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WAWADIA

The Sublime Uselessness of Old-School Asana

“Art is useless because its aim is simply to create a mood. It is not meant to instruct, or to influence action in any way. It is superbly sterile, and the note of its pleasure is sterility. If the contemplation of a work of art is followed by activity of any kind, the work is either of a very second-rate order, or the spectator has failed to realise the complete artistic impression.” – Oscar Wilde, letter to young artist

 

“What’s the difference between the ‘functional mover’ and the productive citizen?”Theodora Wildcroft, via Skype

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In this highly polished Iyengar tutorial, the instructor is obviously hyperextending her knees. She leans back, exquisitely, into her ligaments. She rests there for an appropriately penitential interval. Distended and refreshed, she eases out. The students follow suit.

I came across it in a post to the Yoga and Movement Research Community group on Facebook. Commenters with basic biomechanics knowledge asserted that this exercise does not convey functional, healthy, sustainable movement. They pointed out the cumulative danger of distending the back chain of fascia from the soles of the feet on up, and worried about loaded flexion on the spine.

It all seems strange, given that the teaching comes through a brand that positions itself as “therapeutic”.

Let’s just supppose the exercise doesn’t offer verifiably healthy movement beyond the anecdotal. What does it offer? Why do so many people love it? Why will Iyengar people continue to teach and practice it – just like they will keep teaching cervical-load-bearing headstand – over the objections of phyiotherapists and kinesiologists? Could it be that they are working with a different understanding of “therapy”?

If we don’t ask these questions, we’ll get bogged down in accusations that unsound movements, defined as such by a specialized few, can’t fulfill the aims of yoga. Whose aims, exactly? And what meaning of yoga? Would the hatha yogis of old be geeking out in Katy Bowman workshops? Would Krishnamacharya be emailing Jules Mitchell for privates?

Nah. Try asking a sadhu standing on his head surrounded by a ring of fire whether he’s into “nutritious” or “functional” movement.

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Many people complain about the degeneration of “traditional”, “classical” or “authentic” yoga in the global era into asana-fixation. They come at it from a number of angles. They worry that the other limbs have been lost in a mirage of bodily concern, that no one knows how to find and serve a guru, that Sanskrit is fading from view, that of the few who know what moksha means, only a fraction commit to it as a goal. These are all worthy points.

But perhaps the greatest shift embodied by the asana-fication of yoga is that which allowed the early modern Indian yogis to evangelize it so effectively to fellow citizens and then beyond. In the 1930s, anticolonial reformers seized upon asana as an indigenous resource for wellness, going on little but myths of the mystical longevity of ancient yogis. Over time, their movement backgrounded discussions of moksha to repurpose an esoteric and socially outcaste artform as a commodity and performance of public health. It sold like hotcakes.

They did this without the benefit of evidence-based medicine, so it’s no surprise that the biomechanics and physiological assumptions might be off, or in some cases downright dangerous.

We don’t know that much about what pre-medieval usages of physical yoga looked like. In the Gita it might have overlapped with martial arts. In the Sutras it positioned the yogi for meditation. Medieval versions are much closer and easier to study – still extant in the roaming sampradayas being researched by the daring scholars of the Hatha Yoga Project at SOAS. We do know enough to say that these are practiced in the context of renunciation. They are performed by people that hold themselves apart from industry and raising children – people who make themselves artfully “useless”, and “superbly sterile”, to use Wilde’s terms.

Bottom line: the 20th century pasted the mandate of social and political utility onto bodily movements once intended to be useful only on their own terms. What had previously been used to simply “create a mood” was now purported to nurture the good citizen. Something beautifully useless was co-opted into the stream of production.

If you’re my age and North American, you might remember seeing this modernization cycle play out in microcosm in the mid-nineties. The first Ashtanga flyers I ever saw in Toronto were stapled on utility poles on the dirty streets of Parkdale beside posters for punk bands and fetish balls. It was a natural mode of marketing for the yogis in question, many of whom were reaching out of the wasteland of clubs and drugs. Their pix fit right in. They were twisted into postures that looked as pained and doleful as the punk-goth fusion taking over the streets.

But the messaging said something that punk-goth didn’t. This is good for you. This is healthy. It may have looked weird, but unlike the fetish ball, it would cathartically lead you back to normalcy, to enlightened functionality. It was an art that promised scientific progress and moral virtue.

And here we are. Mainstream postural yoga is now a staple activity in the neoliberal project of enlightened consumerism. A way to find balance within the chaos of technocapitalism – not resist it. A way to make the body receptive amidst concrete and steel. A kind of spiritual parkour. People don’t do yoga to drop out, but to fit in. Both the gritty urban studio and body of the grungy renunciate have been gentrified. The studio avoids closure by renovating to spa standards and offering wine tastings. Ex-punks are running tech companies, and they offer yoga breaks at lunch to enhance productivity.

Where can yoga still resist the illusory tide of upward mobility, including nouveau-riche aspirations for always-better, always-more refined health?

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Before we junk the video as “unhealthy”, let’s try to understand the territory it might be exploring at the threshold between health and spirituality – the territory where modern yoga thrives.

Iyengar people will position the knee-torturing exercise of the video within a whole series of related tasks purported to “wake up” the body and imbue unknown parts — like the backs of the knees in this case — with “intelligence”, which is synonymous with “health”, via intense sensation. The teacher first says that the purpose of the posture is to subject the calf to an intense stretch. The implication is that this produces wellness. All calves need to be intensely stretched, right? But later, she says that if you feel that stretch, “you know you have a calf”. She makes wellness synonymous with awareness.

I’ve heard the same statement from a dozen such teachers. I heard it from Lindsey Clennell about the opening scene in the trailer for his upcoming homage film, “Sadhaka”. Iyengar is shown toiling over his granddaughter’s legs with straps and pieces of dowel. I asked Clennell what the guru was correcting or improving for her. How the manipulations are improving the health of her legs.

The filmmaker and devotee rejected the notion that Iyengar was correcting her. “Really what he’s doing with Abijhata is probably teaching her that she has got legs.”

(As if she doesn’t know. As if her own understanding of her legs is deficient. As if her legs would become real because her grandfather sees and disciplines them.)

Iyengar ideology is saying that until you feel the quickening strangeness of new stress in a particular region, that region is asleep. Its postural syllabus is comprehensive in the attempt to apply new stresses to every sinew. The teacher examines the student’s body for stress-free zones, and lets nothing remain asleep. The premise is that if any part of your body disappears to your awareness, you are forfeiting divine potential.

This thinking may help a ton of people who experience disembodiment all the way up to dissociation. But the body also disappears from awareness when it is doing its work perfectly well. What if my calf is absent from my executive mind because it is holding and carrying me with ease? Why would I have to seek it out, prod it, distend it? What kind of conversation do I need to have with myself? How intrusive need I be?

