Update #2: What Are We Actually Doing in Asana? \\\ Questions, questions, questions!
About a month and two dozen interviews into this research project and I can honestly say I’ve learned more about how folks experience yoga than I have over the past eleven years of teaching. The stories of pain, injury, recovery, and wisdom keep rolling, each unraveling unique twists of psychology along with the tweaks of tissue.
- I’ve heard from practitioners who came to yoga as elite athletes who submitted to invasive adjustments because their experience with overbearing coaching made them overly compliant.
- I’ve heard ex-ballet dancers say that it took years for them to understand that they were in pain in asana practice, because they’d been so well-trained to sublimate.
- I’ve heard practitioners say: “Well even if the practice did hurt I generally kept doing it, because I thought my body might be lying to me.”
- I’ve heard of senior teachers slapping students on the side of head for not paying the proper amount of attention, intimidations which functioned to soften the students up for radical adjustments.
- I’ve heard from a student who injured herself in a class in which the teacher said: “Stay strong for the person next to you. Don’t give in to the discomfort. Hold this pose for everybody.”
- I listened to several practitioners talk about pain as a threshold to mystical experience.
- I listened to a practitioner describe how she tore her supraspinatus so badly while doing intensive arm balances that her arm became useless for almost a year, but that her practice culture (paired with not having medical insurance) encouraged her to believe that the injury was a sign of her body “reorganizing”. (But not all of the culture, happily. A fellow student with medical training donated the several thousand dollars she needed for an MRI.)
I’ve also heard poignant stories of how the pain and injury process helped turn baffled students into pragmatic and empathetic teachers. How continually testing a hamstring ligament tear stimulated a year-long meditation on the frustrations of self-identity. There have been a few interview subjects whose injuries were sustained through such teacherly negligence or outright cruelty that they carry the reasonable anger of survivors, decades later. But the majority of subjects express profound gratitude for their injury experiences. Without drifting into a post hoc ergo propter hoc argument about the relationship between injury and growth, it would seem that āsana practice for many can offer a safer laboratory for exploring the transformative potential of pain than we can find in war, work, sport, or even our own homes.
The process so far has provoked many questions for me, many of which have come to a head over the past few days through the discussion generated by Maya Devi Georg’s viral post, which complained about certain āsana teachers “obsessing” over alignment, while ignoring the compelling reasons for which alignment principles have become so important for so many.
Georg, a yoga instructor in Germany, presents the general thesis that overthinking can disrupt the flow of physical practice. Of course. But further, that biomechanics distract the aspiring yogi from meditating upon the Self. Well, maybe. It really depends on what you feel the “Self” to be. We’re endlessly creative when it comes to distracting ourselves from whatever needs the most tender work. But injury due to a lack of mindfulness can also be a bloody distraction from the Self (or non-self, or whatever it is), and the entire alignment movement, from the geometries innovated by Iyengar in the 1970s to the subtle patterning explorations of the students of (for example) Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen has applied an evolving kinetic intelligence towards injury prevention. There might be some compulsive tendencies amongst this lot, but their object isn’t to somehow avoid spirituality. It’s to use embodied experience to meditate on the potentially harmonious relationships between space, structure, and personhood. I responded to what, in my opinion, was Georg’s derogatory and minimizing position in detail in a little FB rant that was picked up by Yogabrains. I thought it worth expanding upon here by looking at some other questions that ripened in the ensuing discussion.
Why do we use Patañjali to guide our āsana ideas?
Maybe it’s because the three tips the Sūtras offer in 2.46-48 regarding āsana are excellent generalized advice: 1) be firm and stable, 2) relax your habit of effort, 3) feel the oscillations of reactivity become quiet. Or maybe because YS 2.1 can be elegantly extrapolated into a kind of “serenity prayer for āsana”, as per Leslie Kaminoff (who I had the pleasure of recently interviewing), who relates tapas to the will to change, Īśvara-praṇidhāna to surrendering to the unchangeable, and svādhyāya as the wisdom to know the difference. Such good stuff.
But might we also cling to the good book because it’s the one theoretical life-raft we can remember from our philosophy-thin trainings? Or do we cling to it because we don’t realize (or we actively ignore) that it’s not talking about the primary series, or even haṭhayoga at all, which emerges about a thousand years later? Maybe this omission allows us to overlook the complex aims of the haṭhayoga vibe – which are at the root of both āsana injury and therapeutics by design – and piously pretend that it’s all really simple, and that injured yogis have somehow sinned against the universalist storyline, and deserve thinly-veiled scorn for not abiding by aparigraha when they got tweaked in a backbend, following instructions to the best of their ability.
