In Neil Pearson’s Mettaversity presentation on how pain science can inform yoga practice, the paradox sharpened. This is what I gathered: Continue reading “On Pain, Awareness, Self-Regulation, and What People Want in Yoga”
I’d like to bite at a question Diane Bruni asked on the Yoga and Movement Research Group Facebook page, months ago:
Why are we still on the yoga boat? Given all the scandals, disillusionments, power dynamics, and injuries to tissues and psyches, why do we still care?
(This was before YMRG exploded in both numbers and flash-fires of hostility. Had she asked last week, she might have added: “And why are we still on the Facebook yoga-group boat? Isn’t it burning and sinking? Shouldn’t we be swimming?”)
When Diane and I present together on the more difficult sides of yoga practice and culture, I usually open my bit by saying something like: “Diane and I are coming to this from a combined 45 years of practice and teaching, so we’ve seen some things. The danger with a day like this is that we could just toilet our mid-life crises into your laps. We’ll try not to do that.”
And then we try to balance our critiques of how repetitive stress affects tissues and learning relationships with our sense of wonder and possibility. We’re here, after all, because we love yoga.
The shadow side of that question might be: what else are we going to do?
This an important thing to consider when the dominant propaganda of the precariat economy is “Surrender to your higher self and follow your truth.” It would be more honest if they said, “Surrender to your freelance uncertainty, and try to look abundant as you try to sustain your relevance.”
It can be liberating for those of us in this ambivalent mid-life position to acknowledge our age and investments and sunken costs and narrowing exit possibilities.
These things hem us in, but have their positive side as well. The more you’ve invested in an art form, the more you’ll need to continue exploring within it, creating meaning as you go.
I collect trolls. I’m not talking about loyal critics, to whom I’m indebted, but about people who make shit up. Even then, “troll” can be the wrong term, because outright lies can carry a shadow of truth. So I’ll call this one guy a half-troll. One of his favourite pastimes is to use several pseudonyms to crow that I’m writing about yoga because I couldn’t get another job except for flipping burgers.
Funny thing is: he’s partly right. Those were the breaks.
Part of why I’m on the yoga boat is because when I exited my second cult in 2004 I was 33 and hadn’t completed college. I’d had moderate success as a writer before that period, and had kept it up, but there wasn’t any money in it. Although there had been. In the early 1990s in Canada — if you were white and straight especially — you could make your way modestly in literary fiction easier than a decade later. It took me several post-cult years to really get that the writing world had changed — not the white/straight part so much as the fact that content hosts had figured out how to almost completely stop paying for content.
I’d been exposed to yoga and loved it, and taking a training seemed to be a no-brainer. Back then you could easily find a job upon getting a diploma. Or you could make one up, especially where I was living in rural Wisconsin. I opened a studio with my partner at the time and threw myself into it. I loved every part of it: personal practice, community building, continuing education in yoga therapy and ayurveda. Owning studios in Wisconsin and then in Toronto in 2006 locked my personal and professional identity up with the yoga world.
We get older and things change and alternative doorways close down. By 2012 I was injured, and a lot of people around me were as well. I realized my movement training was naïve. There was no way I could physically keep up with my schedule of 15 classes per week.
As my body pain increased, I began to teach more restorative classes. I also retreated into more writing. I consider this a kind of jnana yoga, though many disagree. They too, are sometimes right. Sometimes I write to avoid yoga. It’s tricky, because I can always claim it’s inner work, but at times it just retrenches my conditioning.
As I researched yoga injuries and abreactions to practice, new psychological doorways opened for me to explore. Namely: how do we sometimes use yoga and meditation to reinforce or bypass the very patterns we would most like to change?
I’ve told this story before: the WAWADIA? project was mainly inspired by conversations with my partner Alix Bemrose, but another key prod was the observation of my friend Scott Petrie, who said: “If you needed to hurt yourself, yoga would be a socially acceptable way of doing it.” What an amazing rabbit hole.
I’m still on the yoga boat partly because my half-troll is right about the burgers, but also because I believe yoga is self-inquiry, and yoga culture provides amazing tools towards this end, including the opportunity to critique it. I engage the yoga of meta-yoga. (That is an obscenely pretentious sentence. I’ll own that.)
What other artform flaunts its own paradoxes so blatantly: between improvement and acceptance, discipline and freedom? What other form of inquiry into conditioning shows how inquiry is bound by conditioning? Okay, the postmoderns did it, but it was disembodied and often joyless. I was there. I still have jackets in my closet that smell like Gauloises.
Sometimes I daydream about teaching movement/asana again, but really, there are too many geniuses out there doing it now in an intensely crowded field of new research. I would have to go back to asana school for years to feel competent again. And when I take classes with rockstars like Diane or Peter Blackaby or Daniel Clement or Donna Farhi or Frey Faust I’m like “What’s the point? This is not where I can add value.”
The real movement professionals are equal parts elite athlete and zen master. That’s not me.
I’m also somewhat over it, to be honest. I got what I needed out of asana practice personally. It woke me up. I still practice here and there, but I also have a blast swimming or playing handball with other middle-aged men, foaming at the mouth like a rabid dog.
I know other people are wired differently and will get a lot of juice out of life-long refinement and exploration on their mats. I admire and respect them. I don’t think I can do what they do in a healthy, non-obsessive way. My asana arc has gone from dissociative-disembodied in my late twenties to an acutely embodied late thirties, to a mid-forties meh, I’m embodied amongst other bodies, and so what: because climate change. That’s fine with me for now.
As much as I wonder whether I should just mothball the laptop for a year and commit myself to daily classes with Monica Voss or Susan Richardson here in town, it’s unlikely. There are two children running around now. Plus, weird things happen. Like I flew into Albuquerque on July 14th this year, excited to be a student of Donna Farhi for the weekend, and to round up my interviews with her. But that was the same day that Michael Stone fell into a coma. There was no way I could sit there and watch my breath and sensations, which were both screaming at me. I had to do a different yoga that day, and since, really.
For now my seat on the yoga boat is as an analyst for how things change, and why. I can still practice and meditate and reflect. That is still labour, and if it does or doesn’t have value, people will let me know.
But here’s the biggest reason I’m still on the boat: I love the personal, social, and increasingly political moment called the YTT. I’m grateful to work in that context.
Say what you will about industry standards and commodification. You’ll be right about a lot of things, and I’ll agree with you. For my part I’ve also seen that every YTT I know provides space that doesn’t exist anywhere else: space to consider the meaning of everything in one’s life, from bones to soul. People wind up there during life transitions: after divorces, deaths, illnesses. They show up with a level of existential gravitas that is rare, and which opens them up to discussing the great mysteries of philosophy and esotericism.
Yes there are probably too many programmes, and running YTTs often involves beating back against hidden financial pressures with a smile, and the teacher market is saturated, and trainings can be thin on diversity and accessibility. These are all problems to be worked on. And when they are, the contemplative environment of the YTT can, I believe, be a quietly powerful influence on the broader culture.
There’s some exciting lemonade. The YTT industry has been created and sustained by consumerism, gentrification, and the pressures of a fragmenting labour market. Those who go into these programmes expecting to professionalize will be increasingly aware of all of this. Can this provoke a tipping point in attitude?
What I believe will happen, over time, is that more and more serious students will look at the YTT as personal enrichment, and that that if they want to convert that enrichment into work, they’ll look for and create possibilities in yoga service, rather than yoga sales. They’ll be less interested in getting yoga right than in figuring out how they can share it.
Finally, there’s all the new content. Within a few years, how many YTT programmes will include units on trauma sensitivity? Who won’t want to be able to offer a trauma-sensitive environment?
Can trauma-sensitivity discourse be the gateway to broader considerations? Its premises, after all, point to intersectional truths: the world is not even, the playing field is not level. We are all different. We come from different experiential backgrounds. Those backgrounds are seared into and onto our flesh, and it takes work to acknowledge, respect, and support these differences on the mat.
(I’m not sure we’re fully aware of how radically the TS discourse challenges the dominant ideology of modern yoga, expressed in endless refrains of universality and oneness. The language is shifting away from aspirations to — or presumptions of — unity, to a humble listening to the unknown other. Is this what the ṛṣis did? Didn’t they listen to something they could not understand, but listened carefully enough to memorize what they heard, intuiting how important it was?)
How would the fundamentals of TSY, related to single bodies seeking healing, not ripple out into the social fabric of practice? How would they not expand conversations around inclusivity, and even cultural appropriation? How would they not force discussions around accessibility and accommodation — so far only aspirational — into actionable territory?
Imagine it: the YTT as a non-denominational ritual that offers accessible space for social inquiry, rooted in the rhythms and techniques of self-awareness. Isn’t that where this boat has always been going?
In many yoga spaces, teachers and students share the expectation that adjustments are a standard part of practice. But this aspect of modern yoga is marred by an uncomfortable history. At the dawn of the global movement in 1930s India, adjustments in key learning spaces such as the Mysore Palace merged with the somatics of corporal punishment. They conveyed assumptions about spiritualized pain and surrender, delivered through a pedagogy of unquestioned charisma and presumed consent. In combination, these factors have led to decades of blurred boundaries, sexualized touch, and general intrusion. If you’re a yoga teacher and you want to adjust people, this presentation will help you get square with this history first. It will help you think about how you will protect your students from it, especially in an unregulated industry. It will offer guidelines for moving forward in the creation of safe and student-driven yoga education.
This essay first appeared in Yoga International: thank you to Kat Heagburg for editorial help.
You’ve probably heard a number of translations for the haṭha part of haṭhayoga.
“Forceful” is commonly cited. Others prefer a more esoteric take: they say that ha- and -ṭha stand for “sun and moon,” or “inhale and exhale.” They propose that practice is aimed at the integration of opposing forces.
According to yoga scholar Jason Birch, the esoteric translation is probably a later addition to the early literature of haṭhayoga. “Forceful” is the older meaning.
But what kind of “force” were the originators of haṭhayoga describing?
Birch writes that the hugely influential 19th century Sanskritist Monier Monier-Williams, along with other European Indologists of his era, “confounded haṭhayoga with extreme practices of asceticism (tapas) that appear in the purāṇas” or epic literature. Together, they put forward the notion that haṭha implied the force of violent exertion or self-mortification.
Traces of this meaning elide with the “no pain, no gain” heroism of the modern fitness era—and with the notion of moving, or being pushed by teachers, toward the “edge” of tolerance—usually at the end-range of a joint’s motion. The edge is typically viewed as a potential threshold of revelation, perhaps because its shadow is the threshold of injury.
But as Birch carefully points out, the consistent refrain of the early haṭhayoga manuals is that if practices are done śanaiḥ, śanaiḥ —”gently, gently”— spiritual awakening will inevitably occur. In other words, with enough gentleness in your practice, you’d be forced to wake up. Continue reading “The Problem of Pain in Yoga”
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.”
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.
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.”
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.’”
photo of Kino MacGregor by Tom Rosenthal
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?
- You get a lot of views.
- You provoke a lot of emotions.
- Several classic ways of derailing an uncomfortable topic are instantly revealed.
- 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.
This was originally published at Yoga International. Thank you to Kathryn Ashworth and the editorial team there.
Framing the Problem
Leena Miller Cressman, my colleague at Queen Street Yoga in Kitchener, Ontario, recently posted an explanation for why the studio doesn’t teach headstand or shoulderstand, and why she has taken the further—some would say radical—step of strongly requesting that students not practice these postures in the studio space, even outside of class time.
Her reasoning goes like this:
- The oft-touted health benefits of the “king and queen” of asanas are not sufficiently supported by medical literature.
- Most North Americans present with device-induced forward head carriage, which heightens the risk of bearing weight on the cervical spine.
- Cressman’s personal experience of pain associated with these postures has convinced her that even high levels of yoga training (compared to industry standards) have not equipped her or her staff to adequately assess the spinal health of her students, or how to gauge the effects of these poses as practice proceeds.
- If the postures aren’t instructed in classes, her faculty can’t be assured that students who improvise them before, during, or after class time have any training at all.
- Inversion show-offism can either intimidate or encourage others to crave or try the poses, also without supervision. (This fifth point is not fully fleshed out in the post itself, but Cressman has confirmed her thoughts on it with me via email.)
This is the full transcript of my 10/13/2014 conversation with Leslie Kaminoff, Amy Matthews, and Sarah Barnaby over dinner in Leslie’s office at The Breathing Project. I published the first bit of it in an earlier update, and will pick up the action from there, midstream, breaking into our reflection on the sculptural metaphor with which film makers Lindsey and Jake Clennell open their unreleased film Sadhaka.
This transcript is v-e-r-y – – l-o-n-g: excellent for geeking out. I hope it feels like being there. My research assistant Jason Hirsch worked like a monster to get this done. He’s broken up the flow with section titles, so you can browse through for topics of particular interest. (If you support this IGG crowdfunding campaign, you can help me pay him!)
Like any vibrant conversation, this one winds in many directions and leaves many threads untied. I hope to prevail upon the generosity of Leslie and Amy again soon, to tell more stories, and, of course, ask more questions.
“The map is not the territory” Alfred Korzybski
Asana as sculpture? Is the sculpture already there?
Matthew Remski: There seems to be this central Iyengar / Pattabhi Jois divide in modern postural yoga. Iyengar goes in an architectural, mechanistic direction, and it feels like Jois couldn’t give a shit about all that. Jois wants people to move, wants people to do impossible things. To really do them, and maybe suffer pain, but to learn from the experience.
I’m gaining a new kind of respect for that, actually. Not because I think that the movements of the primary series are adaptive for human labour, but because there isn’t any belief that the body should become more ‘efficient.’ It just should become something that is able to process experience more effectively. So to me, Jois has a much more organic model. It’s like he’s saying ‘With devotion, the body will find a way to do this impossible thing. And hey — isn’t that what you’re expecting of your mind and heart as well?’
Sarah Barnaby: If we go back to the idea of sculpting the stone for a moment: I think I’ve heard it more in the context of wood carving, that part of what the sculptor’s trying to do is bring out what is inherent in the wood.
MR: I think Michaelangelo says the same thing, about marble. That there’s something within it. I’m bringing out its natural form. But he’s doing nothing of the sort, right? He just has a sense of what he’d like to see. Today, Lindsey described the metaphor to me in Vedantic terms, saying that if Iyengar’s claim is that God is in everything, or that God is everything, that the Hanuman is already sitting there, waiting to be released. So my question is, ‘Why do you have to chip away at it?’ There’s a paradox there no one ever answers. But that’s the dissonance of Vedanta. People want to say that things are perfect and they want to improve them at the same time. It causes a lot of stress. [laughs]
Leslie Kaminoff: Well then there’s the skill of knowing the material so well that you know what you can and can’t expect of it. Stones are not uniform materials. They have grain, they have imperfections, they have veins that run through them.
SB: So on the other end of the spectrum from the stonecutter shown in the trailer could be the value that some place on found objects. The artist’s role in this case is one of seeing, recognizing and bringing to light, not shaping, molding or changing. I’m also thinking of Zuni fetishes, where it’s very much about looking at a piece of stone, and seeing the animal that’s going to come out of it. They make use of all the imperfections, and the fault lines, and all that. There’s a book by Kent McManis in which he describes how the Zunis value stones that naturally look like animals, or even humans or deities. They feel that that stones that require very little carving to bring out an image are considered more powerful than those that need a lot of work.
Anatomy is Not ‘Reality’ – Just Another Map
Amy Matthews: I just had a weekend workshop, that Sarah assisted in, on the role of asana as form, as a container for exploration. I’d recently gone back to taking some kind of Ashtanga-esque classes, in that they’re based on the primary series. And, granted, the teacher who was leading the class was not saying ‘get yourself into the position no matter what,’ but it was very, very process-oriented. Like: ‘Keep moving, and do it, and be where you are.’
SB: Stay with this breath count.
AM: Stay with this breath count. And one of the things I profoundly appreciated about it was that he did not talk about anatomy.
MR: It’s very rare actually for those guys to use anatomical language.