I can attest to these “awakening” effects from my experience of Iyengar. I did wake up to unknown parts of myself, usually along the lines of the back body. Some teachers said that “opening” the back body afforded greater access to the unconscious. I wanted that, and so I kept working until I got looser and looser in my back body, until finally I was in constant pain, which only went away when I tightened up my back chain in the gym.

There were moments of that pain, however, that prompted deep consideration about the nature of my body, its purpose, and existence itself. I wonder if there are some like me who were reluctant to give up the physical dysfunction of asana because they were unconsciously squeezing contemplation out of it.

When I was practicing, I didn’t consider the long-term effects of joint laxity via hyperextension. Hadn’t even heard the word, “hyperextension”. My assumption was that the sensation of coming to my end-range of motion, and pressing further, and waiting there, and tolerating it by down-regulating my response to it, and feeling the sunburn of it go numb — was healing. I was making an unconscious trade-off between normal mobility and a sensation that would take me beyond myself.

Maybe Iyengar made that trade-off as well. I just interviewed someone who told me that as early as 1994 (a full twenty years before he died) the guru could hardly climb stairs because his knees were in such pain. My source said he would make sure he entered the Pune yogashala last, after everyone was inside, so that students wouldn’t see him struggling up the stairs. They said in the early 2000s, he often had his knees bandaged.

Injury is isolating. It can send you deep inside and make you seem useless to yourself and others. Pain can be a doorway into pratyahara, if it shuts down every other input. As Elaine Scarry shows, it destroys cognition and language. It is a mechanism of anti-sociality. It cannot really be shared. It is the ultimate private experience. In the midst of the roaring city, or the tumult of a famous career, pain can put the body on a silent mountaintop.

Can nutritious movement offer the same thing?

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Does Iyengar yoga, or any yoga, make people any healthier than any other activity? The science to which it so often appeals may never tell us. We’ll ever establish the utility of yoga in the same way we measure the effectiveness of, say, antibiotics. Our ideas about it will always be gut ideas. It will impact us as art does, in ways very difficult to describe.

But we could try.

We could, inspired by Wilde, set these questions of progress aside to ask: What kind of mood does this video convey?

My highly subjective answer is that it evokes a mood of parental orderliness and care, somatized through discipline and stress.

Notice how satisfying it seems for the teacher to roll that mat up, perfectly. Then, the symmetry of the blocks, mirrored outwards in the alignment of mats, ropes, and of course the bodies of students, who, though all shaped differently, are homogenized by this geometrical impulse.

I had one teacher who was so horny about folding blankets they would talk about running a blanket-folding weekend immersion that everyone would have to come to before going on. We laughed and got into it as well. It was like learning how to tie a really neat tie, or earning a brownie badge for your bed-making hospital corners. It was about tidiness more than about support, or finding where the two of these merged in a regression to grade school life.

I remember how all the prop-play scratched a deep itch of groundlessness and the need to contain something. When I practiced this stuff I also had the feeling of over-cleaning, of working away a stain that threatened to darken as I rubbed. The tricky part was deciding to be satisfied when I stopped.

So it was revelatory to go to Uma Dinsmore-Tuli‘s little studio in Stroud to do yoga nidra, and see the blankets and sheepskins scattered higgledy piggledy on the floor. For her, the prop was something that was lived in. It was the mess, not something against the mess. It made me wonder about just how reactionary the Iyengar technique was for its non-Indian students. Trainloads of hippies showed up in Pune in the 70s. They traded weed for cucumber water and doffed their dungarees for the uniform shorts and t-shirts they would have worn in 1950s gym classes. They took drill-sargeant orders and folded those blankets perfectly.

In a gentler translation of Iyengar’s own monitoring, the teacher in the video checks in with everyone, constantly. She singles out the men especially, asking about their homework as if they were schoolboys. Part of the mood here is knowing you’re always being watched. Can you obey the instructions? How long can you hold that hyperextension? Can you transform a stress position into a surrender position? What do you feel as the backs of your knees loosen? What sensory combination of relief and love awaits you as you rise back up out of the hurts-so-good pose?

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Modern postural yoga is such a strange beast. It offers contemporary visions of wellness through medieval tools and rationales. It aspires to be scientific, but practitioners know its effects can’t be measured in any clinic.

Like art, it thrives on contrast and expresses paradox. Like how the quest to gain personal agency might come through devotion to precise instructions. Like how through the wish to make yourself healthy, you might discover a hidden drive to discipline yourself, punish yourself, or make yourself useless.

The old modernizers of yoga did something truly extraordinary. They promised progressive health, public health. They offered civic hope and bodily utility. Kuvalyananda invited Nehru to his lab to examine the fine young lads he was hooking up to his breathing machines. Sivananda proclaimed “Health is wealth, Peace of mind is happiness, Yoga shows the way.”

But through a mixture of biomechanical naivete and the vestiges of older yoga metaphysics, they managed to conceal within their sunny promise the booby-trap of yoga’s self-inquiry, which, as Peter Blackaby says, is not exercise, but a process of exploration without a definable goal. And how can you market that?

I’ll end here with a queer appeal to “tradition”. As the biomechanics and functional movement people plow towards perfecting the therapeutic promise of modern yoga, I hope the useless things they’re challenging don’t disappear entirely. But I also hope knee torture and stretching-fetish are transparently lauded for their useless artfulness by the Iyengar people and others who teach and practice them.

If we’re clear about their risks, perhaps we can really appreciate strange asanas for how they help us navigate the problems of existence through the tender body, how they produce nonsensical moods for contemplation, how they make us question the uses of everything, right down to the bone.

“Am I Even Teaching Yoga Anymore?”

 

“Honestly, I don’t know whether what I’m teaching is yoga anymore.”

If I had a dollar for every time I heard this sentence from the fantastically skilled yoga teachers I talk to in North America, I’d be able to afford the rent on a yoga studio in a gentrified neighbourhood.

Just joking.

But seriously. There’s a pause after they say it. Something between fear and equanimity hangs in that pause.

Here’s a composite of the speaker:

They’re a highly sensitive and generous teacher who after ten to fifteen years of practice, study, training, and teaching feels an oncoming crisis in self and cultural identity. It presents as insecurity and ambivalence along a number of yoga vectors.

They love the sensations, aesthetics, and meanings of vinyasa, but they’re increasingly aware of repetitive stress.

They love postures, but they’re also learning about functional movement. And the often-yawning gap between the two.

They have plateaued in practice several times, and have faced the question of doubling down, reframing, or changing. It’s often unclear which path to take.

They love discipline, but wonder whether they sometimes are repeating self-repressive patterns through a spiritual rationalization.

They’ve been inspired by the manic intuitions of certain gurus, but have seen the long shadows they cast.

They love serving others, but have felt the needy gaze of the student, and the nausea of discovering they are gratified by it.

They love revelations, but know how easy it is to use pleasure to dissociate.

They’re inspired by ancient wisdom literature, but they also know they’re living in a world that scripture cannot have imagined.

They cherish the feeling of a practice that transmits an essential wisdom through timeless techniques, but they’ve also read Singleton, and know it’s not that simple. (Shakes fist.)

