WAWADIA update #12: How Many of Us Are Injured By Chasing a Fading Pleasure?
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.
This is the case against the phrase: ‘… deeper into the pose.’
Do not go deeper into the pose, I advise against it in every class.
If you want deeper, you have to sit. Only a seated pose can go deeper.
Deeper into the pose ends in falling out the other side of the pose… and possibly getting hurt.
Definitions matter too.
If I’m using the phrase “Deeper into the pose” in my classes I mean deeper levels of presence – and I make this clear. This is yoga. Presence. Postures facilitate presence or give us an opportunity to practice presence.
But the depths of one’s practice is measured not in the depth of the forward bend but the depth of presence in the forward bend.
At 3 – 5 years, if physical gains begin to diminish, this is when our understanding of Yoga as presence needs to grow so we can be ok with physically being in the same place even as we deepen into our practice. Then injuries at this stage would cease to be an issue.
Then we realise there’s no where to go, there is no journey, there is no attainment just a settling into what was always there and will always be there.
I’m not sure if I’m reading you correctly, but the post seems to suggest that it’s generally incorrect to believe that asana can/will/should continue to provide deep benefit once the initial “wow” stage of having something powerful happen is past. If so, I think that this is wrong. There is no reason that continuing to learn to listen more deeply to the movement/growth/evolution of the body/mind would *ever* stop reaping benefit. I think that what you are pointing to instead is a failure to appreciate the need to shift to a more subtle level of feeling, understanding, and experiencing. In the beginning, the “wow” moments generally come from certain internal dams breaking open, which produce an enormous and unprecedented rush of formerly repressed feeling, memory, realization, etc. That level of intensity cannot and should not go on and on and on following the same basic pattern over years and years. However, it’s entirely possible to be able to experience much more subtle shifts as equally or even more powerful once there’s more internal clearing and space to apprehend them. I think that this is what J. Brown is teaching in his “gentle is the new advanced” method.
Carol — I agree with you. The post didn’t intend to cover the many ways in which maturity can blossom from a plateau, but only to really probe the relationship between plateau, injury, frustration, and striving. The whole last part of my book will feature exemplars of maturity, I hope.
I have observed the same thing as Matthew here, that there is a common tale of injuries in the first 3-5 years of practice. Or sometimes just an inappropriate working of the body that leads to degenerative issues down the road (I speak from experience.) And then practitioners struggle to reconcile that some of the practices that were so vital in their initial transformations are injurious. Some remain in denial about it for years and simply continue to injure themselves, sometimes eventually giving up on Yoga altogether. Although, I have found that the window for realization about this scenario tends to be around 7 years. It seems to be about that time frame where I see people question what they are doing and have the wherewithal to listen to their own intuitions and make some necessary changes that allow their practice to shift and grow with them as warranted.
But what is missing here is that this pattern is specific to philosophical frameworks that believe that a body needs to be perfected or purified. I take some issue with your comment that Hatha Yoga doesn’t seem to have a literature or culture that supports “health maintenance and burnished introspection into one’s later years.” It may be less known and not published but these teachings exist. Sometimes its just in the translation. I am not remembering the source, I believe it may have been a translation of a particular yoga sutra, but I distinctly remember hearing something to the effect that: “At some point, even the tools of our liberation must also be abandoned.”
When it is clearly established in a student from the beginning that the transformations that happens in yoga practice are not to be measured on the mat in physicality’s but rather in the qualitative experience of your life, in the way that you relate to yourself and others, then the type of physical striving that leads to the injuries is absent. I have proved it to myself through my teaching that if I can start from scratch with a student, this pattern of striving and injury can be avoided altogether. When these students hear about stories of people hurting themselves again and again in the name of their yoga, they are always surprised. Like it doesn’t make any sense to them that someone would do such a thing.
Lastly to Carol’s point, I do think that there is an initial stage of work in practice where foundations are established (hopefully in a way that sets a fruitful course.) This is definitely the most difficult part as it often involves some breaking down of existing patterns and difficulties. Sometimes this is about physicality. There is an amount of work that is needed to be able to enjoy a down dog position for most people. But at some point, the student gains the ability and is then capable of doing the thing that initially required work. This is where people often go wrong I think. As Matthew mentioned in his piece, the reaction is often to practice more intensely to reach higher “levels.” Instead of understanding that once you gain ability, you no longer need to practice in the same way as you did before you had that ability. People keep practicing as though they are not capable long after they are (thus the philosophical framework.)
As part of my TT, all participants are required to take classes in other styles from what I teach and then report back so we can dialogue about the differences and similarities. I always remember one woman who had never studied any other stye before other than what she had done with me. She went to a standard power vinyasa class and at some point in the class the teacher came over to her and asked: “Are you not trying hard on purpose?” She answered: “Yes.” To the teachers credit, he left her alone. But it was clear that this sentiment was foreign to that class. She was not the least bit lazy. She was just working in a measured way.
