin and the superficial fascia. You have to keep changing your scalpel blade when you’re separating the skin from the fat, because there’s something dulling that blade! That’s – that’s – that’s energy! You know? There’s the energy in that connection that is exerting itself on the molecules in that blade, that’s dulling it, that means you have to keep changing blades to get the skin off the fascia. That’s happening the whole time. So that’s – there’s an enormous amount of energy in a cadaver before you start disassembling it. And in a way, the dissassemblage – is that a word? Disassemblage?
LK: [laughing] Whatever.
LK: So the knife is liberating the energy that’s still there. So, yeah, I’d say it’s much more dead at the end of six days than at the beginning. I mean, it doesn’t matter to the person who was inhabiting the body, but –
AM: As far as we know.
LK: – the structure of the thing itself? Yeah, there’s a definite accelerated entropy that is occurring.
AK: So your definition of death has something to do with –
LK: [to Sarah] You haven’t been in that lab yet? We’ve gotta get you in that lab.
AM: She’ll get herself there. ‘We have to get you in that lab.’ Because you think she’s not complete unless –
LK: No, I just think she’d have so much fun, is the thing!
SB: Hm. I don’t know about fun, but I am interested and curious.
MR: Um, I’m looking at the time, and I have to get a cab for a train to Penn Station at 8:51. Is that doable? That’s doable, right? It’s ten minutes?
LK: If we get you out of here in ten minutes.
MR: Um, so, I really need you to refute my Wild Thing argument, Amy, if you think I’m wrong. Because, that’s gotta be part of the story, is including how I can gather provocative, arguable information, and be wrong. I’m making another point about it, though.
AM: And that’s the reason that –
MR: That’s part of it, that’s part of what I’m doing.
AM: I completely agreed with your point, it was this particular detail. But yes.
LK: Are you good at transcribing from audio?
MR: Am I good at it? I have a research assistant.
LK: Because, Amy hates to write, but she can talk.
AM: No, I should write it, because several people want to read –
LK: Oh, so you’ve resigned yourself to actually writing it!
LK: Wow. Cool!
AM: Well, we’re going to, yeah, I have to write lots of things.
MR: Sarah, if I had three copies of these, I’d give one to you, but maybe Amy or Leslie can lend you one, but this is just a gift for you guys.
[I bring out copies of my latest book of poetry – Rosary – as gifts.]
AM: Thank you!
LK: What is this?
MR: It’s a little book about the fact that I was brought up Catholic, thought I was Buddhist at a certain point, and then I thought I was Hindu. But the rosary stayed the same, all the way through.
LK: Well, it’s either 54 or 108, which is an interesting multiplication there.
SB: Did you – am I remembering- did you go through ashtanga?
MR: Ah, no.
SB: Oh, okay. I grew up Catholic, and got into ashtanga, and at some point was like, ‘I think I’ve done with this already.’
LK: Check out page 85, or like sutra 85, whatever it is. I see Fibonacci.
LK: You could have a whole thing about Fibonacci, and the Golden Ratio with –
LK: Oh yeah. Have you seen the tattoo?
MR: No, I haven’t seen the tattoo.
LK: Show Matthew the tattoo!
[Amy reveals a beautiful nautilus tattoo on her forearm, in white ink.]
MR: No way. How was that done?
AM: White. Ink.
MR: Are you crazy….
[L and A laughing]
MR: That’s wonderful, that’s really good.
MR: On one side, or on the other side, too?
AM: No, just one side.
LK: The other side is flesh-coloured ink, and then mole-coloured brown.
AM: Yeah, it’s a freckle-coloured –
MR: The other thing is that you paid for dinner, and I’m very grateful –
LK: You’re very welcome.
MR: So I have to make sure that –
LK: Well, you can buy me a meal when I’m in Toronto next time.
Why Are Some Folks Distorting and Dismissing Chelsea Roff’s Article on Anorexia and Yoga?