They know they’ve benefited deeply from the solitude of self-work, but they’re queasy about yoga being mostly the refuge of a privileged class that often wants consolation more than justice. They get itchy when they hear younger teachers talk about changing the world through yoga.

They know self-regulation is essential but that it won’t address climate change or help #BLM directly.

They teach in neighbourhoods that used to feel locally vibrant. As their skills increased with age, they were able to offer richer programming. But they also had to charge more for it, because gentrification. At times they feel themselves locked into a consumerist feedback loop that is growing further and further away from the community they originally intended to serve, but which is also disappearing.

They got into yoga to feel less objectified, and it worked at first. But now they feel that gaze again.

They know that some devotees define moksha as the goal that makes yoga yoga. They’re inspired by this, but wonder what litmus tests of belief they would have to pass to really be feeling it, and how many ways there might be to feel freedom anyway.

They don’t associate their practice with religion, but the cultural appropriation discussion has made the religious roots of practice — and their love for or aversion to this — undeniable. They are aware of the colonial roots of modern yoga. They know they’re practicing something from somewhere else on land that belongs to someone else. Their yearning to honour the tradition rises in tandem with their confusion over what exactly that tradition is.

They know that therapeutic goals and transcendent aspirations can pull the limbs in opposite directions on the yoga mat.

“Honestly, I don’t know whether what I’m teaching is yoga anymore.”

Sometimes the person utters the sentence with an enigmatic smile. They seem okay with it. That’s cool.

But then there are those who seem distressed by the problem, and are wondering whether they have to quit to retain their integrity.

I feel a prickle when hear their tone. I just figured it out.

I’m thinking: But isn’t that just it?”

Isn’t practicing with equal parts of hope and doubt — along with the creativity of their friction — a movement towards freedom?

Isn’t the self-inquiry that cuts right down to the nub — about absolutely everything — exactly what you wanted?

Haven’t you grown to see the inseparability of light and shadow?

Hasn’t it been clear for years that you can’t tell where the teacher ends and the teaching begins?

Didn’t you always need to improvise the most skillful response to any given stimulus, regardless of whether you read about it or were taught it?

Wasn’t it always more about responsiveness than about tasks or goals?

Wasn’t it your uncertainty that got you here?

Did you think that was going to change?

Isn’t it true that freedom isn’t free? Not in the American sense — but that freedom with integrity depends on being deeply bound to the trouble of the world?

Maybe wondering what to name what you’re doing is a sign you’re doing that rare thing to which the sages, whoever they were, gave that provisional name.

 

 

 

When Yogis Stiffen Up And Find the In-Between

One of the richest things for me about presenting on the post-extreme-asana paradigm with Diane Bruni is listening to her describe her former capacity to tolerate and then sublimate pain while she practiced.

“You get really good at directing your mind away from pain,” she said at a recent event, “or reframing it, or feeling the cortisol and endorphins you’re releasing as pleasure.”

As she’s talking, Diane will half-gesture at some of the things she used to do and teach. At one point she begins to lift her left leg up with both hands as though she were about to put it behind her head. She gets half-way, her spine begins to flex, and she quits, laughing a bit, and sets her leg down.

And then I’m flashing back to the first time I went to her studio, probably 2005. There she was in the Mysore class, rolling effortlessly through dozens of legs-behind-the-head postures with her eyes closed, in a deep trance.

I remember watching her back then and thinking to myself: she has something, she’s discovered something. She has a space of her own. She’s free.

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“So Now What?” A brief composite of convos with yoga teachers after #WAWADIA? workshops

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When I present on the tangled history of early modern postural yoga, I detail what we know about the teaching modes at the Mysore Palace, the privations suffered by the young Iyengar, and Jois’ accounts of beatings. I ask participants to consider whether it’s possible that this colonial-era cruelty and spiritualization of pain has vibrated through yoga pedagogy ever since, given the stories of intrusion and injury and abuse coming to light, which are made less visible under the stories of healing and awakening.

I ask them to consider whether the basic premises of bodily goodness, personal agency and consent in adjustments that the broader yoga culture claims to value might in some ways be occluded by these historical echoes, especially as they blend with any unresolved sadomasochism in the personal psychologies of those who practice. I talk about becoming aware of assumptions towards bodies, and the power of projection upon and transference onto teachers, especially if they are charismatic, and especially if their physical instructions are grounded in metaphysical imperatives or anxieties.

This can all feel sticky in a room full of yoga teachers. Sometimes a participant will approach me with a troubled look while I’m packing up my gear. We’ll have an exchange that I’ve had enough times that I can offer a composite here:

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Participant: “That was a lot to take in. I teach (lineage x), and now I’m having doubts about whether or not I should.”

Me: (Oh shit.) “Um. Well, do you think the basic sensations and benefits you derive from practice will change just because you have more history on board?”

Participant: “Well, I’ll still have my practice, and its gifts.”

Me: “Totally.”

Participant: “I’ll still doing what I’m doing in the present. I know how it feels in my body. But what about for other people?”

Me: “Yeah. Yoga teachers are often taught to make subtle assumptions about what things feel like in other bodies.”

Participant: “How do we get around that? I want to be transparent about it.”

Me: “That’s hard. Have open discussions about experience with students? It really depends on class and student culture, and that’s sometimes out of your control. A lot of folks in (lineage x)  do really well at fostering it.”

[Pause.]

“It also helped me to examine my expectations for my students’ bodies. Like whether I felt gratified if they reported experiences that resonated with me, but bummed if they didn’t. That made the whole thing clearer for me.”

Participant: “Okay, but what am I supposed to do with all that?” (Points at my laptop, where all the jagged slides live.)

Me: “Um…” (fumbles with shirt).

Participant: “Well how do you deal with it?”

Me: “Lots of chocolate” (laughs).

“I mean, I’d been told that yoga is simply a good and holy thing that came from a good and holy place. I saw how that story can cover over the strange motivations and hidden wounds that I practiced with and maybe others did too. So it became an important point of inquiry in my practice, and made me wonder about the diversity of people’s experience.”

 
Participant: “So what about the adjustments? Do you think we should do them?”
 
(In the talk I described how modern yoga adjustments have changed enormously over the decades, but had originally emerged from a culture of corporal punishment. Many who hear this for the first time are shocked and wonder for a moment whether they’ve been abusing students by simply touching them. In the vast majority of cases this of course isn’t true. But considering the history, our capacity to rationalize invading the space of others, and waking up to the diversity of responses to touch must ultimately be a good thing.)
 
Me: “I don’t do (lineage x) so I don’t know.”
 
Participant: “Well what about adjustments in general?”
 
Me: “I imagine that the primary consideration is how the adjustments foster relationship between teacher and student, and that’s a totally personal thing. Some people say it’s the most important thing of all. It reaches deep into our history of needs.
 