AM: I love it. I love the way they do not talk about anatomy in their teaching, because I think that so many people speak so ineffectively and so ineloquently, or inaccurately, about anatomy. I want to practice and engage with my body, and not be in ‘the map’. Anatomy is not reality. Anatomy is a construct, that we have all bought into, to describe experience. And it’s not. It’s just one set of ideas, one paradigm. The map’s not the territory. And it’s a map. But we take it as reality, so we think we can’t teach without talking about anatomy, but I think you can be an amazing teacher without referencing anatomy at all.
MR: But what’s not a map?
AM: Nothing is not a map. Everything is a map. But I think we treat anatomy like it’s not a map – like it is reality.
MR: Got it.
AM: What we need to – what I need to – acknowledge, as an anatomy teacher, that this is my take on the world. And that you can actually be an incredible yoga teacher – you can be an amazing yoga teacher and never talk about anatomy.
MR: This is J. Brown’s point.
AM: Yeah, J. wrote to me and said, ‘Do you have to know anatomy to be a yoga teacher?’ And I said, ‘I am a professional anatomy teacher, and I say, no.’
I think we slip into thinking that anatomy is reality, because it’s the map that the medical-scientific community uses.
MR: What do you think the language of anatomy does to experience?
LK: Wow. That’s a hell of a question.
AM: I think that the language of anatomy creates a container for experience, that may or may not create a pathway for deepening the experience. And if the language of anatomy – the model, the map, the pattern of it – is one that I can drop into – I love it. I studied Latin, so I hear the anatomical language, and I say ‘Oh, I know what those words mean. It makes sense to me.’ But one of the things that I see happen is the assumption that anatomy will clarify everyone’s experience. And it does not. I thought for a long time that if everyone just learned anatomy, everyone’s experience would deepen. And that’s not true. We talk about ‘Oh, feel your femur.’ Well you don’t know it’s your femur until you engage with it and say, ‘Hi, I’m gonna call you femur. Will you answer when I say, ‘femur?’ And that bone in your upper leg may say, ‘I don’t think I’m femur. I think I’m Petunia. Call me Petunia!
MR: Or Earth element, in Ayurveda.
AM: Or Earth element! Exactly. And then, people say: ‘Oh, let’s put the chakras onto anatomy’, and they say, ‘Well, mula bandha is this muscle.’ And I think it does a disservice to the bandha model, and it does a disservice to the anatomical model.
MR: Because it’s neither.
AM: Because it’s neither. Mula bandha is mula bandha! And it might map onto a region, but mula bandha is not the levator ani, and levator ani is not mula bandha. And I can contract that muscle – or I can intend to contract that muscle we call levator ani – all I want, and it may or may not give rise to mula bandha.
MR: So we’re talking about a loss of meaning when the language goes flat for the hearer.
MR: So what makes the language go flat? And is its flatness true for everybody?
AM: No! No, I think that the whole point is that language is true for some people, but it’s not true for everybody. Unless we buy into the language – unless we acknowledge that a linguistic model necessitates a buy-in on some level. On some level we’ve agreed that we’re going to speak English. And that’s an agreement. I couldn’t walk in and start speaking anything else. I don’t know if you have a second language –
LK: Dude speaks Canadian!
MR: Well… I used to speak a pretty good French.
AM: Right! Well you could walk in and start speaking French, and be, like, ‘How come you all don’t understand me?’ So the assumption of some shared language is intrinsic.
LK: And anatomical language isn’t English, by the way. You could be speaking English and come out with all these anatomical terms, and you’re actually mixing it with a whole other language! You know? A language that people have different relationships to.
MR: And that set of relationships has changed over the last 150 years, because we’ve lost Latinate education, we’ve lost classics education. I think the anatomist of the 19th century –
AM: They were speaking the lingua franca.
MR: And they were reading Cicero. And so it wasn’t completely – it had other associations. Latin used to be poetry. Doctors used to be poets. And so we have this specialized separation between the two realms, that only yoga culture, that I can see, is actually trying to bring back together. The notion of the poet also being a philosopher, and also being a medic – that’s where I see our culture contributing something really interesting, but confusing at the same time.
AM: It’s interesting. But the rash of saying ‘I have to do it like the medical community does it’ – that is abdicating responsibility. And that’s where I think a language goes flat, to go back to your question. I think that a language goes flat, in a way, when people give up their personal responsibility about playing a role in how meaning is created.
Limits of Mindful Awareness and the Limits of Anatomy: Edges in Our Scope of Practice
MR: How do we as yogis interested in therapeutics deal with our scope of practice? About the fact that we have assessment and diagnostic tools that are very concretely limited?
AM: What do you mean by limited?
MR: I’ll explain. I don’t know if you saw that thing I wrote about my hospitalization.
AM: No I didn’t.
LK: You were hospitalized?
MR: Yeah, I have a deep vein thrombosis in my left calf, and it came out of this past spring, when I was doing a lot of flying, culminating in flying to London and back.
AM : Oh my!
MR: I also walked when I was in London, about 25 miles. I love walking there. But about a week after I returned, the sole of my foot was killing me. And I thought, ‘I’ve injured myself in some strange way. Is this planter fasciitis? I’ve heard about this. I wonder what I should do.’ So I do all of the massage I know how to do. I’m using oils. I go to physiotherapy. The pain migrates, and then the top of my foot is swelling.
One day I’m in a sauna, and I’m massaging my calf, and I can feel a sharp pain in the centre of my calf. And my entire yogic-Ayurvedic medicine mindset is, you know – ‘Prana must move. Plus, I have a soft tissue injury, and I’m going to bring mindful awareness to the pain.’ To her credit, the physiotherapist said on my second visit, ‘If the pain doesn’t go away tomorrow, I want you to make an appointment for an ultrasound.’ What do you know? The pain went away the next day. And then I had another flight. I went to Calgary and back.
I got off the plane, and the next day, I’m carrying my son Jacob, who’s almost two, up the stairs in the health centre – we’re going swimming. And I’m short of breath, for the first time in my life. Like, really short of breath, strangely short of breath. And I said to Alix, ‘I think there’s something wrong.’ And so I went to emergency, and they got me into CT scan as quick as they could, and found multiple embolisms in my lungs. A heavy clot load, they say. They immediately put me on – I think it’s called Fragmin – it’s an injection – and now I’m on Warfarin, which was a rat poison, originally. I’m sure it still kills rats.
LK: You’re lucky to be alive!
MR: I am lucky to be alive.
LK: That kills people.
MR: It was an amazing month. And I had a sublime experience in the hospital, too. By about two in the morning, they had a preliminary diagnosis. They kept me in emergency – I didn’t get a room or anything like that. And I had this almost mystical experience, stimulated by watching all of the doctors do their work, and dealing with all of these really ill people. The guy next to me was this homeless guy that they brought in. The internal medicine guy was interviewing him, trying to figure out, ‘Why did you skip your last appointment with the psychiatrist? When was the last time you took your meds? Why did you just urinate on the bed?’ Like, he’d stood up and urinated on the bed. It’s not that he wet himself. And then the same doctor comes and he deals with me with the same empathy, with the same patience, and the nurses had such beautiful smiles, and everybody was overworked, and everybody was in so much pain.
And then it finally occurred to me that I almost died, and that I was okay with that. It was the best night – it was a wonderful night. It was a wonderful night. I was happy to be alone.
So when I talk about our diagnostic assessment limits as yoga people, what’s first on my mind is that I didn’t have a clue about this condition.
LK: You were trying to break the clot up, which exactly what you don’t want a clot to do.
MR: Exactly, exactly. Like, I said to the internal medicine guy, ‘Well, I’ve noticed this pain the centre of my calf.’ And he says, ‘Where is it?’ And he touches me there really gingerly and I’m like, ‘Oh no, you can dig your thumbs right in there.’ And he says, ‘No, no, NO! You don’t want to dig your thumbs in there.’ I said, ‘Oh, well I’ve been doing that! Sometimes it feels better!’ And he said, ‘Do not massage your calf.’ The blood clots in my lungs are these little guys that have broken off this string that has clogged the popliteal vein.
So I’ve done a lot of meditating on epistemology – how we know what we know. And about what the limit of embodied mindfulness is, or where those limits show up, and how can I communicate to my Ayurveda students, for example, that there will be immense benefit from paying very close attention to their interoceptive states, and yet, at some point, they’re going to need the outside gaze. At some point they’re going to need some kind of expertise. I want to say to them: ‘I want you to be empowered, but humble. I want you to take care of yourself, but I want you to understand that self-knowledge is dream-state in the final analysis.’
And then, the coolest thing was, I’m getting the ultrasound on my calf. Here’s this bored imaging tech, who’s exhausted, he’s working 18 hours a day probably, he’s rubbing the little ultrasound guy on my calf, and he’s nodding, and he’s saying, ‘Yeah, there it is.’ And I realize that he’s looking at the thing using sound. And we all around this table talk about listening to ourselves, we talk about listening to the internal body, and then here’s this highly technologized form of listening. It’s listening that’s so powerful that it can draw a picture on the wall. He’s listening to me, and showing me exactly where the clot is.
So that whole thing just kind of spun me around quite a bit, in a bunch of different ways. And it made me see that, at least as far as yogic medicine and Ayurveda goes, I really feel that some kind of dialogue-synthesis is really what I want to pursue.
AM: That’s an amazing story. I think that at the same time as we look at the limits of what we do, as yoga teachers, there are limits to what the medical model can do.
MR: Of course.
AM: I heard in the way you asked the question: ‘There are limits to what we can do, but medicine holds the whole.’ I think that there’s a problem with that, an assumption that there are limits to what we do, but that medicine has got it right.
MR: Maybe –
AM: Or that they’ve got something –
MR: Yeah. They have something we don’t have. While we have something they don’t have.
AM: We have something they don’t have. I completely agree with you about self-inquiry, I can inquire about myself all I want, and there is a point at which I will not know myself, except for in relationship to other people. I can’t. Leslie says all the time: ‘I can’t see myself the way other people see me.’ For sure. But one does not negate the other. I worry about how quickly we go to, ‘Well there’s a limit to what we can do.
But then – my mother had a similar experience with back pain. She went to acupuncture, and she went to yoga, and she did all this, and finally she went to the doctor and was told she had a tumour in her spine and she has cancer. She’s had it now for several years. She’s like, ‘Why didn’t I find out sooner?’ And they say ‘Finding out sooner wouldn’t have done any good.’ And now that she’s dealing with it, she’s also enmeshed in the medical model, and doing chemo, and slowing it down. But when she does chemo she is exhausted and unhappy.
So it’s like, okay, they have these tools. And it’s great that the medication is helping you, but pharmaceuticals don’t help everybody. They might take care of the symptoms, etc. – and so she’s in this question – I think a lot of people are in, I think, about ‘Well, do I stay in the medical model, and keep treating the symptoms, or do I look at the quality of my life and say, ‘I might have less life, but I’m going to have better life. I’m going to have a good year, instead of an exhausted, cranky three years.’’
MR: And when she was feeling and inquiring into the pain in her spine, what else is she learning as she does that? I think what happens with the diagnosis is that it stops the inquiry process.
MR: You know the other weird thing about thrombosis? Vitamin K is your main coagulant factor. Guess what’s filled with Vitamin K?
MR: Everything that you would use to “cleanse” the blood in Ayurveda. Everything, down to the last dried green herb you can think of. It doesn’t even matter what it is! It’s packed full of this thing that will do exactly what Ayurveda would suggest it shouldn’t do. Most excess clotting is going to be dosha of Kapha. Solids to have to be broken up, motility is needed. The tradition turns to pungents and bitters. The pungents are okay if they’re not green, but the bitters are filled with coagulant-juice!
It feels like a failure on two fronts: I wasn’t able to see into myself, and also: I have this encyclopedic, anecdotal, very useful but largely not control-tested knowledge that, with regard to this situation, contains a fatal flaw. I could’ve massaged myself and eaten lots of raw cilantro, for a long time.
LR: Well, not too long, because you would’ve been dead.
MR: Exactly. Death by cilantro. [laughs] What a way to go!
LK: There’s a self-limiting factor to that particular treatment of deep vein thrombosis. It reminds me of the story that Elizabeth Kadetzky tells about observing Iyengar having a heart attack in the middle of a demonstration. He was demonstrating, and he had to stop, and he left. And he came back, to the demonstration.
He was clearly having a heart attack. But it was like – here’s Iyengar, right? And it was more important, for him, to be Iyengar, and do this demonstration, then to, you know – ‘Hey, maybe there’s something going on here that precludes demonstrating in front of this group of people, and I should –. ’ When you think of what’s at stake, in a man like that’s life, in a moment like that, you know, like, appearing vulnerable or sick isn’t an option.
LK: His heart had other ideas, though.
MR: So – it’s epistemology, isn’t it. We are always running up always against the limits of self-inquiry, and at that limit, there is some kind of external knowledge, that might be of benefit, and it might come from Yogaland, and it might not, but there’s going to be some sort of expertise. But this is where – does more anatomy education, or physiology education, create the better teacher? Because I see this as – if we know that the general pattern is ‘self-inquiry is limited,’ then what else would we have except challenging ourselves through continued education in other disciplines to help out? And so when you say to J, ‘You don’t need more anatomy training to be a good yoga teacher,’ the first thought I have is, ‘Well, if there’s something that he doesn’t know about his own body, isn’t it better that he apply outside expertise to his own situation, and use that as a model of openness to education for his own students?’
AM: Yes, but that outside expertise, and that other model, does not have to be anatomical.
AM: I hear in your question again, ‘If I don’t know enough, I have to go outside, and the thing outside I have to go to is anatomy, is a Western model of anatomy – anatomy, kinesiology, physiology, in the Greco-Roman, Western medical model.’ I agree with the basic question about inquiry, and that if I can’t know myself, and the process of inquiry continues to be important, then where am I going for that inquiry? And I think that what happens is that people go to anatomy and they stop inquiring because they think they know. And so –
MR: Yes. Have you seen people attain a high level of anatomical education and say, ‘I’m over it – I’m going to keep using this, but I don’t feel like I really know anymore?
LK: I think that’s what you’re hearing Amy say right now.
MR: So that’s what you’ve done.
AM: I think that’s what I’m doing!
MR: That’s what you’ve done.
AM: That’s what I’ve done –
MR: So do you communicate that to your students? That narrative?
AM: And I communicate that – I think I communicate that narrative to my students.
MR: So you say, this is all my uncertain experience –
AM: I say explicitly, the map is not the territory. I’m telling you a model of reality, and –
MR: – and I know it really well.
AM: I know it really well –
LK: Well enough to know its limitations.
AM – and that it doesn’t work for everybody, and half of what I’m telling you is going to be proven wrong.
LK: She just doesn’t know which half!
AM: I just don’t know which half. Which is said in medical schools all the time. So I didn’t make it up. I just took it on. And I said, ‘I’m telling you all this stuff, I’m telling you like I believe it, and I am learning new stuff all the time, and I’m having to change what I know. I’m having to change what I say. And I’m having to change what I know.
MR: So you model educational openness.
AM: And the further into it I get, the more of a mystery it is.
SB: I also feel like the way you’re teaching anatomy is like, ‘Here’s a container for experience – we’re going to go through the bones of the body, and see if you can find those bones, and ‘what does that do for you?’ But not necessarily learning it to learn all the names so that you can do a particular thing with it. It’s to take the map and compare it to your experience and see what comes out of that inquiry.
AM: And develop flexibility around entertaining other models. Not because that model is right – that’s the model I teach, because it makes sense to me and I love it, but I think it’s also really important to say: ‘If the way I talk about this doesn’t make sense, if this language, if this isn’t your experience, it’s fine! And if you’re paying to be in my class, or you want to learn this, then come and get inside my world with me, not because I’m right, but because you’re curious.
MR: Because I’ll help with curiousity.
AM: My job is to make you curious.
LK: One thing Amy’s very good at is not shutting down people’s questions. Not throwing answers at people’s questions. Some questions are so good, they need to keep being questions. This is a fundamental question you’re asking here. And I’ve learned how to listen for those questions a lot more since having these interchanges with Amy and seeing how she does that. You know, there’s a tendency as a teacher to want to give an answer, but if it’s a good enough question, it’s, like, ‘wow.’
