WAWADIA Update #16: Two Ways of Blocking the Yoga Injury Conversation

WAWADIA Update #16: Two Ways of Blocking the Yoga Injury Conversation

 

 

There’s no doubt that the focus I’ve chosen for this project, the data generated by the interviews, and the analysis I’ve applied to that data so far is triggering for many yoga people.

I can totally relate: the whole subject was triggering me for years before I began more formal research. I was too professionally invested in asana culture as a teacher, yoga therapist, and community organizer to let myself really hear and absorb the stories of injury and harm coming from colleagues. More intimately, I was also heavily identified with yoga asana as a key plot point in the story of my personal awakening. That hasn’t changed, but the story has certainly become more twisty.

Early on, I couldn’t tolerate the cognitive dissonance of considering that the yoga I believed had saved me from depression could also be hurting people in avoidable ways, and that maybe it was hurting me at times as well. I didn’t want to look at how yoga culture regularly promotes spiritual rationalizations for injuries that result from biomechanical ignorance. Or to consider how sometimes we practice asana in order to induce pain — whether to punish ourselves or to revisit trauma in a new context.

I did not want the complexity of realizing that the precious practice I’d found was something that, after it bestowed a pivotal blessing, I could also use to reframe and perpetuate some very neurotic habits. I really didn’t want my asana honeymoon to be over, and the long marriage of yoga inquiry to begin.

To avoid these emotions, I employed a number of cognitive tricks both internally and in conversation. My general defensiveness towards the yoga injuries of others was smug, defaulting to: “Well, the people who injure themselves just don’t get it, do they?” (Of course you can only say this if you deny that you’re also hurting, because then you wouldn’t be “getting it” either.)

There were two specific mechanisms of that defence:

  1. Redirection and blaming, and
  2. Dismissal through self-referral.

It took a lot of irritating practice in Non-Violent Communication to recognize and shift these habits. So I can see them pretty clearly when they rise up in response to the work I’m doing now.

(Here’s a picture of Marshall Rosenberg with his hand puppets, to give you a sense of how irritating NVC can be. That, and how NVC can be used to maintain power and shut down dissent, is another story.) 

Redirection and blaming projects a failure of empathy. The redirecting blamer shifts the focus from the complex nature of the yoga injury to finding a cause for it that exonerates whatever they are trying to protect – usually a teaching lineage. The subject of the report becomes a scapegoat for the negative feelings her story generates.

Example: I present the story of Diane Bruni, who tore several muscles clean off her hip bone doing a simple forward fold after a year of practicing the advice of her senior teachers to “open her hips” (ironically, to reduce knee pain). Many commenters resonate with the story. But many also shift the focus with their own armchair assessments of whether she was practicing correctly, following good instruction, or whether in her hapless Western ignorance she distorted a traditional teaching, whatever “traditional” means.

Next, the redirecting-blamer tries to attribute the injury-provoking behaviour to presumed qualities in the person they don’t like – perhaps qualities that strike a nerve of recognition:

Diane was too pushy. She was hooked on the intensity of sensation. She didn’t respect the teachings. She had a big ego.

Knowing Diane, I know she’d actually agree with some of this. She has in fact described herself as being “addicted” to practice. But the problem with blaming her for that or anything else is that she also describes being immersed in an addictive practice culture in which pain was seen as not only inevitable, but a necessary sacrifice. The truth of the matter is that her personal drive to the intense work that eventually tore her hip apart, conditioned by whatever her past holds, found fertile soil and a supportive environment. That’s what the redirector and blamer doesn’t want to look at.

To dodge the work of empathy effectively, redirecting blamers have to refuse to hear Diane’s story in its own terms. They also have to ignore that she was a leading figure in her lineage, that she had faith in its method, and that she was trying to live its principles to the best of her ability. But more than this: they have to shut down the only response that would really make sense in the situation, given that they cannot know what she was actually doing. They have to shut down the response that is not an answer designed to make them feel better. Redirecting blamers will not pause to say “Ouch. That sounds like it was really painful. And it must have come as a real shock, because you thought you were doing something therapeutic.” They find it hard to hold space for what has happened. They have an impulse to separate themselves from it.

This may be a wee digression, but I think it’s worth noting briefly that the blaming reflex reinforces a core mechanism of neoliberal anxiety that some sociologists are calling responsibilism. The basic premise goes like this: In an era of mass economic deregulation and employment insecurity, the individual is encouraged by the corporate paradigm to generate a sense of hyper-responsibility for health and well-being, and to perform that responsibility through the illusory freedom of consumer choice. Because the state will not take care of you, being a good shopper at Whole Foods might. If you can’t afford to express your freedom that way, you can always work harder. Maybe you can make a little more money on the side by starting a part-time personal coaching business!