“I do know that people who study the neurology of movement say that putting somebody into a position that they can’t get into or out of by themselves is a really bad way of teaching them how to get to that position. So on that level it would seem that adjustments — especially those that take a person deeper into a pose — would nurture dependency on the teacher.”
Participant: “But it’s so ingrained, and the students seem to expect it.”
 
Me: “And there’s a problem with implied versus explicit consent in some rooms, and whether some students who come into those rooms have diminished capacities for consent. Some teachers scoff at that problem, but the people who spend their lives studying and recovering from trauma don’t.
 
“And lots of people are still getting injured from adjustments. So there’s that.
 
“So there are some potential negatives. Then again, can that dependency and intimacy of touch be healing for some people if they experience it in an environment of trust? Absolutely. Can it transmit love and care? Absolutely.”
 
Participant: “So it really depends.”
 
Me: “I think it always did. I don’t think it wasn’t ever just good or just bad. Maybe going forward, we just turn habits into choices. Our choices to adjust and how, or not, will be more informed. In my opinion, trying to understand the complexity of our choices in regard to ourselves and others is a huge part of self-inquiry, aka yoga.
 
Participant: “So the ball’s in my court.”
 
Me: “Yeah.”
 
[Pause. A little anxious.]
 
Participant: “Um. Cool.”
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It’s at this point that again, I want to eat chocolate.

Learning About the Need for Trauma Sensitivity Is a Little Like Learning About White Privilege

 

A few days ago I critically Faceposted an infomercial featuring a Jivamukti Yoga School teacher demonstrating a series of assists on a fellow teacher as she glides through a sun salutation. Presented as appropriate for all teachers, the technique was classic Jiva, featuring hovering, intimate, near-constant touching. It was totally consistent with what’s presented in the 2014 manual Yoga Assists, co-written by Jivamukti founders Sharon Gannon and David Life along with Michael Roach.

Also consistent with the book, the video opens with and sustains a key omission. It offers no contraindications for the body-contact-heavy encounter. There is no discussion of individual needs or student consent, and no indication of any formal attention paid to the fact that touch can traumatize or re-traumatize as much as it can facilitate healing. Thankfully, unlike the book, the video doesn’t get into how the teacher should read the students chakras and use these assists to help them purify their karma.

The video may not be the best PR move for a company dealing with the fallout from a recently-settled sexual harassment lawsuit. Especially when the plaintiff claimed in an interview that the advances of the sued teacher weren’t limited to the bedroom, but also communicated through intimate adjustments in class. But the criticism in my post stayed away from all that, to focus on the simple absence of basic disclaimers.

I tried to be careful not to implicate the presenters directly. It seemed clear to me that they were doing exactly what they were trained to do. The video gave me no reason to doubt their good intentions. They were competently and artfully offering a technique that is standard across the Jivamukti platform, as many commenters confirmed. I was taking aim at the message of the presentation, not the presenters.

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“But He’s Not Erect”: Rationalizing Videos and Lies

This post might mark a shift of this blog into firmly opinion-column/commentary territory, as a lot of what I’m working on now beyond book projects is mostly higher-stakes investigative journalism, and when I publish on a corporation like Jivamukti, for example, it needs to be on a U.S. site with a U.S. server, because libel laws in Canada are pretty stiff. Here I can be sued on the premise that I’ve harmed a company’s reputation, even if the reporting is accurate. Because the major paying publications in the U.S. yoga world have turned down these articles and I have no independent liability insurance I’m grateful to Be Scofield at Decolonizing Yoga for taking them on.

I’ve published four articles on the now-settled sexual harassment case against the Jivamukti Yoga School. One about what the plaintiff actually had to say after the school essentially called her a liar, one on how JYS and other yoga groups use silencing tactics when complaints emerge (including the failure of the Ashtanga world to address the open secret of their guru’s sexual harassment), one on how the case has provoked a powerful discussion about the need for trauma-sensitivity training in yoga culture generally, and a fourth on how JYS and Michael Roach, the charismatic and controversial American Buddhist leader, exchanged both form and content from 2003 to 2012.

This post is about a side-issue that’s emerged in the online dialogue surrounding these articles.

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The Problem of Pain in Yoga

This essay first appeared in Yoga International: thank you to Kat Heagburg for editorial help. 

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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.

In fact, as Birch writes, “The interpretation of haṭhayoga as ‘violent exertion’ is, in effect, refuted by the haṭhapradīpikā (1.15), which includes exertion (prayasā) as one of the six factors that ruin haṭhayoga.”

Whether they know it or not, many modern practitioners and teachers are starting to flirt with this memory of “gentleness” more and more. Restorative practice is on the rise, and Yoga therapy is becoming a better-defined field. Yoga nidra is gaining popularity, and more practitioners have become aware of the nurturing ethos of Ayurveda. And J. Brown has coined a meme: “Gentle is the New Advanced.

But not everyone wants to ride the gentle train. Force that drives toward the edge and beyond continues to be a valued currency in the modern yoga project. One reason is the near-complete integration of asana with athletics and body-image anxiety in the global market. But deeper roots lie in the transformative ambivalence of pain psychology, the un-gentleness of early modern yoga history, and the ongoing resonance of austere elements in yoga philosophy.

Basic notes on pain psychology.

It is a counterintuitive fact that pain experienced in the relatively controlled environment of an asana class can be alluring to some practitioners. To the dissociated, it can offer re-embodiment. To the traumatized, it can offer the repetition of sensations within a scenario of greater autonomy. The pain you choose can be better than the pain that is forced upon you; you may be able to adapt to chosen pain with more clarity.

To those who had certain images emblazoned into their childhood brains—like that of the crucifixion, or of Hanuman tearing open his own chest to reveal Ram and Sita — pain might be tangled up with expressions of love or signs of enlightenment. If one was spanked as a child and told that it was for one’s own good, one may associate pain with re-admittance into the good grace of the parent.

Ariel Glucklich, a scholar of the religious use of pain, says that pain can give meaning to suffering that is otherwise difficult to express. Literary scholar Elaine Scarry emphasizes that pain transcends language altogether. It’s little wonder that pain is so easily associated with mystical experience—that mixture of the inexpressible and the silent.

If pain is one of the features of an “adjustment,” it can also become a way in which teachers and students can explore the boundaries of consent and surrender. More darkly, pain given by the hand one trusts might reframe experiences of pain delivered in betrayal. If these dynamics are unconscious, of course, teacher and student may be simply re-enacting familiar scenarios of power or even abuse.

Most responsible teachers today will caution students away from pain. They know it should be left to qualified therapists to help students explore why they might be drawn to pain. They also know they’re treading on dangerous ground if they try to interpret the meaning of pain for anyone but themselves.

Some history.

The roots of modern postural yoga are far from gentle. The early students of T. Krishnamacharya learned their art in the pressure-cooker of a hyper-masculine, anti-colonial physicalist movement. Corporal punishment was a standard mechanism of their training. The goal of waking up through asana practice was wholly subordinated to the goal of performing physical mastery through countless demonstrations that Krishnamacharya himself would later call “propaganda.”

