What Are We Actually Doing in Asana? (introducing the WAWADIA project)
On January 2nd, I posted a request to Facebook:
Dear Facebook yoga practitioners —
I’m doing some research into asana-related injuries for an upcoming writing project. I would like to gather formal interview subjects, but also to hear, via private message whatever details you care to disclose. If you’d like to be an interview subject (Skype), let me know by personal message. Please do not use the comment function below.
By “asana-related injury” I mean any type of tissue damage, diagnosed or not, acute or mild, with sudden or gradual onset, that you believe was directly caused by performing asanas or vinyasa to the best of your ability, and according to the instruction you received.
This project is about looking for untold stories and unexamined trends, and will be dedicated to the enrichment of the community as a whole.
I understand that the subjective quality of the reporting is unavoidable. Unless your orthopaedic surgeon has told you that your labrum tear, for instance, was directly caused by a certain repeated femoral movement, all that you as the injured person would have to report is a strong suspicion of causality. Navigating and respecting that subjectivity is part of my study.
My focus here is not upon injuries resulting from improper adjustments from instructors. I’m more interested in surveying the tools we have as students and teachers to assess the value of a particular movement, if it is possibly injurious to a particular student. There has been a lot of good work recently done by those who want to encourage safer asana practice and education. I think I might have something to add to this very positive and forward-looking effort.
The research will only make its way into publication with details protected by strict anonymity with regard to the circumstances of the injury described, and only by permission of the interview subjects.
Please share widely if so moved. Thanks!
In the few days since my request, the asana-related injury stories have poured into my inbox. I have over fifty people to follow up with by formal interview at this point.
Shoulder injuries, neck injuries, hip injuries. Elbows. Carpel tunnel. There are many stories of incompetent instruction or invasive adjustments that may constitute physical assault. But even more numerous are the stories of injuries suffered by long-term practitioners and teachers who have been affiliated with the most reputable, “safe”, and “therapeutic” asana systems in yoga culture. In this apparently rational middle ground of practice, where few would suspect danger, there are people who did what they were instructed, and enjoyed it with only minor doubts, until they were overcome by the pain of injuries they had little idea they were accumulating. These are the stories I’m really attuned to, for they resonate with a suspicion I’ve slowly developed over eleven years of teaching: that even in the best-case scenarios for asana practice, we just may not know enough about the biomechanics of asana to be able to say what we are actually doing when we practice it. When I say “we”, I’m excluding those few voices advocating stronger movement intelligence and slowly gaining bandwidth: Michaelle Edwards, Susi Hately, Paul Grilley, Jill Miller, Thomas Myers, Todd LaVictoire, and several others.
A number of correspondents have said things like: “I’d be happy to talk to you, as long as the tone stays positive.” This post is my response to them, to be transparent about my inspiration to pursue the topic. It’s also addressed to anyone who hesitates to join in the conversation out of concern over the aim of this project. Not being a social scientist, and unschooled in statistical research, my aim is not to produce any generalized conclusions about the state of asana culture. It is to collect stories that will illuminate a particular theme, which I’ll describe below, and which might be helpful for collective consideration.
As for my positive tone: asana has obviously proven to be a splendid method that helps many people wake up to the presence of breath, focus, and sensation. It reveals interdependence in real-time. It teaches embodied receptivity and quiet courage. Like a parent, it swaddles the flesh with attention and warmth. It shows practitioners the hidden conversation between movement, poise, and the emotions. These are the gifts I am grateful for in my own practice, and grateful to have been able to share through teaching. They are precious gifts that I could never repay, and that I’m committed to supporting.
But these virtues are intertwined with a complex cultural history of contradictory impulses, which I believe many of us can still feel in our bones, literally, with varying levels of awareness. And I think — of course I can’t be sure — that these impulses may be contributing to the proliferation of injuries flooding the scene. So here are a few notes on this one of many connections that I imagine will begin to come into focus.
Over the past century, practitioners of modern postural yoga have been learning, evolving and improvising an art form historically associated with somato-spiritual alchemy – not with ‘therapy’, as we might think of it today. The ideology of the Hatha yogis did not advocate radical postural and cleansing practices for long-term health maintenance, or for better managing your working life. They taught techniques for the destruction of those aspects of the body that they considered corruptible. Throughout their literature, they name ‘immortality’ as a primary goal, to be achieved through great effort and unswerving dedication to a guru’s instruction. They were not seeking — as most of us are, I believe — a gradual improvement in holistic health and functional longevity. They were seeking the ‘forceful blows’ of spontaneous alchemical transformation.
Metallurgical metaphors were dear to them: the flesh was to be heated, struck, bent and transmuted, from iron to gold, gold to diamond. They were into bodily modifications, scarification, and branding. The Hatha Yoga Pradipika advises that yogis slice the frenulum of tongue with a razor blade to lengthen the tongue, so that it can be curled back and inserted into the lower sinuses, presumably to tickle oneself into ecstatic sneezing. The long-term effects of this and other obviously dangerous practices are not discussed. Why? Because the tapas of Hatha yoga expresses a sacrificial paradigm, in which flesh is offered into the fire of intense experience, in return for another body, another self. This may be inappropriate for those who feel that this body and self is both quite suitable and irreplaceable.
Now, as Elizabeth de Michelis, Mark Singleton, Joseph Alter, N.E. Sjoman and others have explored, the links between Hatha ideology and modern postural yoga are exceedingly complex, confounded by a tsunami of transcultural exchanges in the late colonial era. I won’t attempt to navigate this territory in this short post. But the general consensus is this: in order to popularize their craft, the evangelical fathers of modern yoga (Sri Yogendra, Swami Kuvalyananda, Swami Sivananda, T. Krishnamacharya, and others) could only retain the postural and cleansing advices of the Hatha tradition to the extent that they appropriated them from practitioners they considered to be lower-caste, sanitized them of their macabre or sexualized aspects, and most importantly modified the underlying ideology from catabolic to therapeutic. This shift coincided with a rising tide of nationalist revisionism that sought to erase the humiliating image of the self-mortifying yogi, and transform his alleged spiritual madness into scientific and biomedical rationalism, while transforming his contorted and ash-smeared body into an icon of national virility.