MR: Yeah, and wanting to give an answer has a whole psychoanalytic shadow to it: ‘This is what I need to perform the knowledge of,’ and –
AM: And to me, it goes back to the babies. And parents come in and they’re, like, ‘Look, my baby can sit!’ And I’m like, ‘Do they know how they got there? Do they know how to get out?’
The fact that I can recite something – and I’m blessed with a sticky brain, and I can rattle off the names of all these things –that doesn’t make me skillful. What makes me skillful is how I’ve learned to say, ‘I don’t know!’ Because that’s what I didn’t come in being very good at.
MR: Yeah, nobody does. You’d have to be born without anxiety to be good at that from the beginning.
AM: Well I think babies are born without anxiety. I think we pick it up really fast. But I don’t think we’re born anxious.
Standards of Safety – Can Anatomy Help Establish Injury-Prevention Standard? Can Chakras? Plus: “No Cure for Mortality”
MR: To make it a little bit less abstract: in kinesiology, people will use the Beighton scale for flexibility assessment, or hypermobility assessment. I don’t know how it works, but it’s like nine out of ten joints, or seven out of ten joints, have
AM: You can do this, you can do this –
MR: Exactly. And then that is statistically predictive of a whole range of possible joint conditions, and then it becomes an invitation to genetic testing for all sorts of conditions like Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, and other stuff involving collagen formation, and all of that. Now, this is kind of getting into standards and regulation, right? My question is heading that way, because I’m bringing up a specific tool, but I’m saying, ‘Wouldn’t this be good for many people to know?’ It sounds like you guys are in the anatomist’s position of knowing many things about range of motion, safe action, intelligent action – but – I know you Leslie, for sure, don’t want to impose the idea that there should be certain standards for what people should know.
LK: I don’t personally want to, and I don’t think any sane person would want to be that person.That’s the way I would put it. Because I’ve seen the people who want to be those people, and they’re not sane. I’m not going to mention names.
AM: ‘Sane’ is such a huge word to use, Leslie.
LK: Well, sure, I’d be crazy to think that you could be a judge!
MR: But what I’m saying is, ‘Aren’t there certain tools that would probably, that would likely improve classroom safety?’ And if there are, and if there are, why not encourage people to use them?
LK: Scope of practice.
AM: Okay. The first question is, ‘Are there tools that could improve classroom safety?’ And I think the tool of becoming an expert in anatomy, and telling someone else about how they feel about what they’re doing, is actually inviting the participants in class to not take responsibility for their own experience.
MR: If the anatomist tells the person what they’re feeling.
AM: Right, if the person says, ‘This isn’t safe to do.’
MR: But then we get into the problem of feeling. And people can do unsafe things without feeling they’re unsafe.
AM: Absolutely. People can do unsafe things without feeling they’re unsafe, and that is a really interesting and paradoxical question. And I’ve watched that thread run through your blogs.
I’m going to go on a little tangent here, but I think it’s related. I’ve also seen in people’s responses to your blogs a miasma of ‘naming’ hypermobility as a condition, to take just one example. And we make it a thing. It reminds me of how Western medical diagnoses are getting exported to other cultures –
AM: – and that they’re actually – before they had the diagnosis, before they had the language, they didn’t diagnose it as that thing, and that the thing actually didn’t show up. So there’s this co-creation of conditions that happens.
MR: Yeah. The label of ‘PTSD’ generates presentations of PTSD in rural Africa, where the label had never existed.
AM: ‘PTSD’ creates PTSD. Right. Exactly. And I think also about –
SB: Anorexia didn’t show up in South Korea until it was available as a diagnosis.
LK: Whiplash in Norway. They don’t have it.
AM: Our experience is fundamentally shaped by our model of it. And I have some really deep questions about the medical model determining what’s safe. Or the anatomical model. And that, again, I agree that there’s some outside perspective that is important, but to go learn anatomy so that I can tell someone else how to do something safely – it doesn’t make sense to me, because it still privileges the anatomical model as holding all knowledge.
I would like to go learn how to engage with a student. And if my way in is through anatomical language, great. But if someone else’s way in is through, ‘What is your breath doing? Do you feel the flow of prana?’ I don’t have to say, ‘You’re blowing out your medial collateral ligament!’ Because along with blowing out the medial collateral ligament, there’s imbalanced joint space, and there’s leaking prana, and there’s whatever –
LK: How does your knee chakra feel?
AM: If the knee chakra’s out of balance, like it could manifest in so many different ways. So I do think that it’s important for a teacher to know how to engage in dialogue with a student about something they have a question about. But then the medical model is not the absolute, essential way in.
MR: I don’t believe it is in terms of description. But when the ACL is blown out, describing what’s going on in the knee chakra isn’t going to fix it. So, in other words –
AM: What is?
MR: – so we’re talking, we’re talking about the –
AM: But wait, what is going to fix it?
MR: Well, I’m not sure, because I’m picking an example where I’m assuming that arthroscopic repair is working –
AM: But why isn’t appealing to the knee chakra going to fix it? I don’t actually agree. Because – this I know anatomically – people can function without an ACL.
AM: And so – if something is broken – if some tissue is actually torn – but engaging with what I consider my knee chakra brings me into an inquiry about my knee, about where I can keep a clear pathway of energy, and that brings me…
MR: How you can move it and how you cannot move it.
AM: How I can move it and how I can not move it. I think that inquiring about my knee chakra will help me not further damage, or – do you know what I mean?
MR: Sure, but it’s not going to go in there with arthroscopic method and suture it back together! So what I’m saying is…
MR: – we’re arguing on the description side of the event, and the other side of the event is treatment.
AM: Right, but even there –
MR: And yogis are ending up defaulting on the treatment side to the arthroscopic surgeon, who makes his living by ignoring all of your babbling about the knee chakra, and getting down to fixing the damn ligament.
AM: Mmhmm. And then, I’m gonna argue, if they’re not in touch with their knee chakra, they’ll blow it out again.
MR: Okay, sure. Cool.
AM: They’ll do it again. So, again, the knee surgery is really great for fixing something in that moment, but the number of studies about the reoccurrence of pain after knee surgery is huge!
MR: Because the surgery isn’t going to do –
AM: Because the surgery isn’t going to fix the underlying problem which is that they’re not in touch with their knee chakra.
LK: Assuming they weren’t playing touch football when they did it, if they blew it out in the yoga class, what made that knee vulnerable to injury in the first place? The surgery isn’t necessarily going to change that at all.
MR: Let me tell you about a story that I’m working on, that kind of gets right to this. Nancy Cochren – she’s on record for this – she’s 33 now, she had her first baby 18 months ago, no, two years ago. She had an Ashtanga Primary Series practice that was quite vigorous, never had an injury. She loved it, it empowered her, it gave her a sense of expansive embodiment after all of her martial arts training, it was wonderful. She gets pregnant, she has her baby. Her labour was induced, because she was at 38 weeks and had a stretch and sweep; the gynecologist breaks the membrane. And so they send her to be induced right away. So no preparation for labour. She’s thrown into a forced, medicated labour. And during the birth, the nurse practitioner and her husband draw her legs up and over into a kind of almost yoga nidrasana. I haven’t heard about this in birthing stories that much. I suppose that, in the room, in the moment, people do whatever they think gives the woman more room. I’m not sure.
She felt wobbly in the pelvis, for sure, as she recovered in the days following. She had burning in the pubic symphysis, she was told by the medics that she might have a little bit of diastasis, they were going to monitor it. But she was very eager to get back to practicing. So two weeks after giving birth she arranges to leave baby with her husband and she goes and rolls out her mat in a gentle hatha class. And she gets tired at a certain point, she goes into child’s pose, and there’s suddenly something wrong in her left hip.
The pain then migrates to her left hip. This progresses over several weeks. And then it’s in both hips. Her mobility decreases, becomes more painful, it starts waking her up at night. It takes about nine months for her to get the imaging that can confirm bilateral labral tears. So both front 1.5 cm long in the same place on each side. Of course the doctors don’t want to say what caused it – yes, labral tears happen during childbirth, it’s not common that they happen on both sides, it’s not common that they happen on both sides, and my thought was that ‘I wonder if the tears are more a reflection of the symmetry of her practice, than her birth trauma.’
LK: They could’ve been there long before she got pregnant. There’s no way to know.
MR: They could have.
LK: If she was able to track in such a way that she never noticed them, then things get destabilized, the pelvic joints become a lot more mobile –
MR: And inflammation happens.
LK: Yeah. Your body will avoid at all costs tracking through damaged joint tissue. You can make these adaptations without even noticing it. Until you can’t.
MR: Because, with a labral tear, there is no pain. There is no localized pain.
LK: Yeah. And you can track around it, and –
MR: So are you suggesting that with no conscious awareness of pain – because cartilage is not innervated – that neurologically, subconsciously, you’re tracking around the potential injury site?
LK: Your body doesn’t want to go bone-on-bone, ever, if it can avoid it. You see this with a hip that’s going arthritic. When you hit what feels like a muscular spasm, it’s just not permitting a certain range of motion, that’s my signal that the body is protecting a certain range of motion in the ball-and-socket from hitting bone-on-bone. It’s the same principle of a trick knee when you tear your meniscus. And the knee will buckle or lock rather than letting you track through the torn tissue, it’s a –
MR: But in both of those cases, there’s probably an awareness that pain is near, right?
LK: It’s the awareness of everything your body is doing to avoid that bone-on-bone pain.
MR: Okay, got it.
LK: That’s like the one when I picked up Lydia’s leg, and I found that spasm, and I said, ‘Well, sorry, but after 12 years of helping get through that damaged hip joint, it’s time for surgery.’ It was just so obvious. It wouldn’t move. So my guess is, she got destabilized during the delivery, whatever, and she just couldn’t compensate for it. I mean, this is just a story, obviously, but, you know. I think a lot of people who practice ashtanga have torn up their joints in various ways, and they don’t notice it. Or they notice the pain, and it’s, like, okay, that’s just some of the pain I’m dealing with and, you know, keep going.
MR: But the labral pain probably is going to amplify and accelerate over time.
LK: Well, it’ll cause you to compensate, which creates an imbalanced joint space, and then, you know, how long can you walk around with that before you just can’t? But, you know, there’s no way of knowing! I mean, it’s the same thing with discs – ‘Oh, I blew out my disc when I bent over and picked that thing up’ – how do you know that?! Did you have an MRI the day before, and it was clear, and then – you know, there’s no evidence, it’s just correlation.
You know, there’s two threads that I kind of felt hanging from our previous conversation which, if you pull on them separately, I think will help clarify some things:
There is yoga as a practice that brings us more into our experience of aliveness, and everything that entails, including the stuff that we can control, and the stuff that we can’t control, and appreciation that there is both of that, you know, and the relationship between the two. As you know, that’s my whole take on tapas, svādhyāya, and isvara pranidhana.
LK: But, you know, then there’s that other thread, which is: there’s no cure for mortality. This is what Atul Gawande’s new book is about. It’s called Being Mortal. Gawande points out that the medical profession is not really trained to deal with the reality of mortality. The fact that life ends! And the problem I’m seeing, after all these years of dealing with this is, you know, you could be pursuing any pathway, whether it’s Christian Science, or Scientology, or yoga, or surgery, or having wheatgrass pounded up your ass, for anything that could be wrong with you. And nothing will shift the fact of your mortality one iota.
But at the same time, people get better! Bodies are unpredictable! You can never really know an outcome with the body, because the way our minds and emotions interact is so complex, we’re just beginning to understand just a little bit of how to even ask the right questions. There’s just starting to be really, really good research done around placebo. Everything has to beat placebo now, to prove it’s good!
MR: And a bunch of common and accepted things aren’t beating placebo when they’re studied carefully. So why can’t we harness and mobilize this incredible force?!
LK: Well, exactly – but that’s what we’re doing – that’s what all of these things do, including surgery! And so, people will get better pursuing any number of things, no matter how wacky they are. And then it starts to build up the mythos around this particular thing, about how effective it is. And every method is going to have failures, and successes. None of which are attributable to the actual method in many cases, because people’s bodies are unpredictable.
MR: Also the method is confounded by the thousand other things that changed when they started doing the thing they’ve become religious about.
LK: Exactly. But we are really, really reliant on our stories to help make all of this comprehensible. There’s plenty of studies that show that sham surgery is very effective. How much of that effect is attributable to what goes on in real surgeries?
AM: And in some cultures that prayer is really effective.
LK: Unless it’s not. Right? And so, that’s one of the threads – mortality is not curable, and everything works some of the time, and nothing works all of the time.
AM: I would point out that even the idea of mortality is context-driven. That not every worldview looks at mortality as a big deal, or something to orient around, or avoid. Or even as something that exists. But just that the modelling around dying –
LK: The fact that this physical body will cease to function at some point is not a context-driven conversation.
AM: No, but the weight that is given to mortality, that you say mortality with this weight, that it is a factor in our conversation, that it is a factor, I know what the word means and that we do all die, but that it has weight in our considerations, is a culturally-driven event. Some people, some cultures, care differently about mortality, or they give different weight to it.
LK: Like the culture that yoga came out of?
AM: I don’t care which one! I’m just pointing out that everything we say is driven by a context!
LK: Sure. But it is an interesting point to look at India, and the concept of mortality that’s prevalent there, the fact that you have many, many lifetimes to get it right, and how that longer timeline is going to contextualize a momentary ache or pain or injury, or even a disease, in terms of that broader perspective. We certainly in the West have a little different relationship to that whole conversation.
Mortality as a Lens – Yoga as an Existential Perspective
AM: This summer, I was at a workshop with an embryologist from Europe named Jaap Van der Wal, and he’s very oriented toward an anthroposophical take on things, and he was talking about embryology and the process of embryology, and the idea that to be – he’s talking about the placenta, and how, as an embryo and a fetus, all of our nourishment comes through the placenta when we’re in the womb and we’re in this complete environment, and that to be born, we have to give up something that was essential to our life, that we co-create our placenta and then we have to leave it behind. We have to completely transform the way in which we take in nourishment.
LK: And get rid of waste.
AM: And get rid of waste. And he read this little story about twin fetuses talking to each other, and saying, ‘You know, I hear that out there, after birth, people breathe.’ And the other embryo’s like, ‘No, I’ve heard that too, but like, why would we breathe? We have a placenta.’ And the other one’s, like, ‘I hear there’s a mother.’ And it’s like, ‘Who’s mother?! What? Who needs a mother? People are just making that up to comfort themselves.’
And all of these things that we, from our perspective, think are true, and know that the fetus is engaging with, they don’t believe in, because they don’t have any – and then , the idea of being born is one of – you give up everything you know. In a way, you die to what is, and you come into this other way of being in the world. And he was suggesting that we consider what might be after this, and what might be our placenta in this life, and that, as a fetus, you can’t even conceive of air as air. And that radical shift in the capacity to conceive of how we get sustenance was really striking to me. So when you say this about mortality, I’m like, well, the fetus thinks their life as they know it is ending when they are born.
SB: The only life they could know.
AM: The only life they could possibly know ends when they are born.
MR: Wait a minute. Let’s acknowledge that we’ve turned the two fetuses into conscious, cognitive beings, right? That are considering these questions. I mean, the analogy is very colourful –
AM: It goes to an assumption.
MR: I appreciate it, but –
AM: But —
MR: Well we have to turn them into us for it to make sense. Which is what we do with babies.
LK: And we have to turn death into something it isn’t, in order for that to make sense, also.
AM: Okay, those are two different things. I’m going to go with the fetus, and say I have no idea what the fetus experiences, and all I can do is connect with my own experience, but it’s also true that whatever comes after this way of being, I have no way of knowing. And as different as the fetus’ experience is from mine, to consider that there’s something else that’s as different as this is, the magnitude of the transformation on a physical level that has to happen, much less whether there’s cognition or self-reflection or awareness – because there’s a whole other conversation we could have about consciousness and how we define that, between fetus and newborn and adult, and I don’t know what death means – when you say we have to turn death into something it isn’t –
LK: Well, at least from my set of beliefs, you would have to believe in something like a ghost-consciousness that can exist independently of the physical body.
