On November 1st, I’ll be releasing a 52-page prospectus for a crowdfunding campaign to support the two years I think it’ll take to produce this book. In preparation for the campaign, I’ve fielded a lot of really good questions online, from my interview subjects, and in various public forums where I’ve presented preliminary findings from my research.
(I was at Yoga Morristown two weeks ago, hosted by Omni Kitts Ferrara. Then I gave a brief presentation to the entire faculty of Octopus Garden in Toronto last Wednesday. And the second WAWADIA night at 80 Gladstone, hosted by Diane Bruni, was on Friday night. Everywhere, the conversation is searching, lively, and runs late. I’ll be at Evolution Yoga in Cleveland this Saturday, hosted by Sandy Gross, and at Portland Union Yoga on Nov. 8th, hosted by Todd Vogt and Annie Adamson.)
The questions I’m getting have a lot of nuance, but here are the nuggets:
WTF is your end-game here?
Do you really think you can stop people from getting injured in asana classes?
I’ll admit that injury-free yoga is an occasional fantasy of mine. It comes mainly from my own injury experience, but also from an unchecked countertransference I’ve laid on many of my Ayurveda and yoga therapy clients through the years who have told me their injury stories. Perhaps I want to protect them as a way of ensuring my own safety, or at least as proof that I am protecting myself.
Regardless, it’s been hard to contain my outrage at some of the stories of ignorant teaching, invasive adjustments, and cultish studio environments that have torn people’s bodies and minds to shreds. I identify deeply with these stories, and this hampers my objectivity for sure. This is all understandable: I wouldn’t dedicate so much time to a project about injury if I wasn’t also working out my own memories.
But a psychic rebellion against all injury is like a psychic rebellion against death.
So I totally acknowledge that a completely injury-free yoga is not a reasonable goal. Nor a desirable one, perhaps. Firstly, it’s impossible: all things tend towards entropy. Secondly, people who crave growth will at times overstep their means and even ignore their wits as they leap in fear and faith towards a fantasized future self.
Moreover, I’ve learned through the interview process something that has been hard to accept for myself: that pain in practice can be functional, meaningful, and even revelatory. Pain, and even the injury that may precede or follow it, is at times the most available mechanism that some people have for feeling anything at all.
As we should know by now, “listening to our bodies” is not enough on the yoga mat. Not only can the body crave intense feeling, sometimes it is completely silent as an injury occurs. And just as often, we don’t know what to listen for.*
This all applies in relation to a charismatic teacher, as well. We may be listening very closely to assess how well a guru’s presence or message is resonating. We may feel honestly nourished by both, only to discover in time that, like an asana teacher validating his power by deeply adjusting a hypermobile student, the guru is deftly pushing an already-tender button within us.
Sometimes the only difference between pleasure and pain is time.
And what of people who do listen to their bodies, feel pain, know they’re feeling pain, and do not stop? What if they’re coming from a profound experience of bodily distrust or alienation? What if they have internalized the shameful social constructions of their bodies? Is it really unreasonable that they should further discipline the proof of their inadequacy? Some people tolerate hurt to the body to be able to affirm: I am more than this body that marginalizes me, that hurts. Smarter asana practice alone won’t solve this adaptation.
Risk-taking behaviours can be therapeutic. They can signify a reclamation of bodily possession and autonomy, a way of breaking free of social construction. They can be a way of saying I participate in the greater sacrifice of life, or, I want to be changed irrevocably by this moment. My interviews with folks whose asana practice is intertwined with body modifications (heavy ink and piercings) have helped me understand this.
Risks express desires. Perhaps the lust for risk rises in tandem with the anxiety a desire expresses. It’s always good to remember that the drive towards enlightenment sought throughout the history of yoga emerges from the recognition of existential horror. The more intolerable the recognition, the higher the risk, and the harder the striving.
If we want to limit risk to enhance safety, what shall we provide to those who feel they need risk to experience freedom?
When I present this material in community forums, I usually begin with a few stories gathered from my subject interviews about pain and injury experiences in asana. Many of these stories are also accounts of healing and self-discovery.
The audiences largely consist of yoga’s professional class of teachers and trainers, so the discussion quickly shifts into a debate over safety. “What Are We Doing in Asana?” turns into: “What Should We Be Doing in Asana?” It’s an emotional pivot made by people who want to protect their bodies, their students, and their integrity.
The two questions seem to flow together. But while the first poses a rich descriptive challenge, the second is very thorny. Concrete answers to the second will take a long time, if they come at all. I am not a biomechanics specialist, nor a clinical psychologist, and so I cannot issue authoritative statements on what should or should not be done on a yoga mat. Thank goodness. I can only offer descriptions, and hope that if they are evocative, options will become clearer.
My hope is to model the skills of self-inquiry I believe will lead to more lucid understandings of practice, the flesh, the studio environment, and the relationships we create while learning and teaching.
My hope is that this work may at least help prevent the worst kind of injury: the injury one cannot digest or understand; the injury that leaves one feeling broken and embittered. The injury that is wasteful and useless, in that it fails to prepare us for death.
* This is a point covered eloquently by Jules Mitchell in her excellent Master’s Thesis on the science of stretching, which I’ve had the pleasure of reviewing. Jules tells me that her intention is to rewrite her strong academic work in a more accessible form over the next little while.