Update: What Are We Actually Doing in Asana?

I just completed the first week of interviewing for “What Are We Actually Doing in Asana?”  As I expected, and resonant with my own experience with asana, I heard stories of re-embodiment and renewed courage. Many experienced relief from chronic pain, both physical and emotional. Many felt that physical yoga practice was integral to the most significant period of personal change in their lives. Some people came to asana as though they were coming home.

Also resonant with my experience and expectation, I heard stories of crippling injuries, poor self-regard leading to the failure to establish boundaries, and of course incompetent teaching ranging from the negligent to the invasive to the abusive. As I discussed some of these tragic and infuriating examples with a long-term, highly-esteemed teacher, she asked me: “Can we start to use the ‘cult’ here?”

Between these extremes, the subtler ideas and feelings that are the target of this study (so far as I imagine it) began to emerge. Alongside stories of positive growth, subjects told me about asana-related injuries they kept secret, blamed themselves for, and obsessed over as symbols of a kind of original sin. Subjects told me of how they either internalized the aggressive attitudes of instructors more interested in the presumed rules of practice than its effects, or how they used yoga to reify their pre-existing attitudes of bodily ambivalence.

Reports of very narrow views on injury and recovery emerged, painting a picture of an often insular and exclusive physical culture protecting itself from outside scrutiny. I heard stories of teachers who attributed physical injuries to metaphysical forces. I heard of people trying to understand their sensations — often under the influence of a teacher — as “good pain”. I heard stories of practitioners not pursuing medical treatment for injuries – sometimes for years – because they didn’t quite consider their practice to be a material phenomenon that biomedicine or other forms of athletic knowledge could understand. They were obviously doing something deeper than sport, but it was also older and larger than medicine. They narrativized pain in such a way that it could not be spoken to or about in terms they considered mundane or conventional. While the subjectivity of pain makes it impossible to assess how extraordinary anyone’s pain actually is, I noticed that for many of these practitioners, pain needed to be felt and sometimes expressed as extraordinary.

One of the most resonant correlations between pain, acute injury, chronic injury and asana has been the bias towards “openness”, “softness”, and all of the other values associated with the stretching aspects of practice. The list of compression injuries is long and devastating – stenosis, labral tears, cervical subluxations – but by and large most injuries involve a breakdown of tensile strength from lengthening actions that are virtually dismembering in intensity. Hamstring tears, gluteal tears, piriformis syndrome – it seems the back-body or the deeply-hidden body is particularly vulnerable. I’m interested in the relationship between this fetish for elongation and the process of analysis, in whatever form. Analusis, the Greek root, means “loosening a knot”: the bias in physical yoga moves towards a kind of undoing. The flesh and the “ego” come to symbolize each other as codependent knots.

Somehow, it seems, we would all like to be undone. But then here come the orthopedic surgeons, who are all telling us that long-term health sometimes requires tightening up. The problem is that I’m not sure that we know what we want.

I have close to forty interviews scheduled, and I’d like to expand that list to gather the most well-rounded qualitative data possible. If you have an experience you’d like to share anonymously, please contact me through this site, or via threadsofyoga@gmail.com. I’ll publish a few more updates throughout this process to keep people talking.

Here are just a few random quotes that I’ve pulled from transcription so far:

______

“You become a yoga person, and that becomes your identity, and you tend to push away other ways of being in your life and your body.”

______

“When I started, I was told that ‘This practice is designed to break you’. [Even when I did become injured], it didn’t occur to me to imagine that the practice was the cause. I thought the practice was revealing a deeper level of imbalance and that the pain was part of the healing process.”

______

“It’s almost as if there’s a yoga god up there somewhere, and getting into that advanced pose will get me closer to that yoga god…. I needed to take that advanced pose on as a drive towards the purification of my body.”