A few days ago, this post from a yoga blogger whose work I generally like flashed across Faceblot. It body-slammed Chelsea Roff’s recent Yoga Journal piece:
I’m appalled by the shoddy journalism and misleading information presented within this article.
EVEN if I’m to believe results of an uncited study, not knowing how many were sampled, other variables and the correlation/significance etc – the results of this supposed research found yoga students are (get this!): as at risk for an eating disorder as the general public. DUH!
and yet to read, you’d think yoga CAUSES it. Lets be clear: the asana practice does not make anyone immune. In fact, it’s most likely simply a common variable because it is a common practice of ALL people, and mostly women. The article does a horrific job of clarifying this and therefore should be ashamed.
maybe Yoga Journal should be called the UNyoga journal because it truly does more harm than good.
unlike. unsubscribe. done.
She followed this trumpet with a Bronx cheer in the comments: “omg though … I just called it journalism! hahaha!!!” This further magnetized the thread for the likes and comments of many who obviously hadn’t read the article. (To the blogger’s, um — credit? — she scrubbed her omg outburst from the thread after I called it out via personal message. That cost me getting blocked. Ouch.)
We all love the firecracker soundbite. We all love to feel righteous about articles we don’t have to actually read, thanks to the efforts of our favourite pundits. We love making assertions about what yoga is and isn’t. And we all love to hate YJ, right? What’s not to like about this impassioned critique?
How about the fact that it’s totally inaccurate? Roff’s piece is not shoddy journalism. There’s zero misleading information. The study she referred to briefly and inconsequentially is not uncited, but merely unlinked-to, which is standard for many popular formats. YJ fact-checked her dozens of interviews thoroughly. And by no means does Roff suggest that yoga causes disordered eating, because that would be stupid. So this FB post is making stuff up about what Chelsea Roff is saying, and then saying she must be stupid and ashamed.
But wait — isn’t Roff the survivor of an eating disorder who did a yoga-strike on a rooftop for I can’t remember how many nights and days straight to raise 51K to pilot her “Yoga for Eating Disorders” non-profit? (Not as in “Do Yoga to GET an Eating Disorder”, but “Do Yoga to Help Heal from Eating Disorders.”) If that’s her, I’m not ashamed to be with stupid.
(That’s Roff in the lead image above. Before and after yoga, actually. Plus a ton of other hard work.)
I understand internet impulsivity and am certainly not immune, and I would rather gnaw my arm off than moonlight as a thread-cop. I don’t even think the internet should be the exclusive home of well-reasoned and thoughtful responses. How repressed would that be? So I don’t blame this blogger for the initial sentiment. Many shared her view, in fact, as we can see from the comments trailing out under the original YJ posting of the article.
But when the facts were made clear, there was neither retraction nor apology. When Chelsea herself had the spunk to show up on a thread on which she’d been laughed at to offer further clarification (repeated here in a YJ talkback page), there was some tepid deference. But no retraction, no apology. No hint of “Oh — maybe this article is saying something subtler than I imagined an article could actually say.” Or “Oh — I wonder what was so triggering about this article, that it sent my reading skills and impulse control AWOL?” Meanwhile, the misreading continued to propagate.
Here’s the nut graf of Chelsea’s work, which took a whole year to produce, and such a tiny number of keystrokes to dismiss:
As a healing practice, yoga has helped countless people recover from physical and emotional ailments as varied as migraines, sciatica, and PTSD. But for people with disordered eating habits, or those with poor body image—which includes some 80 percent of American women, according to research—counting on yoga’s promise of emotional and spiritual healing can be perilous. Drawn to yoga as a means of self-care, they instead may find reinforcement for dangerous weight-control behaviors in a studio culture that increasingly celebrates thinness, flexibility, and perfection of form.
So how many backbends does it take to make a yogi confused about what this says?