In their astringent takedown of lululemon’s dubious cultural contribution, Christine Lavrence and Kristin Lozanski describe this dynamic:

Personal responsibility is emphasized [in lulu-land], downplaying the broader social structures that influence health, with the result that well-being is undertaken as a personal ethical project. The healthy body becomes a marker of the responsible, conscientious citizen and is deeply performative, both in that there is a literal preoccupation with enhancing the physical performance of the body through lifestyle interventions and in the display of one’s personal and social responsibility through a fit body.

Ergo: illness or injury or depression can be framed as an personal ethical failure — not a sign that a system needs rebalancing. I bring this up because when yoga culture has a redirect-and-blame response to a personal injury story rooted in that very culture, it is mimicking the general decay of collective responsibility, offering but “buyer beware” logic in consolation. I bring it up because I don’t think there is a yoga culture worth investing in unless it is somehow resisting hyperindividualism instead of reinforcing it.

A more generalized version of the redirection/blame method of trigger-avoidance consists of the knee-jerk response: “If it injures you, it’s not yoga.”

I used to say this a lot, and it was thoughtless and cruel. It attacks the integrity and intelligence of so many people who have practiced in good faith. The bald fact is that there are many, many yoga practitioners who have been injured by working with mindfulness, according to the instructions they’ve received from sources they believe to be reputable. Plus it’s not even close to being factual: there are many streams of yoga that accept pain as a necessary and even desirable mechanism of practice.

Emotional dodge #2: dismissal through self-referral. This is also a failure of empathy, but it feels like it comes more from a defensive narcissism than the need to outsource blame. Here’s how it works.

I’m going along, working hard to tell stories about people who got injured in yoga. I’m up front about the project, its nature and purpose. I’m not attempting to provide a comprehensive survey of everyone’s experience. I’m focusing on particular stories that seem to be typically ignored or repressed. I’m not claiming the stories are representative of a majority experience. I know there’s no data to support that.

The self-referring dismisser jumps in and says something like: “I don’t recognize these stories as yoga stories at all. For me, yoga has always been a healthful expression of my divine selfieness.”

I’m so glad. But I wasn’t actually writing about you, was I? I’m writing about the shadow in the selfie.

I can understand wanting to pipe up if one feels besieged by stories that are hard to relate to, or that cut so close to the bone one wants to push them back. I can understand the political and economic objectives of trying to remind readers that stories about injury may only be a small part of the overall story. But a simple analogy might show how insensitive this can actually be in practice.

Imagine that this work wasn’t about yoga injuries, but that I was seeking out and reporting on stories about domestic violence. I would be reporting things as accurately as I could, and trying to analyze the causes and conditions behind battery and assault in the home. There would be so many questions to consider. Why do some people abuse others? What are the gendered and social mechanisms of abuse? Why do some people struggle to leave abusive situations?

Imagine then that the self-referrer chimes in with “Well that’s not what a loving relationship should be like at all. In my marriage, we cuddle a lot and leave notes in each other’s lunchboxes. We love brunch, long walks on the beach, fine merlot, and all the good things in life.”

Okay. It sounds like you have a loving relationship. But we were talking about domestic violence. Why did you change the subject?

This is all to say: stories about yoga injury can be strange and hard to hear. What I’ve learned so far is that the healing process is helped along first, and perhaps most, by the yoga of listening.

 
 

21 Comments

  1. Excellent read. I now have a brand new clear lens with which to observe your inquiry. Thanks, Matthew.

  2. Prasad in Every Pot

    If we could just get all the voices out of our heads!
    The collective net of safety?
    The union of concerned lineages?

  3. Great analogy, empathy and compassion can be difficult to express, but there is nothing worse than being put on the defensive about an injury. It’s never right to humiliate and victimize.

  4. natalie

    Drawing on principles on non-violent communication makes sense and helps contextualize the WAWADIA project, but I’m not convinced that domestic violence is a good parallel.