But the retrofitting was not complete. The late Patabhi Jois kept the old blacksmith’s language alive with the saying: “With heat, even iron will bend.” To be clear: the human body here is being compared to a base metal, something to be transmuted. The vaunted heat, like all of the tapas/tejas practices dating back to the heroic mortifications of Vedic mythology, is not meant to be pleasurable. The pain is intrinsic to the goal. As Brad Ramsey describes his Mysore experience in Guruji: A Portrait of Sri K. Pattabhi Jois Through the Eyes of His Students (2010):
I felt like I was being dismembered… My body was changed…When it hurts, put your mind on God instead of your pain, whatever your concept of God is – whether he is the great architect or the basic element of the universe, which everything is made out of… The series is just a mold toward a body that meets the requirements for spiritual advancement, I believe. I don’t think you can get there without pain. I never met anyone who did. For me, it hurt from the first day to the last, at least something. There’s always something…sometimes even to make the effort is painful…it’s the nature of the beast. It’s a birth process, really.
I’ve gone through periods in which I would have resonated with such statements. Periods in which I really did want to dismember myself, as if I could get to the tenderest centre of things with a radical effort that directly assaulted the limitations I felt in all areas of life. But now I have questions. How should we understand this reification of pain? How does it square with the assertion that practice is positively transformative? How would a yogi like Ramsay even define a positive outcome? Is his a minority view? What is the impact of this attitude on on long-term health?
To my knowledge, BKS Iyengar doesn’t make a habit of publicly using fire-and-pain language. He has innovated an enormous range of therapeutic techniques. I owe all of my understanding of the use of propped support in restorative yoga to his lineage. One of his satellite schools in my home city offers anatomically-themed pre-registration classes that help many people who would never step foot in a typical vinyasa class: “Yoga for Lumbar Health”, “Yoga for Shoulder Stabilization”. But I can also testify from having studied with two of his senior students that while the no-nonsense, gruff, sometimes militaristic approach common (but not uniform) within that culture may not directly advocate for the necessity of pain, it implicitly invites it. Watching BKS or his daughter Geeta on video is very much like watching basic training for the infantry. It makes me wonder how harsh their approach is when there are no cameras around.
On the physical side, I remember receiving several adjustments from highly qualified Iyengar teachers in which my thigh or shoulder was pushed, wrenched, or manipulated as if it they were pieces of an unruly metal sculpture, being tamed into place. If I felt pain in any of those circumstances, I took it upon myself to try reframe the sensation in therapeutic or even pleasurable terms. Only because it was fell just short of overwhelming, I was able to make pain shine like gold. At the time, these incidents didn’t subtract from the clear benefits I felt from the education in general, but the memory has become complicated lately.
Why should we care about this blending of old ideas and modern practices? Because the postural influence of Hatha yoga, once used for a kind of physical self-destruction to release an immortal, post-human self, remains embedded within a contemporary movement practice that promises opposite goals. Very few of us – at least consciously, and there’s the rub – pursue modern postural yoga in order to break ourselves down. The essence of the therapeutic drive is recuperative and tonic. But do we really know that asana meets this need? Which asanas? Performed to what intensity? By whom? Within what range of motion? While the general effects of yoga practice – properly including breathwork and various forms of meditation – have been studied in patchwork fashion, yielding some promising evidence, the postures and movements themselves have not been adequately proven to be beneficial to health, regardless of the MPY effort to repurpose the Hatha paradigm (cf. William Broad, first three chapters of The Science of Yoga). The Hatha yogis were not afraid of injuries: it is likely that they interpreted injuries as signs of transformation. This might sound familiar to many practitioners today.
The echo of catabolic postures is one thing. But I’d like to try to understand how the old catabolic ideology of Hatha yoga may persist in unacknowledged form within modern postural yoga. I want to study how it may dovetail with more contemporary and widespread body-negative influences such as dysmorphia and fat-shame to encourage people to push harder into their discomfort, in the paradoxical attempt to transcend it. I would like to explore the liminal space where self-help seems to meet, mysteriously, with self-harm, felt and then symbolized by pain, first considered as a sign of progress, but eventually understood as injury.
I want to know what people are feeling and thinking when they practice something repeatedly that they’ve been told is beneficial, yet may suspect or even directly feel to be injurious, but continue with anyway. Is it a question of faith? Have they been burdened with the vestiges of a paradigm that blends the sensation of pain with the promise of virtue? I want to know how we might be unconsciously encouraged to express love for the body by testing it to the point of hurting it.
I’ll be facilitating the interviews with these fascinations in mind. As always, I’ll hold the general premise that simply revealing hidden conflictual patterns is the main work involved in feeling them begin to fade. I’ll publish the stories and my reflections on them sometime later this year.
Brilliant innovative analysis, Matthew. Can’t wait to see where this goes, and to read the reactions.
Selected for Best of Yoga Philosophy.
Matthew I think I have some ideas on why this is happening, modern foods like casein and gluten are causing autoimmune inflammatory reactions in places like the annulus fibrocous and various other fibrous tissue. These reactive proteins plus other contaminants like excitoxins that cause inflammation are creating vulnerabilities in practitioners, the peer reviewed science is saying this is reaching epidemic levels . I’ve cured myself of very severe chronic spinal and neurogical issues through diet . Email me and I can link you to the research .
Hi Craig — How about posting the research here for everyone’s benefit. As an Ayurvedic therapist I do regard diet as central to health generally. But I’d be doubtful that casein and gluten are driving the catabolic attitude I’m addressing here.
I would love to be linked to this research.