Or then again… the Yoga Sūtras might subconsciously provide a back door out of concern for the flesh altogether. The book’s argument, after all, moves towards an ultimate disembodiment, an a-yoga, as Edwin Bryant describes it, between consciousness (puruṣa) and the phenomenal world (prakṛti, personalized in the flesh). I wonder if repeated quoting of YS 2.46-48 may carry by association the hidden mantra of Patañjali’s thrust: In the end, your body doesn’t matter. Using this sentiment to question anality around alignment is one thing, but are we also using it to silence the existential question that will never leave us?
To me the takeaway is that solemnly quoting or misquoting old books neither softens the complexity of our evolving world nor does it let us off of the learning hook.
Why are teachers so eager to claim that no one has been injured in their classes?
Georg says: “My own lineage does not focus on alignment beyond safety. And yet, I can do and have successfully and safely taught thousands of students how to do advanced āsanas.” Another commenter agreed, saying: “No student has been injured in my classes because they were not in alignment.” I’ve heard similar statements for years.
Now I hope I don’t cause too much offense here by saying that such claims fit perfectly into a category of discourse concisely defined by Professor Harry G. Frankfurt as “bullshit”. Meaning: the claims could be true, or they could be false, but it really doesn’t matter, because the motivation behind them is to create an impression. It’s possible that Georg and fellows have never had students injuring themselves in class, but we must be honest that there’s no way of verifying this as fact, for the simple reason that the vast majority of people who injure themselves in āsana classes do not inform the teacher, and do not return to class. If we’re talking about “thousands” of students, the chances that no one has sustained a injury in a single teacher’s classes is extremely doubtful.
But even if we’re talking about very intimate settings in which teachers and students know each other well and the teacher can pay close attention to all aspects of biomechanics and breath, it must still be an overstatement to claim an injury rate of zero. Interpersonal dynamics are exceedingly sticky, and guilt and shame run deep. Consider how hard it is to set boundaries even within a family context. Can we really be so sure that students are always free and empowered enough to speak up when they feel they’ve been hurt by inappropriate instruction or adjustment, especially if they are close to their instructors? I’ve heard many stories of people being injured by instruction and not speaking up — not because they were intimidated by the instructor or the social environment, but because they felt speaking up would disrupt kinship, or hurt the teacher’s feelings.
The most honest claim I imagine any earnest instructor could make about the safety of their classes would be conditional, and within the context of a stated protocol. As in:
Because I follow principle x when instructing students of varying capacities, and use y method to check in with them repeatedly, and in addition I have z mechanism for feedback, I feel my yoga space is safe for most people, to the best of my knowledge.
Better feedback mechanisms are crucial. Here’s a good anonymous feedback resource from Michaelle Edwards. But we need personal and direct feedback as well. And generally getting clear on claims we can prove and claims we can’t will go a long way in clearing out the grandiosity that blights so much yoga marketing and obstructs the emergence of a culture we claim we want the scientific world to take seriously.
What is the impulse to reduce the āsana/injury discussion to simplicities?
I suppose this is an extension of my question about using Patañjali in a simplistic fashion. We seem primed to look for encapsulated answers, and in yoga culture this tendency is encouraged by a vestigial orality that’s big on pithy lists that each attempt to hold the cosmos. Five elements, kośas, vāyus, Pandavas, actions of Śiva. Seven cakras, dhātus, planets (minus the nodes). Three guṇas, doṣas, murtis, sources of karma. And the tristhāna of the Jois system: prāṇa, bandha, and dṛṣṭi.
Memes of encapsulation are poetic and juicy for memorization and contemplation, but they can lull us into a false sense of completion/coherence. I say this as someone who spent years memorizing the lists of Āyurveda and Jyotiṣa and daydreaming their beauty to myself, before realizing in the hard light of the therapeutic encounter that there are more things happening within and between people than are dreamt of in any philosophy. Lists can make a therapist feel accomplished, and this is dangerous.
Never mind lists: the simplest and perhaps most compelling encapsulation meme is singular. “It’s all divine.” “It is what it is.” “Everything is practice.” This default to singularity shows up in the present discussion as several commenters on Georg’s post reduce the question of alignment to the consideration of breath. “If the breath is calm and measured” I’ve heard so many say, “injury is impossible.” “Breath is the heart of practice.” Sure, unless you have bilateral labral tears.