    Yes, the relationship between yoga and the body is complicated. But as with any physical endeavor (work, play, sport, hobby, activity, inactivity), there’s risk of injury in yoga and there are social and cultural factors in how injuries are managed and interpreted. The common denominator is inevitable morbidity and mortality of the body. However domestic violence is not inevitable. In my opinion the article was solid until the domestic violence example. A more appropriate example (such as the perceived healthfulness and safety of other types of exercise) could illustrate the point more clearly and with greater sensitivity to people who have experienced domestic violence.

    • Thanks for this. I agree that the parallel breaks down upon consideration of inevitability, and I apologize if it fails through seeming insensitive. But it’s not meant to be a parallel. It’s meant to be an example of how violent dismissive self-referral can be. Many examples could work if they involve a similarly intimate admission: that the practice they loved hurt them, and they kept coming back to it, because they attributed high virtues to it such as love. Having one’s story of childhood abuse derailed by someone’s dismissive self-referral would be another parallel. The reason I feel that using content related to another exercise practice would not be clearer is that other practices do not weave such a thick metanarrative around injury. In other words, the concept of “karmic evolution” can be invoked to encourage people to stay in injurious practice patterns, just as the fetishization of the concepts of “marriage” or “family values” can be used to justify staying in an abusive relationship. I’m not seeing that happen in Pilates, although Crossfit has some spiritualized elements to it. In any case, thanks for pointing this out, and I hope my intention is a bit clearer.

      • I think, Matthew, your example was perfectly legitimate, given what you were trying to illustrate. You were not (in my mind, anyway) comparing yoga injuries to domestic violence per se, only making a point about changing the REAL subject when discussing certain aspects of a difficult topic.

  5. Thanks for this, Matthew, and I feel some chagrin, as I was one of the self-referrers. I understand now why what I shared may not have been very helpful to the greater discussion, and offer my apologies to Diane and to you. It’s human nature to become attached to what has helped one feel physically and mentally healthy and whole, and in subconsciously perceiving a threat to one’s personal form of solace, to get defensive as well. Thanks for opening my eyes on this.

    In offering my own positive experience with Ashtanga, I did not intend an obtuse form of victim blaming to quiet the conversation, but simply wanted to point out that that the practice CAN be healing, and that I believe the Primary and Second Series of the Ashtanga system are beneficial for most humans – when taught and practiced compassionately and wisely, that is. That’s a big caveat, and perhaps one that is not often followed because of ego, dogma or the need to rigidly follow authority in order to gain inclusion or status.

    (While “compassionate” asana practice is probably more easily defined, as to what constitutes “wise” asana practice, well, that’s up for debate, I guess, since Diane believed she was being “wise” in her practice, and “wise” when she was following the bad advice of her teachers and collegues – and yet she was grievously injured.)

    The risk of injury is greater for an Ashtanga practitioner vs. say, a Svaroopa practitioner, and so, with great power comes great responsibility, for both students and teachers. I’m someone who has never injured myself seriously while practicing Ashtanga, but who HAS been severely injured by a teacher, twice: once when I was newer to the practice and didn’t know how to say, “No thanks” and tore a meniscus in a too strong Mari D assist, and the second time, in a very poor adjustment of my tilted hips in halasana, when the teacher came up to my blind backside without warning and wrenched my hips to “straighten” them. In doing so, my sacrum was dislocated on one side from my pelvis. Neither of these teachers had studied Ashtanga with a senior teacher, nor were they the lead teachers in the room, but were assistants in workshops; it was an Iyengar trained teacher who tore my sacrum.)

    So, I appreciate this conversation you’ve spearheaded very much. Let’s keep on questioning the dogmas that exist within this system and in doing so, perhaps prevent future injuries like Diane’s.

    • Thanks Michelle for your reflection here. It is so difficult to speak and listen in this territory, which feels so sacred to us. It’s precisely because yoga is a double-edged sword that the wound and the healing are so close, I think. Hope our paths cross some day.

  6. Hi Matthew, I know you and I are talking tomorrow, but I wanted to offer something that for me popped up in your article. Interestingly, Hozel (2011), in a review on mindfulness research found that “internal awareness of one’s own experience has been suggested to be an important pre-condition for empathic responses”. Proprioceptive and kinesthetic awareness may be something that certain types of yoga styles mistake for listening to the body, but its not the same. But they think it is (I say from experience ;)) Anyway for what its worth. Talk to you tomorrow!

