The crowdfunding stage for WAWADIA – What Are We Actually Doing in Asana? raised an incredible $32,921. My heartfelt thanks to all contributors. Publication is set for September 12th, 2016 [See update below!]. The prospectus is here.
Update: May 14, 2016
Dear WAWADIA supporters –
I’m writing on the cusp of a much-needed pause in book-brewing as my partner Alix and I await the arrival of our second child within the next week or two. I’ve finished up my teaching engagements until September, and have nothing on the docket but gardening and nesting (and one on-line course). I’ll be going completely offline for a while, soon.
The break marks a threshold, as I take stock of how this patchwork of research and storytelling fits together – even whether it will occupy one volume, or several. To date, I’ve compiled over 200 interviews, absorbed a lot of the relevant popular and academic literature, and produced hundreds of pages of manuscript.
Limiting my research is proving to be one of the toughest obstacles. Hardly a week goes by without my hearing from several practitioners who want to share their injury stories. The narratives are paradoxical and poignant, telling of therapeutic needs confounded by magical thinking, and spiritual aspirations hijacked by power imbalances and outright cruelty.
Of course, it’s been like this from the start of the project more than two years ago: a relentless and heartrending stream that could easily fuel a potboiler of disillusionment and outrage. For a while, that’s the path I beat with this book, crafting the voice of a crusader.
But crusaders need solutions, and solutions need data. That’s where I ran into quicksand.
Data on yoga injuries is hard to collect. Shame and cognitive dissonance confound the self-reporting process – not to mention marketing pressures and the absence of accountability structures in the modern studio model. And while many of my senior teacher informants predict an epidemic of repetitive stress injuries cresting as enthusiasts practicing since the 1990s slam into middle age, it seems that the official incidence rate remains low. What’s a crusade without solid numbers?
Then there’s the fact that mining any given injury story for a causal link to asana can be almost impossible. Those disillusioned with practice may attribute injuries to specific movements or adjustments, but devotees rarely do. The orthopedic surgeons who actually repair rotator cuffs and labral tears refuse to assert causes. They know too much about pre-existing conditions. They’re too well-versed in the variations of tissue damage and patients’ response to it to indulge in speculation.
Even when good data linking specific practices to potentially adverse effects emerge – as in recent studies on loading the cervical spine in headstand and core temperature elevation in hot yoga – devotees are often unmoved. Scientific discourse is not their idea of kirtan. It’s understandable: so many of us have taken refuge in the mat to find the world beyond the mind. And for some, repetitive stress is a fair price to pay for a ritual that brings the stability of faith.
So: the data on yoga injuries is scant, unclear, and can be unconvincing to those who view practice more through the lens of personal transformation than that of public health. Plus, digging for data pushes the conversation into the politics of industry regulation. This can be a valuable discussion, but it carries the cost of framing injury in yoga practice as a technical problem of percentages to be completely fixed through better biomechanics training or better business practices.
It’s not. It’s something much more. Injury in asana provides a window onto the paradoxes of spiritual desire. It spotlights perpetually conflicted views of the body caught between transcendence and acceptance. It reveals the primal ways in which intimacy and violence can blend in relationships between teachers and students.
Crusading against yoga injuries feels noble and wins clicks. But it can also set the crusader up to wield a different type of power imbalance. It can fetishize the anxious stalemate of “Now what do we do?”, while deepening the divide between the disillusioned and the devoted, who often share more than they recognize.
What they share is becoming more and more of my focus, sharpened with the benefit of valuable feedback from readers and workshop participants over the past year. I’ve toned down the crusade in order to plumb the narrative richness of the dynamics of injury, not with the illusion that it can be eliminated, but to better understand the shifting meanings we give to pain. In this way my research is increasingly focused on the following concerns:
First: our practice is an enthralling mixture of tradition and innovation, vitalized and complicated by the confusion of goals from entirely different eras. Modern global yoga constitutes an attempt to reconcile, within the body, premodern transcendent drives with modern therapeutic drives. The famous “edge” that we are invited to contemplate on the mat is where these two aspirations clash. Any discussion of injury in asana practice has to acknowledge that asana invites us to both nurture ourselves and to pull ourselves apart.
Secondly: the easy-to-identify contributing factors to injury on the mat– postural idealization and intrusive adjustments, to name but two – are not degenerations of the globalizing era, but integral to the very roots of modern asana instruction. Most early 20th century asana evangelists were educated in high-pressure environments demanding constant demonstration policed by corporal punishment. The somatic tensions of these shalas echo still, both in studio environments that foster unhealthy power differentials, but more subtly in the laws of visual performance through which practice is marketed and practitioners’ bodies are both evaluated and objectified. I argue that we won’t even approach understanding adverse effects in asana practice until we really grapple with this difficult history.