______

“Yoga people live in a yoga bubble that doesn’t reach outside for new information or learning… In every other fitness culture, people are eclectic. They bring in whatever makes sense, whatever works… Everybody needs to be more loose. But everybody also needs to be more tight in some ways… If yoga people brought in new information, they’d probably have to give up the notion of being the best at yoga. They’d have to shift their expectations for flexibility and openness.”

______

“I think for me there was – and perhaps still is – an internal drive to find wholeness through unlimited freedom in my body. So my chronic pain and injuries were definitely obstacles I sought to remove, and asana instruction certainly framed those obstacles from the perspective of “the ego” getting in the way of effortless practice. But I’ve had to discern the difference between my own striving and the actions themselves.” (emphasis mine)

______

“I was told that you have to break your knees to move towards the advanced postures. And that the advanced postures would in themselves rebuild my whole body.”

______

“I spent the majority of my 20s in pain [because of asana practice aggravating overstretched/unstable hamstrings]… I remember not being able to stand at the sink and wash dishes without obsessively testing and stretching into my injury and inflammation. It makes me sad, because I wonder what else I might have been doing with that time.”

______

“I did identify with my pain/injuries in the sense that I’ve always been somewhat of a searcher and they only added to my quest for self-mastery.”

______

“When the majority of my classmates in my YTT [vigorous ashtanga-vinyasa style] class were suffering from injury about half way through our training, I realized that the instructors had no answers for us. The most they would do was nod and say: ‘O yeah, that happens’.”

______

“I knew something was wrong. I am totally one of those people who pushes myself way past limits… I also couldn’t be an injured yoga teacher. That wasn’t supposed to happen.”

______

“If yoga people go outside of yoga for learning about the body, they’re posing a direct challenge to the wisdom of the teacher in all things. Even when that teacher is ignorant of basic exercise and movement science. Everybody knows that [one of the modernizers of postural yoga] had no training in anatomy or sports medicine. Why does everybody speak of him as though he did?”

22 Comments

  • Thankyou for some interesting and important perspectives. I too have a yoga story to tell and may well contribute here as I have had one or two outstanding teachers and MANY terrible ones. I am going to distance myself geographically before I publish my own findings as am currently living in a very small yoga pond.

  • A quote from Kraftsow: “… we take ourselves apart, and then put ourselves back together again…”
    This idea may not be ‘meant’ aggressively, but the hearer/learner may misunderstand.
    This kind of -talk- may have been misunderstood for sure, over the decades.

  • I studied with Gary for years. I have no doubt that he did not mean this in terms of an aggressive attitude toward the body. It was more about how a true therapeutic practice of yoga ( not just asana ) that is molded to the whole person ( not vise versa) can be deeply transformative.

  • I have had few negative experiences in my 16 year practice. I have spent the majority of this time working alone at home. I began my practice at 33 being taught by a woman who at the time was 70. Her gentleness and background as a professional dancer helped me to develop an understanding of my body that I have continued to develop. I learned that I can say no at anytime to any pose and I do. I learned that I don’t need to push myself towards anything. I learned that I don’t need or want to feel pain. I learned that I can practice yoga safely and that over time I have grown stronger. I do very few “advanced” poses. I don’t feel the need and I know that I may hurt myself which is not the object of my practice. I have had a few experiences with teachers who have their egos invested and lack perspective or even care for their students because of this. I still refused to do poses that I felt were too extreme. I’ve never been made to feel poorly for doing so, which despite the sometimes over-the-top instructions, is a good thing. I did not return to these teachers classes and on a few occasions I let the owner/teacher know my experience. I return again and again to the teachers who are kind, aware, slow and speak often of yoga not being about pain and if you have any pain, to stop. I appreciate this. In the studio that I frequent there is little feeling of competition which makes for a much safer environment for people to relax and take their time. I am sorry to read that there is so much secretive weirdness and cultishness in yoga and too that so many are getting injured. I hope some of the things I have mentioned here give people the idea that they can change how they are approaching their practice and make it one that is suited to their health and well-being.