Through my research, I’ve come to believe that this brief and violent era has resonated disproportionately through the globalized yoga body ever since. It takes the forms of performance obsession, a manic drive towards physical mastery, and the persistence of invasive adjustment techniques. A good portion of yoga pedagogy continues to carry the unacknowledged shadow of authoritarian power dynamics that largely sought to shape and discipline children’s bodies according to tense socio-political ideals. The most common—and seemingly benign—expression of this shadow is heard whenever a yoga teacher tells other bodies what they should do.

Every major advancement in global yoga pedagogy over the last fifty years — including but not limited to the therapeutic approaches of T.K.V. Desikachar, Vanda Scaravelli’s spinal-wave theory, Erich Schiffman’s “Freedom Style,” Donna Farhi’s writing on the student-teacher relationship, and the appearance of consent cards for adjustments— has emerged as either a conscious or unconscious reframing or rejection of the methods of the Mysore Palace. However, these developments remain at the fringes of mainstream yoga, which continues to be heavily influenced by the attitudes—if not the precise techniques—of Krishnamacharya’s most famous students from the 1930s.

What are those attitudes? (Two brief points on philosophy.)

Firstly, the body is viewed as the instrument of the inner self’s journey, and a sign of worthy citizenship. It is to be molded, sculpted, softened, cleansed, and purified. It is given progressive sequences, mantras, juices, herbs, purgations, and enemas. It must be continually renovated—and deconstructed—to make the inner self more visible, and the outer citizen more respectable. Pain is often rationalized as an inevitable part of this process:

“Pain is weakness leaving the body.”

“Pain is your guru.”

“Pain is real.”

These three quotes come from the three most influential yoga teachers of the post-60’s globalization period.

Point two can be grasped through the etymology of the word mokṣa: to “loosen,” “release,” or “liberate.” The word arises from millennia of literature that use metaphors of bondage to describe conditioned existence. Is it any wonder that most physical yoga practice emphasizes flexibility through the repetition of end-range motions?

The body can become strong through asana, but the embodied logic of mokṣa may, in the end, value that strength to the extent that it “unknots” the body—from the sinews to the chakras—as the very source of “attachment” to whatever essence needs to be released. This may be one place where the common notion that haṭha implies forceful action obtains its psychological currency.

Stated starkly, these attitudes may seem neither current nor attractive. But they radiate an older wisdom that contemporary fixations upon therapy, healing, and yoga vacations rarely approach:

The body is an ambivalent mystery, bound in time. It connects but separates. It throws off light by burning itself up. It is capable of confusing pain with pleasure under duress. It will become dysfunctional, it will die. It’s not surprising that attempts to improve or sanctify a body you feel might betray you can involve a certain impotent rage.

If pain is measured out by a method, experienced through the perception of consent, and narrativized as a path to realization, it can help some practitioners grapple with the existential strangeness of the body. They will likely continue to crave it.

What remains is for each practitioner to assess what the attraction to force costs over time. And perhaps to explore if and when the lessons of pain exhaust themselves to reveal a hidden memory of gentleness.

Mark Singleton Responds to Critics Who Didn’t Want to Understand His Book

An earlier version of this article first appeared in Yoga International.

 

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The 2010 publication of Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice, marked a watershed moment in the history of global asana culture.

What was the big deal? A writer equally committed to research and practice produced a work of academic scholarship so rich, accessible, and interesting it quickly broke into the non-academic reading lists of enthusiastic practitioners and top-shelf trainings in the English-speaking world.

Mark Singleton’s book sparked countless conversations about the meaning of social authenticity in a practice meant to reveal personal authenticity. It revolutionized the genetic view of yogic transmission – in which instructions are handed down unchanged across generations and postcolonial boundaries – with epigenetic considerations of cultural, historical, and technological influence.

It showed that yoga is not an artifact, but an organism, and that its teachers may be less guardians of the essential than they are curators of the useful.

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Kino’s Hip: Reflections on Extreme Practice and Injury in Asana

 

Heyam dukham anagatam.

(Pain that is yet to come can be avoided.)

Yoga Sutra II:16

 

On June 14th, Kino MacGregor posted a photo to her 782K Instagram and 264K Facebook followers. She’s in hero pose, her hands in prayer, eyes closed, on a beach. Fans would find it an uncharacteristic shot. There’s no floating movement implied, and her body is small against the wide-angled azure sky and placid sea. Her caption gives insight into the image, and why it seems to chafe her feed like an internal tear:

Yesterday while I was helping a student in Bakasana I heard a series of pops around my right hip. Then I couldn’t bear weight, walk or straighten my leg. After a visit to the doctor I still don’t have a complete diagnosis but it’s most likely a sprain of either the hamstring or the hip or both. Now the real yoga begins. I always say that pain and injury are the true teachers of the spiritual path and now it’s time for me to walk my own talk. There is a lesson is [sic] everything, especially the hard and difficult stuff. If this is a hip sprain and not a hamstring sprain then it will change my whole paradigm on what it takes to forward bend. If it’s the hamstring I’ll gain valuable knowledge on how to heal and rehab a hamstring sprain. Today’s #YogiAssignment is Wisdom. What is the wisdom that the biggest pain or obstacle in your life has to teach you? What wisdom have you gained from going through a difficult or challenging period in your life? Remaining equanimous with faith and patience through pain, injury and suffering is hard, but it is where the real inner work of yoga begins. Being strong in yoga isn’t about how long you can hold a handstand. It’s about how much grace you can contain when facing adversity.

MacGregor’s followers on Snapchat saw more of the backstory flash across their mobile screens that Saturday, and then disappear as if it had never happened.

“I put it all on Snapchat, because Snapchat doesn’t save anything,” she tells me via phone. Her enthusiasm is infectious. “I told everyone: ‘I’m at the Emergency Room. I feel like a drama queen!’

“But I knew I had to get it checked out. I had to teach the next day. I was really concerned about potential damage to the hip joint.”

The Emergency doctor in West Hartford, Connecticut, surmised a hamstring sprain and inflammation of the hip bursa, and suggested patience before proceeding to imaging. MacGregor went for acupuncture that evening at the studio she’d been teaching in for the weekend, did only restorative postures the following morning, taught another class while keeping her knee bent in forward folds, and then flew back to Miami on Sunday night.

On Monday, MacGregor saw a sports medicine doctor who took an x-ray that ruled out any hairline fracture, and suggested physiotherapy. On a walk that afternoon on Miami’s South Beach, she paused to take a photo of herself in Scorpion pose.

MacGregor’s physio is on staff at the Miami City Ballet. “She’s excellent,” MacGregor says. “She confirmed that my hamstring was pulled, but she didn’t think it was a serious tear. She said that my glutes were pulled. She checked my obturator and as much of the deep-six as she could, and she felt that they were all a little pulled.

“But then she checked my sacroiliac joint and found that the whole right plate of the sacrum had shifted and my right hip was raised, and there was a lot of compression. I thought, ‘That’s what all the popping was.’”