    Hözel, B.,K., Lazar, S.,W., Gard T, Schuman-Olivier A., Vago D.,R., Ott, U. (2011). How does mindfulness meditation work? Proposing mechanisms of action from a conceptual and neural perspective. Perspectives on Psychological Science. 6:537-9

  7. This is actually easy to hear from someone who isn’t fear-mongering as much as the “Yoga Can Wreck Your Body” guy and other teachers who present themselves as concerned citizens of the yoga world, but who are really selling their “safer and smarter” way of teaching the same thing. There’s still some fear-mongering and media posturing here, but it’s a relatively truthful voice. It’s important that our practices reduce attachment, aggression, and ignorance. If this piece helps people do that, fine. The framing is dangerous, though, since Mr. Remski’s points are defended so well from criticism. Any counter voice will be seen as redirectional or dismissive–some kind of denial. So I’ll simply, but confusedly, add that yoga can’t only wreck your body, but also your mind. It wouldn’t be very powerful if it couldn’t.

    • Thanks for stopping by, yogadas. I’m happy to disagree with you about whether I’m fear-mongering or media posturing. Time will tell. But I have to object the notion that my positions are well defended from criticism. You’re missing the point I think. I’m not defending my research or analytical speculations at all. I’m defending the voices that are brave enough to disclose experience by pointing out how they are silenced. I would love a stern challenge to any of the ideas I’ve proposed over the last 30K words, if it keeps to substance. I hope that if you see something to counter, you feel welcome to do so.

      • Thanks, Matthew. I understood your point and I’ll take you up on your invitation. You think you’re standing up for some unheard folks. Maybe you are. I’m not dismissing them or your points. They count. Your points–as they relate to health–are well taken. But only in respect to health. Ayurveda is a great hygiene. On the other hand, yoga is perhaps the only thing we have that can sensitize enough people to repair the world’s injuries. The planet may already be wrecked beyond repair. Ayurveda doesn’t reach the fast food-television junkies who are sitting there watching the world be wrecked. It’s not appealing enough to lure junkies. Maybe after they’ve done some risky yoga, there’s other options. But numb people don’t get off the coach for ccf–corriander, cumin, and fennel. They get up for something that gives them a buzz. You used the same trick. You created injury story drama–a buzz–on Facebook. That’s where I read it. Yoga that’s risky creates the actual energetic drama of sensitivity. Which buzz is more important? The yoga buzz won’t sell your Yoga Sutra book, but it is the reason that a few really smart people will read it. I don’t think the number of yoga injuries justifies all the drama. It’s important, but I think you and everyone else who wants to hear the injured can reach out individually to those folks at this point. Hasn’t there been enough yoga injury articles in the last year? Could there be any more? Hasn’t there been enough buzz? Can’t the Ayurveda people just go back to telling people that anything but gentle yoga is too hard on the body? Do you have to connect it with something that–while doing some possible good–also does some other stuff. It’s an old media-friendly angle. I love the knowledge in Iyengar Yoga but some Iyengar teachers like the “Wreck Your Body” guy have been working this angle for decades. If you learn yoga from anyone else you’ll get hurt. Closer to your home, it’s “If you do too much yoga you’ll deplete your ojas.” I wouldn’t care so much if the planet wasn’t already so injured. It may be wrecked beyond repair. So my (non-violent communication type) request to you, Matthew, is to keep this big picture in mind even when you are trying to help individuals.

        • Thanks yogadas. I understand your cynicism and concern. I do think it’s projective and misplaced, however. The book that emerges from this will not discourage potential practitioners who find Ayurveda too ornate: it will be over their heads and beyond their needs. It will, I hope, raise the dialogue amongst the professional class of teachers and trainers who loosely administrate MPY today. I’m flattered that you think my reach comparable to William Broad’s, but our projects could not be more different: I am not surveying the thin science of yoga thusfar, nor highlighting major risks. I’m trying to account for normal everyday injuries on the mat, and where they come from.

          As to where I come from and where the project comes from — neither has been whipped up out of the sea of milk. I’ve been tracking this story for 15 years in my own body as an asana teacher, and over a decade in the bodies of students and ayurveda clients. I didn’t create any drama: I publicly asked a question that had been fermenting for years.

          In any case, on November 1st I’ll be publishing a 52-page prospectus that clearly lays out the thesis, intent, and method of the project. There’s actually a section in it called “Answering Some Early Objections” — several of which you have somehow repeated here verbatim. I hope it will clarify the project for and others, and I appreciate your continued feedback.

          • Since every expression is projective and misplaced I don’t take offense at the critique. Recall that I did say your words were (relatively) easy to hear. You’ve somehow repeated the reasons here verbatim. And while your reach may not be as broad as Broad’s, I think yours is probably greater than the actual yoga teacher (Glen Black) whom he quoted, and whom I was actually referencing. But anyway–cool. Good luck with the project. May it be of benefit.