  • It is alarming to read of the many yoga participants who do not understand the simple concept or are not properly taught, move to the edge, but not into a place of pain. It should always feel pleasant to do yoga. Gentle warm-ups are a must. Competitiveness has no place in yoga. The transformative part of yoga is the combination of using the breath, the mind, and a lovely awareness of all the sensations that your body sends you. This is what I find fascinating and endlessly interesting about yoga. I’m guessing that there are many “teachers” out there who are not actually teachers.

    • Thanks Martha. I think it’s more complex than that. The “edge” is a highly subjective concept. And there are many prominent teachers who would absolutely disagree with your framework: “It should always feel pleasant to do yoga.” I tend to resonate with your view, but there are so many who don’t.

  • True, Marilyn. I agree. The misunderstanding can come, though, even thinking that you -must- ‘do’ this to be ‘integrated’. I’m saying the language we use, while inspiring and helpful, has the other aspect, that speaks deeply to our need to be the ones to give ourselves a tune up using a bludgeon instead of a pat-down.

  • It’s about mindfulness IMO. It frustrates me to no end to hear a person talk about putting their head on their knee knowing that it’s not within their range and to push and push and push and strain to attain that as if doing that will earn them a token or something.

  • I am a yoga teacher in California. Before my over 12 years of yoga practice leading to a Hatha Yoga Vinyasa teaching certificate, I was a gymnast for 6 years in high school and college and then studied martial arts for over 15 years. Having body awareness is second nature to me and knowing my limits and knowing when to push through my limits is also second nature. I always strive for mindfulness and safety when I teach. I guide my students into a pose or a sequence and guide them to stay into a pose to “their own degree” and to “their own limitations” knowing that through practice, persistent practice they will naturally get stronger, go deeper, and most importantly gain confidence. I never push and it is up to each student to become aware of their body and for them to push to their edge, beyond their edge, or not. Body awareness is knowing the difference between pain that is injurious and pain that is there because they are using new muscles or using muscles in a new way. Of course, no teacher wants to promote the feeling of pain as a positive sign of progress in yoga or in any exercise, while at the same time, working out, stretching, exercising, and yoga, can create soreness and soreness is painful. That’s the reality of moving. Flexibility is not required in yoga at all. A yoga practitioner will naturally over time and through persistent practice gain more flexibility and the most important thing, I believe, that gaining improved flexibility is to open up, not the muscles or the tendons or the ligaments or the joints, but to open up the energy fields that spread throughout body. Improved energy flexibility, which I call it, improves ones physical and mental health in my humble opinion. Namaste, Howie Baral

  • One of the meanings of the word yoga, as explained to a group of us in a yoga workshop is integration. This concept may be lacking for many who are highly dedicated and committed to their physical practice, even at the cost of long term injury or disability. The divine love that created yoga and all of the associated practices needs a resurgence in the yoga communities that are coming forward to share their painful experiences.

  • I echo the sentiments of gratitude for you undertaking this work. Something that strikes me as I read/reflect/think on my own experiences, is the role that language plays in our relationship with asana and with the body altogether. When we talk about the body, we do talk about the body on a gross, physical level, but often (for me) that fascination is almost like an embodied metaphor (if that makes any sense). Communicating that really stretches the limits of language. And I wonder if the legal classification of yoga as other-than-religion with respect to the Establishment Clause muddies the water even further.
    Anyhow, I always enjoy reading what you are up to over here.
    All goodness.

  • Just sharing a book by a Canadian physiotherapist Margaret Martin who specializes in Osteoporosis, Osteopenia, low bone density management…

    “Yoga For Better Bones”

    http://www.melioguide.com/products-and-services/yoga-for-better-bones

    Marg has researched and practiced much on how to protect your bones when you have osteoporosis or osteopenia or low bone density while encouraging exercise including yoga.

