Another short update, and a request:
In research for the WAWADIA project so far, a key distinction has emerged.
On one hand, there are acute injuries that occur in the early days of practice, correlated with (if not caused by) a combination of inappropriate instruction, disorganized studio protocols, and lack of previous exercise/embodiment experience on the part of the student. These injuries might be relatively easy to mitigate, if we get clearer on regulatory standards. But this is a thorny issue.
On the other hand, I’ve collected a lot of stories on more chronic injuries that emerge within 3-5 years of the typical practice career. Healing from these injuries can be complicated by the fact that the practitioner is often strongly emotionally invested in practice at this point, and they struggle to imagine themselves changing or altering paths. Their injuries reflect their practice in a strange way: both record repetition, and stress.
These practitioners attribute their first few years of asana practice with powerful transformative benefits that are both physical and psychological in nature. While they struggle to find that evasive sweet spot of sustainable growth — often pursuing new teachers and training — thinking that the asana they’ve always loved has now become physically or even psychologically maladaptive for them can evoke painful cognitive dissonance.
Sometimes they feel an injury — or simply a plateau in positive returns — as a sign they should practice with more dedication. I’m wondering whether they may injure themselves in part by doubling down to pursue improvements that may only really be felt once, using a medium that may have been only partially responsible for the original benefits they reported. After all, the initiation of practice for many people usually coincides with a slew of other lifestyle, career, geographical or relationship shifts, such that it’s hard to isolate the effects of asana alone. To what extent do we valorize the power of asana through the fog of attribution bias?
If dedicated practitioners professionalize their early love affair with asana into a teaching career, they often feel stuck — less inspired and sometimes in even more pain than when they started, but now compelled to continue to practice with renewed devotion, performing the benefits of practice for others more than feeling them for themselves.
I wonder if this internal dilemma shows up in yoga marketing as the endless encouragement to “deepen your practice”, or to take your practice “to the next level”. I wonder if these ads may in part express the longings of the advertisers more than actually advertising new services. The practice plateau is to be dreaded — sometimes framed as laziness, or a kind of resurgence of a defensive ego. Yoga culture doesn’t generally record the voices of those who interpreted the plateau as a sign to move on, because, well, they moved on, and the advertising is produced by those who stay.
I’m finding that many complex injuries seem to occur in the lag time between a practitioner feeling that a practice might no longer be appropriate for them and the moment they finally decide it’s not, or that they must change it. Another factor is the difficulty in discovering how far one is physically able to progress, how much progression is necessary or helpful, and how the feelings generated by that progression change over time. My guess is that most people reach their general limit for physical transformation in asana practice in about three to five years of regular discipline, depending upon intensity. (This may mirror the usefulness curves of many other therapeutic engagements, like psychotherapy.) Beyond that, there is an endless horizon of refinements that can be learned, but the actual shifts in mobility, balance and strength get smaller and smaller for almost everyone. Sustaining a particular level of practice surely tones the psyche in particular ways, developing perseverance and resilience. But when people feel that bright edge of learning begin to dull, there’s often a reflex to dig in and try harder, to recapture an original pleasure or wonderment. It can be hard, especially for the professional, to view asana as instrumental and temporary rather than integral and permanent to their path.
It seems like repetitive stress arises most prominently when we’re told — or when we tell ourselves — to just keep going beyond the point of positive return, fuelled by the expectation that our lives can continue to improve at the same rates and in the same ways, piqued by the worry that if they don’t, we’re missing out on something.
The effort is tinged with the teleology of the endless journey: a pressure that a capitalist marketplace will happily, if unconsciously, exploit. As practice intensifies, or even holds steady at an unsatisfying plateau, people are told or can feel that through their injuries they’re uncovering as-yet-unknown levels of tension, conflict, trauma, or karma. It is poignant to think that the quest for deeper purification, self-improvement, and healing may in some cases form its own injury feedback-loop. Those with the highest investment in practice may often be practicing in part to recover from the effects of practice. This was part of Diane Bruni’s story, and I’ve heard this from many others.
I’d like to understand this feedback loop better. I’ve interviewed enough subjects to be confident that it’s a thing. If you have a story that resonates, I’d love to interview you about these themes directly, anonymously or on the record, as per your comfort. You can reach me through the contact page of this site. Or, if you’d just like to comment below, go for it.