MacGregor has suffered yoga-related sacroiliac pain and injury in the past. It’s a common problem in the yoga world, and is widely believed to be exacerbated by seated and standing twisting postures.

“The therapist also said that there was probably inflammation around the joint capsule, and that maybe because of the impact, the head of the femur had jammed against the socket. She gave me a list of movements I should avoid, and a whole 20-minute therapeutic routine that I did with her that day. I’ve been doing it every day, before my practice. But I didn’t practice on Monday or Tuesday.”

On Tuesday, MacGregor saw her favourite massage therapist – “an energy healer who also does chiropractic adjustments” – who manipulated her sacrum back into what felt like alignment. “There were a whole series of clicks and pops around the sacroiliac joint, and these were really loud. Twenty-four hours later, there was a dramatic improvement in my whole hip area. The inflammation was down by 50%.”

By Thursday afternoon, MacGregor was back out on South Beach, having a photo taken of herself in Vasisthasana. Neither that post nor the Scorpion post make mention of the injury.

I remarked that in the Vasisthasana photo, she’s loading her injured hip.

“Yeah, but that’s a strengthening action,” MacGregor replied. “There was no strain on the hamstring. It felt good.”

 

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I’ve interviewed more than a hundred yoga practitioners about pain and injury. The acute injuries are dramatic: a hamstring tears in the moment of a harsh adjustment, or a rotator cuff rips upon the impact of leaping into an arm-balance that uses the upper arm as a brace. But there are usually pre-existing weaknesses or stresses that forecast these events, which means that sports medicine doctors and orthopedic surgeons are typically conservative when it comes to pinpointing exact moments and causes.

Even harder to definitively source are the repetitive stress injuries that creep in below the radar. I’ve interviewed several women who have sustained labral tears, for example, which first present as niggling pinches in the groin and either slowly or quickly progress to shattering pain. Many of these subjects continued to practice as their pain increased, unaware that they may be deepening a tear. Some practiced with modification, some without, but most continued with a firm belief that whatever the pain was, practice would heal it.

Then there are injuries like MacGregor’s, which are yoga-related, but don’t literally occur on the mat. MacGregor was initially firm via email. “This isn’t a yoga injury that came from my practice. It came from the impact of a student falling into me while I was assisting her.”

But when a Facebook fan asked her during an online Q&A session: “What are your thoughts on how the intensity of the practice may have contributed to your injury?” MacGregor didn’t answer.

As we spoke, however, she opened up about borderline doubts, starting with her practice habits, and by the end, winding around to the value and impact of her YouTube channel.

I asked her about the public reaction to an Instagram she posted of herself in an “oversplits” position, with her front calf and bottom shin planted on opposing chairs, and her hips dipping into the space between them. The caption reads:

Got a new assignment today from Eugene: oversplits. He says that my hips have to eventually touch the floor. What do you think? How many month with [sic] that take? @beachyogagirl and I are snapping today–are you following our snap chat stories? Kerri caught more of the crazy things we did today. Snapchat: kinoyoga Leggings @aloyoga.

“People re-posted that picture and said, ‘That’s the reason for your hip injury.’ And I thought about it, and I thought gosh, well, I don’t know…

“I had to think about whether I was pushing myself too hard in my practice, and whether that had created instability in my hip joint.

“But when I started my practice, I was really unstable. I’m not a naturally strong person. Or naturally flexible. It’s more like ‘floppy’ is my natural state. And a little clumsy. So my main emphasis in practice is the avenue of strength. Even in a flexibility posture like oversplits, I’m approaching it from strength. So I’m training with this Russian circus guy – ”

“Is that ‘Eugene’?” I interject.

“That’s Eugene! I wanted technique for advanced stretches and arm-balances. And in the yoga world, there isn’t a lot of technique around. It’s more like, ‘Don’t do it’.

“But I know I’m gonna have to do it if I’m gonna keep practicing Ashtanga. I’m working on Kroukachasana, in the Fifth Series. So let me get some technique, the way to safely support my joints. So with that oversplits, Eugene had me engaging really intensely to support my body while I was there. He didn’t let me sit there and hang. He was focusing on how to build more strength around the joint.”

There’s no doubt MacGregor is strong. She floats between arm balances and planking variations with a post-human grace that seems aided by CGI. She seems – on film at least – to have achieved the perfect physical balance of firmness and ease described in the Yoga Sutras. But no one, including MacGregor, can know whether that alchemy is stable, and for how long.

 

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Almost exactly a year ago, I reported on the right-hip-implosion of one of Canada’s first Ashtanga teachers, Diane Bruni. In 2008, Bruni tore the deep rotators off her bone in a seemingly-harmless wide-angled pose following a five-year-long regime of hip-opening, which was paradoxically recommended by her yoga mentors to treat her ongoing knee pain.

It took Bruni several years for her to come clean to herself and others about how she felt that a programme of extreme flexibility and spiritualized pain had dominated her practice and teaching ideology – and destabilized her hips by weakening her ligaments. “My livelihood depended on it”, she told me. “My studio was based on it.

“Before my injury, I used to say many of the things Kino says in the injury post and on YouTube,” Bruni writes. To illustrate, she sends me a link to “Yoga for Open Hips: Full Practice with Kino”. It’s on the Kinoyoga channel, which has 271K followers and almost 70 million views.

“I would say: ‘Notice the sensations. Notice if it hurts, it’s burning, or of it’s tight. Tell yourself it’s okay, practice surrender. Accept the pain, breathe into it. This will help you accept who you are.’

Now I wonder – what does that even mean?”

At time cue 9:25 of the video, MacGregor sinks forward over her thighs in a deep butterfly posture, and pauses in a passive stretch. “Feel that burning sensation in the hip joints,” she intones. “Nice deep inhale. Nice deep exhale.”

Bruni sighs over email. “I said all the same things.” She’s since left Ashtanga behind to learn and teach what she feels to be more functional and sustainable movement.

“I practiced and taught all these poses, which are totally inaccessible to most people. I learned the hard way. I hope I can help save at least one person the agony of my injury.”

 

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It’s unclear whether this setback will shift MacGregor’s practice in a permanent way, or be absorbed into her brand narrative, or both. Early indications suggest that the media juggernaut that projects her yoga may make it difficult for anything but business-as-usual.

Since the injury announcement, Kinoyoga instagram has been updated with over 50 photos and videos of MacGregor in advanced postures. The hip-opening clip that Bruni sent me was published on June 29th. Some critics have speculated that all of these visuals must have been shot before the injury, and have continued auto-uploading without disclaimer or warning – perhaps to fulfill endorsement contracts – as if from a virtual studio where injury is impossible.

But MacGregor says that only some photos date from prior to the injury, while most were shot on the day of posting. For instance, on July 1st, several Kinoyoga platforms unrolled a “Back to Backbends” public challenge as part of a beta-stage collaboration with @beachyogagirl Kerri Verna. Fans are encouraged to post yoga-selfies that mimic a pre-set sequence, and to click into sponsorship sites.