AM: You would have to believe that, why?
LK: To imagine that there is something else to be transitioned into after the death of the physical body. That there’s something left of us, of who we are, independently of the physical body ceasing to exist.
AM: Our physical body doesn’t cease to exist – it dissolves as it is, and transforms into other things. Nothing ceases to exist. It’s transformed.
AM: And the magnitude of the transformation is something I can’t conceive of. And I don’t think I have to believe in ghosts to think that a transformation could be something I can’t conceive of. In a similar way that we can’t really conceive of what a fetus can imagine. And so the shift to imagining what it’s like to be on the planet, in gravity, breathing, might be as huge, partly because of that shift in consciousness.
MR: We have gone to the biggest question possible. And these noodles are really good.
LK: Well that was that thread I was pulling on – I used the word mortality. You know, people come in with problems that, one way or another, are related to asana practice, either they occurred as a result of something they did in their asana practice, or it’s preventing them from doing their asana practice, right? There’s always this – not always, but frequently – mystification about why did this happen?
My standard response for this is, ‘Well, you’ve never been this old before.’ Which you can say to anybody; you can say that to a fetus and it would be true. But there is this constant factor of change. Every moment of our lives, every day of our lives, we can become more capable of doing certain things as we become less capable of doing other things. I think an effective yoga practice puts us in touch with that reality. And it also can teach us that the greatest accomplishment in your yoga practice may be the ability to not push yourself into something today on that mat that you were able to do yesterday, because you’re listening.
MR: And you’re a day older.
LK: And you know you’re a day older, you know that that’s a factor. Yes, you could push, but maybe you’ve learned from your experience that, ‘Well, the last time I did that, it took me a week to recover, and I don’t want to do that again.’ It’s the whole heyam dukham anagatam thing, right? That’s a very mature attitude. Most folks who come in when they’re hurt, they just want to be fixed, so they can get right back to doing pretty much the same thing that hurt them in the first place. And to me, that’s not yoga.
MR: Because it has no existential view. Because it doesn’t say, ‘I’m mortal.’
LK: No, it doesn’t take the nature of our human existence into account. And that, incidentally, is why I have a hard time identifying Iyengar’s method as yoga. It’s definitely a very sophisticated way of working with the body, and whatever principles of alignment he came up with, but how is that different from physical therapy with props and ropes and body positions that we identify as asanas? I know he’s said a lot about it, he’s written about it, he has his own philosophical view – I’m well aware of all that.
AM: But how is it not yoga?
LK: I think it has to do with how one defines yoga, how one would define yoga in such a way that asana practice could be a part of it.
AM: Well how are you defining yoga, then?
LK: Well, I always go back to the definition in Patanjali – tapas svādhyāya isvara pranidhana – and if the main guy who put this alignment system together can be more interested in performing in front of a group of people than in taking care of his body, which is obviously having a heart attack, it makes me wonder where he’s coming from.
MR: Well, I personally think he’s thinking: ‘I have made my entire being out of a performance of the thing I was forced to perform from the age of 18, when I was penniless.’ Yeah, he found his life in the performance of asana.
AM: And if that’s the case –
MR: – that’s okay with me!
AM: If that’s the case at that moment, then that’s his yoga. I’m not sure how being more attached to doing something that brings you satisfaction, for whatever reason, that has become his satisfying thing to do, that he felt fulfilled in himself to perform. Now we can question that that’s where the fulfillment comes from. But that he chose to override a signal from his body, to get that satisfaction, I’m not sure I would say that’s not yoga. If it’s framed like that.
MR: I would agree with you, if it’s transparent. If he says, ‘Fuck it, I’m gonna keep performing.’
MR: Sometimes I think the same thing about the guys on Jackass. They’re like ‘Dude! I know I’m going to staple my scrotum to my thigh, it’s going to hurt like hell, but it’s gonna be really cool. It’s gonna be awesome. I’m never gonna feel like that ever again, and this life is what that’s for.’ And that’s a valid Tantric perspective. But I don’t know – it’s very difficult to assess a person’s freedom in that. It’s really difficult to hear somebody say ‘fuck it’ and know they’re being honest and transparent.
AM: Yes, absolutely.
MR: It’s rare!
LK: The denial version of it is the easiest one to understand, because we’ve all been there.
MR: It’s true.
AM: But I also think giving the space to what each person brings to the experience. Take my experience of being in an Iyengar class. Not Iyengar’s experience, but my experience being in an Iyengar class, is one that I would call creating yoga, where I’m invited in the rigidity of the structure to experience myself in that moment, in my body, in space, in gravity.
LK: Is that about the system, or about what you brought to it?
AM: It is an experience that arises in Iyengar method, that I have found in other places, but I had an experience there about structure that’s different than anything I had anywhere else. I can go create it for myself, and it is what I bring to it, that’s all anything is, but I don’t think we can say that a system is or is not yoga. I would argue with that.
MR: What I got from it, which was very helpful for me, and which grounded my first yogic education, was cognitive short-circuiting. The complexity of the action cues was so bamboozling, was so complex, seemingly arbitrary – and now we know that it changed all the time, so it was arbitrary –
AM: It was arbitrary.
MR: And that was its point – and this is where the patriarchalism of it comes in; there’s this assumption that he was teaching a knowledge, that was somehow formed. It’s not true! I think that what he was doing at least in part was teaching a series of improvisations, and even confusions designed to cognitively overwhelm a person, so that they had no conscious agency over movement or proprioception anymore. That can be experienced as bliss.
But I’ve never heard any Iyengar teachers actually say that. They’ll say the instructions led to a particular experience. But the instructions could’ve been anything. Tell me to move my skin this way! Tell me to move my hair that way! It doesn’t matter. But if you’d give me enough instructions, that part of me that wants to try to be a better person gets overwhelmed. That part of me that wants to try to follow instructions and wants to attain something gets totally smashed.
AM: Flooded, we call it.
MR: Flooded, flooded. And that was a positive experience – for a while. And then it wasn’t, because like a drug, you can only experience that a couple of times before it either doesn’t work, or you just get pissed at the guy, or –
AM: Or you have to go seeking more sensation, or more flooding, or more disorientation.
MR: Or less. So then I turn around and say, ‘Now I’m going to go to the Vanda Scaravelli people, because they’re just going to let me roll around on the floor, right?’ You know, and move my pelvis in a wave. And that’s opposite. It’s not about me losing my mind, literally, because I’m trying to accomplish something perfect. It’s a matter of letting myself not be perfect – in a completely other direction. Letting myself be an infant.
AM: What I heard you say, Leslie, was: ‘Why is Iyengar more yoga than physical therapy?’ And my argument is, either could be a yogic experience, or not, depending on what we bring to it.
LK: Yeah, but what we bring to it is what we bring to it, it’s not necessarily something that’s built into the system, as such.
AM: No, no. But it doesn’t mean that Iyengar yoga is not yoga, either.
LK: I’m not saying that. I said I had a hard time seeing how it’s yoga. Maybe that’s more a statement of my own limitations. Because every time I’ve tried to take a class, it made me so repulsed that I wanted to get as far away from it as possible.
Now is that something I should examine in myself? Should I keep inserting myself into those situations, and find out what it is about me that doesn’t want to be completely OCD about where the 310th follicle of hair on the left edge of my right kneecap needs to be? You know, that’s how it shows up – it engages the part of my brain that I so want to be disengaging if I want to get to a place of equanimity in myself.
AM: But it doesn’t work for you, doesn’t mean it’s not yoga.
LK: Well that’s why I said, I had a hard time seeing it.
AM: But it comes out as ‘it can’t be yoga for anybody.’
MR: But here’s something: ‘It engages the part of my brain that I want to get away from.’ You know that thing about the muscle that’s in spasm: it’s actually aided through the contraction.
LK: Because it finally fatigues.
MR: Exactly. Like, my OCD with regard to detail-orientation and wanting to get everything right was precisely exhausted by that. But, yeah – it only happened a couple of times. And then! And this is a big thing – we attribute – I think we can have epiphanic experiences, through particular methods, that can only actually work once or twice. And then we keep pursuing them. That’s one of the things I’m trying to pursue with the notion of the plateau that people get to. I’m hearing dozens of stories of people who get to a certain level of attainment, or comfort in their bodies, about five years into their asana experience, and then they keep driving towards the sensation that they had in the first two. And that fits into the mortality argument, doesn’t it? The expectation that the sex I had at 19 is going to be available forever.
LK: Oh, yeah, if only!
Finding the Limits of Anatomy Education
AM: I hope not! To me, that is the same question as, ‘Oh, if I want to know how to keep my students safe, I should study anatomy.’ The idea that there is a way, and that that one clarifying experience will always be a clarifying model. That – when I went to this new kind of yoga class, I was met or I was challenged in a way that gave me a new experience. Okay. That thing has to keep giving me that experience – it’s a similar mindset to, ‘I just have to find the right model – I’ll learn anatomy, and then I’ll know.’
The thing is, at some point, knowing anatomy will fail me at meeting a student about being safe. Because – this is the other argument I have, to go back to the learning anatomy thing – that anatomy teaching, the instruction around “correct” anatomy, is wrong. It is wrong. The things that are being taught about anatomy and alignment, they are incorrect, and they are not promoting health.
MR: Can you give an example?
AM: Keeping the knee over the foot.
LK: Squaring the hips.
AM: Squaring the hips.
LK: Tucking the tail.
AM: People interpret the keeping the knee over the foot idea as ‘you can’t hurt your knee if the knee is over the foot.’
MR: Got it.
AM: It won’t make your knee safe! It is not true! And, in fact, it might hurt your knee more than not letting your knee be over your foot.
MR: You’re talking about anatomical aphorisms that cannot be universally true.
AM: Because they’re situational.
LK: And they’re taught as if they could make the practice safe, if you just follow these alignment cues.
MR: Okay, I’m starting to understand you guys a little bit better.
AM: And how do we tell the bullshit from the truth? Because people go, ‘Oh, you do this and then you do this and fresh blood goes to your joints.’ It doesn’t. It doesn’t. And slowing your heart rate down is better – it’s not.
LK: Or: “Breathing deeply is always better.”
AM: Right. “Breathing deeply is always better.” But it’s not.
SB: “Space in the joints!”
AM: “Space the joints, make space in the joints” – it’s bad for your joints to make too much space. “Straighten your spine for it to be healthy.” It’s bad!
LK: Yeah, always “Straighten your spine.” Sure!
AM: There’s really concrete things that are being said, even – right out of doctors’ mouths!
Leslie: Against Standardization for Yoga
LK: Desikachar’s insistence, right across the board, always has been that yoga is relationship, and that the primary vehicle for the transmission of yoga, and what yoga is in itself, is relationship. And the more highly you value that as a fundamental principle, the more sensitive you’re going to be to anything that comes into the field that interferes with that.
I mean, insurance reimbursement? That’s third-party reimbursement. That’s a third party to the relationship. Regulators, the government, insurance companies, legislators, all of these people that get involved in the regulation discussion are people who, by their very nature, are going to intrude themselves into that relationship. And so it’s like the fundamental ahimsa that we would practice, with regard to our field as a whole, is to not – is to protect that, is to not allow any of that interference.
The interference would come in the form of price controls, what you can and cannot teach, who can teach, who cannot teach, who can teach people to teach, who can’t teach people to teach – all of this involves other people making judgments about who is and who is not qualified to do these things, and how much they can charge, and what they can and cannot do, and that’s always been the case. I mean, think of a doctor, it’s a similar thing – if the medical profession held the doctor-patient relationship as sacred, would they have invited or permitted all of the things that have since happened into their field? Even though, yes, it may be more lucrative to go down this road. But it has the potential for destroying the very thing that’s at the heart of what we do, the doctor-patient relationship.
MR: But it’s not just been destroyed because it’s more lucrative to collectivize – it’s also been altered because it’s smarter to share knowledge, and –
LK: It’s not about not sharing knowledge – it’s about understanding what the core value is that you have in what you’re doing, and I can’t – I’m not a doctor, I can’t speak for doctors, I can certainly observe how the practice of medicine has been just disemboweled, legislatively and every other way, in our society.
MR: So you’re thinking about old doctors that you knew that were educated maybe in the 40s, or pre-war, or something like that.
LK: Not even that, I’m thinking about the doctors to this day that are just quitting, because they just can’t stand it, they can’t deal with it, they don’t want to deal with the system as it is. Think of all the Canadian doctors who moved to the States when they nationalized health care in your country, you know? There was a huge wave of people who just didn’t want to work under that system. Or the fact that there’s a whole parallel system that’s developed, for private pay, alongside the public –
MR: I’m not quite sure who uses it, though. I mean, it’s very – we’re talking about the one or five per cent, or something like that.
LK: Sure. But they’re subsidizing the practices of these people who are able to afford to offer it elsewhere, because that percentage of people can afford to pay them, directly.
MR: Let me back out of that political thicket to bring up the issue of exceptionalism in the yoga world. I’m interviewing J. Brown and he says, much like you guys do: ‘I don’t believe that more anatomical training is going to make me a better teacher, although I’m going to pursue it. Even without it, I believe that I have, on my own, intuitively, by using the listening tools that I have, by understanding what I understand about the intimacy of relationship, I have built a protocol, a method for myself, by which I am very sure that I keep my students safe, and I allow them to grow at their own pace. And I said, ‘I think you’re an exceptional dude. I think that this frontier approach may be true for you – we have no way of saying –’
LK: Well that’s the thing – there’s no way to know that all the students are safe.
MR: Yes, there’s no way to know, but what I’m trying to ask him is: ‘The fact that it works for you is great. But if we think towards the commons a little bit more, how can we make it good for everyone, or for more people?’
LK: You can’t. And that’s not a goal that anyone should have who understands what we do. You attract people to you, and your system, and your way of thinking, your way of teaching, who feel an affinity for it. And some people will come and they will stay; some people will come and they will go, which, by the way, is why you cannot know that it is safe for everybody –
LK: Someone comes and has a bad experience and hurts themselves –
MR: They don’t come back.
LK: They don’t come back and you never hear about it. So that is an endemic, profession-wide issue, that we all just need to acknowledge. That we do not get the very feedback we need, in order to make ourselves safer.
MR: So let’s take that issue – would you say it would be good for everybody to create better feedback mechanisms?
LK: Well to do everything they can to acknowledge that that’s an issue, for one thing, and to create whatever mechanisms are available. We did that –
MR: Why is that not a social policy statement that you’re making, then?
LK: Social policy?
MR: Well, cultural policy. I mean, it sounds like, ‘Here’s a good idea for everybody to do.’ Wouldn’t that impose on people’s individualism?
LK: Did you hear me say that everyone should do it? Or than anyone has the right to say that everyone should do it?
MR: Well what did you say?
LK: I said it’s a problem in our field. And the degree to which we don’t acknowledge it or recognize it is the degree to which we’re not being as safe as we could be. I talk about this wherever I go, wherever I teach.
Number one, to set an example, to let people know, we are open to their feedback. We have created an online survey form that we encourage people to log into and deliver feedback. And I tell them: ‘Look, we’re happy to hear how much you enjoyed this.’ But people are willing to tell you that to your face right afterwards. Sometimes you don’t realize until, like the day after, or the week after, that something I said didn’t sit right with you, and it’s whatever, and you can completely anonymously – you don’t have to leave your name – deliver that feedback, on this survey form that we created. And I got some pretty rough feedback. You know?
MR: That’s awesome, I’m glad you did that.
LK: Lydia would be reading it, and she’d go, ‘Okay, I don’t think you want to read this, let me paraphrase it for you.’ Because she knows how emotionally sensitive I am. And it’s true, in that sense – this is stuff that ties a knot in your gut when you hear it, because it makes you doubt things. But it’s what we need to hear. And so, because we have opened ourselves to this feedback, and because we have gone to every pain that we can to let people know that we really, really want it, over the last year-and-a-half, or however long it is that we’ve been doing this survey – I think it’s close to two years now – we’ve gotten fewer and fewer negative comments, because we’ve really taken to heart the things we’ve heard.