Roff is obviously not saying that yoga causes eating disorders. She’s saying here and throughout the piece that for all its marketing of therapeutic benefit, yoga culture has more work to do to distinguish itself from the toxicity of the dominant body-shaming paradigm. That in fact, its very pretences to therapy and spiritual renewal often cover up the psychopathologies of its practitioners.
The article says that asana/yoga culture can amplify the meticulous and control-oriented food behaviours that express distrust of the body and border on disordered eating. It says: we claim to be mindful. We claim to be body-positive. We claim to be nurturing. We profess emancipation from neoliberal consumerism and its demands. But where are we using these claims to cover up the illnesses we are too ashamed to face? Where are we using the promise of yoga as a bypass?
So the important question is: why has Roff’s piece been misread? Is it another critical-skills-fail in Yogaland? Probably. Is it “I-can’t-believe-anything-good-could-come-out-of-Yoga-Journal” syndrome? That’s reasonable. Is it the cognitive dissonance of Chelsea’s piece appearing on a page that’s also selling clingy pants and diet regimes? For sure: we’d all love a magazine with a print circulation of millions to turn down the clingy pant cash and give over free ad space to local organic farmers. Call us dreamers, for dreamers we are.
Was it triggering to read about Kelly Parisi, found dead in her apartment in Reclined Hero pose, after months of practicing up to three hours a day and being socially rewarded for her “dedication” at her home studio? Absolutely. Would this one image alone force devotees and teachers and studio owners to check their messaging a little more closely? Maybe to see their juice cleanses and purification retreats and the financial benefits of obsessively practicing students in a more complex light? I’m sure it would.
But I think there’s something more important going on. For the first time ever, the flagship publication of modern postural yoga culture — whatever one thinks of it — has displayed a shocking level of self-inquiry by drawing back the curtain on the core ambivalence of its central meme: the yoga body. YJ has kicked up some yoga shit in the past, as in this amazing 1990 investigative takedown of Swami Rama. But compared to challenging the cha-ching of the yoga body, Rama is chump change.
Here is a magazine banked on the full-colour premise that the yoga body is a klieg light of physio-moral virtue radiating feminist empowerment. And here it is, publishing an article that says: that body throws a dark shadow. They publish an article that says that yoga can be a place in which our core self-hatreds are as much performed as they are resolved. It’s the end of the “It’s All Good” era on the yoga newstand. That’s big.
I can actually report that it was even bigger behind the scenes. I now fully disclose that I had the honour of reviewing and commenting on one of Chelsea’s early drafts. Her original title was “Yoga: The Double-Edged Sword.” Imagine that on the front cover, beside Kathryn Budig’s jocular glow. It’s her bija-thesis, after all.
If Chelsea’s message really sinks in, readers might feel the ground beginning to shift beneath them. They might realize the jig is up. That not even Yoga Journal can continue to gloss over the fact that the drives of self-improvement and self-destruction are constantly intertwined. Not even Yoga Journal can avoid the issue of how much wisdom it takes to distinguish tapas from self-hatred, sauca from self-loathing.
This means that if you haven’t done the hard work to see that every sun salute can have a touch of self-mortification, and every yogic affirmation can hide a hint of terror, now you’ll have to. And if YJ can do it — balancing caution and enthusiasm under the weight of its advertising — there’s really no excuse for everyone to not come clean. I understand how misreading the article and dismissing the whole issue as “sensationalist” might be an easier solution.
I also understand — to drop my cynicism for a moment — that Roff’s article might be very hard to take for a person whose experience of healing through yoga has given them a religious devotion to practice. They might read it as an attack on the one thing they are sure has helped them and could help everyone else, a roadblock to their evangelical enthusiasm. I’ve been there, and it’s tough.
But please. Good writing is so bloody hard to do. Chelsea spent a year on that thing. A year. I don’t think anybody really wants to put a chill on an effort like that.
Maybe a little yoga — what with all the deep breathing and non-reactivity stuff — might help people with their reading, in the same way it has clearly helped Roff’s writing.
