No Magic to Protect You in “Wild Thing”, And No Magical Way in Which Yoga Changes the World /// Plus We Heart Be Scofield

 

Nugget: The claim that Wild Thing can be done safely might involve the same wishful/magical thinking as the claim that yoga and meditation will automatically “shift consciousness”, whether individually, communally, or “vibrationally”. Both claims seem to depend upon overlooking concrete material conditions in favour of nurturing faith in vague metaphysical principles. Concrete material conditions demand specific learning objectives. If yogis want to be smart on the biomechanics front, yoga needs physios, osteos, neurologists and kinesiologists. If yogis want to be at all relevant on the cultural front, yoga needs anti-oppression educators and activists.

[dropcap]W[/dropcap]ith the help of an anonymous interview subject, I presented in my last post a thorough biomechanical critique of what “Wild Thing” forces the supporting shoulder joint to do. The short story is that the safe execution of the pose would demand the protraction of the scapula while it’s increasingly pinned into a retracted position. For the vast majority of practitioners this will pry the humeral head forward and gradually or acutely injure one or many of the muscles that hold this beautiful and vulnerable joint together.

For those of you who are not life-long vegetarians – remember what it’s like to separate a chicken leg from the thigh? How that juicy twisting and pulling loosens the meat to the point where the gristle underneath gives way? For the non-elite-athlete, doing Wild Thing can be a lot like doing that to your shoulder, but with no sauce. The problem is that many of us find the pose as tasty as that chicken it’s so fun and slightly gross to rip apart, which is where the paradox comes in. Do we want to do poses that sacrifice our meat because they give a rush? If so, we join a venerable line of hatha yoga mortifiers-of-the-flesh, and that’s fine. But we can’t claim that we’re doing something inherently healthy or therapeutic. Continuing this claim invokes the wishful thinking that distorts yoga’s value as a tool of inquiry. But that’s marketing for you.

What I’ve done with Wild Thing isn’t all that different from Leslie Kaminoff’s astute commentary on the “Lotus Dilemma” in which he explains the borderline-impossible nature of Padmasana. Kaminoff shows that lateral torsion during the placement of the second knee (if you’re helping it along with your hands) is almost unavoidable, and will most likely lead to medial ACL or meniscus damage.

 

I’ve spent plenty of time forcing myself into Padmasana, and now I know precisely why it was never safe. Thankfully, I stopped doing it about ten years ago. I was doing it because I was told that it was the best posture for seated meditation, and I believed it. There was no discussion of knee health. One teacher said “If your bottom leg falls asleep, that’s okay, let it – just don’t get up too quickly or you might break your ankle.” All I can say now is WTF.

Implicit in the Lotus-encouragement I received was that the power of the posture to aid meditation overrode any potential risk to the knee, because the meditation itself would eventually help me transcend all muscle and gristle, and would eventually build a new knee out of rainbows. I’m actually not making that up. When I think of how cray-cray this sounds now I have to remember that it’s a standard claim in both the Tantric Buddhism and Hatha Yoga I have practiced: through spiritual realization, the material body will be remade as something blissful and invulnerable. I’m beginning to see this attitude as a microcosm of the naïveté that believes that the inner growth of individuals or their communities will necessarily renew a burning world.

These many years later, I’m still taken aback by the fact that this most iconic of postures, enshrined globally and throughout history as the sine qua non of yogic meditation, is biomechanically impossible or at least dangerous for most human beings – even someone as slender and flexible as the model in Kaminoff’s talk. What does this mean? I remember gazing at Tibetan thangkas of buddhas and saints in Padmasana.  They were so serene: their limbs were as malleable as molded butter. But in the human realm of functional movement, fantasy is trumped by the brute calculations of torque.

[dropcap]I[/dropcap] haven’t seen anybody argue with Kaminoff on Padmasana. Likewise, in the more than 1K responses to my Wild Thing post on social media, no one that I have seen has offered a substantial rebuttal to the biomechanics of the pose as I presented them. Some have reasonably noted that the relative danger of the pose depends upon the hypermobility (or lack thereof) of the practitioner. One commenter suggested it may be possible to be safe in the pose if the practitioner prepared with very focused conditioning, and managed to keep their torso above their supporting shoulder, although it’s unclear to me how that would solve the rotational problem. Another commenter, a physical therapist, said that scapular retraction does not decrease stability on the load-bearing shoulder. I don’t see how that can be true, but I’m confident that these quibbles don’t ding the bulk of my argument. Saying that Wild Thing is “impossible” is an overstatement, but one I use to make a more general point about the multiple paradoxes embedded in modern yoga.

More importantly, many commenters – some of them teachers who may understandably want to avoid the shame of having taught something dangerous, or who want to justify continuing teaching it without rebooting their biomechanics understanding – simply offered deflections of the difficulties raised or magical work-arounds.