To me, the problem is that humans are so adept at contradictory internal actions that calm and receptive breath is not necessarily proof of kinetic safety. Two senior yoga therapists have told me that they’ve seen ujjayi breathing function as an analgesic to tissue pain, whether through sensual distraction or psychological dissociation, or because it creates some sensation of control or regularity during an intense and unpredictable practice in which the student might be adjusted with shocking force.
Resisting simplistic formulas might also cast this old saw in a new light: “If you feel pain, you’re being told to back off.” This sounds like good, clear advice. But it won’t work for those who through prior trauma do not know how to identify what pain is, or for whom pain is actually a welcome relief from depression. Not to mention those who grew up Catholic like myself, standing in preteen confusion and acrid sweat beneath a looming crucifix, trying to see it as an image of love. Not to mention anyone who practices BDSM or bodily modification or extreme sports or watching Jackass. Pain is by definition outrageously subjective and unshareable, as Elaine Scarry’s extraordinary book, The Body in Pain, makes clear. (I cannot recommend this book highly enough.) We can tell students to keep clear of their pain thresholds until we’re blue in the face, and we have no guarantee that we’re understanding each other. Which is just to say: yoga requires a constant effort at building intimate relationships with the difference we learn in intersubjectivity. It’s endless work. A person would only really undertake it out of a burning love for the mystery of others.
What do theories of prāṇa and nāḍis add to the conversation of embodiment?
I’ll end by treading water a bit, because this question baffles me.
Central to the investigation of pain and injury in āsana is the question of whether the body is merely instrumental to a disembodied goal. In the Upaniṣads, the Gītā, and Patañjali, the body is just that. In the teachings of Tantra and haṭhayoga, the matter is less clear, not only because the flesh finally begins to be valorized as the site of an always-available revelation, but also because the sign of internality – the ātman – becomes increasingly woven into the fabric of the tissues via countless visions of how subtle motivating energies form networks of selfhood. Over time, the flesh becomes a more complex container for the vitality that animates it, such that flesh and vitality resist separation. They cling to each other in yoga, we could say. Very broadly, it seems that in the intensity of physical practices advocated by the haṭhayōgapradīpikā, for instance, we see discourse approach a kind of materialistic non-duality. If the flesh were really still an illusion, why on earth would we go to such lengths to heat it and stimulate it and cut it and milk it and strike its perineum against the earth? And yet to the extent that all of these paths retain a commitment to some version of transmigration it is clear that some essence separable from the flesh remains the target of effort.
So what does this have to do with alignment? Commentator Michael Bridge-Dickson posted this view:
Alignment is all about praṇic flow, ultimately, not anatomy. Anatomy, however, is the structure on which prāṇa moves. Know anatomical alignment to understand prāṇa better. All the stuff about feet, femurs, SI joints…. is all about ensuring not only optimal praṇic flow from a breath perspective, but also to keep the 14 major nāḍis balanced and flowing freely.
The comment is firmly embedded within the haṭhayoga paradigm, and so the subservience of anatomy to prāṇa (and therefore flesh to spirit) is par for the course. But as I re-read the passage several times I wondered what bearing this view could have upon the discussion of alignment as a focal point for practice, especially as we consider the prevention of injury. Is prāṇa prior to/more important than the flesh that feels it?
What is prāṇa? I’ve come to feel it as the raw sensations of movement, whether surging and gross or expansive and subtle. I don’t feel it as an “animating” force, something that’s driving my flesh around like a car, because I can’t imagine myself not moving, and I don’t really have to. I will surely die, and this will mean that both movement and selfhood will vanish, the latter before the former. I can’t feel or imagine any supplemental part of myself beyond these two that could lift itself up and out of who I was, to go become something else. I can imagine the microbes of my gut consuming the flesh that people once called mine. I can imagine the me-that-was becoming compost. But that’s as far as I can imagine.
To me, prāṇa is the fact of sense and movement. It resides and moves within whatever I am, but it is not isolated from any other source of movement that exists outside of whatever I am. Whatever I am is porous. But I cannot feel this flesh as just the instrument of something else. Vitality is not its driver, but its shared nature. I can be driven or possessed by sickness or by emotion or the unconscious, but this does not feel to me like being possessed by a god or a cosmic force. Prāṇa is environmental, and social, and within me it is the very motivation of my personhood. In other words, the flesh seems an instrument not of the soul or of cosmic energy, but of the ongoing construction of myself. As such, I can’t really distinguish prāṇa from “will” and “intention”. But whose will and intention? I’m not so sure.
