Certum est quia impossibile est. — Tertullian
I’m closing in on fifty interviews for this project, and it’s getting richer every week.
I’ve spoken to a trauma survivor who has been repeatedly triggered in asana classes by both invasive touch and psychological insensitivity. I’ve spoken to a medical doctor (as well as 30-year practitioner and teacher) who remembers the moment when he actively suppressed his critical thinking medical-mind so that he could overlook the unfounded medical claims that a leading instructor was making about postures. (He felt that his analytical skills had made him emotionally inflexible.) I’ve spoken to teachers who have been injured by adjustments from friends and colleagues who didn’t feel socially empowered to address the situation openly. I’ve spoken to teachers who have spoken up in such situations, only to be ostracized for “questioning tradition”. I interviewed one long-term student who tolerated chronic injury because she was told things like:
It’s just an opening, move through it and breathe.
You’re moving through your emotions – it’s not your hamstring.
You’re headstrong and have difficulty surrendering fully in forward bends.
You’re too tight – just let go into the movement and it will stop hurting when you stop fighting.
It’s a tribute to the integrity and resilience of these subjects that most have overcome their yoga-related injuries and continued to explore the boundaries of an eclectic and expanding practice in a way that helps them grow. Some teachers among them have also used their experiences of pain, neglect, and even abuse to commit themselves to higher standards. So despite itself, yoga education is improving. However people have been disappointed by their teachers, underserved by the typical knowledge-base, or silenced by the cultures of exclusion or charisma, there’s something about the idea and feeling of yoga – so hard to define – that keeps drawing many back. (Of course there’s still no telling how many simply leave in pain and anger.) My therapist once said that a relationship can only really begin after the romance is over. I’m beginning to think that for some people yoga is what occurs when people become disenchanted with yoga.
It all resonates with the other paradoxes that drew me to this project, such as: Why is it so difficult to distinguish between pain and progress in asana? Is asana something that uses the body for an immaterial end, or is it a celebration of the very materiality of life? What forces — beyond marketing — encourage people to believe that old religious practices that often involved self-immolation can suddenly be reframed as therapeutic?
One interview subject in particular sharpened this feeling of paradox in modern yoga into the notion of “impossibility”. We talked about many things over an hour, but it was her brief description of the posture known as “Wild Thing” that really stopped me short. The subject is a yoga instructor in a large urban centre. She’s certified in Pilates with a whack of exercise science on board through her studies with many physio-savvy teachers. I’m no anatomist, so she kindly walked me through the dangerous biomechanics of Wild Thing. It made me see that the conflicting desires of modern yoga are not theoretical or psychological at all. They are as palpable as the difference between what a human joint can do, and what we want it to do. The joint in question in Wild Thing is the shoulder, by which the desire of the heart radiates into the world of action.
Wild Thing has been mostly popularized through the Anusara vocabulary. But it’s not new, of course. I’m a fan of modern dance, and I’ve seen variations on it in everything from Isadora Duncan and Martha Graham-inspired movement to gestures used by Alvin Ailey, Pina Bausch and John Alleyne. One of the notable differences between modern dance and modern postural yoga is, however, that no one in modern dance claims its movements to be therapeutic.
Engaging with dance is similar to engaging with sport: the risks are carefully calibrated in light of the rewards. But yoga is supposed to be different. Or is it? Dance and sport are transparently performative. You present the best face of your skill, regardless of how you’re feeling in the moment. While rehearsal and composition may involve self-inquiry, the actual dance or game necessarily emphasizes external action. But yoga is supposed to be different. Or is it? The reward of dance is aesthetic passion, while the reward of sport is accomplishment and victory. But yoga is supposed to be different. Or is it? When aesthetic passion and the quest for victory intermingle with a practice that equates skeletal symmetry with “spiritual alignment” and accomplishment with a victory over a mundane self, what do we get? (Hence the title of the project: What Are We Actually Doing in Asana?)
My interviewee suggested that as pleasurable as it may be, Wild Thing is virtually impossible to do in a healthful manner. The first version of the pose begins from a Vasisthasana preparation, in which the top leg is flexed at the knee and brought to the floor in front. Then the yogi begins to extend the thoracic spine into a backbend. If you take the time to look through a half-dozen examples of the posture, you’ll see something happening that’s crucial to shoulder health. As my subject pointed out to me, there’s almost no way that in a transition from side-plank to the backbend a practitioner can protect herself from the retraction, elevation, and anterior translation of the head of the humerus. (Retraction pulls the scapula towards the spine; elevation slides it upward; anterior translation pushes the humeral head forward.) When this happens, the shoulder quivers on the edge of dislocation. To keep the shoulder stable, the yogi has to protract the scapula (move the bony plate away from the spine), keep it depressed, and externally rotate the humerus. This activates the all-important stabilization of the serratus anterior muscle.
If, as the yogi goes into the backbend, the scapula is not protracted and depressed and the humerus is not externally rotated, the head of the humerus will smash into the acromium process and create impingement and/or a tear or fraying of the supraspinatus. Doing all three of these things successfully in this scenario is next to impossible for the average yoga practitioner. I have interviewed two practitioners with supraspinatus tears so far, derived not only from big poses like Wild Thing but more commonly with standard sun salutation movements.