One type of deflection denies that Wild Thing is an asana at all, or that it’s “ego-driven”, or that it’s otherwise dismissable through its relationship to “bullshit artists” like John Friend. I find this weak. Appealing to some non-existent authoritative syllabus of poses from which to exclude Wild Thing doesn’t change the fact that thousands practice it with gusto as part of their yoga. Tarnishing it through association with John Friend ignores the fact that Friend, whatever you think of him, added some excellent memes to general asana vocabulary at a moment in history that ushered forth a burst of very positive yoga creativity.

The other common deflection says: “any asana can hurt you if you don’t do it mindfully”. Sure. But this diminishes the fact that we now have clear evidence that asana danger expresses along a continuum, and that particular asana tasks must be approached with extreme caution, and perhaps not at all. Anything that asks the cervical spine to bear more weight than the skull would be a good example. While good propping with blankets might help a bit, no amount of mindfulness will protect the cervical spine from the compression of shoulderstand.

The darkest aspect of this deflection is that it blames the victim. I.e.: if you get injured in Wild Thing or any other pose, you weren’t mindful enough. Never mind that the very powerful/charismatic person at the front of the room told you to do something without enough biomechanics training to back him up. It’s your own shoulder, your own practice, and your own damn fault. The ecstasy and the agony are yours and yours alone. Neoliberalism on the mat, folks!

But it’s the magical work-arounds (MWAs) that I think reveal deeper problems in asana discourse. MWAs seem to appeal to a holistic model of practice in which energetic/pranic intelligence are said to provide a protective bubble around biomechanical threats. One commenter to the original piece wrote:

To my understanding yoga is an inner science – no amount of Anatomy and Physiology (Western Science, if you will) gets us to a place that a regular practice takes us – namely a unified approach to movement. 
In recent years there has been a notable shift in anatomy circles towards more focus on fascia. Google “fascia” & we get: “It’s All Connected: Changing our viewpoint from seeing ourselves as assembled parts to a unified organism” […] perhaps, I suggest, Western Science confirming to some extent what we already know as yogis?) It is certainly my belief that a rounded practice can tune us into this unified movement / approach & once tuned-in we can move differently; with a unified – yogic – awareness. It is here we touch our yoga or union.
 Clearly [as you describe the movement above] the shoulder/ rotator cuff is in for a hiding. However, if we add:
 activate & lift through from the foundation of the palm – this lifting includes fingers & thumb – through the length of the entire body we find the shoulder girdle reaching/lengthening away from the core (spine). The hand almost magically rotates inward as hips lift. Voila.

I appreciate the sentiment of this, and how its language of “unified awareness” can appeal to many practitioners who feel triggered or overwhelmed by the harsh sound of biomedical definition. The comment speaks well to the aspiration of asana in general: to experience a non-conceptual and buoyant sense of wholeness.

But the takeaway instructional message is dubious. (I’m not blindsiding the commenter here. We had an email exchange in which I said I was going to critique his comment, and he was friendly about it.) The comment avoids the actual biomechanical problem and instead relies on reframing the impossible. But more importantly, it promotes the widely-held view that yoga is not only a “science” (it’s not), but a science that amazingly both predicts and transcends the banal discoveries of modern A & P. Usually such comments are also framed by the feeling that scientific views are reductionary or objectifying, and obscure the more essential “pranic” causes and solutions to things. The takeaway is that the big picture – fostered by “awareness”, “mindfulness”, a “yogic/unified approach to movement” – will take care of the niggling details, like whether a posture will actually rip the gristle off your shoulder or not. Yoga is, after all, much bigger than biomechanics, or your little old shoulder for that matter.

[dropcap]O[/dropcap]kay. Now for a hard left turn.

I’d like to propose that there is a resonance between the unreasonable expectations we have of “holism” in asana practice – expectations that must ignore the devil in the meaty details – and other unreasonable expectations that many (myself included at times) have of yoga practice in general. Namely: that yoga and meditation will magically change the world by increasing empathy and therefore social and environmental justice. We could call this the “Be the Change [Only]” proposition. Or, as Glenn Wallis calls it, “The Principle of Sufficient Buddhism”, which answers every critique of Buddhist philosophy by defaulting, more or less, to faith. Claiming that all it takes for Wild Thing to be therapeutic is the right attitude and some pranic pixie dust is not that different from saying that the good feelings and intentions we privately generate from yoga practice in general are enough to heal a world that we ourselves are actively and ignorantly fucking over.

Here’s what I’m talking about. At the same time comments on my post were rolling in, I was participating in a fascinating conversation (still going as of this writing) provoked by Decolonizing Yoga’s Be Scofield. Be’s work constitutes a strong and sustained resistance to the threads of oppressive and exclusionary capitalism that dog every best intention to knit modern yoga together. She started this particular thread with a critique of Thich Nhat Hanh’s claim that mindfulness meditation in and of itself can change a corporation’s political behaviour. (The thread has been so engrossing I’ve been dreaming about it, which seems appropriate, given the strange dreamland that Facebook is.)