And I really examine myself, I say, ‘Well, I’m hearing this thing consistently. This is a similar complaint I’m hearing, you know, from people, and this is something I need to look at. I need to change this thing about how I’m teaching. And it’s gotten better and better and better. But unless you really go out of your way to let people know you’re open to critical feedback, they won’t deliver it. Because we have issues with educators, we have issues with people in the front of the room that have power. And it goes way, way back, to when we were first starting to be educated, and all of that is going to be projected on us, as yoga teachers. And we have to recognize that. We have to understand that. And letting students know, in whatever way we can, that we are willing to hear this difficult feedback if they have it to deliver, and giving them a way to deliver it, anonymously if necessary, is really, really important.
MR: Okay, I –
AM: Can I just interject? When you say ‘we,’ you mean ‘I.’
MR: This is exactly what I was going to say!
LK: No, when I say ‘we,’ I mean me and Lydia.
AM: No, I just think that you’re saying ‘we,’ and I think this is something that you are doing, as a teacher, and you and Lydia may be reading, but it’s not you as a community of people doing it. You’ve done this yourself.
LK: No, when I say we – Lydia and I came up with this, and we’re a team in implementing it, but –
AM: Yes, but as a teacher, you are not a ‘we’ of teachers; you are a ‘you’ of teachers. It’s a position you’ve taken yourself, and it’s really valuable, and I’ve done it a different way. But I haven’t done it that way.
LK: Yeah, so the ‘we’ actually was an actual ‘we,’ it was me and Lydia.
AM: I know, but when you say as a teacher, you’re changing your teaching –
MR: That’s exactly what I was going to ask, because –
LK: Like, I don’t presume to be talking for Amy here, although I know she recognizes the issue as well.
MR: Even to recognize something as an issue means that we share it, that it’s shared.
LK: The ‘we’ meaning ‘me and my students?’
MR: Ah, everybody who’s interested in this stuff.
LK: Everybody that I think is at least introduced to the idea goes, ‘Wait a minute, you know, that’s true.’ When I read Glenn Black’s section in The Science of Yoga, I was like, ‘What the fuck?’ He’s claiming to William J. Broad that he’s never hurt a student in one of his classes. And he’s never been hurt. And my immediate reaction is, ‘That is such utter bullshit.’ And later on in the book, he comes back to Broad and says, ‘Oh, by the way, I just had this neck or back surgery.’
MR: Yeah. I’m bionic now.
LK: Right, because I fucked myself up in my practice.
LK: So we have an over-inflated sense of our own safety and efficacy because of this issue people – students – have with delivering negative feedback. It’s a built-in problem, it’s a built-in problem with medicine, it’s a built-in problem with anyone that’s in authority. It’s a built-in problem in the church, it’s a built-in problem in the educational system across the board. Anyone that’s in authority is going to – there’s going to be this dynamic that makes it pretty difficult for people to give them negative or critical feedback.
AM: Or – I agree, in the big picture, and as you’re saying this, I’m asking, ‘Oh, how have I done this?’ Because you say ‘we’ and I’m like, ‘Uh, you and Lydia,’ but then I don’t think it’s a negative feedback question so much, though that is what people have trouble doing, but an authentic feedback question, and a space for people to have their own experience, whatever it is. And so –
LK: How do they even know what their feedback is in the first place?
AM: How do they even know what their experience is in the first place? We’ll do an experiment in my classes. I’ll go around and everybody has to say something about their experience. And I say in the beginning, ‘You can say, ‘I don’t know, I didn’t get it.’’ And it takes two or three classes, usually, for some people to start saying, ‘I didn’t get it at all.’ And I say, ‘Okay.’ I say, ‘Okay! Thanks!’ And then the next person. And we accumulate now 35 people in the room saying, ‘I got it!’ ‘I didn’t get it.’ ‘I had this profound experience.’ ‘I heard music.’ ‘I smelled chocolate.’ The whole range of it! But I’m doing it really consciously, saying, ‘Yes, yes, yes, yes, great, yes, yes.’
LK: No judgment of their reaction.
AM: And what’s great is they’re sharing their experience. And what starts to happen in the room is anything goes. And I think that is an experience that people don’t get to have very often. But I think it’s teachable. And I think that’s what I’m teaching in my anatomy class. And that’s how I think I’m going to change the world. Not by teaching anatomy. But by teaching people to have their own experience, in whatever thing it is I’m teaching.
LK: And do you think, that if people in that environment had an opportunity to fill in an anonymous survey down the road, some of them could potentially say, ‘Amy – all she’s ever asking us to do is talk about our experience, and I just wanted to come here and do x, which is, like, different from that.’
AM: Yeah, totally! I mean, they still might not –they don’t have to like it. But I think there’s something radical about saying, ‘What is your experience?’
LK: Well that’s what transformed J! That’s the question Whitwell had asked him –
Relatedness as a Guard Against Injury
AM: What I heard you say, Leslie, is that relationship is the vehicle for yoga. I would also say that yoga is the vehicle for relationship, which I think I got straight from Mark Whitwell. I studied with Mark really intensely for a couple years, and then went to Body-Mind Centering, and got Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen, and understood the body as a vehicle for that relatedness. To me the two are inextricable, in my own take on the world.
So to go back, then, to the question you asked of Leslie about the place of anatomy training –here’s a story I tell often about Mark. When I was studying with him, I would be late sometimes for whatever we were doing, and he’d say, ‘Why are you late?’ And I’d say, ‘I’m studying anatomy, I’m taking this anatomy class.’ And he’d say, ‘Why?’ And I’d say, ‘I don’t know enough; I need to know more anatomy to teach.’ And he’d say, ‘That’s bullshit. You’re a teacher; go teach.’ ‘Okay, okay.’ And I’d be late again, and he’d say, ‘Why are you late?’ And this went on for a couple of years, and he was my teacher, so I was like, ‘What is this question about?’ And finally I went to him once, and he’s like, ‘What are you doing?’ or whatever. ‘I’m taking this anatomy class.’ ‘Why are you taking an anatomy class?’ And I said, ‘I love it, Mark. It’s fascinating.’ And he said, ‘Great.’
MR: He said okay.
AM: He said okay. And so if someone came to me and said, ‘I’m a yoga teacher, and I want to know more about anatomy, because I love it,’ or ‘I’m really curious,’ or ‘I want to know this model,’ then –
MR: Then you know the language is going to be alive for them. It’s not going to flatten out.
AM: Exactly! I don’t think people shouldn’t study anatomy! I want everybody to come play in the sandbox with me! I mean, I’m like – I am so grateful to have other people who want to do this with me. But the idea that they are insufficient without it is so profoundly troubling to me. And the idea that anatomy is what will make me a good enough yoga teacher is distancing me from showing up as a person, as a teacher, in that relatedness –
SB: Some idea that knowing anatomy will keep your students safe, will guarantee that is –
AM: What will keep the students –
LK: You can’t keep students safe, there’s no way!
AM: Well, I’m going to say a different thing. What will engage the students in their safety is the relatedness, and my capacity to listen. And people come to me and they want my anatomy expertise, and I’m like, ‘All I can do is see you. But I’ll be with you, and I’ll see you – with my knowledge and my experience,’ but really what they want is me. My me-ness. My anatomy knowledge is not what makes me a good teacher.
LK: Because you’re teaching wisdom, not information.
AM: It’s my presence. It’s that I show up. And anatomy, and embodiment, and body-mind centering, has been a way in for me to be present, because that’s my path. Someone else could meditate, someone else could study chakras, someone else could study Ayurveda. So that’s my problem with thinking teachers need more anatomy training. If they want it, great. But they’re not insufficient without it.
LK: You know, there’s an old saying in engineering that you can do your very best to make something foolproof. But there’s no way on earth you can make it damn-foolproof. And some people are so committed, on whatever level, to learning their lessons by hurting themselves, no amount of medical training – you can have the world’s greatest orthopaedic surgeon teaching a yoga class –
MR: Well this is where –
LK: How qualified does someone have to be, who’s teaching a class, to, you know –
AM: And I don’t think that’s what yoga’s about!
LK: It’s totally not!
AM: I don’t think yoga’s about anatomy!
LK: It’s not; it has nothing to do with it!
AM: I think yoga’s about experiencing your body.
LK: Yeah, and holding a mirror up for people.
AM: I mean, if we’re talking about on a flesh, incarnate level, which not everybody is – but that’s the level I’m operating in – it’s not an anatomical event.
LK: You can’t do it without anatomy.
AM: Sure you can.
LK: Well, you have to have a body.
AM: But having a body is not anatomy. I have a body. It may or may not know that it’s bones and muscles. I could not know any fucking anatomy, and have a deeply embodied experience. People have profound experiences all the time –
LK: That’s what got me started. I didn’t know shit about anatomy when I did my first Sivananda class, and was in my first savasana, and I’m like, ‘Woah –’
MR: – ‘what happened?’ – I remember that first feeling.
LK: I’m lying down, and I’m not going to sleep, and I’m not quite awake, I’m not quite asleep. And I’m – I guess this is – well – relaxed? And to recognize that as a concept, when I’m, like, 19 years old? Wow. I didn’t know anything about – I knew I had a head, and arms, and legs, and a spine. That’s about all I knew of anatomy. And by the way, that’s about the most anatomical language I’ve heard Desikachar use.
He was trained as a structural engineer. But he didn’t teach from an anatomical perspective. He would say, put your leg here, put your arm there, you know, he used anatomical terminology that a four-year old would know. And that’s the anatomical language he used to teach what he did. He didn’t say, ‘diaphragm,’ he didn’t say ‘rib cage,’ He’d say ‘chest, belly’ maybe. That was about it!
MR: It’s interesting. I wonder if there’s something about invoking the four-year old simplicity in embodiment that offers a consolation to somebody who overthinks.
LK: It did for me.
AM: Well I think it offers access, in a way, that the more specialized anatomical language gets, the more exclusionary it can be. And I think there’s a little bit of an assumption that anatomical language is somehow ‘real,’ in a way that everybody will get it. Or that if I say ‘your scapula’ and I show you what it is, you’ll know some deep truth about that bone, there. And it’s not a deep truth.
Integrating Paradigms – Yoga as ‘Being in the Question’
MR: So I’m following Nancy Cochren to her hospital appointments. She had cortisone shots in both hips. And then – do you know Monovisc?
LK: It gets injected right into the capsule.
MR: Right into the capsule! You have to sign a big waiver about infection and all that. But, it has to be so specifically targeted that it has to be done with –
LK: – with radiographic guidance, yes –
MR: – with an x-ray trained on her, which she’s watching.
LK: Yeah, you can see the neon going in on the screen –
MR: SHE’S WATCHING. She’s watching an 18-gauge needle, five inches, going in.
LK: Did they do a spinal? Or local –
MR: Nope, local freezing.
LK: Did they spray it?
MR: I don’t know, I think the freezing was injected. Anyway, so she can see it go into the capsule, and nudge against it – that’s how clear the – and then –
LK: *pop!* *pop!*
MR: So this is exactly where yoga meets the clinic. The yogi is awake to her body, whilst it’s frozen, and they have a visual of what’s inside of them, of something inaccessible to them normally, that they have learned to explore through interoceptive mindfulness. They’ve learned to explore it through prana, through breath, through every technique that they used to pay attention to sensation, and now they’re watching somebody have a different kind of access to the joint.
LK: That experience has got to be very different for someone who’s been practicing yoga than for your average Joe.
MR: That’s why I find it so compelling. The story ends there, as far as I’ve written it. It’s wild, it’s such a beautiful thing. It was like my moment with the ultrasound on my thrombosis, that I feel like we’re on this threshold, we stand with one foot in either paradigm, and we’re either in conflict, or we’re trying to see – what do you know that you can tell me, and what can I tell you about.
AM: Two things. One is that I hear us saying ‘yogi’ like we know what it means. And I don’t think every yoga practitioner is going to have a different experience of that than a layperson. I think some laypeople would have a pretty profound experience of that as well. And the assumption that because we’re practicing yoga, we have more insight into our bodies, is not always true. Unless we define ‘yogis’ so broadly that it’s ‘someone who’s engaged in inquiry.’ I think that we could take someone from any other practice, or a musician, or – anyway, so what I think then brings us to that place where we’re in this threshold, and what to me then would be being a yogi would be being in that question. If there’s conflict, then I’m not doing yoga. In some way, because I’m not engaged in the question. If I think I know what I’m doing, and the medical model is somehow in conflict with it – oh, I don’t mean that – I mean, if I can’t acknowledge that ultrasound, and radiation, and all of that serves me in some way, then I don’t think I’m in the inquiry in a way that’s got –
MR: I’m not in the 21st century either.
AM: Not in the 21st century, and not in the question, in a way that I would think is fundamental to doing yoga.
LK: I think it’s even more basic – I think it’s a place where you can question your own reactivity to a situation, and not just have your reaction be the situation. I think it’s having that little window of consciousness that separates what’s happening from how you’re reacting to what’s happening, and being able to recognize that.
AM: Well that’s what I mean by inquiry. And I don’t think everyone who does yoga is in that question.
LK: I don’t think everyone who practices asana is in that question. Everyone who’s doing yoga by definition is in that question.
AM: By that definition, yes, fair enough. But I don’t think all the people we are including in a blanket statement of ‘yogis’ would fit into that definition.
LK: The people who would call themselves yogis, versus the ones who we would call yogis.
AM: You would call yogis. I don’t call anybody ‘yogis,’ I don’t use the term.
LK: [laughs] I will leave the ‘we’ out of this conversation from now on.
MR: It’s interesting what happens with the “we”, eh? What happens? For you Leslie, because it doesn’t actually reflect your libertarian meaning, it might just be a colloquial tic, right?
LK: I like to think that my personal opinions are bigger than just me, so that’s, you know – just so you know, I’m normally surrounded by people who, 75% of the time would probably agree with most things I say. So ‘we’ is really an approximation –
MR: – mingled with confirmation bias.
LK: Exactly. Precisely. But I’m aware of that, so it’s a yogic view, more or less.
AM: You go on thinking that, Leslie.
LK: [laughing] Yeah! There you go!
Wonderment and Inquiry Bump Up Against Technical Proficiency and Training
MR: I think we also stand in such an extraordinary age, because Nancy can look at that radiography, and we can see videos of ourselves undergoing heart surgery, or I can walk in while my son is being born by his almost-emergency Caesarean section, and see that my wife is open on the table, and I’ve never seen such red in my life.
We’re in an age in which we can see inside. And I think that the alienation that we feel towards biomedicine is that somehow medical training has been functional to the extent that they have lost their absolute, utter wonderment at what they are doing. “They can’t – they cannot be as awestruck as I am. They cannot be going into rapture as I am.”
LK: That would be counter-productive for what their job description is.
MR: It’s so sad, actually, that an almost-miraculous experience can feel flat to the specialists who are performing it, and then somehow the population absorbs the sense of flatness, in a way, because the surgeon does not communicate, typically, wonderment. I’ve met a few who do, but –
AM: But I wonder, I wonder –
MR: It’s like the training takes away their poetry, right?
AM: And that’s what I wonder, if there’s some co-created thing where they’re not allowed to wonder, because then they lose their expertise. And what we demand of the doctors, as a culture, and what we ask of our teachers – I mean, I haven’t ever held anyone’s life in my hands like that, but I feel like one of the things I run up against is people come up to me and they want me to tell them the answer. And I say, ‘I don’t know.’ And they are sometimes profoundly disappointed. And broken. And they take it personally, and then I feel bad because I let them down, and I let them down. So I can’t imagine the pressure on surgeons who have to be, like, ‘I know what I’m doing.’
MR: Yeah – can you imagine doubting yourself beside the operating table?
LK: Can you imagine opening someone’s body, and going, like, ‘Woah!’ That’s not going to inspire confidence!
AM: Yeah, but, see, I think that’s a cultural phenomenon, because it should, in a way.
MR: It can’t with the training. Training is desensitization. Is that part of what you’re saying about anatomy?
AM: That’s part of what I’m saying about anatomy!
LK: Look, you gotta see this.
[LK breaks out a book of surgical pictures.]
MR: Oh, the colours.