    Thank you for the WAWADIA project

  • I grew up participating gymnastics, dance, music and theatre, as soon as things got competitive i usually withdrew as I was not interested and was even a bit afraid of competition. It took me a couple of years to get into a Yoga practice, but the non-competitiveness appealed to me and I began to take more responsibility for my body, mind and overall health. When I found myself in a class with a teacher who was aggressive and told me to push through the pain or compared students, i didn’t return. I suppose it was half luck and have discrimination that brought me into safe and enjoyable classes with good teachers. I travelled to India in 2008 originally to tour the country with a professor and class studying inter-religious dialogue. One of the most valuable theories I took away from that trip was that being a fundamentalist in any belief system is dangerous and not progressive. I think this also applies to Yoga, as practitioners and teachers if we seek out and expand our knowledge rather than believe our system is the only way, we can probably avoid both physical, emotional and physic injuries pertaining to yoga. We can not trust any one Guru or teacher with our bodies and minds completely and as a teacher I urge my students to be responsible for their own bodies as I can only make an educated guess and be of guidance. From my point of view Yoga Asana’s should feel wonderful and the purpose of this very small aspect of Yoga is to feel comfortable within the body to go about our days with awareness.

  • “the presumed rules of practice” – you’ve nailed it.

    A practice – not a particular prescribed practice – needs to be available to everyone, because it will make the world a better place if we all did yoga. However, that’s going to require that as teachers, we continuously seek new information and incorporate it so that each body becomes contextualized. (A daunting but doable task in the world of drop-in classes.)

    We particularly need to recruit yoga-practicing individuals with information we do not have access to: experts in the world of physical modalities, both medical and therapeutic.

    And we need to stop telling people there’s one way to do anything.

  • This issue needs to be brought to those who choice to participate in yoga. The consumer, just like shopping for Non-GM0, non- toxic foods, is questioning the food product and shopping wisely with there food dollars, the same thing needs to happen in selection of yoga teachers, and looking more closely at the bio-the science and the study of movement needs to be stronger, The Yoga Alliance is failing to protect the public and is allowing teachers to teach other teachers to be, who are not qualified and have no business doing so.

  • I really LOVE Yoga. I have been practicing for over 40 years—even when Yoga was considered weird. At 72 I am strong, flexible, healthy and happy. i believe Yoga is now so popular because it expands our conscious awareness and we need conscious people to heal and support the earth at this time of global warming. Keep practicing Yoga. Find teachers you love and learn all eight limbs of Yoga—not just Asana. It is the best thing you can do for yourselves and for those around you.

  • Hi Tina,

    I read your comment with interest. Have you heard the adage: See one, Do one, Teach one?
    Many traditions in yoga encourage a student to begin teaching as soon as there is something the student wants to share.

    Thus begins the long journey of teaching to others what we have to share.

    The first thing the fledgling sharer learns?
    –Just how much practice it takes to teach!

    Simply stated the ‘teacher’ continues on the student-journey through the act of sharing with others. Even what is –thought– to be known well, lol, is put to the ‘test’ –within the crucible of relating the ‘facts’ to another.

    Often the see one-do one-teach one protocol is how doctors learn. Yeah, kinda scary. But happens more than you might imagine! We can’t get overly excited.
    In this same way most of us, at one time or another, act as ‘psychologist’ to/for our friends (perfectly normal/acceptable helping).

    We share valuable information (like yoga show and tell) because this is normal human behavior.

    But I take your point. If yoga is a therapeutic endeavor and money is changing hands, then yes, qualifications are important.

  • I’d really love to hear your thoughts on the Hollow Back Handstands and inversions. Is this just social media making things up or is there actual tradition behind this pose. I’m having trouble googling anything useful on it other than how rad it looks and how amazingly strong it can be. I find it to be extremely dangerous looking with extreme hyperextention in the low back. Insight welcome!

  • Thank you for this! My focus with yoga has become more and more about awareness of my breath…noticing how crucial it is to tying together the mind and the body. Also more of the study and practice of the Yamas and Niyamas which are yoga’s ethical principles and the first two of the 8 limbs of yoga.

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