For years, Be has been building a book-quality argument in essays, posts, and comments that it is generally ill-informed to claim that practices of contemplation, whether they be yoga or Mormon prayer, have any particular effect upon changing the ethical direction of an individual or a cultural group. She argues forcefully that making such an argument usually involves ignoring the historical amorality of the spirituality in question, as in the famous case of the Zen Master Yasutani, who threw the full weight of his teaching and monastic resources behind the murderous imperialism of 1930s Japan.

I encourage you to read the thread, as well as Be’s excellent chapter in 21st Century Yoga, “Yoga for War: The Politics of the Divine”, in which she writes:

The mental and physical benefits of yoga asana are widespread, and would most likely translate across diverse groups. When it comes to the question of how yoga influences ethical and moral action, however, things get complicated. Why? Because any insight gained as a result of spiritual practice must be translated through the unique social, cultural, and ideological frameworks of the practitioner.

You can read more of Be’s work on Tikkun and elsewhere. For the purposes of this topic, here’s a brief primer of some of her key ideas gathered from scattered reading, paraphrased:

  • Religious or spiritual organizations can be powerful mobilizing forces in people’s lives, and can help oppressed people maintain dignity and social cohesion through ritual activity, inspiration, and opportunities for self-inquiry.
  • The inner work of religious or spiritual practices is fostered within specific socio-political circumstances, which inevitably shape the meanings of the epiphanies that people within them have.
  • Religious or spiritual tenets and practices in and of themselves have no consistent and provable ability to actually change the social and political patterning that oppresses humanity. As often as they are used to support justice, they are also used to shore up oppressive movements and regimes. They are easily co-opted by power.
  • Religious or spiritual tenets and practices are notoriously bad at challenging a fundamental cause of discrimination and violence: in-group bias. People will also commonly apply religious or spiritual tenets to strengthen motivational reasoning, confirmation bias, etc.
  • The ethical precepts of religious or spiritual traditions are generally too vague or too old to address the complex mechanisms of racism, sexism, privilege, and environmental abuse. Invocations to simply refrain from stealing, for example, are not strong enough to encourage a culture to redress economic and ecological violence enacted upon the Global South. Appeals to “non-violence”, to take another example, can be used by both pro- and anti-choice factions with equal sincerity.

Be is uncompromising in her assessment of the naïveté of the “spiritual practice will save the world” argument. With typical dry wrath, she writes in the recent comment thread:

NO internal state of spiritual awakening, interdependence, enlightenment or nirvana will override the impenetrable force of [people’s] deep seated socio/cultural belief structures. It’s wishful thinking, but I get it – this type of thinking is one of the few idealistic, hopeful things that spiritual liberals cling to after realizing God is dead and religion is corrupt.

Ouch. That hurts so good.

Along with many others, I’m not on board with all of Be’s generalizations and comparisons. (She claims yoga, massage, Tai Chi, McMindfulness, the eight-fold path and bubble baths have the same inability to change social/political beliefs). I also have questions about her potentially alienating rhetorical choices, but I’m certainly not one to talk. She opts to dismiss spiritual practices en masse as being capable of switching the political direction of a person’s work. And like every bold thinker, she has mighty detractors, accusing her of logical fallacies and so on, and to whom she responds with vigour. So it goes. What I am sure of is that Be has pushed the conversation of those who seek spiritual support from yoga and meditation for their progressive values towards a harder-edged honesty and pragmatism than yoga culture has ever seen, in any time period.

What Be is ultimately saying is that there is no yoga/meditation Magical Work-Around for a better world. All the yoga on earth will not change the behaviour of yogis who are deeply embedded in systems of privilege that they can’t even see. Just so: all of the prana in Yogaville will not change how the human shoulder joint must be used in order to avoid injury. Be is arguing that no amount of yoga, good intention, mindful movement or pranic intelligence will make the Wild Thing of capitalist oppression safe or beneficent. “Yoga” will not on its own protect your shoulder or your environment unless you use it specifically to do those things. And if you do, you’ll need commitment and training above and beyond what yoga pedagogy typically provides. If yogis want to be uninjured on the biomechanics front, yoga needs physios, osteos, neurologists and kinesiologists. If yogis want to be at all relevant on the cultural front, yoga needs anti-oppression educators and activists.

Our inner realizations will not magically change the possible range of movement of the shoulder joint. Our inner realizations will not reverse the terrible mathematics of catastrophic climate change. Every inner realization we have must be filtered back out through the material limits of the flesh and the political structures in which we are trying to survive. Practicing and praying, however sincerely, isn’t enough. Saying that it is, as Thich Nhat Hanh does in the article Be critiques, is either polyanna-ish, misinformed, avoidant or perhaps even dissociative. Without progressive training from many sources rooted in evidence – especially from those you do not typically meet within your discipline, culture, orientation, or class – you can wreck your shoulder, pollute your environment, spy on the world, and unconsciously microaggress against other people, all while or even by doing things that feel spiritually profound.