When we de-emphasize pushing the body farther, the practice becomes more a matter of fixing and releasing attention. Like a massage of the concentration muscle. This is deeply challenging and causes no physical injuries in and of itself. And more importantly, in the absence of striving and injury, practice becomes more of an embrace of the given condition, a nurturing love affair with ourselves and life. A practice of this character sustains, and continues to provide benefit, over and beyond a lifetime.
J Brown : “Are you not trying hard on purpose?” “Yes. ” I absolutely love that 🙂
Matthew I think this post resonates with me most from the WAWADIA updates so far. This has certainly been my experience, with injury, diving into teaching at around this time, and the frustration that followed. This whole discussion is so interesting and important, if our yoga practice is to mature we need these moments of reflection. Thank you.
Another brilliant reflection on what is actually going on at large in the yoga matrix around the globe. Please keep on articulating your investigations on what drives and compels millions to violate and misunderstand the very essence of yoga – from the individual to teachers and our yoga market place. Your gifted voice is not only honest, refreshing and informing but absolutely necessary. Thank you Matthew!
I’ve been practicing for nearly six years, and this cycle you describe resonates with my experience. I’m also going through a YTT right now, and think I approach my new teaching role a little differently because I’ve had the up part and the flat part of practice, and an injury or two. My burning passion for practice is more steady embers than raging flames right now. What does it mean that so many people at the one year mark, the three year mark, take “their practice to the next level” by embarking on YTT?
YTT has a thousand contexts: the New Economy, burgeoning alternative health care industry rising in the shadow of falling (or absent) public coverage, job changes every 3 years, the neoliberal impulse to monetize the personal brand… Oh and of course a lot of kind people who just want to do something good for themselves and others.
This is very interesting to me, Matthew. I do agree with you and many others here that there are “break throughs” in the first years of asana practice; physical and emotional breakthroughs. I don’t necessarily think gentle is the new advanced, though. I believe that practice is and must always be completely personal. If it’s not personal, it’s not your practice. So for some being more gentle is advancing or “deepening.” For others, like me, I decided to work in a more gentle way after about 4 years of doing very strong asana work. I began to incorporate mindfulness/awareness into my movement and it was still vigorous but no longer aggressive in any way, and did not include what Suzuki Roshi calls, “gaining notions.” Now that I am 61 and for the last 4-5 years I have found that I need to use more physical exertion and intensity to keep my body from getting injured. This is now the time for me to work harder, use my muscles more in order to keep my body together, aligned and healthy. This was a surprise to discover but it has been a good thing for me. In the meantime, of course, there is meditation. Sitting meditation or zazen, shikantanza which means just sitting. And in this process, one also experiences many breakthroughs, emotional and physical. This will also start to be less intense as old wounds arise and pass and the meditation purifies one, from just sitting with it all. It is all practice. I think deeper is not a word that is helping us these days, in terms of practice. I like how Roshi Joan Halifax use the word “capacity.” One’s capacity for whatever you are practicing grows – whether it is chadarunga or savasana or compassion or an integration of all three, etc. Just my two cents.
Thanks for the poignant note, Cyndi.
Cyndi Lee- Not sure what you mean by “more physical exertion and intensity.” Are you suggesting that 61 year old’s like yourself are going to benefit from trying to keep up with all the 20 somethings who are racing through their vinyasa and struggling to do more intricate arm balances? I’m betting not. I came up with “Gentle is the New Advanced” to push back on the notion that “advanced” means more difficult asana, not as a prescription for other peoples practice. Speaking of semantics, I do question whether people need to “work harder” in order to keep their bodies together. Work, yes. Harder, not so much. I have observed that “working hard” when it comes to our bodies seems to cause more injuries than it prevents. I agree that the word “deeper” is not so useful. I like “capacity” very much too. Cheers.
Personally “working harder” means something different to me today than years ago. I have more understanding of when/where working hard promotes strength and stability in my body, and how to do it with nuance. The more I learn about my body, the more I benefit from hard work. So Cyndi’s story resonates much more with me than “gentle is the new advanced.” But hard work does not equal comparison with others or difficult asanas.
“Going deeper” also has a different meaning for me than in the past. Before I might have equated deeper with contortion. Now it’s more about refinement of foundational strength and alignment. Which occasionally makes flexibility more accessible than in the past, almost as a side effect, because my approach is different.
Original post raises many good points but two things don’t fit for me. “Chasing a fading pleasure” – chasing comparisons might often be more accurate. Comparison with the past or with others can be more about “shoulds”, guilt or striving than pleasure per se, although maybe frustration that pain has encroached on pleasure. Love this quite from Cyndi: “If it’s not personal, it’s not your practice.” That can be a slow lesson, especially if yoga becomes part of one’s identity.
Second, I don’t really see the 3-5 years timeline. To me it’s less linear. The body is always changing – nothing magical happens after 5 years where the dynamics of injury, discomfort, mindfulness and change cease to apply.
I think you should follow this thread. You are on to something and you said it succinctly.