LK: I mean, you can’t look at this and not get a physical reaction. You know? And that’s why I so admire doctors, and particularly surgeons, who deal with this every day. This is, like, they have trained themselves to be a person who can take a sharp instrument – I mean, if I were a surgeon, I could use this [holds up a steak knife] to do something useful to your body. I mean – that’s, like, fucked up!
MR: They’ve turned horror and violence into medicine.
LK: That’s what ‘ana-tomy’ means – it means ‘to cut into.’ That’s what the word means! ‘To cut into!’ All we’re talking about is different ways of cutting into the body! You know, with consciousness, with emotion, with focus – that’s all anatomy. You get chakras, and that’s anatomy – you’ve got a sharp instrument, it’s just your consciousness cutting in. The Western anatomy uses a knife to cut in. This, by definition, has to be used – well, on a live body, really really carefully, so that it doesn’t become a dead body. But what we do in the cadaver lab, you know, it’s like, the more you use this sharp instrument on a cadaver, the dead-er it gets. I mean, by the time we’re – at the end of a week – the cadaver’s in pieces, it’s in bags it’s in piles.
AM: Dead-er – what is dead-er? How do you get dead-er?
LK: Dead-er means it has less – it looks less like it looked when it was alive. I mean, dead is dead, let’s face it. Wait, there’s that one prana that remains –
AM: I’m really curious about that.
LK: There’s that one prana that remains in a cadaver. I call it the structural prana. The rib cage will still spring open when you divide the sternum.
MR: Got it.
LK: There’s the pressure zones that are still there, until you penetrate the pleura, you know? When you pull the hip socket out of a joint, it’ll still go, *pop!* There is still a suction force holding it in place. There is still, you know, potential energy stored in a cadaver’s body. By the time, at the end of a sixth day with Gil Hedley, all of that is gone. And it doesn’t look anything like it did, and there’s nothing holding anything together anymore. So there is still a prana in a cadaver.
MR: You’re talking about entropy.
LK: Yeah, I mean, entropy accelerated with a sharp instrument. That’s how we learn anatomy, in that context. You know, there is all of the tensile connections between the skin and the superficial fascia. You have to keep changing your scalpel blade when you’re separating the skin from the fat, because there’s something dulling that blade! That’s – that’s – that’s energy! You know? There’s the energy in that connection that is exerting itself on the molecules in that blade, that’s dulling it, that means you have to keep changing blades to get the skin off the fascia. That’s happening the whole time. So that’s – there’s an enormous amount of energy in a cadaver before you start disassembling it. And in a way, the dissassemblage – is that a word? Disassemblage?
LK: [laughing] Whatever.
LK: So the knife is liberating the energy that’s still there. So, yeah, I’d say it’s much more dead at the end of six days than at the beginning. I mean, it doesn’t matter to the person who was inhabiting the body, but –
AM: As far as we know.
LK: – the structure of the thing itself? Yeah, there’s a definite accelerated entropy that is occurring.
AK: So your definition of death has something to do with –
LK: [to Sarah] You haven’t been in that lab yet? We’ve gotta get you in that lab.
AM: She’ll get herself there. ‘We have to get you in that lab.’ Because you think she’s not complete unless –
LK: No, I just think she’d have so much fun, is the thing!
SB: Hm. I don’t know about fun, but I am interested and curious.
MR: Um, I’m looking at the time, and I have to get a cab for a train to Penn Station at 8:51. Is that doable? That’s doable, right? It’s ten minutes?
LK: If we get you out of here in ten minutes.
MR: Um, so, I really need you to refute my Wild Thing argument, Amy, if you think I’m wrong. Because, that’s gotta be part of the story, is including how I can gather provocative, arguable information, and be wrong. I’m making another point about it, though.
AM: And that’s the reason that –
MR: That’s part of it, that’s part of what I’m doing.
AM: I completely agreed with your point, it was this particular detail. But yes.
LK: Are you good at transcribing from audio?
MR: Am I good at it? I have a research assistant.
LK: Because, Amy hates to write, but she can talk.
AM: No, I should write it, because several people want to read –
LK: Oh, so you’ve resigned yourself to actually writing it!
LK: Wow. Cool!
AM: Well, we’re going to, yeah, I have to write lots of things.
MR: Sarah, if I had three copies of these, I’d give one to you, but maybe Amy or Leslie can lend you one, but this is just a gift for you guys.
[I bring out copies of my latest book of poetry – Rosary – as gifts.]
AM: Thank you!
LK: What is this?
MR: It’s a little book about the fact that I was brought up Catholic, thought I was Buddhist at a certain point, and then I thought I was Hindu. But the rosary stayed the same, all the way through.
LK: Well, it’s either 54 or 108, which is an interesting multiplication there.
SB: Did you – am I remembering- did you go through ashtanga?
MR: Ah, no.
SB: Oh, okay. I grew up Catholic, and got into ashtanga, and at some point was like, ‘I think I’ve done with this already.’
LK: Check out page 85, or like sutra 85, whatever it is. I see Fibonacci.
LK: You could have a whole thing about Fibonacci, and the Golden Ratio with –
LK: Oh yeah. Have you seen the tattoo?
MR: No, I haven’t seen the tattoo.
LK: Show Matthew the tattoo!
[Amy reveals a beautiful nautilus tattoo on her forearm, in white ink.]
MR: No way. How was that done?
AM: White. Ink.
MR: Are you crazy….
[L and A laughing]
MR: That’s wonderful, that’s really good.
MR: On one side, or on the other side, too?
AM: No, just one side.
LK: The other side is flesh-coloured ink, and then mole-coloured brown.
AM: Yeah, it’s a freckle-coloured –
MR: The other thing is that you paid for dinner, and I’m very grateful –
LK: You’re very welcome.
MR: So I have to make sure that –
LK: Well, you can buy me a meal when I’m in Toronto next time.
Six Lenses for Studying MPY: Phenomenology, Biology, Intersubjectivity, Psychoanalysis, Feminism, and Cross-Cultural Studies
This project began as a record of injuries and injury contexts in the culture of modern postural yoga (MPY). Along the way, it has evolved into a broader meditation upon the body in our disembodied age: its timeless struggles and pains, the meanings of effort, pleasure, sacrifice, aloneness, merging, attachment, and non-attachment. It’s a meditation on how we push and pull against our flesh, knowing somehow that this inner split we feel is not quite right. How we reach out beyond our skins, as if from a chrysalis. How we reach in to find sensation, or memories of sensations, revealing themselves along an infinite scale from the blissful to the abject.
In the process of this study, I’ve reached out for as much theoretical help as I can find, and tried to view the scene through as many lenses as possible. I’ll describe some of these lenses here, briefly, to give a sense of what’s going on behind the curtain, and the concerns that have driven my questioning technique in the interviewing process. All of these lenses have limitations, which means that I don’t apply any of them exclusively or rigidly. I’m actually interested in their flaws as much as their strengths, because the flaws show me where more study and more humility are required. Each lens can only hold a part of the story about how we hurt and heal through yoga. The fuller stories, of course, are told by people, and I’ll try to let those take centre stage.
[dropcap]M[/dropcap]y natural point of departure will be the phenomenological view. This is a commitment to examining, as far as is possible, the immediate sensory data available in any given experience, before applying any theory at all. My own fascination with asana began with feeling it in my flesh: the sweetness of movement and strength, the frustration and pain at the limit of movement and strength, the endless dialogue between voluntary and involuntary actions, and the swell of my breath. I wouldn’t be writing this book were it not for these quickening sensations. Asana was the field of mindfulness through which I rediscovered and then remapped myself after the disembodiment of an awkward adolescence and the numbness of depression.
When I ask myself “What am I actually doing in asana?”, my attention seems to focus on the sound of that last word—āsana—which holds a cascade of internal and external textures that have poured through me, overtaken me, and proven my very existence to myself. When I say the word, I don’t think of posture or forms or teaching or teachers or ideals or goals. I think of actions that invite feelings and feelings that invite actions. The context seems irrelevant: these actions/feelings can flow equally freely when I’m alone in my study, or in a packed class in which the very walls seem to vibrate and sweat. The phenomenological approach allows me to pay attention to what something seems to be for me, before I get distracted by the question of what it means to me or others—or worse, what it should mean.
It’s an approach that’s coherent with a theme that hums like a drone throughout the literature of Ha·tha Yoga: concepts are a weak starting point for knowledge. The Hathapradīpikā, for example, sidelines all discussions of cosmology and ethics in favour of concentrating upon bodily realities: how to cook for your belly, how to clean your digestive organs, how to position your limbs and manipulate your breath to stimulate the most revelatory bodily responses. Some commentators go so far as to say that considerations of morality, for example, can further confuse the ambivalence of the alienated, non-present mind, and that there’s no use in thinking about what the body should do before one clearly feels it as a site of mystic discovery, and is fully awake to its possibilities. The idea is that appropriate philosophy will naturally flow from a mind first tamed and then vitalized by the celebrating flesh. More on this in a bit.
But any study that stops at the phenomenological level wallows in the wish that experience can somehow be separated from meaning. As many recent commentators in yoga culture have pointed out, the meaning of every experience—especially those that seem to convince us of their universality—are always filtered through the pre-existing psycho-social constructs of the practitioners. Yogis the world over might be feeling similar bodily sensations in practice, but this commonality will in no way predict a shared story. The strength of the phenomenological method—to value feeling over meaning—is also its outer weakness. It forgets, purposefully, that the feelings generated depend on the environmental and social contexts that produce them. Its inner weakness is its focus on the irreducibly subjective. Phenomenology tells me what I think I feel myself to be alone, when what I really am is the complex product of being with other people. Further, phenomenology will only ever reflect my experience back to myself within the confines of my own private language. I may learn to share this language artfully, but those who hear and read me will have far more access to my literary affect than to “me.”
Another profound problem with this starting point—and one which I’ll examine closely in this book, because it relates directly to our assumptions about pain and injury—is that there are often strong differences between what we feel is happening within us and what is actually happening. People who have come close to dying of hypothermia report warm blissful sensations as they relaxed into the icy water. Soldiers feel surges of confidence and vigour immediately after sustaining life-threatening wounds. If they make it to the field hospital, they will often decline pain medication for the first several days. The pain of an anorectic’s hunger can flicker into mystical pleasure. Most cancer sufferers are completely unaware of even substantial malignancies, because cancer cells do not provoke inflammatory responses, and cause no pain at all until they accumulate to such a degree that they create internal mechanical pressures that tissue and organ structures can no longer tolerate. All too often, our senses deceive us, even when our bodies are our focal points of mindful reflection. The best phenomenology can feel the body intimately, while utterly failing to know it.
This poses a sticky problem for the yoga practitioner, who is repeatedly told to “listen to the body” or “attune to the breath” in the hope of avoiding the stresses that lead to injury. But when we ask people to “listen to the body”, we just can’t know what they are hearing. We cannot say, “Here is the precise point at which a person’s effort and discomfort is turning into the pain of tissue damage.” And often, surprisingly, they can’t either. This means that all of the desired sensations evoked by asana can be pursued to the point of injury, while yielding many gifts along the way. Feeling open or extended or aligned is no guarantee of the health that most practitioners expect to come from practice.
[dropcap]T[/dropcap]his is where the nuts and bolts of the biomechanical and neuroscientific views come into play, to supplement the poetry of internal sensation with evidenced fact.
Let’s take the condition of “hypermobility” as an example. Subjective sensation alone will not tell a person that she’s hypermobile. She may discover it by comparing herself to other movers, or by visiting a kinesiologist who uses a clinical tool like the Beighton Scale, which measures the range of extension in key joints. If her hypermobility is the result of a genetic condition such as Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, neither her subjectivity nor physical examination alone will reveal this, unless she’s a microbiologist who can evaluate how she produces collagen for her joints.
To take a more generally applicable example, we cannot tell by sensation alone how our cartilage is managing the stress of daily life, let alone the pressures and twistings of asana. Articular cartilage is specifically evolved to evade nociception, or the perception of pain. A practitioner can fly through the strenuous sequences of Ashtanga Yoga for years, sustaining soft-tissue injuries from time to time that heal up well enough, while remaining completely unaware of the deterioration of their cartilage, until sudden and catastrophic pain erupts when it finally gives way, and bone meets bone with a sickening grind.
To date, most yoga education, because it has proceeded on phenomenological grounds, often bolstered by myopic spiritualism, has been woefully ignorant of the most basic facts surrounding the core actions of movement that many forms of practice demand. What is a safe range of motion, and how do we detect it in the individual? (Kinesiologists know. Most personal trainers know.) Do muscles actually lengthen via stretching? (Strangely, no.) Is steady breath really a foolproof method for maintaining safety in a pose? (Nope.) Is it actually healthful to do the exact same set of movements at the same time period every day? (Most sports medicine people agree that cross-training is essential for structural integrity.) What’s the actual mechanism by which our tolerance for pain increases? (The philosophy of mindfulness can help, but we really have to understand neurology before approaching this question with integrity.)
You’ll search yogic and Ayurvedic literature in vain for anything but poetic allusions to these questions, not to mention answers. Compared to what contemporary biomechanics and neuroscience has to offer, yoga seems ill-equipped to study itself. It must reach beyond the thrall of subjective reverie and its pre-biomedical heritage if it wants answers that can improve the safety and sustainability of practice.
[dropcap]A[/dropcap]s soon as the phenomenon of yoga practice becomes a conversation between teacher and student, one practitioner and others, or between yoga theory and other disciplines, we’re using an intersubjective view. This is the commitment to understanding all thoughts and feelings as arising through relationship between self and other. The learning of subjective mindfulness widens immeasurably when we consider how even our capacity to be mindful has been modeled for us by others, how our sense of hidden internal reality is something that forms with the realization that the other person has an interiority that we can’t access. The intersubjective lens widens away from the real estate of the body-alone-on-the-mat to take in the classroom of the studio and social life. In Threads of Yoga (2012), I summarized it this way:
“Intersubjectivity” is the philosophical and psychological acknowledgement that experience and meaning are co-created through human relationship. It is an advancement from the “isolated mind” moods of earlier philosophies (Descartes), early psychologies (Freud), and most of Western science prior to quantum theory— all of which presume clear boundaries between the observer and the observed, the “I” and the “you”. Intersubjectivity posits that although we often feel separated from each other in private bubbles of meaning, our fundamental condition is one of togetherness and unconscious empathy, in which we intuit that the interior lives of those we are with are similar to our own, that the “you” I encounter is another “I” looking back at a “you”, who is myself.
The intersubjective sphere begins to account for how we learn from each other, from how we think of ourselves to how we move. It is the realm of parents and children, teachers and students, friends, enemies, and neutral players. It describes every mode of being as a being-with. In asana, it would focus on the fact that other than the few hardwired movement reflexes (startling, rooting, suckling) that we are born with, the vast majority of our movement knowledge comes from our capacity to mirror others, most likely through the primal functions of our mirror neurology. This means that no one learns the often unnatural and counter-intuitive shapes of asana without mimicking what one sees others do. This in turn means that the asanas we learn are not even our own until our interest in mirroring has been exhausted and we begin to create new forms, driven by more original stimuli. Before this happens, we have to acknowledge that asana practice is not private, personal, or purely subjective. Asana occurs between bodies that generate their subjectivity by sharing it.
[dropcap]A[/dropcap]lthough I have a lot of reservations about it, I find that the psychoanalytic view can form a useful bridge between the internal sensations of asana and their intersubjective context. The psychoanalytic mode weaves a rich story of internal and internalized pressures that resonate loudly with the struggles my interview subjects present in their stories from the mat. The scope of its literature and practice is vast, and by turns pompous, myopic, and searingly insightful. Any study of yoga or mindfulness practice would be impoverished by ignoring it.
Of primary importance in the psychoanalytic consideration of asana is the idea that for as much as we long for “union” (with ourselves, with God, with a beloved), we are also terrified of the imagined effects of union upon the coherence of the selves we know. Every desire both conceals and reveals a fear. We want love, be we are not sure what it means or what we must sacrifice to have it.