Good intentions, yes. An open heart, yes. Private practices that get you through the night, yes. But also: muscles and bones, facts and figures, methods and strategies.

[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he inner practices we adore may not furnish the specific tools we need to understand and resist the -isms that strangle our lives. But perhaps they allow us to choose our tools more clearly, if that’s our explicit reason for practicing. This means that we could view the arc of the eight limbs, for example, not as a linear narrative, but as an oscillation between internal care and external commitment. The only reason to meditate would be to learn how to break down the cognitive biases and psychological barriers to intersubjectivity.

Why else should I move inwards, towards the privacy of meditative equipoise, if not to come back into that public world that makes me? Why would I want to seek God or truth or peace ultimately within? I did not make myself, after all. My very capacity to feel like a self is continually derived from others.

When I come away from meditation (samyama), I could intend to use my new clarity to enhance my understanding of the other limbs, beginning by finding myself with senses withdrawn (pratyahara). I could use my new clarity to find out what neuroscience has to say about sensory engagement. I could use my new clarity to find out what Amy Matthews has to say about breathing (pranayama). I could use my new clarity to find out what exercise scientists and Bonnie Bainbridge-Cohen have to say about kinesis (asana). I could use my new clarity to find out what neuropsychology has to say about affect regulation, learning, effort and self-perception (niyama). I could use my new clarity to listen more carefully to what Be Scofield, Audre Lorde, bell hooks, Vandana Shiva, Paulo Freire, and a thousand other radical and subaltern thinkers have to say about ethics (yama).

Maybe then I could say that my ongoing practice of yoga was directly confronting the pain of the world. I have a long way to go.

23 Comments

  • So if regarding the ‘Wild Thing’ as a recent addition to the lexicon of ‘asanas’ and association of its popularity to the very person who gave it its provocative name,

    — while asserting that it has none of the redeeming qualities associated with the biomechanics of more traditional and standard poses

    — is nothing more than a weak ‘deflection’ of your criticism, rather than a practice of using discrimination when assessing asanas,

    — then I take it you wish to paint practically all asanas with the same brush (and condemnation)?

    You are overstating your case, and thus weakening your own point.

    And at this point I am forced to point out that you are speaking from secondhand and thirdhand experience of teaching asana (apart from mentioning your attempts at doing lotus and finding that it hurt) and are not speaking as a teacher who has gone through years of teaching — and learning how to teach — asana to a wide variety of students.

    More experience would help you to speak with greater circumspection and discrimination, rather than dismissing all other perspectives in favor of pushing your favorite and meticulously cultivated (and quite abstract) narrative.

    I’d like to hear you speak from the perspective of a teacher who has spent some time actually working to make asana practice productive, safe and helpful for a wide variety of students of varying abilities and tastes, rather than from the perspective of a critic who comes off as largely window-shopping from the sidewalk.

    And as one who has come to explore the biomechanics of what is going on firsthand, and speaking from that experience while using that experience to discriminate between poses.

    Otherwise you are just pushing a thesis. College libraries are full of them.

    • Thanks Doug. Interesting logic chain, but no. Nowhere do I “wish to paint practically all asanas with the same brush (and condemnation)”.

      What you may not know is that I have taught asana for about a decade and received several thousand hours of training in both formal and informal programmes. Now I’m on leave except for teaching restorative, because I’m no longer confident that my training matches my own standards for pedagogy. This is in part why I’m writing this book: to ask what the hell am I (are we) doing. So your critique from authority doesn’t quite match the facts. Not that you asked, so that’s okay. I would describe myself as mid-career, taking an inventory.

      Your first comment on the last post dismissed the pose because you think John Friend is a bullshit artist. This is both weak and parochial, I’m afraid, because the general consensus of his innovations (and MPY is built on innovation) is that he added value to postural discourse. The comment also minimizes his own extensive training. I’m not talking about his character here: his additions to asana vocabulary will outlive him.

      What’s the difference between spirals and Wild Thing in terms of what is “traditional” and “standard”? The former is more safe and perhaps more helpful than the latter, but both are derived from the same process of innovation that is inseparable from the entrepreneurial mechanisms that brought him to fame. So why “Wild Thing” is a thing is a lot more complicated than “John Friend is a bullshitter” and “stupid yogis have no discrimination”, which also blames the injured. And I think we can be kinder about it as well, because the attack implies that everyone who studied asana with him was duped. That’s bullshit. His former students run some of the smartest asana joints in the world, not only on the back of what he taught them, but also through their disenchantment, their own willingness to innovate, but also to dial things back, and re-educate and re-make themselves.