Thanks in advance
Is it possible that we all have pain, a pain associated with the transformation of our spirits into the body at birth so that we are driven to embody pain repeatedly, subconsciously and consciously as an inherent drive to continually re-experience that which we are most familiar? Do we subconsciously, consciously and repeatedly seek out pain as a frame of reference for our physical embodiment? Does the experience of pain re-affirm that we are actively seeking our potential, chasing the evolution of consciousness through the physical sensation and pain of separation, the first experience lived? Were the old yogis twisting and bending in their pain in order to break it so they could finally let it flow through them, let it go and become painless? Maybe catabolic asana practices are the manifestation of an inherent desire to re-experience pain, the familiar pain of the human condition. Or perhaps we repeatedly re-enact the journey of separation because of the desire to transcend the pain of death; death of tissues, death of the constraints of musculature, bones and flesh. The malas of unworthiness, doership, and separation drive us to seek out pain as a vindication of our experience… so is our experience the cultural context for a catabolic asana practice? If our experience is more painful, than pleasant do we seek out re-affirmation of our beliefs, making everything a representation of our perception?
I definitely think thanatos is a factor. My personal view doesn’t need the transmigration narrative for this to be true. I think our raw condition is enough to stimulate numbing and even destruction urges.
I highly support qualitative research, and believe narrative components can indeed highlight key facets of some of the issues you’ve raised.
Could you clarify – do you believe shifting the emphasis toward therapeutic principles would me more suitable (the precedent or distinction is already are present in contemporary practice – adhyatmika/chikitsa)?
Shodhana, or purification is akin to both Hatha praxis as well as traditional Ayurveda. Approaches to purification were explicitly transformed by some of these pioneers of modern yoga in India – understood.
I think it’s a great lead but to what extents do you believe traditional theories (I prefer this over ‘ideologies’) benefit from being revisited to suit contemporary needs? Would implementing shodhana/shamans/rasayana as a therapeutic paradigm do? Or is it about reinventing the wheel? You mentioned shat karman – would contemporary Ayurveda benefit from omitting pancha-karma because of our culture’s contrasting body politic?
That’s a very sticky question. My general impression is that Hatha shodhana is quite radical and advocated as standard procedure for practitioners regardless of constitution, because it is not directly focused upon holistic balance but upon rectifying the generalized problem of being human. I have also heard that Hatha shodhana is undertaken under the assumption of strong health to begin with. In any case, the premise is different. It also doesn’t necessarily assume purva karma, which is essential in ayurveda.
The problem with pancha-karma is that it must answer to very strong challenges of pseudoscience. Like this one.
It is clear that Ayurvedic knowledge was current among a few later authors of available Hatha lore, but moreso that the culture-religious context of yoga and Ayurveda was shared (including alchemical concerns – hence the metaphors of turning base metals to gold). It’s conceivable that a minority of prominent Hatha traditionalists passing on or perhaps integrating shat karma were literate, practicing physicians with noted expertise in shalya tantra, orthopedics and internal medicine, in the least.
In actual practice, deepening integration often requires the domination of one overarching paradigm – such as biomedicine and scientific evaluation/validation over folk medical claims or non-evidence based approaches.
In the process of modernization,therapeutic claims of Ayurveda and other forms of traditional medicine naturally must contend with strong claims to pseudoscience, but does not to me invalidate their efficacy. In the same vein, yoga’a traditional theories benefit from similar challenges as this discussion may highlight.
I think what is most important are the insights and progressive reflection rather than the subjugation of traditional norms due to a global or modernist agenda. What gets lost or subsumed are valuable understandings of the body/mind located in distinct, yet evolving bodies of practice. I’m also not sure that modern yoga injuries are entirely evocative of a clash of ideologues as presented.
Indeed tapas is relevant to Hatha praxis, and yet ascesis and asceticism are not equivocal to Hatha yoga. In earlier stages and privatized, lineal approaches – yes – practice is arduous, but self-mortification is not the ideal. Alchemical metaphors do abound but there is a clear appreciation for the flesh and certainly pain is not tantamount to signs of progress.
The work of Singleton and others actually seem to verify to me that modern postural yoga does preserve Hatha influences, but moreover that it’s alleged allegiance to the art and tradition is nominal, but also constructed in a biased and shorty manner, forced by individual and nationalist agendas. It’s partially about surrendering to dominant hegemonies that devalue any supplicants petition to orthodoxy and orthopraxis.
Tradition must be spoken to from the inside. Discussions invoking intersubjectivity benefit from group interactions, for which commonality, sensitivity and shared cultural units of information (memes) are givens. Qualitative research questions can invoke such sensitivity and highlight negotiating claims without biasing the dominant paradigm.
These are great thoughts, James. The big confounder to me is that while alchemy is also a fascination of Ayurveda, surviving in bhasmas and kaya kalpa regimes, the vast majority of it is practiced on a homier scale. But I have far less experience — like most — with how the Hatha shodhana plays out on the ground. My own experience of it is through students of Baba Hari Das, so I imagine it was gentler on the scale of what’s conventional. But when I refer to the mortifications that pre-date Hatha, I’m thinking of Shukracharya gaining siddhis by hanging upside down in a tree over a bonfire of chillis. This mode of penance was offered, in my understanding, directly to the devatta. I imagine that at some point this elides with shodhana, as human consciousness moves from bicameral to more fully interiorized.
Yes, if biomedical standards are taken as the gospel for traditional paradigms, the latter are dismantled bit by bit. My best answer here is to advocate for the limitation of Ayurvedic claims, so that the comparison remains unprovoked, and the more useful conversation of perspectives may be enriched.
Hi Matthew, I have had a very personal experience with my own practice relating to an awakening, that through pain my body and mind transformed into something I can only describe as omnipotence.
It met all of the guidelines of a kundalini experience.
I would love to share the details with you if interested. I am not into publicly sharing the details.
Your article has many different and interesting aspects that could lead one on many different areas of study. I enjoy the approach your are taking in regards to the pain aspect of the practice & what the implications could mean for individual practice ( or enlightenment)
Thanks Dana. If you’d like please contact me directly through the contact form up on the top menu, to the right.
Hi Matthew. I have been practicing hatha and what was formerly known as anusara asana for 15 years. I am still learning proper alignment techniques and biomechanics of the body, so many times for me I attribute pain, for example SI joint pain, as a misalignment. On the other hand I often wonder how much a muscle or tissue can withstand.