MacGregor tells me that all of the challenge’s backbending photos and films were shot prior to the campaign’s start – within the two-week window following the injury. “As long as I stayed away from hip rotations, I was fine,” MacGregor says. “Backbending felt really good. Arm balances were fine. Straight-line handstands – good.”

MacGregor says that she didn’t want her media platform to reflect upon her injury while she was unsure about its status. Therefore, the regular posts continued.

“I really just wanted to figure it out, to go through it, and wait until I was on the other side of it,” she says. “I wouldn’t feel comfortable saying ‘This is the physical therapy I’m using to heal’, because I wouldn’t be sure of it. Maybe after it heals I could talk about my experience and the step-by-step postures and be able to say ‘This worked’. I’d want empirical evidence that it worked, rather than just sharing it and having a whole bunch of people mimic my process.

“So I couldn’t share the physical part of the journey, but the #YogiAssignments I gave with every post that week took the flavour of exactly where I was emotionally, spiritually, and mentally.”

 

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Iain Grysak is an advanced Ashtanga practitioner and teacher stationed in Bali who I interviewed about a year ago for my project, because he emphasizes safety and moderation in practice. He seems to be one of those exceedingly rare advanced practitioners who reports no significant injuries.

“I have respect for Kino and what she does,” Grysak writes. “She gets a bad rap from part of the Ashtanga community because of her massive marketing and commercialization process. I have always respected the fact that she does it with integrity, by attempting to live the truth of what the practice means to her, as well as remaining in line with the current ‘tradition’.”

But as to the physical toll of MacGregor’s stated job of providing “a link between the pop culture of yoga and the more traditional lineage based spiritual practice,” Grysak expresses concern.

His basic contention is that this fiery method can be healthy and even therapeutic when practiced with supervision in conservative amounts. But he warns that even the most robust practitioners will hurt themselves if practice turns into a full-time profession demanding endless jet-setting, teaching, and demonstration – whether for digital consumption or “weekend intensive” formats.

“It’s not what the practice is designed for. It’s not sustainable. The striving – for deeper opening in Bruni’s case, or to give “inspiration” in MacGregor’s case – might lead people to take the practice to a place that it is just not meant to be taken if it is to remain a healthy technique.”

Grysak also says that the same teacher to whom MacGregor dedicated her recent book – Sharath Jois, grandson of Ashtanga founder Pattabhi Jois – actively discourages both the professional zeal and the mega-posture workshop-culture now par-for-the-course in the yoga world.

“Sharath is very opposed to overworking and speaks out against it regularly in Mysore. He admonishes people who go home after practice and continue to work on tough postures. He says asana practice should be done once a day, in the morning. I agree with him: get on with your life and wait until the next morning to do more asana!”

I asked MacGregor for a response.

“I would definitely agree. When I’m in Mysore, I do my practice, and then I go home and go back to bed. My body has been through a spiritual, emotional, and physical battle on levels I’m not even aware of. I’m like a soldier, no joke. I try to avoid talking to other people afterwards, because I’m in this sensitive, other world.

“But in Mysore there’s really nothing else to do. So after I sleep, the rest of the day is like ‘Do you wanna drink coconuts, or do you wanna go get lunch?’”

“I have to admit” – I can hear a sly grin over the phone – “when I leave Mysore, I’m a bad Ashtangi. It’s not possible for me to keep up that kind of intense discipline. I practice six days a week, but I do not kill myself. I practice in a calm manner that gives space to my body and how I’m feeling that day. I’ll do the practice my teacher has given me, but I will not force. I’ll give myself little outs. That’s taken me a long time to get to that chilled-out place.

“So I totally agree. I wouldn’t be able to sustain traveling and teaching and making a few videos in the afternoon if I was practicing like in Mysore.”

 

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MacGregor has periodically faced doctrinal and pragmatic critique from within her subculture head-on. But she also faces scientific pushback from the wider movement-studies field. Opposition to the assumed benefits of flexibility-focused and repetitive-motion exercise is growing – most loudly against the passive stretching that might not be part of the Ashtanga method per se, but which MacGregor and others promote as preparatory for the deeply contortionistic postures of its advanced series.

Most of the biomechanics specialists, kinesiologists, neurologists and orthopedic surgeons I’ve consulted in my research are deeply skeptical of the borderline-mystical theories of stretching handed down through pre-modern yoga therapeutics. This new consensus is overturning popular notions of bodily alchemy that echo through sources ranging from medieval to New-Age to high-end-spa-speak.

Pattabhi Jois was fond of the adage, “With enough heat, even iron will bend”. But this new rationalist yoga discourse imposes clearer limits upon the aspirational body, insisting that muscles do not get “longer”, and pain is not an “opening” – except in a pathological sense. The primal dream of bodily transformation through “being worked into a noodle”, as Jois student Annie Pace described it, is being eclipsed by the simpler goal of enhancing a natural range of motion for functional movement.

Jules Mitchell, who works to incorporate the most recent data on the science of stretching into yoga studies, is unequivocal: “The yoga community has been dangerously obsessed with tissue distention,” she writes via email.

Interviewed for her blog by Ashtangi Tracey Mansell, Londoner Osteopath Jamie Andrews adds: “Prolonged exposure to progressive stretching can eventually lead to ligamentous laxity and joint hypermobility, increasing the risk of muscular injuries, ligamentous injuries, joint dislocation and reduced proprioception.”

But Pattabhi Jois wasn’t just referring to muscles and ligaments when he used the word “iron”, even though the body was his teaching instrument. For Jois, physical possibility on a gross level provided access to a subtler spiritual possibility. As almost all of his senior students recall, he was constantly speaking to the deeply conditioned wounds of the human psyche, clad in the iron of defensive self-concepts.

“Pain is good,” MacGregor quotes Jois as saying of the process that “releases” spiritual rigidity. If Jois’ terrifying postural adjustments are nauseating to the movement specialists of today, it’s in part because they don’t understand the premise that he was wrestling through stubborn tissues to get at his students’ souls.

 

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With regard to the general meaning of the human body, Kino MacGregor is faithful to Jois’ path. In video and print, she speaks of using postures to “access” the hips, the interior space of the pelvis, the inner body, and the heart (not the cardiac muscle, but the emotional centre). For Jois and MacGregor, the body is a container to be opened and purified, and pain is a necessary sign of progress. “Practicing six days a week,” MacGregor writes, “accelerates the rate at which you experience the pains that purify weakness and stiffness, as well as the rate at which you experience the purified result of more strength and flexibility in the body and mind.”

I asked MacGregor how she and her students distinguish from the spiritually necessary pain that she seems to be describing in her book, and the pain that indicates injury. She affirmed the difference between acceptable delayed-onset muscular soreness and pain that is to avoided: joint pain, or pain within practice that makes the yogi wince.

But the longer part of her answer detoured back to the ideal spiritual attitude the yogi should have towards the injury that’s already happened.