      I speak with a lot of circumspection, actually, and am actively seeking out the stories of lesser-known asana modes. Next week I’ll be in the UK interviewing students of Vanda Scaravelli. Maybe I just refer to other exponents of smarter asana that you don’t like, but I’m open to suggestions.

      BTW — can I interview you? I was about to ask! I’d love to include your general take on pain, injury, and recovery through asana. I’m specifically asking senior teachers like yourself what you think contributes to greater pedagogical intelligence, classroom safety, and personal growth in asana.

  • Did you just sneak in a claim that shoulderstand is unsafe even with extensive propping? If so, then I must suggest that you’re doing it wrong, regardless of your extensive training. If you don’t believe in this pose (“the revered Queen of Asana”), then you might as well give up on the whole business. I bet all the time spent hunched over your keyboard has a detrimental effect on your cervical spine and shoulders but you don’t seem to be giving that up.

    • Ha. I used to hunch, for sure. But I find gentle back-bending in asana, rowing weight work, and backstroke in swimming helps a lot. As a public service announcement, I do recommend that anyone who teaches the Remski Writing Hunch in their asana classes should stop immediately.

      I didn’t actually say shoulderstand is unsafe or that people shouldn’t do it. I said

      While good propping with blankets might help a bit, no amount of mindfulness will protect the cervical spine from the compression of shoulderstand.

      Pretty hard to not put pressure on the cervical spine in that pose. Blankets can shift the orientation of that pressure, but still. Some biomechanics specialists say that no amount of cervical pressure is appropriate or healthful. This project is about getting over “believing” in poses. I want to know what their effects are. In yoga, this means going outside of the educational bubble for many opinions.

  • Good read MRemski. Your ability to shred commonly held beliefs in the yoga world is a badly needed service to all of us, even if we don’t all agree on how you shred or what opinion that leads you too. Shredding is good.

    I spent 7 years in a yoga cult and have now been 7 years out. I very nearly left the practice all together “after taking inventory” but have recently come back to regular teaching again.

    I have spent many a walk, many a conversation trying to wrap my head around how spiritual practice both made me a virtual slave (like I slept 3-4 hours per night 5 or so years and completely dissolved the rest of my life in favor of devoting myself to a yoga company) and in the end set me free. The very same practices resulted in very different life stances. I would like to think that I am an engaged and perceptive citizen yogi these days-yesterday I went to civil disobedience training, today I am designing my week’s classes around hanumanasana. Later I will call my mother and make dinner for my husband.

    An oscillating arc of the 8 limbs is an interesting way to think about it. When I reflect back on the moments that made me more a slave or less a slave, they happened across different moments. A conversation with one person who questioned something I was doing, led to a wild animal sighting that moved my archetypal perceptions of myself, that led to a meditation practice that made me realize I wasn’t bad for questioning what I had been told which led to a conversation with another person. I would like to think that something within me was able to recognize truth. But then again, that same inner voice led me to be a slave in the first place. I have nothing but magical understanding of this final paradox, that this was the course of my soul on a grander scale than I could perceive in any one moment. That at least allows me to trust myself again. But it does not answer the question, that I worry about for my students, how can they use yoga to become smarter, more perceptive, more not a slave in their lives. I really don’t know the answer but I hope my worrying will at least help.

  • I’ve been following your writing for quite awhile Matthew but haven’t dared to comment, mostly because I find your level of eloquence almost as intimidating as it is inspiring (and I say that as a writer and published author).

    I don’t have anywhere near your depth of background in yoga, but have been involved with Tibetan and Theravadin Buddhist theory and practice for about 40 years (since early adolescence).

    Your wonderful meditations inspired by Be Scofield’s writing brought to mind a much earlier writer, and if you aren’t familiar with his work you really should be. Agehandanda Bharati, the Viennese born sannyasi who later became head of anthropology at Syracuse, was riffing on these issues with great eloquence and stinging iconoclasm starting with his autobiography The Ochre Robe (1960), followed by the absolutely landmark The Tantric Tradition (1965) and capped by The Light at the Center (1976). One of his major themes, based on close observation of the leading Hindu teachers of his day and a careful study of Ramakrishna, Vivekandanda and Gandhi (all of whom he did devastating take-downs of at the height of the Western infatuation with them), was that ethical conduct and spiritual realization have exactly zero correlation, and that the “saints” of the Indian subcontinent offer abundant proof of that assertion.

    Bharati’s “before [awakening] and after” portraits of saints, his adamant refusal to grant mystical experience of any sort ontological status, his joy in Tantric eroticism and pilloring of Hindu puritanism and so much else make him, it seems to me, the most important role model for the kind of writing Be and others are doing, except that he did it with a level of both scholarship and practice that is light years removed from most of what I read these days.