Notes: “Faceblot” is a term that comes gràce a my old friend Stephen Pender, who probably hates yoga. Carol Horton, who loves yoga, gives a balanced review of the entire issue Roff’s piece appears in.
WAWADIA Update #8 /// Notes on my Hospitalization
[dropcap]T[/dropcap]his post may not seem directly related to yoga injury. I’m including it in this series because it explores a personal experience of what is perhaps the stickiest subject in the yoga injury discussion: how pranic and biomedical visions of the body collide, interact, and may in time come to uneasy resolution.
How far do we trust our intuitive sensibility to reveal our internal states? Is “listening to ourselves” enough? How do we know when we are in pain, and what kind of pain it is? Do insights into sensations described through the ancient language of energy, chakras, “openings” and “blockages” map onto the material reality of the flesh? In what way? How do they lead towards or away from newer kinds of knowledge? When is the yogic paradigm helpful in understanding the material facts of injury, disease, and wellness? When it isn’t, how do we turn to newer sources of knowledge? When we do seek elsewhere, what of these older ways do we bring with us?
Continue reading “WAWADIA Update #8 /// Notes on my Hospitalization”
Reevaluating “Constitution”: A Challenge to Popular Ayurveda
As the cosmic movement of air, sun and moon are difficult to know,
so is that of vāta, pitta, and kapha in the body.
Caraka Samhita VI 28:246
This post deconstructs what I feel are some common but avoidable problems with the practice of Ayurvedic constitutional typology. I realize that there are several forms of Ayurveda (including that represented by the modern BAMS syllabus) that do not necessarily foreground constitution in practice. My focus here is limited to the popular and global modes of practice supported by English language literature and often associated with modern global yoga culture. My intention is to clear a path for future research into what the old insights of typology might reasonably offer today. Because this piece is lengthy, I’ll begin with a redux of themes:
- While Ayurveda and contemporary science share a common empirical root in the systematic observation of natural patterns, Ayurveda no longer belongs to the discipline of “science” as it’s commonly understood today. It is now perhaps more properly understood as an interpersonal and intersubjective art form, ideal for any therapy and counseling that seeks to bridge categories of body and mind. Claiming that it does more than this makes Ayurveda vulnerable to the charge of pseudoscience.
- The popular and now global practice of Ayurvedic constitutional typology (prakṛti) is particularly vulnerable to pseudoscientific claims, cognitive fallacies, essentialism, unchecked transference and countertransference, and blindness to how bodies are assigned meanings through social construction. These flaws are often amplified or excused by romantic Orientalism.
- If they can first uncover and then reach beneath these flaws, modern Ayurvedic practitioners may be able to access layers of awareness rooted in the intimacy of their mirror neurology — a kind of “hardwired empathy.” Their task, if it is possible, would be to isolate this “first sense” of how another person feels themselves in the world towards therapeutic ends, before it is distorted by the sweep of cultural ideology, whether global-capitalist or antique-Orientalist.
- If it resists cultural ideology, the art of constitution can utilize the poetry of bodily states to initiate empowering dialogue about how different subjects experience the world organically, emotionally, and socially. In this way, a truly dynamic theory of “constitution” might take shape and be of benefit to a wide spectrum of healing disciplines.
- The most empirically honest and psychologically effective use of typology leaves the subject unlabeled and undetermined, and therefore able to construct for themselves a rich dialogue with their evolving body-mind patterning.
Continue reading “Reevaluating “Constitution”: A Challenge to Popular Ayurveda”
How I Teach Ayurveda
First of all, I don’t really teach. I used to think I was teaching, back at the dawn of my nine-year span of leading this course. But sitting with clients for all that time has shown me that the best I can and should do is simply facilitate better conversations about personal and social health. This requires my learning as much about a student’s circumstance as I can share with them in terms of Ayurvedic theory. This means creating a learning space that’s conversational, which makes sense for a practice that’s nothing if it’s not about empowerment.