“When you’re injured, you have to ask ‘Am I really going to do Marichyasana C, or am I going to let my hip joint heal?’ In my case, I’m going to let my hip joint heal. Does that annoy me? Sure. But it’s my ego that’s hurting. So then that is the tapas. That is the real teacher. That’s more yoga than just going in and hammering out the asanas.”

The circular argument that MacGregor transparently makes is so hard to understand, it seems to validate the adage that yoga cannot be conceptualized. Pain is described as a necessary spiritual tool in a practice that claims to heal the body and ego and free the person from all limitation. But if you have too much pain, or the wrong kind, you’re courting injury. No-one wants that.

Or do they? If too much pain does injure the yogi, the bright side is that renewed focus upon bodily healing may hurt the ego as it contemplates its new limitations. This is ultimately good news, because, as MacGregor says, “the real yoga is the burning up of the ego”.

The more rationalist approach, larded with biomedical jargon and devoid of MacGregor’s poetic paradox, may never capture the hearts of truly devotional practitioners. Kinesiology doesn’t turn the body into a vehicle for spiritual lessons best learned through fire. Jois may have called his Primary Series “Yoga Cikitsa” or “Healing for the Body”, but his esoteric paradigm for health, quite distinct from contemporary biomedical goals, includes the capacity to commune with pain and to embrace the inevitability of injury as proof of the omnipresent Divine.

Senior students I’ve interviewed have insisted that the late Jois didn’t invite them into his shala to help them avoid the fear of pain and death, but to encounter it fully, and face it down with the same steady gaze and even breath with which he performed his ritual fire offerings every morning.

 

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Neither the Kinoyoga YouTube channel nor The Power of Ashtanga Yoga carry disclaimers, warnings, or contraindications for the postures MacGregor teaches. I asked her whether if in the shadow of this injury she might consider changing this, or altering her instructions to offer more protection against the growing trend of joint destabilization. She’s tiptoed around the question before.

“Well I’m not feeling that great about my YouTube channel, to be honest,” she replied. “It seems to have become a place where men come to talk about about my feet or my butt.

“So I’m currently renovating it. I’m changing the focus to shorter, more friendly practice routines, and then a weekly video blog about what I think it means to be a yogi in the world.

“I have to admit I’m not a perfect teacher. I’ve probably made numerous mistakes, and left out key information numerous times. I don’t have any plans for adding disclaimers or contraindications, but I’d definitely consider that in the future.”

I pivoted to the issue of a different kind of safety.

“Do you think the trolling on your channel makes it an unsafe space for your intended audience?”

(There have been 12 million viewers for her video of Supta Hasta Padangusthasana, most of whom seem drawn over by the thumbnail from fitsploitation channels that produce soft porn faux-yoga for ad revenue. The clip has earned over 1500 comments, most of which are sexually harassing.)

“Gosh, I hope not. When some guy says I have sexy feet, I think ‘Whatever.’ But the mean-spirited stuff – the misogynistic and racist stuff – that’s part of why I’m renovating the channel. In the new videos I’m wearing leggings, speaking slower, and the angles are PG-13, 100%. The intention is to keep it mild-mannered. My hope is that one of these videos will become my most popular. That will mean that people are coming back to the practice.

“Would you consider deleting abusive comments and banning users?” I asked. “It might be another full-time job, but….”

“I would consider it, but I’m also concerned about the boundaries of free speech in a public forum like YouTube. But anything racist and misogynistic – I’ll keep an eye out for it with these new videos, and I’ll definitely consider blocking users who cross a line.”

Amongst MacGregor’s non-troll fan base, a few commenters on the injury photo have offered her friendly but imaginative healing advice. They tell her she should take raw garlic to battle the parasite infection that will now invade her hip. They tell her to be mindful of the effects of Saturn, or to determine which chakra is causing her acute pain. One dreamy supporter suggested that MacGregor discover which past memories were tightening her hamstrings.

But by and large, MacGregor’s following has flooded her channels with less intrusive wishes for a full recovery.

So have her esteemed colleagues in the Ashtanga community. Eddie Stern, founder of the iconic Ashtanga Yoga New York, commented by email, “I think it was very brave of Kino to post about her injury, and share it with her following.

“I hope that she didn’t do anything too serious,” Stern continues. “And I hope that her recovery is quick. She will probably gain some insights that she can pass along to her students and social media fans that they will perhaps benefit from.”

 

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Elsewhere, lesser-known yogis riding the media wave that MacGregor has churned are also coming clean about the painful faultline between practice and performance.

Twenty-three year-old Instagram yogi Irene Pappas (@fitqueenirene, 476K followers), is now practicing with one arm only to protect her arm-balance-aggravated necrotic wrist bones, which may never be able to bear weight again. Another Instagram yogi, @blue_yagoo (21.5K followers), reports on being removed from her home via stretcher after tearing her trapezius muscle, following a period of intense practice.

She posts: “I was ‘listening to my body’ intently the same way I had a thousand times before, and I STILL assessed the situation incorrectly.

“The paramedic asked me how I got into my predicament as I was lying on the stretcher. I tried explaining the asana verbally, which only rendered confusion. So I showed him the photo.

“His eyebrows shot up. ‘Yep. That’ll do it.’”

 

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photo of Kino MacGregor by Tom Rosenthal

Remski Site Ad-01

 

Five Easy Ways to Derail a Conversation About Yoga Safety (King and Queen Followup #1)

First published in Yoga International. Several ideas in this article first appeared here.

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So what happens when you publish a nuanced analysis of the safety of headstand and shoulderstand in global studio-based yoga culture, featuring the voices of five qualified commentators?

  1. You get a lot of views.
  2. You provoke a lot of emotions.
  3. Several classic ways of derailing an uncomfortable topic are instantly revealed.
  4. Emotions + derailments = repeat number one.

The response to “King and Queen No More?” was voluminous, spread over a thousand threads, and expressed in at least a dozen languages. It’s difficult to analyze, but in my own unscientific survey, the sentiments seemed equally divided.

 

On the positive side, many readers appreciated the biomechanical deconstruction of two iconic poses. They wrote of their reticence around their own qualifications to practice or teach them safely in group settings. They felt that the ambivalence of skilled anatomists on the issue of cervical load-bearing activity—whether it’s appropriate at all, as well as how much is appropriate, for how long, and for whom—meant that the poses are better left on the shelf, especially if alternatives are available. Finally: Many expressed relief that the very poses they correlate with their pain or injury are now drawing closer scrutiny.

On the other side, many commenters re-pledged their allegiance to the King and Queen, and wrote of their gratitude for the many blessings they bestow. Some decried the micromanagement of the discourse by posture-crats who are losing sight of yoga’s larger purpose. Some lambasted the specter of yoga-teacher-as-helicopter-parent. Some argued for personal responsibility over bubble-wrapping each student against the precious chance of transcending fear and limitation. In the end, many detractors settled on the permissive side of the risk/benefit question, unconvinced that the cautions of Miller, Mitchell and Theoret carried sufficient weight to justify Leena Cressman’s decision to remove the postures from her studio’s classes.

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