If, under the conscious illusion of my free will, I want to move the flesh in a particular way, it behooves me to feel and understand the graceful efficiencies of movement. Do the concepts of prāṇa and nāḍis add to this? When we say that “alignment is about praṇic flow, and not anatomy”, are we substituting the seen for the unseen? Do we lose anything in that process?
Do the terms of subtle anatomy distance myself from my will with a complicated layer of abstraction and impersonality? Is that attractive to me, or useful? It comes down to this: am I moving for myself, or are my movements aimed at facilitating the movement of something within me that’s not me, or more than me? If I make my intention and my flesh subservient to prāṇa, am I moving to serve something that is by nature separable from me? Does prāṇa want me to remain uninjured as much as my osteopath does? Or does prāṇa want to break my granthis — the knots that hold my spine and self together?
Who am I moving for? The teacher? A god? A cosmic force? Myself? Others? Is using the word “prāṇa” a way of confessing that I will never be able to tell the difference?
My comment here is peripheral to your article, but I would like to gently object to your characterization of the Gita and the Upanishads as being only about disembodiedment. You write:
“Central to the investigation of pain and injury in āsana is the question of whether the body is merely instrumental to a disembodied goal. In the Upaniṣads, the Gītā, and Patañjali, the body is just that.”
In my opinion and that of many others, the Gita and the Upanishads are far richer and more diverse than that, and it can’t be stereotyped and labeled in that way.
No need to rehash this long-standing discussion of ours here. I just want to register my point of view. Those who are interested in more can see our in-depth discussion at your Gita facebook post: https://www.facebook.com/matthew.remski/posts/10153208118650602
Excellent post – I enjoy your curiousity in the dogma of this topic.
One addition, if I amy … “central to the investigation of pain and injury” should also be a move towards language that breaks the linear connection between these two human experiences. Tissue injury is neither necessary nor sufficient to produce pain. I think you point to this in your suggestions of why people can create adverse forces on their tissues and not know about it.
Pain is not an accurate indication of tissue damage, or of tissue health. As such, we need to stop asking our students to use it as the sole guide during asana, or life. And as you state, we need to stop berating people when they end up with an injury and didn’t see it coming – as if the person was clueless or totally disconnected.
Ask most yogis what would make them safer during asana, and they say things like – if you can breathe calmly, you are okay. Right? Wrong! As you point out.
So what’s a yogi or athlete to do?
We want to challenge ourselves safely, and we want to live with more ease – whether moving about in life, or sitting in vipassana meditation, or practising in a class using asana.
Matthew – the areas of pain, and chronic pain, and the lived experience of pain, and physical therapy and yoga, are ones I have been working on for a long time now. I would be happy to share what I have learned – mostly by listening to the stories of people in pain, and seeing how other paradigms fit or don’t fit with them. I’d also be happy to point you to some people outside the yoga world who also have vast expertise in these areas – such as Bronnie Thompson, and most amazing OT in NZ, whose blog is Health Skills.
Thanks for sharing this post. I know it is one I will read many times, and share with many.
Love to hear you think. We recognize these thoughts.
Sometimes I alight on the ‘explanation’ that ‘breathing in’ prana allows for the possibility of ‘holding onto something useful’.
Following then, when I/we ‘exhale’ –the possibility is that what –isn’t– useful goes.
Maybe what goes is useful to someone else.
— But ‘it’ leaves ‘me’.
The strength of what is ‘kept’ of the prana I breathe in?
This useful-strength allows one to ‘be there’ for others. Like the life raft, like the oxygen mask that dangles there in front of me.
Somehow, what is kept (of prana) is then both inside me and outside me.
I think of prana like a kind of food. Akin to oxygen, which we know is also toxic. Like the parts of food we wish we didn’t have to imbibe.
NOT that purity can be had/eaten. But that I can let go of what isn’t useful to me.
Mr. Remski, I’ve been following your fascinating offerings and inquiries for a while now, thank you for putting them out for consumption and assessment.
I realize this may come in a bit oblique, but feel compelled to offer it up. My Indic/Hatha yoga practice is founded on a Chinese internal martial art(IMA) and daoist philosophy background (hopefully that makes sense).
What I have found interesting and pertinent to this conversation, is that daoist alchemical cannon, when it comes to essentially the same intent(s) in practice (breath+body manipulation=”energy” cultivation=epiphanies=better self in this life), never suggests the “pushing” of the body to the extreme angles/degrees this examination puts in question. If anything, it suggests the exact opposite, and the most profound of my IMA teachers have echoed the same instruction. Any extreme performance/display comes when the body is ready and “willing,” perhaps akin to spontaneous asana, and often linked to sound qi-flow.
