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.
With 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.
I 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.
Okay. 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.
The 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.