It’s an important question, complicated by the paradoxical lack of definition around the term “alignment”. In the Iyengar vocabulary I was mainly schooled in, alignment was an obsession, but based on what? BKS Iyengar’s ideas of what was geometrically balanced? Aesthetically pleasing? He changed his ideas over time, influenced bit by bit by biomechanical expertise that wasn’t available in his youth or to his guru. What we have to reckon with is that an emphasis upon alignment may bring higher returns in safety — perhaps because it slows everything down — but that doesn’t means that those who teach it are coming from solid knowledge in exercise science or kinesiology.
As to how many times even a benign action can be performed before it becomes catabolic is a great question.
Matthew, You already have some remarkable insights regarding how yoga poses may be causing harm especially self deprecation, fat shaming, and dysmorphia. I look forward to reading your writing project with the voices of those with yoga injuries contributing to the discussion to gain a deeper perspective and understanding into how yoga injuries are happening.
Before I created YogAlign, I was injured doing yoga, molested by Jois, and verbally abused by some other teachers. I laid off my asana practice and began to practice walking meditation and realized that my body did not hurt when I stopped my practice. Since then I began to see that following the wisdom of nature made more sense than the belief that traditional yoga poses and gurus were going to get me closer to God.
The injury led me to realize that there is no need to suffer to feel good. In the process of listening to my body, YogAlign was created. I hope to contribute more to the discussion and help out in evolving the mechanics of yoga asana to protect practitioners from these unfortunate outcomes.
Thank you for your note, Michaelle. We’ll be in touch. For a look at Michaelle’s work, readers can check out her defence of William Broad here.
This post really resonated with me and I eagerly await future posts on WAWADIA. Lately I have been really wondering what the body *is* anyway. We have this body. We cannot reduce our experience to the body only, though we cannot divorce the body from our experience as humans. A natural offshoot of this big question is — how does asana figure in to this experience of having a body. I especially loved the line– ” Like a parent, it swaddles the flesh with attention and warmth.” Like a parent, we can only do so much. We must also let go of some notion of control or attachment to an outcome.
Thanks, always, for sharing your wisdom and curiosity.
Thanks for the note, Kelly. You bring up a core ambivalence embedded within most streams of yoga philosophy, and philosophy in general: “Am I my body?” My personal thought is that answering in the negative opens the possibility of treating the body as an sacrificial instrument to a psychic goal.
The lack of understanding of exercise science and physiology are contributing to injuries in asana practice. I seethes on a daily basis as a teacher. Even BKS Iyengar changed some of his alignment guidelines after talking to physicians about the dangers of what he was doing. Yoga trainings need to incorporate more of this as most instructors have little or no idea about the dangers of some transitions and poses, especially with the advent of Power Yoga which most instructors teach (incorrectly) at high speed.
It’s definitely improving. Ten years ago we didn’t have osteopaths and physiotherapists running the anatomy/biomechanics portions of YTTs. The level of education is insufficient, but at least programme directors are realizing now that expertise is mandatory. So I have hope on the logistical side. If nothing else, smarter exercise science will become legally compulsory, hopefully sooner rather than later. I really want to burrow down into: how did we get here, and what internal attitudes and interpersonal dynamics fuelled it?
Your most difficult task will be to establish that there is anything but the most superficial, lip-service, ‘trust-me’ connection between the medieval attitudes toward the body (and its promises of ‘transformation/transubstantiation’) and contemporary interest in yoga, from Krishnamacharya onward. In America in particular, the Bernards (both of them) ultimately fell with a thud as they attempted to teach at least something of the original tradition, while Indra Devi (via the first book, not the second) took off and established the celebrity/let’s look yummy connection of the celebrity culture of yoga.
How seriously are people interested in the medieval concepts, beyond the faith that there is some ‘magic’ involved that they promised, that they don’t really care to explore?
And how much will it come down to a study of contemporary conflicted attitudes toward the body, where there is an ambivalence between the ‘look at the awesome things this dude can do’ ambitions of people disconnected from any real sense of the well being of their body, and the ‘yoga is non-competitive self-love and healing’ attitude that places unquestioning faith in the teacher rather than self-inquiry? And the situation of the teacher who has to satisfy both to survive economically, often in the same classroom?
Study of functional anatomy as well as concepts of physiotherapy is absolutely necessary to more responsibly meet the needs of confused and conflicted students — though Baptiste ‘Boot Camps’ will always fill up faster (and notice Baptiste professes no knowledge of previous traditions of yoga and is proud of it — same for Ana Forrest, etc.).
The language of metallurgy has carried over, but that’s about it — and you find the same language in the PX90 and other faddish super-fit trainings that have nothing to do with yoga, apart from pickpocketing some of the inspirational language.
In the end I think your very worthwhile study will end up with an inquiry into contemporary screwed-up, media influenced attitudes towards, ambitions for and unrealistic expectations for the body, and what is necessary to make what we now call yoga actually good for us, rather than another excuse to beat ourselves up for whatever strange enticements we imagine.
Mention of the medieval tradition of yoga will be more on the order of an interesting preface that suggests how we have turned aspects of their language and magical promises to serve our own contemporary ambitions. But within the asana world at least, it will be very hard to establish that anyone is really seriously interested in the medieval ambitions for siddhahood through the forceful methods of the original texts or traditions of hatha yoga (which were themselves a gaggle of mixed and confused ideas that also tried hard to please the predilictions of that unruly gang of practitioners).
The connection is going to be hard to make, and even harder to make meaningful. But the project of making contemporary yoga actually beneficial to us as opposed to another excuse to dance to the tune of our capricious egos — that is entirely worthwhile, and I look forward to it!
Thanks for the great feedback, Doug. I don’t think anybody outside of academia has a conscious passion for medieval-and-earlier paradigms of transubstantiation, and they’re just into studying them. But I am interested in how stubborn these themes are on an unconscious level, and how interchangeable cross-culturally. My fascination with the mortificants of the Puranas on up was primed by my Catholic childhood fetish of the martyrs, who didn’t simply die but seemed to radiate themselves out of the flesh through their wounds. How beautiful St. Anthony was.
I agree with you: I do think that the Hatha echoes provide good contextual material for a series of complexes that are indistinguishable from our present versions of them.