Sigmund Freud may not have set a strong personal example for the modern yogic ideals of attunement, contentment, bodily awareness, geniality, and conceptual flexibility, but he did offer a crucial insight for all practitioners to consider. He critiqued the goal of mystical, “peak-experience” communion that is shared by most religious and yogic traditions as a longing to regress to an infantile state—for a “yoga” with the mother, prior to the stress of individuation. Today, he would likely say that yoga is fantasized—even hallucinated by the most neurotic adepts—as a state of oceanic interdependency in all aspects of our being, something that we unconsciously remember from the womb, and something to which we can never return, unless we concoct a metaphysical womb beyond the world that will someday receive us in unconditional warmth and love. This thought alone casts a poignant shadow over the yogic effort, while shedding light on how a kind of existential frustration might be a constant if hidden companion on our mats.
Strangely, the ascetic view of Patanjali’s time intersects with Freud’s cynicism about our happiest goals. In the Yoga Sutras, for example, there is no return to the oneness of the womb, or anything fulfilling in material life at all. Our best bet, it is said, is to seek for something beyond birth, contact, intimacy, change, and death. The entire thrust of this “classical” era of practice encourages the practitioner away from sensually immersive and unitary states, and to withdraw from action and social contact into a realm of perfectly isolated (kaivalya) observation. The text invokes a kind of “death drive”, to use Freud’s idea. Patanjali would suggest that the pleasure of psychosomatic integration—arguable the primary goal for most MPY practitioners—is an unstable answer to the sufferings of life, which can only be overcome by complete dissociation from everything we would know as being human. While we seem to feel in our bodies that some kind of somatic integration is possible, the psychoanalytic view suggests another way of looking at the ‘enlightenment’ goal we seek. If it really is a fantasized mirage beyond the horizon, we might wonder if we’ve been chasing it off the cliff of personal injury.
At its best, psychoanalytic literature provides rich insight into the process of self-formation, both through and against the development of an independent body. It tracks the early childhood attachments, and strategies for self-soothing and the acceptable expression of desire. It is very concerned with how a sense of selfhood displaces, satisfies, or neutralizes bodily needs, and whether resentment or even enmity towards the body can evolve through this process. It offers multiple narratives for the origin of self and body images: the internal ideals and disappointments that mediate both solitary and social actions. What is yoga, if not the active adjustment or even manipulation of our self- and body-images?
Psychoanalytic insights into how early family structures influence the formation of the self now have widespread cultural currency. We know that how a child is cared for or neglected, how her space is invaded or respected, how she is made to feel guilty for existing, or like she’s the very centre of the universe—this is crucial history for understanding the kind of body and world she feels herself to occupy as an adult. If yoga is pursued by many today in an attempt to feel comfortable in their skins, well-regulated in relationship, mindful of their needs without feeling needy, interdependent as opposed to co-dependent—the broad findings of psychoanalysis can be very useful. But I’ll focus on just one of its threads here.
The British psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott described how a child who realizes that the parental object (usually framed as the mother, although today the gender-role essentialism of this position is receiving justified critique) cannot fulfill her every need may choose to interpret those needs as unworthy or even shameful. To manage this shame, the child learns to repress her needs by creating a “false self”, who masters the performance of a cheerful, apparently self-sufficient persona, refusing to display any need that would inconvenience the neglectful parent.
We know this person: nothing is ever wrong in her life. Even the wrong things are welcomed, divine challenges. Not only is it illegal for her to be publically miserable, but she dedicates herself to evangelizing happiness to every dark corner that dares to remind her of what she’s repressed.
Decades later, in her amazing work on the psychology of anorexia nervosa, Susie Orbach extended Winnicott’s idea of the “false self” into the idea of a “false body”. She suggests that as soon as the body reveals itself as needy, vulnerable, farting, menstruating, asymmetrical, or in pain, a sense of shame might overcome the person that can only be managed by fantasizing a body that must be incapable of producing these dark things. The false body is toxically vitalized by the anxious hope to please others through the performance of beauty and strength. The “truer” body—that vessel of aches and pains, fear and trembling, insomnia, frustrated urges and uncertain purpose—doesn’t go away, of course. It is still the lived-in body, wearing the fantasy as a disguise.
[W]here the developing child has not had a chance to experience its physicality as good, wholesome and essentially all right, it has little chance to live in an authentically experienced body. A false body is then fashioned which conceals the feelings of discomfort and insecurity with regard to the hidden or undeveloped ‘inner body’. The ‘false body’ is, like [Winnicott’s] ‘false self’, precarious. It works as a defense against the unaccepted embryonic real body. Again, like the false self, it is malleable. In attempting to gain external acceptance, the “false body’ is fluid and manipulable. The woman in the ‘false body’ becomes used to trying to reform it along approved-of lines. It does not provide the individual with a stable core but a physical plasticity expressing a complex of inner feelings.
It’s all so yoga. Orbach uses the language of “inner body” and “embryonic real body” (and later, “real self”) in opposition to the “false body”. This would seem to mirror many metaphysical streams in yoga that locate the source of bodily suffering in the repression or distortion of that subtler internal body that is closer to a real self. In many forms, yoga seems to be saying that the illusory physical form you identify with distracts you from the wounded energetic pattern that made it. Turn your attention to that wounded inner being, therefore. When you see what it actually is, it might dance freely.
Orbach suggests that in the person with anorexia this tangle of real and false bodies leads to tragically divisive behaviour:
She is caught in a tension. The separation from her embryonic self is at the same time an attempt at protecting it and an expression of her destructive impulse towards it. The push towards the latter comes out of conviction that the real self is bad, dangerous and poisonous. The real self has needs, and the mother’s early failure to meet these needs are the proof of their ‘illegitimacy’ and ‘the badness inside’. The needs are what send people away and the needs are the reason that the person is not adequately related to. But since she does indeed live in her body, the bad object encroaches insistently, she cannot be released from it. (Orbach, loc. 1732-1747)
Here’s what I think: some people might be getting hurt in yoga because they are practicing in the bodies they fantasize about, instead of the bodies they actually have. Bodies they fantasize expressing a happiness that is not truly there. Bodies they fantasize as expansive when they actually feel like retreating, or expressive when they feel choked. What happens to the tissues when the mind presses them into the performance of a fictional suppleness and strength? Can the fantasized body push the real body, the inner body, too far, too fast?
A brief personal example: I had a chronic hamstring injury for over a year that came in part by working towards Hanumanasana. As I worked, I would often visualize Hanuman’s heroic leap from the Himalayas to Lanka and fantasize about that flight, that buoyant freedom. The wonder and devotion I felt in my heart could at times overwhelm the pain in the back of my thigh. But at other times, the pain seemed to amplify my devotion. Whose body was I practicing with, and towards? Is Hanuman’s body any different as a fantasy object than the body of objectified beauty?
What a tangle of matter and ghost, as Leonard Cohen sings.
The advice of Patanjali seems to warn exactly against working with bodily fantasies. The path of the Sutras proposes that the inner body of memory and habit emerging from socialization must be straightened out first through good ethics and interpersonal hygiene. The yamas and niyamas are directed at the subconscious patterns that generate a tense, distracted, and delusional gross self. Once these are pacified, the argument goes, the gross self of the body (a formerly “false body”, perhaps) can be repurposed through asana and breathwork towards a new type of interiority that goes beyond the psychosocial target of psychoanalysis, penetrating into the very heart of what it means to be a conscious subject.
But modern postural yoga really doesn’t pay that much attention to Patanjali’s developmental arc, in part because it is far more influenced by the argument put forward by the more impatient Hatha literature. The Hatha Yoga Pradipika, for example, presents the gross body as the first site of work and revelation. Without exploring the body first through asana we risk amplifying our internal splits by simply paying attention to them. In Saraswati’s preface to Muktibhodananda’s commentary on the HYP the Swami states:
Self-control and self-discipline should start with the body. That is much easier. Asana is discipline; pranayama is discipline; kumbhaka (retention of breath) is self-control . . . . Why do you fight with the mind first? You have no power to wrestle with the mind, yet you wrestle with it, thereby creating a pattern of animosity towards yourself. There are not two minds, there is one mind trying to split itself into two. One mind wants to break the discipline and the other mind wants to maintain the discipline. You can find this split in everybody. When this split becomes greater, then we call it schizophrenia. (1985, 6)
I agree with Saraswati in a general sense. But I don’t think his position is adequate if we want to explore the question of what kind of internal or external authority is disciplining the body, and according to what ideals, and whether the body we’re practicing with is the one we actually have, or the one we want to have.
[dropcap]I[/dropcap]n many ways, psychoanalysis might be a fractured and greasy lens through which to view MPY. Firstly, its overt atheism—while perhaps a refreshing antidote to the metaphysical jargon that can predominate yoga discourse—will be discordant with the sentiments of many practitioners. Secondly, the claustrophobic thicket of psychoanalytic language does not seem harmonic with the expansive and celebratory sentiments of yogic aspirations. Sigmund Freud, Melanie Klein, and even Julia Kristeva, I imagine, would feel pretty uncomfortable at a kirtan.
Most importantly, using psychoanalytic principles to view the drives, desires, and frustrations of yoga presents a bitter political problem that isn’t going away any time soon. The primarily western scholars who, with varying degrees of transparency, use it to investigate yoga and the Indian religious cultures that employ it have been viciously accused of perpetuating the legacy of colonialism in academic and clinical form by infantilizing, sexualizing, and pathologizing key teachers and the core tenets of practice. It’s a cold war, with one side calling for academic freedom, and the other calling for an end to cultural appropriation and distortion. From a (self-serving) psychoanalytic perspective, the pulping of Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus: An Alternative History over her secular analyses of class and gender realities in Indian spirituality, or the vitriol directed at Jeffrey Kripal over his suggestion that Ramakrishna might have been homosexual or pedophilic, are signs of a nationalistic ego-structure defending itself against the scandalous revelation of unconscious drives. From the perspective of both Hindutva defenders, and secular scholars who attack Doniger and Kripal’s philology and sourcing, their work is just another way in which an empire dehumanizes its cultural and economic colony, stealing its stories to validate its own perverted and cynical view of humanity.
As much as I’m able, I would like to avoid this open wound by being clear that I’m conservatively using psychoanalytic concepts to investigate the motivations of global MPY practitioners of many cultures and denominations, including those who profess no denomination at all. I’m not applying it to a heritage generally, but to the experience of individuals in a transnational movement. I also acknowledge that the concepts and biases of psychoanalysis may be anathema to Indian wisdom traditions in many ways. But there is one harmony: neither paradigm is scientific. Despite the pretensions of Freud to psychoanalytic “science”, and the scientific dreams of Swamis Vivekananda and Kuvalyananda, neither psychoanalysis nor yoga offer us the kinds of evidence that builds airplanes or proves the effectiveness of vaccines. The language of ego, id, libido, thanatos and cathexis is as elliptical as the language of prana, nadi, chakra, ahamkara and atman. Psychoanalysis offers a poetry of tensions and alienations to shadow yoga’s poetry of intermingling essences and potentials. I think each poetics can learn from the other.
[dropcap]P[/dropcap]erhaps the most withering criticism leveled at psychoanalysis is that it both dramatizes and normalizes the privileged lives of those who can afford it. In the words of one commentator, it serves the dubious purpose of “making bourgeois lives seem fascinating”, largely by ignoring the material realities of social power. Here, (the) feminist view(s)can provide(s) a foundational critical analysis of power, inequality, objectification and overdetermination through which many other forms of critique flow.
The story of MPY is a story of re-embodiment as a response to industrialization and technologization. It’s a story of the development of a non-denominational global spirituality. It’s a story of the evolution of self-help movements predicated upon “holism”. It’s the story of resistance to biomedical hegemony and the clinical gaze.
But it is also a story of how women have largely taken the reigns of a globalized psycho-somatic and spiritual culture for themselves, to find new expressions of strength and bodily purpose. For this reason alone, MPY tells a feminist story. And of course, any subculture that consists of 80% women must be interpreted through a feminist lens.
Feminist theory provides sharp tools for investigating how yoga has been and still can provide resistance to caste structure, religious dogmatism, gender essentialism (and essentialism of all types), as well as oppressive interpretations of the body. Its modern usefulness is all the more poignant given that yoga emerges from the strongly patriarchal culture of India, which was declared in 2012 by a panel of human rights experts to be one of the worst places in the world to be a woman. Feminism, like yoga, shows up whenever the dominant paradigm reveals its cruelty. Both can mount fierce challenges to hierarchies of oppression and how they are internalized by the individual psyche as habits of self-and-other violence. Feminism isn’t just about women. It’s about finding new sources of power in the body, in self-image, and in community, by challenging vertical power structures that for too long have tried to tell people who they are. “Visionary feminism,” as bell hooks writes, “is a wise and loving politics . . . [a] commitment to ending patriarchal domination of women and men, girls and boys.”
One of the many important contributions feminism has to offer the study of MPY is in tracking and encouraging the pedagogical shift from the patriarchal/authoritarian to the collective/communitarian. Through scandals and the righteous cynicism that follow, then older guru-based teaching paradigms are crumbling, giving way in fits and starts to community-based systems of horizontal learning. The obstruction of this trend by the vertical forces of consumerism and commodification is a further target of feminist analysis. Feminist critics are also very well-equipped to address the overlap between yoga optics and the commercial sexualization of women’s bodies. Without the lens of feminism, an examination of yoga culture and its impact on the psyches and tissues of not only women but all people rings hollow. Even the rich disagreements between various strands of feminism—such as the friction between second and third-wave activists over how and in what circumstances women’s sexuality can be a source of empowerment—are instructive, insofar as they show a level of passionate intergenerational debate that is largely absent in current yoga culture.
It’s also from feminist analysis that questions about normative modes of gender identity emerge. Every day, tens of millions of women throughout the world go to the mat to explore, reconcile with, revision and redefine the meanings and purposes of their bodies. As stereotypes of appearance, beauty and reproductive purpose are interrogated, the door opens for other embodiments of gendered or even genderless meaning. It has been the implicit and explicit feminist spaces of MPY, from Vanda Scaravelli’s home studio in Florence to Christi-an Slomka’s Kula Annex in Toronto to Sri Louise’s Underground Yoga Parlour for Self-Knowledge & Social Justice in Oakland to online forums like Be Scofield’s Decolonizing Yoga that have opened yoga’s doors to the populations it is perhaps best suited to serve—those who live and express through non-normative bodies, sexualities, identities, and politics.
[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he final lens is the broadest of all: the cross-cultural studies view. I won’t attempt a synopsis here, but rather list some of the questions, in no particular order, that this lens can begin to address:
Is yoga a cultural heritage, or a global technology? Am I, as a white, western, privileged male, equipped to answer this question for anyone but myself? Do I need to be a Sanskrit scholar to properly engage with the history and philosophy of yoga?
Am I qualified to use a feminist lens to investigate yoga culture?
Does asana (still) have religious or esoteric meaning? Should it? Who has it been meant for, and who is using it now?
How does the guru principle translate across cultures without hideous distortions?
Should yoga instruction be professionalized and regulated, or does this destroy the intimacy at the heart of the learning process?
Is yoga scientific? Can it be medicalized? Can it be tested in a double-blind controlled study, with placebo? If we start calling it a placebo itself, do we degrade the beliefs of those who practice it with religious conviction?
How does the romance of Orientalism influence the drives of non-Indian practitioners?
What kind of devotion can a non-Indian practitioner develop towards Indian deities? What does that devotion feel like?
Are the ideals of medieval Hatha Yoga coherent with now-global ideals of therapeutic self-care?
Was the gymnasium environment at the Mysore Palace where Krishnamacharya began his public asana instruction anything like the modern yoga studio? Did it sanction corporal punishment, and has this influenced the adjustment techniques of MPY? Why did apparently none of the many people who were personally injured by Pattabhi Jois or B.K.S. Iyengar lodge formal complaints with the police of Mysore or Pune?
How does the fictionalization of MPY’s “ancient” roots in the soil of a fetishized India fill an aching void at the heart of an ahistorical and homeless postmodernity?