Thirdly: recent evolutions of asana practice have occurred most dramatically through a series of responses to the performance-based patriarchal structures of the last century. Beneath the official account of heroes and their methods lies an alternative history of conscious or unconscious rejections of what has come before. This has become crystal clear for me in through many interviews, including those with Erich Schiffmann and Donna Farhi about how they left the Iyengar world.
Lastly: “What Are We Actually Doing in Asana?” needs to account for how the “we” changes through time. I can’t count the number of interview subjects who have found a practice to be medicinal at first, but poisonous over the long term. This brings up all kinds of subtleties in the field of change management, highlights the tensions between disciplined and spontaneous learning, and shows devotion and disillusionment to be two sides of the same developmental coin.
It won’t surprise you, I hope, when I say that the September release date I projected during the campaign is now overly ambitious. Stretching the timeline will help me produce the best book I can, but it will also allow me to absorb two other crucial works due out soon. Elliot Goldberg’s The Path of Modern Yoga: The History of an Embodied Spiritual Practice is forthcoming in August. And the Roots of Yoga: A Sourcebook from the Indian Traditions is forthcoming from Jim Mallinson and Mark Singleton in January. I’ll be reviewing them for my blog. I expect both to be culture-changers.
I hope my sporadic updates reveal a book coming together like yoga itself works: rarely in straightforward fashion.
Upcoming online Ayurveda course: https://empoweredyoga.ca/classes/ayurveda-online-training/.
Largest study of yoga injury incidence rates to date: http://www.ijoy.org.in/article.asp?issn=0973-6131;year=2012;volume=5;issue=2;spage=92;epage=101;aulast=Penman.
Grace Bullock’s review of the UofTexas study on cervical loading in headstand: https://www.yogauonline.com/yogau-wellness-blog/headstand-and-neck-safety-yoga-what-you-need-know.
ACE’s study on core temperatures in hot yoga: https://www.acefitness.org/acefit/expert-insight-article/47/5384/ace-study-examines-effects-of-bikram-yoga-on/.
Joel Kramer, coining “the edge” in 1977: http://joeldiana.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/ANewLook_72.pdf.
Eric Shaw’s excellent biographical review of Iyengar: https://www.academia.edu/21443879/Seizing_the_Whip_B._K._S._Iyengar_and_the_Making_of_Modern_Yoga.
Elliot Goldberg’s forthcoming: http://books.simonandschuster.ca/The-Path-of-Modern-Yoga/Elliott-Goldberg/9781620555675.
Singleton and Mallinson, forthcoming: http://www.amazon.com/Roots-Yoga-Jim-Mallinson/dp/0141394447.
Reports and meditations on desire, pain, injury, and healing (the story so far…)
Here’s a little personal background for this book project.
I’ve been teaching asana since 2002. I’ve owned two studios in radically different places: rural Wisconsin, and downtown Toronto. From 2006 to 2010, I served as co-founder of Yoga Festival Toronto, which brought me into touch with hundreds of yoga teachers and dozens of yoga studio owners. I’ve been an Ayurvedic practitioner since 2005, and have worked with over a thousand clients. I’m pretty familiar with a broad range of the “yoga demographic.”
Throughout all of this time, I’d heard many colleagues and clients recount stories of injuries – both physical and emotional – sustained in asana classes. In fact, I can’t remember anyone describing an injury-free experience in asana. (In the course of the present research, I have met one. She’s exceptional, and I’ll be describing her experience in detail in the eventual book.) The obvious benefits of asana have always been well-reported throughout my social circle, as they are in yoga media. Injuries, however, have been spoken of in whispers.
For years, I was concerned, but not concerned enough. For the most part I believed that injuries were the result of poor instruction on the part of the teacher, or overwork on the part of the student. I used this half-baked rationale to simply divide the yoga world into people who “got it”, and people who didn’t. It took me a long while to realize that even well-instructed poses, executed mindfully, could also be injurious. It also took me years to give up on the default belief that the claim “yoga is for everybody” meant that the basic syllabus of Modern Postural Yoga (MPY) is essentially therapeutic. It’s actually not. It vastly overemphasizes mobility over stability, to take just one example. This has serious consequences not only for people’s bodies, but for how they relate to the world in general.
I have come to see this as having political implications. As one of my interview subjects, the filmmaker Mike Hoolboom said:
Slavoj Žižek noted recently that the New Economy requires flexible workers. He was referring of course to multiple employers, migrating job sites, the abolition of weekends. But couldn’t this also be read as a call for more yoga? I can see the boardroom heads already nodding yes. “And let’s put in a meditation room for the overachievers while we’re at it!” Žižek’s riff made me wonder if there wasn’t a fit between yoga’s newfound popularity and the rise of globalized capitalism.