I have heard transcendent/metallurgical language from the Crossfit discourse, but the idealizations are less profound. If the saints of Crossfit are depicted in full-lotus mahasamadhi when they die, we’ll know the cosmology that backs it is as rich as that hinted at in Pune.
The through-line for me will not be proven by how interested contemporary practitioners are in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika: I know from experience that they’re not. It will be shown, I believe, in a much more psychoanalytic sense: how does Thanatos (Yama I suppose in Vedic lingo) appear in each heart through the ages? What is this rage that confuses wanting to live with wanting to die?
Believe me, I resonate with your interests too, and in a number of ways have a similar background — a mix of Protestant upbringing and Catholic higher education, with an added plunge into following a tantric tradition.
The hatha yogis’ aspirations do provide a good context for examining human aspirations, especially as over against the problem of mortality — and as an alternative to just disappearing into samadhi/nirvana. The death they aspired to was not just death of the ego, but ‘death’ as resurrection into a super-life — an even more ambitious aspiration to siddhahood. (The ‘Twilight’ vampire movies promise the same resurrection to tweens, and make it sound like even more fun — would be an interesting comparison of how the same urge has been even more sanitized)
I’m just acknowledging that it’s going to be tricky to frame it in a way that people can really relate to, remaining true to a sense of what people are really after today, and the form that our anxieties about our mortality takes today, especially vis a vis the body.
This does give me a lot to think about. I’ll have to credit you for putting me onto Twilight — how can I not follow up on that? — but know that a small part of me will resent you forever for making me watch it.
Vis a vis the sanitization of mortality, don’t we also have to deal with the distinction between tweens who feel compelled to take up Crossfit, perhaps because they want to feel something, and tweens who hunker down as gamers, because they don’t?
Then there’s Jackass, which has a lot more to do with the Hatha paradigm than we realize.
True that — good connection on Crossfit and Jackass too.
I’ve never made it through more than one of the Twilight movies — once you get the point, that’s about it: superpowers, sex without consequences, never get old, etc. etc. The tantrics likewise promise that once you ‘get there,’ the rules of the mortal world no longer apply, morally as well as existentially. Sounds great!
Maybe Netflix can do a split-screen so I can watch romantic vampirism and high-larious scrotum-stapling at the same time. I’ll have Stickies open to take notes.
And in Twilight you’re good, not because you have to be, but because, you know, it’s cool. And you get to spend eternity looking like a sullen and very deep supermodel, in a body that glows like diamonds in the sun — instead of bursting into flames. Interesting revision.
Cool diamonds, even in the sun. Sounds like McLuhan was right. As media gets cooler and cooler, where does the tapas go?
My immediate thought after reading this was of the Buddha and how he rejected such austerities as not leading towards the spiritual goal. It is interesting to me that Buddhism and yogic teachings arrived concurrently in the west. Moreover, most western students are familiar and draw from both teachings. Perhaps the idea of yoga as generally supporting bodily wellness comes from our western cultural inclination and the marketing of those who brought yoga to America. But perhaps it is also being informed by other eastern notions that have also taken hold.
I think the takeaway here is that we need to sort out this split personality and look at what our goals are and how well asanas lead us to them. If your goal is wellness for instance, my tai chi teacher would advise you to stay away from Warrior poses because of the torque it puts on the joints.
Therein lies the crux of the matter — what is your tai chi teacher’s understanding of how the warrior poses are done, such that they should not be practiced if wellness is your goal? Is it one univocal thing that cannot be refined to benefit an individual? Is it inimical to the wellness of all people across the board? Or to some (and why)? Is the proposed harm done because of the pose, the teacher, or the ambitions of the student?
An asana is not like a pill that can be tested for safety (and even that is a very inexact science), even when the goals of treatment are explicit.
Regarding your first paragraph, ‘The Subtle Body’ by Stefanie Syman is a valuable read, especially with regard to how yoga came to the west and was shaped by the way in which it was received.
Matthew and Doug,
Working with individuals over the last few years made me question reductionist approaches to yoga and therapy. The discussion seems to me despondent and critical of the effects of blindly accepting ‘medieval’ concepts of the body, as if they have no value.
In finding versions of progress, in the therapeutic paradigm and with respect to yoga, here or elsewhere would you be willing to discuss or mediate some further dialogue over the can of worms?
Some inquiries I feel myself and other could benefit from… any personal thoughts from your experience (the list expands):
How do you evaluate therapeutic claims? Do we understand what results to look for with respect to qualitative and quantitative research data with respect to yoga? Why seek out qualitative research if humanities are on the other side of the scientific cultural divide?
Is there room for a humanities approach to understanding efficacy, and how well can you demonstrate quantitative outcomes, with research material you acquire through your/our life as a therapeutic practitioner (assuming we see enough people, perhaps even 5 + days/week?
Yoga has moved from a canonical, oral basis of traditional knowledge into the mainstream, where evidence-based practice is a positive standard. Standardization of therapeutic approaches though is a complex issue.
Placebo can take on positive or limiting connotations. What is the role of meaning in therapy of the individual, including the beneficial effects of yoga and breathwork?
Since when did we become agree that physiotherapy standards are static truths that can be applied wholesale to yoga and our concerns for functional movement criteria and standards?
Approaches to yoga and yoga therapy can find some stable or systematic theories, but individual approaches abound. How would you standardize or regulate? If ten different therapists worked with a similar issue or population and each met with positive therapeutic outcomes, what would this mean with respect to standardization of approaches to movement therapy and asana?
With standardization, what happens to individualized or person-centered practice?
Haven’t you ever had to think out the box, outside of your normal systems of conceptualization to problem solve, and witness that an individual also may have required such a unique approach, in the moment because generalized standards just didn’t fit the bill?
Why privilege modern biomedical standards as the chief in the hierarchical order other than for the delivery of broad perspectives in healthcare? We support safety and wish to promote generations of soundly educated instructors, but are they “yoga instructors??”, and what is yoga reduced to? What would the criteria be for a well-educated yoga instructor in relation to sound teaching and best practice?
Are their non-specific aspects of yoga therapy and instruction that create differences? – eg. Two people leading the same practice with different outcomes.