I humbly offer that IMA practices, especially in their complex physiological respect (the core essentially being qigong), have been around equally as long, if not far longer, than modern yoga asana. I’m not suggesting one is better than another, as I personally believe we must allow for many paths the to the “mountain top,” but find it fascinating that these two systems have some contradictory approaches (seemingly?). Though I do fully believe somewhere sometime in the past two clever masters from different cultures shared methods, experience and findings.
Full disclosure, I enjoy both, hold a fun dance in their interplay (practice and teaching), and DO find them as opposing efforts in implementation at times. FYI, I am also a YTU trained teacher under Jill Miller and have great respect for her efforts and the system.
My fellow yogins may see versions of my IMA practice as “yin” at best, and my daoist MA family may think I my Hatha yoga practice was potentially counter productive to the process. Neither would judge, though they probably should as that would be a healthy if not profound exchange.
All that said, if you set aside instances in fighting applications, I would be hard pressed to remember more than a handful injuries resulting from IMA practices I’ve been witness to in my 20+ years at it. I’ve found equally inspiring and knowledgeable teachers in both systems, BUT I have found easier access to the prana/qi experience within the IMA…but that may be personal and due to my origins in the practice.
I don’t want to blah blah more as it could get unnecessarily complex. Hopefully this input is of value?
Peace – Matthew
It is really helpful, and I do hope that you and your colleagues are able to thrash out these distinctions in a positive forum somewhere. I’m particularly moved by the notion of the complex/extreme movement arising spontaneously or ecstatically, because the “willing” flesh can no longer restrain itself. So different from the model of authority determining when the next level of extremity is appropriate.
It also brings back some fond memories: the first yoga I practiced was the Daoist Korean Sun Do. What I remember most was the gentle pulse, absence of static stretching, no encouragement to “go farther”, and the sense of “this is really no big deal”. It was only six months or so, and then I moved…
Excellent, it was late and I was unsure of the meat of it.
I have experienced this “willingness” on several occasions in my taijiquan and baguazhang practices (essentially the spiral of qi or surge of prana in a “kundalini” awakening moment). The closest I’ve come to match such experiences in hatha yoga have been in deep flowing practices and instances of intuitive practice where my body went into more complex poses without prior intention, and most notably, with ease. This does not happen all the time. I have injured my body in yoga, always as I was probing my borders with effort; at 43, I don’t believe I have ever injured my body in a IMA practice (again, discounting combative practice). I’ll reflect and get back to you if memory serves up some other truth.
Of note, the expectation difference with advancement in the IMA practices is both mastery and age dependent. Essentially in many IMAs it’s assumed that as the body ages it is pushed/tested less while the energy flow remains at least the same, if not expanding to greater realms (though the notion persists that this is only achievable via becoming more genuine and “purified”).
With this in mind there are often large, medium, and small “frames” of movement sets. While young, students are taught large frame movements and shapes to temper the body and gain understanding of the energy. As they progress the expectation is to reduce the shape while maintaining, if not increasing, the integrity, strength and energy of the experience. New adult students are generally not taught large frame and there is not an expectation to ever “advance” to such movements. Again, if/when the body is willing, so be it. Instead movement and shapes are refined for efficiency and alignment so the plumbing (meridians, nadis, what have you) can allow the energy to flow freely.
I was often told to do less, try less, or step, circle, move in a smaller lighter fashion. Though I already recognized it, as I write this, the difference in approach and method (chasing the same outcome) really is fascinating.
fascinating dialogue – thanks so much for facilitating. just to point out that the link to the feedback form seems to be broken; i’d really like to look at it!
Hi — That would be a question for Michaelle Edwards. I’ll notify her. Thanks…
By the way, that link to her “anonymous feedback resource” appears to be broken.
Thanks — should be fixed now…
The flow of the prana is completely alignment based as much as it is breath based and both of those trump the mind based. the proof is just to check your nostril flow for the one that is more open. Hold your arms out to the sides to the walls with your palms down. Now turn over the hand with the closed nostril and wait. it changes. Try this over and over. Now try it with trying to stop it with your mind. Doesn’t work. Proof is in the pudding.
this was so wonderful to read, thank you. Someone posted Georg’s article in a teacher’s forum I’m a part of, and reading this article was like reading a full, fleshed out and elegant body of the bare bones I had written. I practice Body Mind Centering and Embodyoga, both of which are what can be called “relational alignment” practices- meaning, rather than a check list of things to do in each pose, which is partially, I think, a way of avoiding what can be the terror of acknowledging the incredible vastness of embodiment, a relational practice explores how bodies relate. So, how does the body relate to the earth? How do the organs relate to the bones? And so on. Alignment is central, but it’s not an external set of rules to adhere to. Through the practice of asana in this way we can embrace the body as a part of the Field of awareness and not as something to be done away with in order to be able to experience that Field.