So a number of realizations accumulated over the years. Firstly, I started paying much closer attention to stories students told about being injured by invasive adjustments. A few of my clients painted scenes of such negligence and even cruelty that a few times I felt compelled to suggest they consider legal action. I wasn’t happy about that suggestion, because it drove home the point that we really have no feedback mechanisms within yoga community at large. Teachers can injure students directly, not realize it, be protected from feedback by their own charisma, and believe for years that not only is everything fine, but that they’re doing good public service.
Secondly, I started getting clear on my own lack of knowledge. I’d accumulated thousands of hours of practice and training, and had been certified in Yoga Therapy (before the recent spate of IAYT upgrades), but quickly found that this didn’t come close to equipping me with the real biomechanics data that I needed to assess and help clients avoid and manage injuries. I did my best to remain clear about my scope of practice, which was definitely shrinking. Meanwhile, I saw other asana teachers continue to over-reach their training, offering advice that was medical in nature — or, in the psychological sphere, interventions that really required formal training. This, combined with reports from the Wild West of adjustments, gave me strong reservations about the whole project.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing I started to notice about the injury stories was that the vast majority of folks seemed to blame themselves for their pain. They didn’t blame their teachers, nor the instruction they’d received, nor the social environments that might have contributed to their overwork and repetitive stress. “I was acting out of ego” was and is the most standard reason a yogi gives for having been injured. Philosophically and psychologically, this is actually too vague to have much meaning at all, beyond “It’s my fault alone.” Somehow, yoga culture has either indoctrinated this default response, or capitalized upon it, to effectively avoid collective scrutiny.
By 2009, I began to withdraw from asana instruction bit by bit to concentrate on writing and teaching Ayurveda and philosophy. At the same time, it seemed that a whole new wave of biomechanics-in-yoga specialists were hitting the scene: Paul Grilley, Leslie Kaminoff, Suzi Hately, Jill Miller, and the many others that followed them. They each brought unique and novel skills into the yoga sphere. Listening to just a few lectures made me realize that the tools I’d received throughout my training weren’t enough for me anymore. Or rather: they relied on a different, older paradigm – I’ll call it the “pranic model” of wellness – which didn’t focus upon functional, pleasurable, sustainable movement that would facilitate contemplation and lowered reactivity in everyday life, but rather abstract ideals of “alignment” that were meant to purify, re-organize, or even redesign the body by allowing prana to flow freely. The pranic model was a valuable guide for me, in some ways, as it has been for others throughout the ages. But it has limitations, the primary one being its reliance on intuition.
What Are We Actually Doing in Asana? really took off through the coalescence of four events. First came the endlessly rich conversations I had with my wife Alix, also a yoga teacher, at our kitchen table while she was pregnant with our son. She’d reduced her class load in her third trimester, and was able to step back a bit and examine some of her own injury experiences from a new perspective. It was a time in which we were both somewhat divested from teaching, and it allowed us both to consider the broader picture of what asana meant to us and our immediate culture, without worrying primarily about how this would impact our livelihoods.
Secondly, I was speaking with my friend and co-author Scott Petrie. He’s completing his training to become a psychotherapist. We were talking about why people persist in asana, even when they strongly suspect or even know that it is injuring them. (Repetitive stress is a main cause of yoga injury.) He said: “Well, if you wanted to hurt yourself, yoga would be a socially acceptable way to go about it.” This opened my eyes to something I’d long suspected but never articulated: because pain has different meanings for everyone, we really don’t know how other people relate to it. Some people may have a need for it, whether it’s to punish themselves, or to allow themselves to pierce a kind of numbness, or to even recreate a trauma in what they believe is a safer environment that allows for a different resolution.
Thirdly, I was speaking to an elite asana practitioner/teacher at a festival. I said to him: “You do some pretty extreme postures. Do they ever hurt?” He said: “Sometimes I think so. But often I’m not sure if my body is telling me the truth.” This further deepened my wonderment about the subjectivity of pain, and it severely problematized that old nugget of yoga safety: “Listen to your body.” Some people are listening to their bodies through trust issues or agendas that have little to do with safe, sustainable growth.
Lastly, for about two years after my public asana teaching wound down, I realized I had been trying to heal a very painful hamstring attachment tear by actually stretching it. How is this possible? After all of my training and exposure, how did I not know how to handle this very basic injury? No teacher had ever told me to simply rest. The solution to yoga injury was always more yoga. I had so sheltered myself from the “unyogic” world of secular movement/fitness practice that I’d never even heard of the principle of cross-training. And I just wasn’t inclined to look outside of the pranic model of injury for a diagnosis or help.