    Switching gears, Sein Feit has an exceptional couple of posts about Thich Nhat Hanh’s silly (and revealing) Guardian interview that I found especially worthwhile, in the unlikely event you’ve not seen it:

    http://www.nadalila.org/saffron-washing-part-2-response-to-thich-nhat-hanh/

    Thank you so much for your brilliant writing and courage in addressing vitally important issues in yoga and Dharma generally.

    • Thanks for the kind note, EK. So happy that you’ve pointed me to Bharati, who I will turn to know for sure… I’m lucky to call Sean Feit a colleague and gentleperson, but I’m not familiar with his saffron-washing analysis… Be well…

  • Matthew, thank you for offering this intelligent if tangential analogy between a contemporary yoga posture and it’s bid to defy physics as it relates to the age-old question of nature versus nurture; altruism versus the corporate wheel (unless I’ve missed the point entirely).

    My experience of practicing yoga over two decades and teaching over one, including time spent with Thich Naht Hanh and undergoing many physical changes in-between (including a recent complicated liver transplant), is that no two bodies are alike and no-one asana practice suits every body. It’s’ the same with the esoteric mental practices. By definition, asana practice can be a serious intervention to the body’s natural state, but it is because of this that the practice of yoga that brings awareness to one’s own limitations, in body, mind and activity. While I am not well-read on Be’s arguments about socio-political change, I have witnessed change beyond my own asana practice in the past twenty years, as well as in my purchasing decisions and political choices. I can’t help but think that if others have also been affected by their yoga practice in this way, larger changes may be on the horizon. Without my practice I would probably not be here physically to write this, and it is my humble opinion that without the growing awareness of the practices of yoga beyond the physical, spiritual activism and people like Marianne Williamson would not be on the radar in mainstream politics.

    Yoga, alone, may not change the world, and Wild Thing, alone, will probably not be the demise of the shoulder. Perhaps the best thing that yoga can offer to its practicioners is a removal of any one fixed lens on the world, a surrender of control or a need to have an absolute answer. There is none.

    (Incidentally, I am also a Rolfer, and can’t help but question the physics and tensegrity of the human form in Wild Thing. While I’m not an Anusara teacher or a student of Jon Friend, I have seen this posture taken in countless formations with every different size and shape of body imagineable. The shoulder has the potential to be placed in not one, but a multitude of very different positions with varying body weight and related tensions in the body. Like padmasana, sarvangasana and so many other poses, the risk ultimately lies with the practitioner’s body awareness, knowledge, and if they are practicing with a teacher, the teacher, who too often knows too little.)

    Thank you for continuing to write important and thought-provoking material.

  • Matthew!
    Along with simply acknowledging another wonderful post, I am so glad you linked to P. Z. Myers cutting critique if Be’s essay. I’ve long felt Be paints with an overly broad brush and falls into absolutism and other cognitive errors. She’s so ducking sure of herself and her opinions.

    And then I realized… Is she just young?

    Cause P. Z. linked to Greta Cristina and Ophelia Benson, two women with solid feminist cred. Be criticizing Christina with such a hare-brained absolutist critique just lessened my appreciation of what good Be DOES bring to the discussion. I’ve long followed gender-queer, feminist, far leftist Christina and Be could not be more wrong in her understanding and critique.

    • Frank – let’s debate the facts of my views and not resort to ad hominem attacks about my age. What does that have to do with anything? I’m 33, by the way.

      Write something that explains why I’m wrong as opposed to using senseless rhetoric like “hare-brained absolutist critique.” Then I can respond.

      I’ve kept our dialogue respectful, no need to get personal.

  • Hi all,

    I started asana studies with Adil Palikivala. A senior Iyengar student.
    This was after my active seeking of yoga as a healing of the body for my pain and dysfunction. A n earlier run at Kundalini yoga left me feeling on the edge of major injury.

    My time with Adil (teacher training course for a brand new person to yoga) was scary, too. I was seeking bodily healing, and my body was a wreck. However, Adil was very kind to include me in the course. I loved that Adil taught us clearly to support just below C-7 with a wonderful 2-3 inches of a hard foam used in the boating industry to create water-proof cushions (for seating on a boat). I had multiple sizes configured for my first efforts at teaching yoga (YMCA). Adil gave me the courage to begin teaching, but I knew this wasn’t the actual yoga I wanted to teach and to learn. I began seeking. Seeking.

    I recall a student whose father came to my class telling me that he wanted his son to learn headstand. He wanted his son to be an accomplished circus act. Not kidding. You never know what you will encounter at the local YMCA. I told dad that I didn’t teach head stand. I would teach shoulder stand with support at the base of the C-7 juncture.

    I was dealing with my own painful musculature around and about the shoulder girdle, upper back. Turns out I was actually suffering from and impingement of a major nerve at the shoulder blade area. This took years to discover, and was aggravated by Kundalini yoga movements.

    I moved on to study with Judith Lasater (restorative at a Zen monastery). I learned to take power with my yoga from Judith.