  8. I have a friend who is an herbalist, and is often frustrated with the fact that herbs are treated as a kind of fake medicine, so people with no qualifications feel authorized to tell others how to use them, and underneath the free-for-all is a subtle message that herbs “don’t really work”, because how can they both be a powerful medicine and have no danger whatsoever if used incorrectly? I think the stories you are gathering about yoga injuries are a validation that yoga is a very real, potent medicine, and as such it has the power to harm in a variety of circumstances, which is a necessary and obvious part of its power to heal. I see what you are doing as a much-needed effort to deepen our cultural respect for yoga, and for the complexity and ephemerality of our own bodies.

  9. Hello Matthew
    I have been thinking a lot about your #16 update …

    And especially the comment about ‘if it is pain, it is not yoga’ …

    Another problem with this statement, beyond the ones you mention, is that it suggests that when there is no pain it IS yoga.

    From my understanding, here’s the problem with this …
    Pain is a product of the brain. (or maybe it is better to say of the mind, or of the nervous systems, or of the organism … but let’s leave that alone for now, and go with the brain, because humans don’t seem to be able to experience pain without a brain).

    We seem to need two things to feel pain.
    1. A conclusion that something dangerous is happening.
    AND
    2. A need to act, or change one’s behaviour.

    If danger signals are coming to the brain from the body, and aspects of the brain are interpreting that there is danger, while other aspects of the brain have other ideas, such as a belief that pain is a good thing to release, or something one should endure, then these latter thoughts and beliefs can override the brain’s conclusion that something is dangerous and that behaviour needs to change.

    A great example of this top-down influence on experience is shown in the Charlie Chaplin mask illusion youtube video, though it shows the opposite … give a try to seeing the back of the mask as concave, to experience the power of the brain to alter your experience.

    Stated another way, top-down influences can change what would “normally” be a painful experience, into one in which there is NO pain.

    Our current pain science paradigm suggests that if you believe something is not dangerous, AND/OR if you believe that you do not need to change your behaviour, then a mechanical force on your body that would otherwise result in the experience of pain, may not be experienced as painful.

    And stated one more way, the comment that “if there is pain, it is not yoga”, is based on a Cartesian and biomechanical view of the complex human experience we call pain.
    Pain is complex, and as you are pointing out here in WAWADIA, we really need to think a lot more about what we think about pain, AND, about what we think about people with it.
    neil

    • Thank you so much Neil.

  10. Nadine

    Hi Matthew,

    This is a good article. I like how you deeply feel into the subject matter and people’s responses with compassion and intution.

    In my background as a massage therapist, and as someone who has lived with general body pain for a very long time, I am aware of how yoga makes me feel and have not ever pushed myself into pain. My practice is undoubtedly less visually impressive as a resul; but in my mind, the purpose of yoga is to help maintain comfort in my body so that I can function well in my day to day life. It also helps me deal with and sometimes even overcome anxiety and depression.

    Your thoughts about NVC and it’s possible abuse are interesting. As a person who has suffered narcissistic abuse at the hands of a caregiver who was educated as a social worker, it seems both likely and sinister. But as a person who has studied NVC a little, it seems unlikely that a person like that (incapable of empathy) could actually effectively use NVC. It’s worth exploring.

  11. stephanie

    Regarding your digression about responsibilism:

    It’s also common in yoga culture to see a teaching of ego surrender. The surrender of ego, added to the culture of corporate / neoliberal individualism, is a recipe for disaster. It means on the one hand you have to listen to your teacher and do whatever s/he says, because if you’re on your own then you will be frolicking in the preferences and avoidances of your own misguided ego. But on the other hand, once you’re injured, it’s your own damn fault and you’d better surrender more, or practice more faithfully. This is a downward spiral as the practitioner dances between deeper surrender (i.e. dulling inner intelligence, that voice that says ‘maybe I shouldn’t be doing this’) and personal responsibility for their injury.

    Speaking from experience! This spiral seems quite common, and it’s a very challenging place to get out of, too.

    We do need a degree of personal responsibility for our practices, but we also need a culture that promotes inquisitiveness, openness, and intelligence. We basically need the opposite of what’s happening: rather than ego surrender and dogma, there needs to be personal inquiry, curiosity and openness; rather than individualism and blame there needs to be more active listening within the community.

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