I remember from doing the posture myself that it seemed natural to consider that pinching sensation, in harmony with the stretching of my pectoral muscles and my sternum, to be the uncomfortable but welcome feeling of my “heart” opening. I don’t know whether I’d heard Anusara-inspired instructors describe it this way back then, but a quick perusal of Anusara-type presentations of the posture online confirms that this link is clearly promoted. During the time in which I was having fun with it, Wild Thing irritated my dominant right shoulder, which was already weakened by a youth of pitching baseball. Now, my right humerus clicks in and out of the glenoid fossa on a regular basis. It feels like there’s a deep pearl of dry ricketiness in the centre of my shoulder. I feel it most when carrying my toddler, whose blubbery rolls of babyfat challenge my ability to keep my scapula back and down.
At first I believed what I was told about the irritation: that I was “uncovering scar tissue” and “unpranic” movement patterns through such positions, and that eventually the fluidity of the practice and my breath would clear the pain away. I was also taken for a while by the relationship that Vedic astrology makes between the right shoulder and one’s relationship with one’s mother — but that’s a long story. I continued to work with it, and would visualize my breath as though it were replete with George Lucas’ “midi-chlorians” in the Star Wars universe: so dear to Jedis wanting to connect to the Force. My breath was an angelic flow of microscopic organisms that would heal all ailments. As with all spiritualized or psychologized explanations, simplicity was the victim of the need for meaning. It seemed just too ordinary to say, I have an old shoulder injury that this posture aggravates. Mindful attention and breathing can’t hurt, but I should really rest it. Why is the bias within asana culture to believe that more movement is more therapeutic?
If the yogi goes further into Wild Thing, my interviewee explained, things get worse. To bring that top foot behind the supporting leg and incrementally increase the spinal extension just doubles down on the shoulder torture, especially given that the scapular elevation associated with the full beauty of the pose (drawing the scapula up beyond the top ribs) will tend to turn off the serratus anterior.
My subject’s analysis concluded that the pose is destabilizing by definition to the shoulder joint, and that it can only really be approached by very flexible people who would derive no benefit from it. It cannot help but to wear out the shoulder.
So why do I say the posture is impossible? It’s not, technically. Thousands of people are obviously doing it to one degree or another. And those are just the ones taking selfies. But it’s impossible to do safely, insofar as the scapula cannot protract when it’s being forced to retract. In its marketing, it offers the impossible promise of simultaneous bliss and physical health. This is a pose that is/was central to an entire asana mood: whole classes are/were structured to approach it and enjoy it. And it cannot help but to damage the health and functionality of shoulder joints.
Now if there were better biomechanics education around Wild Thing and more transparency in its instruction, students might be offered the pose along with a frank cost/benefit analysis, such as:
Okay, most of what we do here is designed to improve muscular intelligence, breath regulation, circulatory strength, etc. etc., but once in a while I like to throw in this crazy pose which involves doing this really dumb-ass thing to your shoulder that over time might tear it to shreds, but a lot of people really love how it feels, so if you feel like you’re in a kind of fuckit mood today this might be fun.
I don’t imagine we’ll hear this anytime soon. It would be interesting if we did, however, because it would have to come from someone who takes the Hatha yoga heritage seriously enough to be upfront about its most anxious and paradoxical sentiments: that our vulnerability and mortality are the primary conditions of our exploration, that pain and fear is a preview to or perhaps a misunderstanding of joy, that transgressive and disgusting and even dangerous actions can liberate us from the bonds of physical limitation, social conditioning and maladaptive psychic patterning.
The Hatha legacy of people like Matsyendranath, Gorakshanath and their redactors Gheranda and Yogi Svatmarama is laced with impossible challenges to existential limits. Their practices promise eternal youth, magical powers, and immortality. But the old masters aren’t capricious: their promises demand tapas, a sacrifice of flesh to the fire of transformation. The Hatha yogis cut their tongues, prolapsed their rectums into the Ganges for super-deep cleansing, and manipulated their breath hydraulically towards the edge of autoerotic-asphyxiated bliss. None of these practices are therapeutic, or intended to make the practitioner better-adjusted to aging gracefully and wisely with a low carbon footprint. They are designed to turn you into Wild Thing. And you pay for their benefits with your flesh.
Who wants to be a Wild Thing? Everyone does. Will being a Wild Thing hurt you? In the case of the pose, it will materially hurt your tissues in ways you may not recover from. Those of us who have had shoulder (or hip, or knee, or spine) injuries know that the joint is never the same, and will never be the same for the rest of our lives. Meaning: until we die. The injury marks us. I wonder if this is why we continue to pursue injurious postures in asana. Perhaps it gives us the feeling, unconsciously, of having control over the inevitable process of degeneration. We will be injured in life. We would prefer, of course, to have meaningful injuries. Like the kānphaṭas, who split their ear pinnae to mount crystals in return for the ability to receive mantric transmissions.
If we describe the Wild Thing as a sacrifice of the shoulder joint to the greater good of a few moments of a strong sensation we frame as ecstasy, then fine. If we want to go further and say that the sacrifice is a valiant choice in the face of an absurd existence, a noble way to burn in a holocaust we can’t escape: go for it. But if we say that same strong sensation is bliss and non-sacrificial and therapeutic all at the same time, then we are playing with an unacknowledged impossibility that resonates with so many other impossibilities at this dead-end of global capitalism:
We want to be Wild Things, even as so many wild things perish. We want a workshop – or even a daily practice – to change us, but the political economies and social constructions we return to after śavāsana are still in place. The oppression of capitalism seems as non-negotiable as the biomechanics of the shoulder. The heart rebels against both restrictions.
We want our naturalness restored. We want to be Wild Things in this suburban conference center, in this urban boutique studio, on this yoga vacay to Tulum. I wonder if VISA makes a Wild Thing gold-level credit card. We want something that’s impossible. We want it so badly we may fall asleep to what we really need.