Thank you so much for a clear and well-written article, I am now following you and I look forward to more.
Even with up-to-date alignment,and steady attention to breath, you can never really be in full control of the situation. That goes not only for yoga asana but everything in life. Pain is a great teacher. Like it or not, pain can teach people to re-evaluate their approach, or their reasons for practice. It can keep us in check in the age of the InstaYogi circus and workout yoga (which seems to be on the rise in popularity again in some big cities). Assuming a long life, most of one’s favourite yoga asanas and tricks will be taken away by time, one by one.
Without the asanas, why practice? Such an enquiry can help a lost yogi get things back on track.
Thank you for your investigation and ongoing discussion!!
I believe alignment is not a posture is a way of moving. Having a very complex body to move in, made me specially interested in anatomy even if I understand yoga is not about anatomy but i believe is not something we can dismiss in our practice or teachings. In my imagination we can look for alignment in our practice in two different ways.
The first and most common way in the biggest yoga disciplines are to use muscular force to bring the bones to a posture with exact symmetry “alignment” and that can hold the weight. I believe that looking for this exact symmetry with force without having anatomic knowledge of your own body is where the injures and pain happens. Not ahimsa since we are violent to our self.
The second way of reaching alignment I have found in Vanda Scaravellis teachings and specially Marc Woolfords approach to it:
Look for a solid base where the bones are connected from the top of the head to the smallest fingers on your limbs, no conflicts in the body (with conflict I mean no strange angels) for example if you are working on a hip opener don’t pull your foot towards you creating a non healthy angle in the ankle (this way the bones are not connected and the prana can not flow). The gravity is active, let go the breath and release in all directions. The releasing moment is when we can move towards the desired posture, the releasing of tension in our body creates our personally alignment of our bones. I believe that when you create the correct conditions for the body to let go, its own intrinsic system will find the correct alignment.
Quoting Marc Woolford “Just look at biomechanics of NOT causing unnecessary torque or strain at joints, and the biomechanics of NOT using the body and limbs to pull the spine around, rather causing the relationships that allow the spine to be the central axis of movements of breathing within the field of gravity”
In this kind way of practise I found 2 major things. One is that since we are not separating any joint or forcing any muscle or tendon to lengthen there are almost or I would like to say impossible to injure. And it is not “lazy” yoga, finding the conditions are really hard work not only the body level, letting go of the control and being present is difficult for most of the people. And second, since you are so deeply connected to your self this practice delivers deep and insights full experiences. Which when it happens it is yoga..
But as I wrote before we can’t dismiss the anatomy and biomechanics specially if we are teaching yoga. There are so many teachers out there that love to blame one muscle if they see you are experiencing any problem in the practice. The teachings of Thomas Myers really helped me to see the body as an whole organism and how all its pieces are connected and work together. I also found his strategy in how to manipulate goes well in yoga practice as well. First you need to work on your superficial front line to be able to support the superficial back line, when this two lines are supported and “aligned” then you can move on to the lateral lines, and when the lateral lines are in harmony to the spiral lines, functional lines and deep front line.
Brilliant, witty, right on.
Thanks for having the courage to write about what so few people want to hear.
I’ve found direct experiences of alignment seem to be spontaneous and things happen. Other stuff seems like attempts at control and manipulation to get things to happen that aren’t happening. Prone to ecstasy, anyone? But this is not supported in the least.
On group studio classes:
One image: of a hatha class where I was continually reminded and encouraged to listen to my body, where I would end up doing half the asana that the class did, which didn’t trouble me at all and I remember a sense of playfulness and satisfaction at some kind of subtle movements or what I would describe as energy shifts, and how I only moved on to the next asana when the shift had occurred.
Another image: I was in a class with, I think it was Ted Grand (hi Ted.) and there was this conversation about the breath coming in through the nose, whereas my primary experience with yoga was the breathe coming up through the feet, so I though gosh, better not say anything. I mean, yes, I also recognize breathe coming through the nose, but I felt it more really as coming up through the feet and the back down so to speak, if I’m orienting the feet as down.
So many thoughts from this post. May come back again and post again and re-read.