    I recall at about the time Judith and John Friend ‘divorced’ Iyengar, that I was glad. I didn’t want to be involved with the cavalier teaching style of the Iyengar students (who seemed mostly busy teaching ‘rote’).

    As a direct result of being subjected to ‘rote’ teachers, I understood that my journey with yoga (and teaching yoga) would take a far more profound and intimate ‘healing’ tack. I searched for a ‘style’ of yoga that matched my objective to heal my pain and dysfunction, and to help –so many people– who were not finding relief. I felt sure there was movement and intelligence that could be learned and taught. I believe I could feel better. I believed I could share my insights. I believed many could be helped –so much– with appropriate movement protocol/s. With a help-meet. That would be me. Someone who cared and who had done the journey myself.

    My journey has been amazing.
    And I’m grateful. BUT — I gave up teaching.

    I just realized that the whole yoga thing was distorted.

    Today I practice very few ‘asanas’. I practice intelligent movement while doing actual behaviors of everyday life. I walk, I garden, I take hot baths. I stretch certain muscles groups. I strengthen certain muscle groups. What yoga taught me are my personal weaknesses. What yoga and high end physical therapy has taught me, is how to help myself help myself. Self Care. Forget the ‘core’, the NEW core is the pelvic/hip area. I’m sure BB Cohen would understand.

    I regret the chiropractic care I engaged in, which led to a cervical syrinx. A potentially devastating injury. What I learned? Science tells us that the neck should not be manipulated forcefully, unless you want to risk yourself. Same is true for any number of yoga asanas (depending on YOU). Doing shoulder stand could be bad for so many people. All this busy ‘asana’ teaching can lead to no good at all. Sorry about that, folks.

    I don’t regret my time with American Viniyoga. Not all of it, at least. This teacher training showed me that there were others like me, who were healing ‘terrible’ discomfiture, and could share with others BEFORE years and years of ‘study’. Study could happen and be shared. With trusted teachings and trusted personal experience (to include working with others).

    For sure, I’ve been grateful to professional physical therapists. Mine has a PH.D. in rehabilitative PT. For sure, at the PT sessions, everyone is doing in order to discover what works (FOR THEM) and what does not work (FOR THEM). Trial and error is ABSOLUTELY part of any work toward finding what works –to help. Mistakes will be made.

    MISTAKES WILL BE MADE. Wild things -will be put aside. Sooner the better.
    But truly, we do not need to injure ourselves significantly –if we seek out GOOD ENOUGH yoga teachers.
    Like good enough parents. We are alive still…. so there is much to be said for ‘good enough’.

    A journey needs good guidance. Guidance and leaves ‘hype’ very far behind. Even the most religious amongst us leave hype at the door of real relationship. If we have ‘that kind’ of intelligence. Yes, there are ‘kinds’ of people. Sorry about that.

    I’m grateful for the voice of MRemski.

    I am encouraged for the future. For the lone-body, and for society/ies at large.
    From my perspective, there is change afoot, as there always is.
    Evolutions happen at many levels.
    The individual drives evolution, as much as the group.

    So take heart, all you bleeding hearts. We are NOT just the group.
    — WE MAKE UP THE GROUP.
    — WE DO HAVE OUR CONTRIBUTION TO MAKE.

  • Said with a sigh…I’m not sure why ‘wild thing’ is getting so much attention. Without trying I can think of a dozen other poses that I wouldn’t touch they are so foolish but that said.. if the pose looks like you were pulled out of a smashed car…..

    Not every pose suits every person and that’s the main problem. We don’t know something harms us till we try it and even the most benign postures can hurt people. I think that the good outweighs the bad there though and I dare say that most of life comes with a bit of risk. As yoga teachers we are beholden to do the best we can to help and not hurt. As students we are wise to beware and believe in our right to say no.

    I’m with and have been on the same page as Be when it comes to spirituality turning out reverent light beings. Observation of the yamas and niyamas may have a similar effect as the bible on us. Guide the people because it’s assumed we are not spiritual people and we are not enlightened. We, the yogis and the alternative community are continually churning out self help shortcuts to protect us from our own leanings. But I’ve met more ruthless people in the yoga world than I knew in my days of working on Madison Ave in the commercial world years ago and that’s saying alot. So yoga does not make someone a higher being. Something else does though the discipline and thoughtfulness of a well rounded yoga practice might give us a leg up.

  • And thus he puts a face on my current alienation from the “yoga world”. The escapist “magical thinking” inherent in the culture flutters around in the fringes of my psyche. I love and admire many and I don’t want to paint all yogis with the same brush, but have become disenchanted with the scene through it’s inability to see the world the way it really is. We’re not going to meditate and asana our way out of what’s on the horizon. A direct, fierce, and likely even dangerous engagement with politico/socio/economic forces will be necessary in future. That is NOT to say that your practice will not provide you with the strength and fortitude to deal with outer experience but is no collective magic bullet.