As a teacher who taught a strong physical practice I felt beholden to continue to deliver that practice in exciting ways. People become bored, they reached a plateau, they wanted the wow factor. I became bored myself and began teaching what appealed to me; a more subtle practice; a call to more refined awareness. It took me away from the masses and there were plenty of other teachers and studios to fill the gap. So I had a smaller student base.
But as the once new yoga population is now shifting toward post middle age there are new opportunities to engage many yoga students in a place of relevant understanding.
A yoga student goes through a process where maximizing physical prowess is appropriate to the initial understanding of the practice. That practice may shift from boredom or injury or curiousity. But I think this is the fire called Tapas. You know, it’s that urge, action, resolution wave we’re all riding.
Dedicated practitioners find themselves […] performing the benefits of practice for others more than feeling them for themselves.
This is such an important statement. Not just for the practitioners/teachers who are (not) experiencing the benefits, but for the impact they have on everyone else. This “fake it ’til you make it” mode of teaching (evangelizing!) perpetuates this myth of the yoga magic, which I to this day don’t know if I believe in, after 8 years. I guess that truly makes this a faith based practice. But at the same time, this performance is so damaging because it encourages those who witness it to continually second-guess their own intuition and push harder expecting some transcendental breakthrough.
I mean either that, or it’s real and I need to work harder to experience it, which is giving me some serious FOMO right now.
I have been closely following these WAWADIA updates. I have been practising yoga for 12 years and taught a little bit too. I have worked hard to practice with intense internal awareness and care. I plunged into traditional Mysore style Ashtanga for the last two years, and am now backing off for the reasons why I did not do it in the middle years of my practice: too much blind adherence to dogma for no good reason, including dogma on how the poses should look.
My question for you is this: these posts are making me afraid to practice yoga at all. Is your message then that yoga is bad if practised for a lifetime in a physical manner, even if with awareness and softness and alignment? All stretching is bad?
Or, I hope the message is that yoga is not the blissful, fountain of youth, perfect practice advertised to the masses. Instead, it is a discipline like any other (I like to compare it to martial arts for the physical, cultural and studying aspects) where injury is possible, just as it is for any other intense physical exercise, and one has to be careful and alert to the injuries common to the practice that you are doing.
Thank you and I really appreciate the concern. I hope the aim and scope of this project is clear on this page, and resonant with your last paragraph. I’m not making any broad statements, but tracking stories and themes that have been so far unexplored, or buried under the tide of yoga marketing, which I feel no duty to expand. See the research of Jules Mitchell on stretching.
I should also note that I am a woman and recently turned 44 so I am thinking about practice as I get older.
Hi Vandana, If you want to continue practicing yoga in your older years, look into YogAlign developed by Michaelle Edwards. She is one of leading innovators in the Yoga world who had a deep understanding and appreciation of how the human body moves. She has taken the next step in the evolution of Yoga. I highly encourage you to see what she has figured out.
I’m reminded of ‘the glow’ of new love. ‘The glow’ first year of a romance. ‘The glow’ first year of a child’s life. When you fall in love with any path, be it yoga or a career or an art, there is an initial glow. We change quickly during those times. We are perhaps best adapted to make positive change in our lives during periods of ‘the glow.’ And it feels really good. But we can get addicted to ‘the glow.’ We can get addicted to the need to change and transform ourselves. For example, romance addicts who can’t stay with a relationship because ‘the glow’ disappears in time. Or yogis who hurt themselves pushing for ‘the glow’ of a new achievement.
Thought-provoking. Perhaps we can make a distinction between the regular asana practice that chases a fading pleasure or transformative feeling and the regular asana practice that ‘undoes’ the daily physical, mental, and emotional stressors of our lives—those periods during which we sort of use asana as maintenance or processing time. Even those periods can produce injury, if we are not attentive to what can really help us process what is currently happening to us (e.g., physically–we are now sitting for 8 hours in a desk job— or mentally—we are now a parent of a toddler, and the emotional resistance is wearing us out—and so on) and we think that what will help us ‘reset’ today is the same movement and stillness that helped us ‘reset’ yesterday. Those maintenance periods can result in injury just as can the periods of striving for some past or future asana buzz, and are yet another reason to look for ‘cross training’ options for ways to find to get back to neutral, both physically and mentally (I’m being inclusive in the term cross-training, to include talk therapy, weightlifting, and a range of other options that are really completely transformed themselves if approached with many of yoga’s tools and perspectives.)
One other thought as you pursue this: Can a focus on breathing practices (in open classes, etc.) help to prevent the self-induced and community-supported pressure to constantly change, improve, deepen through asana?
Thanks for all the comments,i have been doing yoga for about 12 years now, with some years of getting too tied up with life. I came back to yoga 6 months ago as i needed to get back m’y strenght after breaking my L1 vertebrea un a call, m’y body was a wreck from 3months in a cast. I rediscovered yoga with a new awarness, adapting to m’y new reality and knowing that a needed to ne patient and use my attention carefully. I now know m’y body needs yoga but not only asanas, because lets face it… Everything goes through a cycle of birth, maintenance and decay. There is somme treasures in Every phase. I’m going to take ytt next week.