I’m not quite up to answering those questions, because I am not in the business of evaluating therapeutic claims or approaches from the objective standpoint of a scientist or researcher, but as a teacher deep in the weeds of learning what I can from a variety of fields, finding what works within the context and parameters of a yoga instructor, and identifying the tools within the field that can best be fitted to the many levels of wellness suggested by the traditions of yoga, as understood from a contemporary perspective.
There is something to be learned and discovered from medieval perspectives, and at the same time little to be gained by accepting the concepts at face value, on the authority that ‘the ancient wisdom of yoga tells us…’ It’s a complex history full of both doctors and quacks, and has to be tested and sorted out against our own experience. Taking a careful and critical stance is not the same as deciding the ideas have no value.
My own personal approach is not to go out and evaluate how others do it, but rather have a go at actually doing it. That does indeed demand thinking outside the box. Research and evaluation is certainly a valuable, if difficult task. But I’m not the one to do it.
Hi James — In project at least, I’m moving forward with the notion that the therapeutic claims of pre-exercise science yoga have only been evaluated in highly subjective or lineage-controlled terms. These might have value. I’m most interested in where the subjectivities clash: my guru said these asanas would do x, and I believed him then, but now I’m not so sure, because it seems they have given me pain, but perhaps the fault is mine, etc. etc.
What I won’t be doing in this project is advocating for particular biomechanical changes to practice. That’s up to others to formulate. What I will be focusing on is describing the internal and intersubjective dynamics that frame pain in ways that allow injury to accumulate. I believe that if this is exposed, we’ll also understand a lot more about how we approach the really difficult epistemological problems you raise. Pain, experience, practice, and therapeutic outcomes are all highly subjective. And yet we have somehow learned en masse that seat belts save lives.
Hi, Matthew. Enjoying this discussion and all your comments.
Please explain the seat belt reference. Isn’t that an example of a non-subjective scientific analysis of pain (long term statistics that finally convinced the resisters), Is that what you’re aiming towards with asana?
Perhaps that’s what you meant and I’m just not understanding the placement of your sentence?
Hi Bob — yeah, it’s my indirect way of saying that when it all comes out in the wash, providers will one way or another be forced to implement the best possible practices, as revealed by evidence, for safety. How could it not flow this way? This will likely consist more of restrictions than advices. Seat belts don’t guarantee good driving, but they do mitigate the effects of bad driving.
I would be happy to share my experiences. I was a certified Iyengar teacher and trained in India with the Iyengars on 5 occasions between 1992 and 2000. I left Iyengar because I discovered new and unknown experiences of well-being with Anusara yoga. (I was also starting to suspect that my ongoing serious sacrum pain and sciatica was being exacerbated by the Iyengar alignments.) Anusara taught me about core strength and gave me the confidence to have my back xrayed with astonishing results… transitional vertebra that was never suspected by any Iyengar teacher and was, in fact, not because I was doing something wrong. Last August I returned to a favourite Iyengar teacher and, in addition to some manipulative and unethical financial practices, and despite having all the details about my now degenerative lower back, she did the same adjustment and I am still paying for treatment to heal it. Do not ever dare to be different is my experience. I bear no grudge to the Iyengars but these days I understand that every system has its dark side. It’s our job as a yogi to determine which dark side best serves our seeking of the light. Happy to share more if you are interested. Namaste!
Thank you Jane — I’ll be in touch.
Hi Jane, I created a system of YogAlign after practicing for over two decades both Iyengar and Ashtanga yoga. After my own yoga injuries, I had a realization that many yoga poses compartmentalized the body, stretched the parts and reversed the natural curves of the body especially the spinal curves. I eliminated all of the positions that make the body assume right angles which do not exist in the natural organic curving design of the human body. With YogAlign, people get back to neutral and find effortless posture and a deep sense of peace when they becoming innately rewired into natural alignment. Sitting in chairs in the right angle has led us to be disconnected from our body and source so we seek yoga to get us back in touch and what most of us find are more right angles. I have a website called http://www.yogainjuries.com where I am compiling a survey to get a baseline of how injuries are happening. Please feel free to contact me at YogAlign or please take the survey.
It is worth adding that (Hatha) Yoga was cut off from it’s roots by British Colonialism. (they actually ‘disposed’ of the great yogis as matter of policy) The new generation of yogis medicalized yoga (often going to Britain to study medicine) changing asana inline with Western medical pratises as well as introducing British army led exercise routines. In pre-colonial Hatha yoga there was a connection to the biochemistry of the body – i.e. the alchohols, oils and salts. The alcohols cleansed, the the oils eased movement, and the salts set new matrixes. Each series of Asana were punctuated with bundhas which caused the movement of these elementals: Alcohol = spirit, oil = (hormones lubricants/ Kundalini, which not only facilitated safe-flow in therapeutic terms but seen through evolutionary eyes the Salts = sidhis, certainly the lack of biochemical to organ connection and Sun and Earth connection, is in the end vacuous – hatha was never intended to continue forever without evolutionary understanding of the deeper internal elements
and connection to the universe, in order to transcend the physical isolationism (on your mat in an artifical environment) that so-called yoga today has produced, asana cannot be separated from these macro micro elements and still be called yoga.
Fantastic. Thanks for the note.
Well, I finally had a chance to read this and your other recent posts and was not disappointed! Such food for thought. Thanks for continuing this discussion Matthew.
I must say, it will be interesting to see how any further debate around the asana/injury dilemma is received by the yoga community at large. The outrage at Broad’s book was astounding. It also mirrored my own experiences in a way. In some circles it is as if the yoga postures themselves are holy, and despite the fact that they are physical exercise it seems heretical to suggest they could injure you just as other exercise might.
As a young twenty-something, fit as a fiddle, I took up a rigorous Jivamukti practice. Absolutely loved this flowing vinyasa style, relished the fast-paced challenging classes Over time, that the techniques I learnt in class were able to help me calm my anxious mind, and eventually the flesh-parenting asana broke through my eating-disorder-riddled psyche and sent me to therapy. Fully inhabiting my body on the mat helped me face the realisation that the flesh was not the problem.