Thank you for an excellent article. I’ve been practicing for 20 years, and I’ve been struggling with a yoga-related lower back injury for almost a year now. Although I continue to practice (with a different teacher), and I feel about 80% recovered, I still struggle.
One point about pain – in my case, I didn’t feel pain at the time of my injury (although I pulled out of the posture because it didn’t feel quite right). The pain came overnight. My physical therapist said it was a combination of factors – the original injury followed by sleep on a too soft mattress. And I feel some my problem is related to age (I’m 47) and the natural degeneration of the spine we all experience.
Knowing all the factors related to my own injury and the incredible number of variables related to any human being’s physical and mental condition, if I were a yoga teacher I would feel hard pressed to keep my students “injury free.” That seems impossible, and so I agree that it seems like a pretty fantastic claim.
Thanks for this entry Matthew, it prompted an interesting flow of ideas and questions.
One element that has arisen through my yoga practice and in teaching is that injury and pain are an inevitable part of the ‘human experience’, as Neil penned nicely in his comment,
A few years back, in the throes of a daily Ashtanga practice, I encountered a debilitating lower back injury that necessitated a whole new approach to the way I yoga-d and, more generally, moved through life. It was a very frustrating and emotional experience at the time. It raised an important question though: “Do I keep practicing yoga?”. The answer that came up was a strong yes, it was clear that yoga was a lifer, so the only choice I saw at the time was to rework the way I moved in a yoga practice, and also to start exploring softer sequences and poses. Today, I see this event as a turning point in my understanding of yoga. It taught me two important things: 1. How to bend forward by tilting my pelvis instead of rounding my back; 2. How to have compassion for others and their injuries (seems like a similar experience to what was related in some of your interviews). Both have helped me enormously as a practitioner and teacher.
I guess where I’m headed with this is the following question: Do you think that the type of injury we incur in a yoga practice is of a better quality to life experience than an injury that occurs without a practice of Asana, Yoga, or similar discipline? If the assumption that pain and injury are inevitable in life is of value then, as teachers, should we aim to promote a context in which the type of discomfort or debilitation that arises is one that students are comfortable with, or ready for? Are yoga injuries better injuries?
I’m not advocating unconscious or risk-prone methods of teaching. Though somewhere I feel like the physical event of structural or tissue injury is the one of least importance. The worst thing about an injury is dealing with the personal attachment to how things were or, even worse, the attachment to how one wants things to be. In my experience that’s where the debilitating pain comes from.
Again, thank you for initiating this inner and outer dialogue!
Dear Peter L.,
I’m probably jumping in too quickly, however, you’re comment here is frightening to me. As a student, and as a teacher. I’m not sure if you became a yoga? teacher before /or/ after your injury. I’ll assume before, at least I’ll hope so.
I’m probably Not jumping in too quickly, however, to be concerned that the next injury down the line (for you) is the injury of simply doing one forward bend too many, –even With your present understanding –of the safe way to be –positioning yourself– before during and after your move into a deep forward bend, no matter from seated or from standing as your starting position.
There is always more to learn. Thank heavens for texts-and-for-all-that-is available.
No need to re-write history.
Injury prevention is available NOW.
No need to pass on the mantle of “…debilitating pain…”.
I believe you may well have a personal attachment to something other than injury prevention. I think you are advocating pain.
I see where you are coming from. Just to be clear, my intention is not to advocate pain or promote injury. It is to say that injury, the concept of being incapacitated somehow, is inevitable in life. Yoga gave me the context in which to add understanding to this experience on a personal level. In teaching now, I try to share that understanding when someone comes up to me and we talk injuries in general. So the view I am presenting is that in facing this inevitable event of injury, a healthy practice of yoga can help contextualize this experience positively for the long term.
The debilitating pain I mentioned referred to the idea that the deepest pain comes from our attachment to an idea of ourself, rather than our current physical situation. I have personally found yoga a great help in understanding my body, develop patience, and, hopefully, a healthy way to move with my body.
Thanks for your post and concern!
Somehow I signed up for updates on the comments, and so I saw Peter and Flabbergasted’s comments at the same time in my email inbox. I resonate with both – I agree with Peter that as we age injury is inevitable, whether we participate in any kind of physical activity or not. I feel like the primary causitive factor in my injury was overdoing it in yoga. But I also know that a similar injury could have arisen from other physical conditions, because the spine necessarily degenerates as we age (and I don’t replace my mattress often enough).