    I like to tell people about an answer the Dalai Lama in the last few years in the book Tragedy in Crimson, gave about what he thought about a military engagement with China in long oppressed, Buddhist Tibet. I was very surprised by his answer: paraphrased he said 1st where would we get the guns? 2nd, if China loses 1,000,000 men it is no great loss to them but if Tibet loses 100 men, this is a very big loss for us. In other words, he might consider it if conditions were different! In the meantime, the pious Buddhists of Tibet continue to have their collective necks stomped on by the jackbooted thugs in the Chinese military.

  • If yogis want to be uninjured on the biomechanics front, yoga needs physios, osteos, neurologists and kinesiologists.

    there is another, perhaps more effective, option: learning to listen and respond to the intelligence of the body, so that at worst warning signs can be responded to, at best become avoided. of course this necessitates abandoning anything extreme or structurally challenging while we become somatic apprentices. by giving praxis to sensitivity (ahimsa) to sensation, guided by the compass of softness in the joints, this apprenticeship need neither be dull nor actually a transition to something ‘grander’.

    of course this does not relieve anyone promising or suggesting asana based therapy from the burden of profound anatomical knowledge, psychological understanding, and a refusal to succumb to rationalised hope.

    thanks for everything!
    let me know next time you come to europe, if you like…..

    • of course this necessitates abandoning anything extreme or structurally challenging while we become somatic apprentices. by giving praxis to sensitivity (ahimsa) to sensation, guided by the compass of softness in the joints, this apprenticeship need neither be dull nor actually a transition to something ‘grander’.

      Very well put. The added complication that’s coming up in my interviews is the subjectivity of discomfort/pain. There is a healthful internal dialogue we would like to model for / foster in students, but it is difficult to know whether the terms are shared, whether my description of a “warning sign” is another’s description of “invitation.”

  • well yes, but even though we all practice within a spectrum of sensitivity (ahimsa) and interpretation (satya!), and have different learned thresholds for discomfort and pain, tissue damage is tissue damage, and we all need to learn the signals of its imminence (or regret it sooner or later), whatever other latitudes we might individually be granted…

  • Like an anorexic that has –no clue– that they look like/ARE a victim of extreme deprivation. (Self inflicted, and/or aided and abetted by the culture they find themselves in…) Well yes.

    Tissue damage is often known for what it is, on some level. Just the ‘yoga victim’ isn’t able to say ‘no’ to tissue damage. Not really saying ‘yes’ either.

    I would like to see yoga that doesn’t compromise people. By saying no.
    Even if that means the teacher limiting a student to restorative yoga poses and a walk in nature; a glass of water. Some chanting.

    No. — A 90lb student isn’t ‘granted’ anymore ‘latitude’ than a full blown heroin addict.
    No.
    The student that comes back again and again with self-inflicted injury?
    The war on asana? Just say no?

    I was looking at a FB friends FB page the other day, and I noticed the photo of the exceedingly thin people. I was shocked. I mean my head jerked back from the screen.

  • Matthew. Have you ever looked into Shadow Yoga? As far as I am aware it is the only legit yoga school in the classical sense, as far as popularized forms of the subject go at least. Most of this modern day obsession with “alignment” and modern biomechanics is missing many elements of the classical hatha lexicon including circular movements and preparatory practices before even approaching more static asanas, let alone padmasana. It was created by one of Mr. Iyengars former students who broke away from him for various reasons, and went to find actual hatha yogis, Ayurvedic Vaidyas, and other forms of movement to find some of the lost practices in 99% of popular modern yoga. Something for your researches if you haven’t looked into it, a reminder if you have brushed it aside due to the esoterics they delve into.

  • Matthew Remski, I love your work and I would like to thank you for what you are doing. It’s brave, it’s bold, it’s exactly what the yoga world needs at this point. You have really inspired me to learn and grow out of the yoga bubble and into the world, and I am really excited to speak about these things with people I meet.

    I’ve just moved to Oslo and I’ve gotten a job as a sub at one of the biggest fitness gyms here. The manager wanted me to check out the different classes, so I did. All of the classes I’ve attended there were shockingly dangerous, and I had to fight the urge to tell this teacher (who was, by the way, mostly checking himself out in the mirror while saying things like “If it’s uncomfortable, you’re doing it right”) that what he’s doing can and will hurt someone, and probably has already. It’s a very difficult and frustrating situation, to see the power these people have over their students, and it’s even more heartbreaking when you realize that they really believe that what they’re delivering is good and helpful.

    In Norway, yoga is rarely discussed in a critical way, it’s really all rainbows and magic dust, and I would like to start some kind of debate, because I cannot handle not taking action. If you have the time and would like to share some thoughts about these issues and how to make people more aware, I would love to hear from you!

    Have a beautiful day!

    With gratitude,
    Silje Nora, Oslo.

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