Eventually these inner transformations were the catalyst for me enrolling in teacher training. Sadly there began the problems. I loved the course but, after 6 years of rigorous asana my practice started to take it’s toll. My ankle gave in. Tore a tendon, cyst formed, months off work… I returned to the mat (too soon no doubt) and busted my shoulder in chaturanga. Drat. Sun saltutes totally off the menu for me. Shoulder out, I went to the physio and discovered I also had a twisted pelvis which explained sciatica I had experienced on and off for years. Probably from misaligned (or well aligned) warriors, forward bends and over-stretching of the ligaments of the pelvis.
Now here came the eye-opening moment for me – many of my yogi friends & teachers would even consider the possibility that yoga had given me these injuries. Perhaps contributed to them, yes, but this just indicated that I didn’t ‘get it’. IF I was ‘completely present’ I wouldn’t have over stretched. If I had listened inwardly I would have avoided the one chaturanga that triggered a bursitis. Hmmm. Really? Why? – the answer always felt like “because these asanas are ancient and must not be overly questioned”. Questioning alignment was one thing, questioning practice that posture at all was heretical.
I have lost touch with my first teacher, who also taught me during TT. I became disillusioned with the way a stock-standard vinyasa class is taught (fast, one-size-fits-all) and sought out restorative classes and the assistance of a yoga therapist instead. Other physical issues since them have further hindered my attempts to get back into a more dynamic practice, and all in all I’m left wondering if perhaps Pilates, swimming and daily restorative yoga + meditation is more for me. When I discuss this with yogi friends, they smile and feel sorry for me (although I’m fighting fit again now and happy) but get awkward if I question the need for a plank -> cobra in every class.
Having written all of this (an essay, my apologies) I must say I find comfort online. Here I have discovered many other yogis like me – fascinated by the history, the possible transformative power of a consistent sadhana and less interest in the gymnastics of regular studio classes. Out there, as a 27 yr-old fit woman, it seems totally bizarre that I might just like restorative yoga + meditation, and that’s enough for me these days.
Sorry for the life-story, I’m passionate about keeping this debate alive! We need posts like this that keep asking – are the asanas as we know them essential to a yoga practice? What are you left with if you can’t downward dog?
Suggest submitting this to elephant journal. It would make a good article.
Emily, You are not alone and I feel you are practicing yoga in its truest sense by questioning and using discernment to look at yoga asana from a realistic perspective. Because so many are being injured, we must question the yoga asana belief systems that have been passed down to us. Beliefs are not real and must be explained with words. What is important are values and if we just practiced yoga asana from this perspective of values, we would avoid injuries. The body does not lie and it will tell you when a pose is not serving its structure and natural anatomical function.
Since yoga has a religious haze around it, everyone including some very knowledgeable PTS and orthopedic doctors are hesitant to comment about the lack of functional biomechanics and overall misuse of joints that occurs in a majority of yoga poses.
Check out YogAlign which is a system I began creating over 20 years ago in the wake of my own injuries; of which I was also told were my fault and not the yoga pose mechanics. YogAlign is a self guided bodywork system with yoga poses that simulate movement and real life daily function. WE focus on postural alignment over pose alignment and it is attracting many 20 somethings looking for a practice based on the value of natural spine alignment, joint stabilization, self massage, and rewiring of our innate movement and breathing patterns. I am so pleased to be assisting people to be have the tools to become self sustaining in their own body where the body can heal itself.Keep listening and paying attention because that is the true practice of yoga; to be present and observant not obedient.
I hesitate at one level to offer this comment because I do not want the statement to be misconstrued as dissent or disrespect, as I continue to learn from and be inspired by the voices on this post… really. I get so excited by the innovations, curiosity and veracity. What follows lacks brevity, but the response was literally momentary.
I stand with feet in two worlds – traditional and contemporary. I believe in a way we all do, who have been ‘bit by the snake’ of yoga. We are hooked. Its venom seeps through our veins. We’ve been practicing, been enticed, disappointed at times – but mostly allured and fallen in love with the practice. We continue to research and offer what we can to a collective phenomenon and continue to be morphed by it. Almost can’t leave even if you try, as the departure is short lived.
There are concepts and practices for mainstream consumption. I agree that what our culture may need or appropriate as a whole requires discernment, and that tradition itself can be generally updated and brought forward with critical evaluation and application.
Tradition is but a darpana, or “mirror” of self and we can continue to learn from its epistemological structure of reflections – if we have a relationship to it – even through canonical literature and its exemplars and authorities. We can also say goodbye, and live our life of practice, making our own choices. Tradition as a static construct becomes a dry well, with dust and cobwebs strewn over its opening. And for those who return to that well with a non-participatory agenda, they only see a barren pithole – lacking any resource for nourishment.
What I don’t agree with is basking in the temporary shade of temporal advancements – without reference, rooting or experiential ground.
I think what the culture of yoga needs, and can actually learn from the mistakes of the past is exactly what I hear in this discussion – that people (and teachers) continue to feel themselves to be students. That is the model I receive from my greatest inspirations.
The difficulty with tradition is that it led, understandably, to privatized bodies of knowledge. Implicit in this is a power differential that had a cultural context in which it worked, in part. But now, as Matthew and others have prodded, is not a time where some of these values are all that relevant and a possible shift amongst critical thinking folks can make a ripple, in ways that it could never in the past.
Doug’s interdisciplinary and critical leanings have been indirectly formative to my own, though I have strangely, a healthy distrust in the inverse – I tend to value canonical voices and shades due in part to my own cultural heritage, temperament and also because its epistemological framework “I get” and its history is centuries long. I have also witnessed firsthand, examplars who embodied “medieval” aspirations, as did he. Even alchemical leanings.
What I don’t see, and personally don’t have to worry about, is that leading teachers take stances of separatism where they don’t remain open to their peers and non-judgementally evaluate others approaches, for self-learning – much less feel open to learning from students. If there is a material vestige or interest or a broad acceptance that knowledge is not ‘open source,’ there will be a sense of defensive propriety over personal approaches and influential voices will remain in disdain, and students will continue to learn values of insecurity and dissent. As a student of a later generation, I see this roadblock ahead. I’ve witnessed it in traditional medicine education and in yoga.
