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:
- Redirection and blaming, and
- 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.