More strangely, at a certain point I realized that I wanted to feel that pain for some reason. Part of me enjoyed it. It had become a neurotic focus. I psychologized it. It became a symbol of the “knot of me”. I felt that if I could resolve this painful material contraction, it would unpack something primal and foundational in myself. Resolving it meant working at it, working on it. Always working to improve – as in everything else in the rest of my somewhat anxious life.
So here the backstory in short form: over many years, I collected numerous contexts for yoga injury. I noted an element of poor biomechanical training. I noted magical thinking. I noted trends of socialization towards pushing and attaining that play on widespread fears of inadequacy. I noted teachers who project their needs and anxieties and rage onto the bodies of their students. And I noted the mystery of our own ambivalent relationships to pain.
In January of 2014, I posted a request to the yogis of Facebook to contact me with their stories of injuries sustained through yoga. I was instantly flooded with responses. I received so many long, very personal emails telling incredible stories of pain, injury, confusion, and long journeys of healing.
Many of my correspondents told stories about receiving injurious adjustments from teachers. I quickly realized the legal implications of collecting and reporting these accounts. I made the decision at the time to anonymize the data they gave me, redacting from it names, places, studio names, and yoga events. I’m not an investigative journalist, and I hadn’t gotten into this to establish court-ready narratives about who did what to whom. And it was not my intention to expose individual instances of poorly informed teaching, invasive adjustments, or teacherly grandiosity. In my view, these are epidemic within the culture, and there’s little use in pointing fingers and potentially ruining individual careers through hearsay. It is much better in my view to create a relatively neutral public record that today’s practitioners can simply bear witness to, and use to create a smarter culture moving forward. (Of course it can’t be entirely neutral, because I am personally invested in these stories. I can only promise to do my best to be open about where my own investments lie.)
The difficult thing about citing anonymous sources is that it puts my credibility into question. After all – I could be making all of this up. My hope is that I include such a spectrum of voices in the presentation of the data that it would feel very unlikely that it was coming from a single source or agenda. I also hope that the stories I choose are resonant enough with the general reader that their authenticity will be obvious. But to protect myself against the possible accusation of fictionalizing, I’m keeping meticulous records of every interview (video-recorded and transcribed, or via email) that will prove the authenticity of the data – while preserving its anonymity – in any potential legal action. If I am accused of fictionalizing, I will not hesitate to sue to prove I am not. My interview subjects have given too much to this project to have their stories libeled as fantasies. I’m doing this work so that we can take them seriously.
Having said all of this, there may be instances in which outright naming of specific actions committed by truly public figures might be illuminating enough – and worth the work of corroborating – that I’ll end up going in that direction. There are many difficult considerations here, the main one being how many readers would be alienated by journalism they perceive as attacking their guru. I’ll be asking the advice of many colleagues on this point, and won’t decide lightly either way.
Some of my interviewing will not be presented anonymously, or redacted, because it’s less about personal experience, and more about the expertise of the subject. In researching yoga injuries, I’ve reached out to physiotherapists, osteopaths, sports medicine doctors, clinical psychologists, yoga scholars, and other practitioners for their valuable outsider’s input. I’m happy to name these specialists, and they’re happy to be on record.
Three more things of note: I do not consider myself an asana expert, but rather an earnest student and almost-former teacher whose hubris has been sharply deflated. I don’t come at this project with any commitment to any method. At this point I value safety, transparency, sustainability, and empathy in instruction. Personally, this project is about sniffing these qualities out — and the obstructions to them. Secondly, some have accused me of unfairly targeting or bashing particular methods or lineages. While it’s axiomatic that practices focusing on physical intensity will yield a higher injury rate and create more visible examples, it is not my intention to single anyone or anything out. I’m describing a broad cultural problem, and I pledge to be an equal-opportunity critic. Lastly: it is not my direct focus, but I aim to close the eventual book with the most positive stories I can find, from those teachers and students who I believe are elevating the quality of yoga education for a new era.
I’ve created this page as a resource centre for the articles that have emerged from this project so far, and for readers to be able to quickly capture the overall scope of the project. I invite you to read, and comment, and share with whoever you think might be interested in this project.
This page is also a nod to the public evolution of this book. We live in an amazing time, in which research and stories can be shared and commented upon by a wide range of stakeholders with unprecedented speed. I began this project in the painful silence of my own body and mind, but it’s only coming to life through conversation. I thank you for participating.
Please let me know if you have questions, concerns, or stories to share through the contact page of this website.