So, is the awareness we gain in asana practice worth the risk of injury? As another yoga “lifer” I answer with a qualified yes – with the caveat that Flabbergasted raises that we don’t want to fall into somehow deliberately inviting injury into our practice. As I heard dharma teacher James Baraz say recently, “You don’t need to go looking for trouble [in your practice]. Trouble will find you.” The trick, at least for me, is in learning how to relate to that trouble.
To chime in pragmatically, part of the problem I have with your investigation is the unreliability of the more striking examples of injury that you cite. In this article you say that a student “tore her supraspinatus so badly while doing intensive arm balances that her arm became useless for almost a year”. Then she pays “several thousand dollars” for an MRI.
I find this story suspect in a number of ways. First, it’s unlikely she tore her supraspinatus doing arm balances. That would be quite rare (probably a case report). For example, there are very few reports of gymnasts tearing their supraspinatus muscles. Those reports that exist are, indeed, case reports (meaning a rare situation).
The other thing, which I’m sure you won’t want to hear, is that a significant percentage of individuals have rotator cuff tears (without ever injuring their shoulder or having pain). This percentage goes up as we age but is between 35 and 50% in population above 60 years old. These are people who have no pain or other symptoms. To quote the author of the study,
“An astonishingly high rate of rotator cuff tears in patients with asymptomatic shoulders was thus demonstrated with increasing patient age. At this stage it remains unclear, however, which parameters convert an asymptomatic rotator cuff tear into a symptomatic tear. As a result, rotator cuff tears must to a certain extent be regarded as “normal” degenerative attrition, not necessarily causing pain and functional impairment.”
What does this mean? Well, the person you interviewed (who supposedly couldn’t use her arm for a year…) needs to use a bit of common sense and see a real doctor who can evaluate and surgically treat her. After all, her arm doesn’t function. Who, in their right mind, waits a year with an arm that doesn’t function without getting treatment.
The next thing that smacks of bullshit is the part about her “finally” getting an MRI. First, MRI’s don’t cost “thousands of dollars” in 2015 (or 2014 etc). You can have one for a couple hundred bucks. Also, the MRI won’t make her arm function again. It’s only a diagnostic test. So what happened after the MRI? I presume it showed a supraspinatus tear (which may or may not be related to her problem). If the tear was the cause of her not being able to use her arm, I imagine she would have had it repaired or at least be advised to do that. So, what happened? Is she still walking around with an arm that doesn’t work? That would be one huge supraspinatus tear, but really sounds like something else. At the end of the day, what did the doctor do?
I have the same complaint about your reference to someone practicing with 2 labral tears in their hips. If you MRI a cross section of 35 year old women, with no history of hip pain or any injury, you will find evidence of labral tears in about 70% of the hips. I know…those damn mri’s! My point is that you are way off base with alot of what you are saying.
If you did mri’s on the hips of everyone in your average yoga class (or on the street), a large number would have labral tears. Are these same people to stay out of activity? Do they need treatment? If you answered “yes”, then please explain why.
Hip labral tears are the diagnosis du jour. Having bilateral labral tears on an MRI is basically a meaningless finding.
Do you see what I’m getting at? You lose credibility because you apparently don’t know the natural incidence of asymptomatic rotator cuff tears and hip labral tears.
Hi Santosh —
These are all great points. This post is around 2 years old, and my learning curve for the subtleties of diagnostics has been steep.
The main story you cite, however, does bear up, and will be reported on in full in the book. The student did in fact tear her SS while jumping into astavakrasana, landing on her upper arm (bearing more than half her body weight) with her thigh. It was a ballistic injury. The sports medicine doctor, who I interviewed at UofW, also thought it was an unlikely injury, but understood what had happened when she showed him pictures of the 3rd series, which he said no one should be doing. His comment was: “Your arms aren’t legs.”
How exactly the injury happened, or whether there were preconditions is impossible to verify 100%, but it’s only part of the story. Her MRI plus diagnostics and appointments cost thousands, together with the reparative surgery she eventually had. Why did it take a year? Because her practice community including her teacher at the time told her that to keep practicing would be healing for her. Being uninsured, she was using asana as default primary care. Magical thinking has strong consequences in these conditions. It took a community member with some scientific training on board to lend her some money, and insist she go for imaging. In the end, the practice community raised money for her surgery. She’s practicing and teaching again — but not Ashtanga.
So the fault is mine here for supplying an incomplete report, too soon, with lacking research. In the book I won’t be claiming that MRIs assert causation. As you say, they are one often unreliable piece of data. I’m focussing on the tangled context that surrounds the tissue injury — how it is felt, understood, rationalized, and treated — in this subculture burdened by a lot of beliefs about what the body is or should be.
Thank you for taking the time.