“The paths are many. The truth is one.” What yoga luminary hasn’t said this, or something like it? Vivekananda, Gandhi, Krishnamacharya, and every yoga teacher influenced by Vedanta—they’ve all said it. They’re referencing the primordial Shiva, who is said to have taught 84,000 paths of yoga, all of which lead to liberation. I’d say that there are just as many interpretive strategies for looking at the impacts of yoga—whichever path is taken—on people’s bodies and minds. But unlike Shiva’s paths, these yogas of interpretation do not all lead to the same place, unless we understand “liberation” to mean the friction and pleasure of continuing conversation within a community struggling to articulate its goals, and to mature.
(page references are for volumes listed in the prospectus bibliography):
This project began . . . “Modern Postural Yoga” is one of the divisions of contemporary practice delineated by Elizabeth de Michelis (2004). Dominated by the techniques of B.K.S. Iyengar and Pattabhis Jois, it is evolute of the “Modern Psychosomatic Yoga”, taught by Swamis Kuvalyananda and Sivananda, among others, and distinct from the “Modern Meditational Yoga” that is the legacy of Sri Chimnoy and the TM subculture. De Michelis contends that MPY has become a globalized “healing ritual of secular religion.” (252-260)
My natural point of departure . . . “Phenomenology” (the “study of that which appears”) is a philosophical movement dating back to the work of Edmund Husserl (1859-1938) and carried forward by Martin Heidegger and the existentialists. Broadly speaking, it attempts to limit metaphysical speculation to accurately record the facts of consciousness. Sokolowski (2000) provides a good primer, but my favourite writer in the field is the charmed Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1908-1961).
It’s an approach that’s coherent . . . The main commentary I have in mind regarding the usefulness of morality at the outset of practice is in Saraswati’s preface to Muktibhodananda’s commentary on the HYP (1985): “Self-control and self-discipline should start with the body. That is much easier. Asana is discipline; pranayama is discipline; kumbhaka (retention of breath) is self-control . . . . Why do you fight with the mind first? You have no power to wrestle with the mind, yet you wrestle with it, thereby creating a pattern of animosity towards yourself. There are not two minds, there is one mind trying to split itself into two. One mind wants to break the discipline and the other mind wants to maintain the discipline. You can find this split in everybody. When this split becomes greater, then we call it schizophrenia.” (6)
But any study that stops at the phenomenological level . . . Be Scofield has led the popular charge here in asserting no necessary connection between yoga practices and social meanings and outcomes. Her response to me over my naïve attempts to connect mindfulness practices to some kind of natural progressive politics is really good: http://www. tikkun.org/tikkundaily/2012/11/22/the-limitations-of-empathy-a-response-to-matthew-remski/.
Another profound problem with this starting point . . . Reports of the strangely pain-free wounded soldiers—which permanently complicated Descartes’ vision of the nervous system as a simple mechanical relay—come from the field notes of Harry K. Beecher who treated Allied troops returning from the Anzio Beachhead during the winter of 1943-44. The data and its implications are soundly analyzed by Wall (2002, 3), who also presents a wrenching account of the pain of cancer: “Cancer pain is worse than useless. It provides absolutely no protective signal because the disease is far advanced before it starts. Once started, it announces the obvious and, if it goes untreated, it simply adds to the miseries of impending death. Worse, untreated pain accelerates death.” (87) Orbach (1986) is very good on the ambivalence of the anorectic’s pain.
This poses a sticky problem . . . My personal essay on the experience of deep vein thrombosis might be helpful here: http://matthewremski.com/wordpress/wawadia-update-8-notes-on-my-hospitalization/.
This is where the nuts and bolts . . . Jess Glenny has been indispensable in helping me understand the subtleties of the label “hypermobility”. http:// movingprayer.wordpress.com/.
To date, most yoga education . . . Paul Grilley’s usage of actual human bones in his presentations of anatomy for yoga instruction have been central to opening the pedagogy to medical epistemology, especially with regard to range-of-motion issues: http://www.paulgrilley.com/bone-photo-gallery. Gil Hedley’s dissection labs are currently attracting flocks of yoga teachers and therapists: http://www. gilhedley.com/ghabout.php. Jules Mitchell’s forthcoming book on the science of stretching will be a game changer. Neil Pearson (2007) is a leading pain researcher for the global yoga community.
As soon as the phenomenon of yoga practice . . . Intersubjectivity is a core topic within the psychoanalytic and psychotherapeutic literatures. Practical resources of benefit to yoga practitioners and teachers who realize that teaching and learning are mutually influential exchanges that should change teachers as much as learners would include Stern (2004) and Buirski and Haglund (2001). The quote from Remski (2012) is from pages 14-15.
The intersubjective sphere begins . . . The work of D.W. Winnicott (1964, 1965, 1971) is very helpful for understanding mirror-type learning within the dyad of baby and mother. Stein (2007) and Iacoboni (2009) are helpful introductory sources to the mysteries of mirror neurology.
Sigmund Freud may not have set a strong personal example . . . Freud’s views on religion are voluminous and well-scattered. Look for his most sustained infantalization of the mystical experience in Civilization and its Discontents (1961) and Moses and Monotheism (1967).
Strangely, the ascetic view . . . Edwin Bryant’s (2009) description of the Yoga Sutras driving towards “isolation” is pretty conclusive: “Yoga can thus mean that which joins, that is, unties one with the Absolute Truth, and while this translation of the term is popularly found . . . it is best avoided in the context of the Yoga Sutras, since . . . the goal of yoga is not to join, but the opposite: to unjoin, that is, to disconnect purusa from prakriti.” (5)
Psychoanalytic insights . . . The literature here is vast, but a great starting point is Kaplan’s Oneness and Separateness (1978). Bollas’ Being a Character (2013) is also very useful.
The British psychoanalyst . . . Winnicott’s clearest presentation of this idea comes in “Ego distortion in terms of true and false self”, a gem-like 1960 article that was later folded into the 1965 collection. Orbach’s Hunger Strike (1986) is a tour de force that should be required reading for yoga teachers who want a solid feminist understanding of the perils of self-help culture and purification fetishes.
Most importantly, using psychoanalytic principles . . . The subject of cultural appropriation and distortion in global yoga is a tinderbox of passion and polemic. Be Scofield’s Decolonizing Yoga website is a good resource: http://www.decolonizingyoga. com/. Roopa Singh’s work with SAAPYA is excellent: http://saapya.wordpress.com/. Doniger’s The Hindus (2009) was targeted by Hindutva radicals in 2010, leading to Penguin India agreeing to withdraw all unsold copies and have them destroyed. Her main offense has been to portray Indian spiritual culture as diverse, erotically charged, at times militaristic, and at times transgressive. Jeffrey Kripal’s Kali’s Child (1995) was initially lauded by western academia, and then viciously attacked by some Indian scholars and religious leaders who claim Kripal is misinterpreting his Bengali source texts, pathologizing Tantra, and misapplying psychoanalytic principles. Some of the most robust rebuttals to these and other scholars have come from Rajiv Malhotra (2011, 2014). His essay “Wendy’s Child Syndrome” is a fascinating read: http:// rajivmalhotra.com/library/articles/risa-lila-1-wendys-child-syndrome/.
Perhaps the most withering criticism leveled at psychoanalysis . . . MacKenzie Wark, in The Beach Beneath the Street, criticizes another institution of self-care that can become myopic with individualism: “If there is one abiding purpose to psychoanalysis, it is to make bourgeois lives seem fascinating, at least to those who live them.” (Verso, 2012, p.93).
Feminist theory provides sharp tools . . . “panel of human rights activists”: http://in.reuters.com/article/2012/06/13/g20-women-idINDEE85C00420120613. “Visionary feminism . . . ” is from hooks’ Feminism is for Everybody (2000).
One of the many important contributions feminism has to offer the study of MPY . . . For this, there’s nothing better than hooks in Teaching to Transgress (1994) and Teaching Community (2003). For a feminist understanding of yoga, body image, and sexualization, Klein and Guest-Jelley (2014) provide a breakthrough effort in the field.
It’s also from feminist analysis . . . Vanda Scaravelli’s textual legacy is a lovely book called Waking the Spine, but her unwritten legacy lives on in the bodies of her surviving personal students—mostly women who she worked with one-on-one in an environment that they all describe as being personable, intimate, stress-free, and empowering. Christi-an Slomka can be found at http://www. lakesofdevotion.ca/. Sri Louise works here: http:// undergroundyogaparlour.com/?page_id=14.
The final lens is . . . These questions are hinted at or tackled head on in the work of Singleton (2008, 2010, 2013), Sjoman (1996), White (2009, 2012, 2014), Kramer and Alstad (1993), Stern and Donahaye (2013), Sovatsky (2013), de Michelis (2005), Kadetsky (2014), Horton (2012, 2012), Farhi (2006), Alter (2004), Malhotra (2011, 2014), Roopa Singh (SAAPYA).
The following essay is featured in the full WAWADIA? prospectus, released Nov 1 in support of this IGG campaign to help fund publication.
Years later, I heard the story of the warrior Arjuna learning archery from his guru Drona. The target was a dead bird, spinning on a wheel overhead. Arjuna drew the bowstring and took aim. Drona asked him: Do you see the arrowhead?” Arjuna replied, “No.” “Do you see the bird?” “No.” “Do you see the space between the arrow and the bird?” “No.”
“What do you see, Arjuna?”
“I see myself.”
“Then release the arrow!”
Arjuna’s arrow threads the eye of the bird. Catching that baseball felt like that.
[dropcap]A[/dropcap]t the age of 30, I went to a yoga class in Manhattan, trying to pull myself out of depression. It was at Alan Finger’s old place. The instructor was a woman my age who seemed charmed in a way that both irritated and attracted me. Like she had some pleasurable secret. Smiling, she said: “Today we’ll try to see if we can join the small self to the larger self.” The words jostled some memory of the Arjuna story, but they didn’t help my mood.
The postures in the class seemed simple, but they were extraordinarily difficult to do. And painful. I didn’t think the pain was physically damaging, because I remember feeling buoyant and relaxed for days afterwards.
The pain seemed to come from an angry recognition. Like when you fight bitterly with a brother or lover about something essential, and then try to reconcile, perhaps prematurely, with an embrace. Or when you survive something with another person— like a car crash—and you grip them tightly, as if to prove that you’re both still there. How many times, in some moment of crisis, did I squeeze my little brother hard around the neck, telling him I loved him through clenched teeth? He hugged me back fiercely, tears squeezing out of his eyes.
The sweat and pain in that yoga class was just like that. I was reconciling with a body that had survived my neglect and even abuse, a body that I also loved and depended upon, a body not quite ready to forgive me for my absence. My body reached back and gripped me in a catharsis of anguish and rage that completely dissipated when I lay myself down, trembling, into corpse pose. I disappeared into the earth.
When I came to, I rolled to my right side and opened my eyes. Sunlight poured onto my drenched mat. I found myself gazing at the palm of my left hand, the same hand that caught that ball. The same hand that plunked out base lines on the piano I used to play, and that now darts over the left side of this keyboard. But in that moment, my hand wasn’t an instrument for me to use. It was me. Somewhere I’d heard the Upanishad refrain I am that, and it came to mind like a bell ringing. I had remembered something about my existence. I am that. I have a hand. I am this hand. Through the warmth in the palm of my hand, I had joined the small self, as the instructor had said, with something much larger. This shivering present body became continuous again with the shivering present world.
[dropcap]I[/dropcap]t’s my pattern to get obsessed with anything that makes sense to me, or makes me feel smarter, or gives me a little relief. So it was with yoga. I wanted to learn as much as I could. I leapt into teaching—way too soon—so I could continue to learn, and finance more learning. My diet changed for the better, and along with it, my digestion. My mood regulation got more resilient. Libido and sleep improved. I seemed to be less socially anxious. I remember walking into rooms and realizing with quiet surprise I’m standing up straight and breathing freely. How did this happen?
But it wasn’t enough. What I really wanted was to revisit that initial revelation, in which I’d felt like I’d seen myself clearly and simply. It never repeated itself. I’m not sure that you can practice to see yourself clearly. Maybe it happens when you relax the searching that amplifies all of your self-distortions.
After about five years, my efforts in practice began to injure me, although I didn’t want to admit it. Neck pain, shoulder pain, lower back pain, a partial hamstring tear that nagged my every waking hour for over a year. I was humiliated, because I’d expected asana to provide a continual upwards curve of self-knowledge, and through self-knowledge, bodily release and mental freedom. I wondered what my lack of suppleness was telling me about my psyche. I blamed my technique, and tried to learn more, which of course led to overthinking and micromanaging every movement. I blamed my supposed new sensitivity to the technologized world. I made my schedule more austere, sought out more retreat time. I blamed caffeine, and cut it out entirely. I got very attached to the idea of being non-attached to the idea of being pain-free. I blamed myself for pushing, being greedy, and tried to back off in intensity. But slowly and deliberately doing the same movements that had hurt me, still hurt me. The weird part was that these movements that I was realizing were hurtful often brought pain relief first.
I told myself that now, finally, the real spiritual work was beginning, and it was dirty. I told myself that the asanas and the meditation had finally burrowed down to find the tangled mess of my soul. Exposed, this soul could now show its wound, its unworthiness, by speaking through physical pain. The ache in my hamstring was a message in a bottle, bobbing in the ocean of memory and identity. It gave me a mythic journey to consider. It made me real. This was a very powerful story.
It felt like the surface benefits of yoga had become normalized, and lost their shine. An older teacher I respected told me: “Yoga is a deconstruction of your whole personhood: who you think you are, and why you think you’re here. It hurts. The hook is that it makes you feel good at first.”
I looked around my community and saw that everybody was still suffering: injured, anxious, depressed, insomniac, amenorrheic, disordered in their eating, struggling in work or miserable in relationship. I turned the story I was telling myself onto them: yoga had brought us all to some existential edge at which we could feel not only how deeply wrecked we were, but we could understand and even consciously embody the suffering of the larger world. We had tuned in to reality in some fateful way. There was no cure for reality but to keep practicing.
I’ll say more about this personal dynamic in the pages that follow. For today, I wonder how many of us become injured in yoga while trying to recapture the exact thing we cannot: a first revelation we had on the mat that reminded us of something else, so far gone. Can we confuse the discomfort of that revelation with the pain of trying to recreate it? Does it make sense to use a highly formalized structure of asanas to rebuild the spontaneous pleasure of childhood movements? In how many ways can it hurt to swim against the tide of time and fatigue?
[dropcap]T[/dropcap]here’s another yoga moment featuring my left hand. As the pain of asana and the physical discomfort of meditation increased, I turned to philosophy and the Vedic arts. These were paths of self-inquiry that I could pursue in a posture that had comforted me from childhood: at my desk, surrounded by books. I dove into Ayurveda, Jyotish (East Indian Astrology), Vastu (Vedic spatial arrangement), and Hasta Samudrika (Vedic palmistry). This last subject felt particularly magical to me. It’s a collection of very old ideas about how experience might write itself upon the body. My teacher was Hart deFouw, and under his grumpy kindness I learned a vast catalogue of bodily markings and their supposed meanings. But most of all I absorbed the idea that the body holds a story as old as myth and as tangled as a novel, and that yoga is often a process of reading.
In one of my first seminar days with him, Hart said: “The best light to view the hand in is direct sunlight. So on your lunchbreak, go outside and look at the palm of your hand in the sun. You can do this anytime you want. You might be amazed at what you see, and how it changes.”
An hour later, I stood at the corner of Toronto’s busiest intersection and looked at the palm of my left hand in the midday summer sun. I saw a blazing, fractal map of lines and webs nested within lines and webs. Am I that? I wondered. Yes.
As a child I had become self-aware through my left hand in a moment of pure action. At 30, I remembered that my hand was there, still holding that childhood night, and that my body, which was my hand, was still me, and that I could still move and be happy in movement. At 38, I saw a story in the lines and glyphs of my skin. Perhaps all of the attention I’d paid to the asana instructions about the “movement of my skin” had left their mark, beside down-sloping lines of periodic depression, spikes of acute pain and elated discovery. The palm of my hand holds an unfinished story, which may or may not tell me who I am, but which drives me to look closely at the embodied experience of others, to see what is strange and what is familiar in our arcs of suffering and relief.