Implicit in the notion of intersubjectivity rests the notion that we have a shared, “communal body of experience.” For years that has been my precise definition of tradition. There can be dissenting voices and novel claims, but they never really separate us from one another. For that reason, as long as it is not hate or himsa driving a contrast or conflict of opinions, the avid student will actually learn to love that incisive opinion that gnarls at the bones of their belief system. That is part of the love affair with yoga, evolution and the refusal to be apathetic about its and present and future. We can learn from collective mistakes and personal differences.
Our bodies can healthfully adapt to so many varieties of movement, but our culture enforces its limitations through the power/knowledge structures it presents through its existing channels and methodologies. And for that reason, I believe it’s most important to look at how our cultural power and knowledge systems impart a certain body politic amongst different socio-economic groups and how the modern individual sits, walks, eats and sleeps [and poops]. In this way we can look to the physical, movement basis of asana culture and develop methodologies and foresight regarding how to adapt movement to elicit a deeper reflection on those power structures, and it that way exert a beneficial influence on the way we think and use our bodies and source and evolve tradition.
But I am still awaiting Matthew’s next moves with the psychological tradition and contemplative culture… ahem, Threads of Yoga is beckoning a followup! The poetic vivre behind that articulation is strong medicine for the apathetic heart, and a jolt to the all too common rationale of “I know enough already.”
I do appreciate your reply, and I’m more of a fan of the ‘open-source’ model myself, while that at the same time does not exclude respecting tradition. It’s just the modern proprietary models that discourage questioning and impede growth — and even promote or at least allow unnecessary harm.
Interesting James, interesting! As I said, I love having this debate. I’m not entirely sure how much of this comment was directed as a reply to my own, and how much was further musing on the topic at hand? I do feel it necessary to add that I certainly do not feel I know “enough already” 😉 In fact I am still working with a mentor one on one to develop my personal practice and attend regular restorative/yin & meditation classes…
Also, totally with you on the yoga snake – I was bitten in that very first class, and no matter the breaks I take it always beckons me back…
Thanks for your work on this Mathew. My point on this is that the yoga principles brought forth by Krishnamacharya must be included into the styles popularized by Mr Iyengar and Mr Jois. These principles belong in there and should never have been illinated. Krishnamacharya is the teacher to Iyengar and Pattabhi Jois but they were just young lads when they left him so mever got a yoga education. What has been popularized is exagerated effort to attain predefined poses and this causes injury of many kinds. Krishnamacharya would say you can cheat the body with will of mind but you cannot cheat the breath, so make the breath the gauge or guru and purpose of the asana. If we place the principles of Krishnamacharya into the yoga you know and love, Iyengar, Ashtanga Vinyasa and all the derivatives there of it will make your practice entirely your own, efficient, powerful and safe. The hallmark of Krishnamacharya’s teaching is that there is a right yoga for every person no matter who the person is. It is your direct intimcay with reality that is only a nurturing regenerating force. Your work affirms that we must be intelligent about yoga and give the public yoga as it was actually derived in wisdom culture. It is just infirmation and easily given.
Gratitude, Mark Whitwell
Hear, hear, Mark. I personally find all these principles very much in full flower in his son’s book, “The Heart of Yoga” (T.K.V. Desikachar), which includes not only extensive and loving references to Krishnamacharya, but also what Matthew would call a “remix” of the Yoga Sutra for modern times, and even a pretty clear explanation of the path from “duality” thinking to eventual “non-duality” (he just viewed one as a stepping stone for the other).
(I’m not writing this for your benefit of course, because you were there, I know, but only for the benefit of other readers.)
Thank you Matthew for presenting this inquiry and discussion into the contemporary psychological/social inputs and drivers that have given us what has been commodified and sold as Yoga with it’s potential for damage and confusion.
As the many comments so far might imply, while we may knowingly or unknowingly be tutored in the histories of Yoga, the natural human intellectual dialectic flow over time tends to re-direct and morph practices to fit contemporary values and philosophies. Our inquisitive and restless minds allow for nothing less.
As I understand it, Mr Krishnamacharya’s teaching, reduced from his vast and broad knowledge to a simple and intuitive approach as described by son Desikachar in that sweet book Bob W. mentioned, has none of the flash of modern studio driven yoga and all of the magic that aware living offers; a healthy, easeful, kind life. Riding your breath offers no push beyond your own and places you where you are; here, and not in that aesthetically gorgeous photo book or magazine spread with awesome production values held as an image of perfection to attain, pretty and fun as it may be.
The current ‘need’ to monetize a new teaching certification to finance further practice, the push to fit into a physically stressful asana so you can post a ‘selfie’ on FaceBook to show you can kick it and be bendy, push yourself in room temps that locals in a similar climate hide from, chant or sing Kirtan in a language you do not understand in your freshly laundered dhoti, or kowtow to a teacher with an assumed name like a cultist sycophant feels like an aberration and misunderstanding of what this Yoga can offer in it’s core.
The diverse and well written references posted so far speak to a large body of sincere and well read, thoughtful contributors interested in Yoga through it’s myriad sources and divergences. Fascinating for me, a working man with a full time day job, a simple practice in an aging body happy with the distraction from the distractions, and little more. Keeping the historical writings and assumptions of a culture that is not mine separate from the therapeutic practice of movement following breath is intellectually stimulating and grounding for background. Thinking that they are the same or that the historical details are more worthy than the activity to me proves a point of failure in how Yoga has been disseminated. I will continue following these posts and learning of things I should know and what I should avoid.
Thank you Matthew, thank you contributors, special thanks as well to Bob W (will check your site when time allows), and a big thank you Mark W. for continuing to be a friend, for editing Mr Desikachar’s book & writing a few, and mostly for your reminder to keep it simple.
This was all wonderful to read. Thanks to all here.
I would like to say that ‘science’ and ‘humanities’ are not separate.
There are many disciplines that are science-driven-humanities (for lack of a better term). And there is the inter discipline between these ‘hybrid disciplines’.
Regarding the ‘science’ of exercise physiology, physical therapy, sports medicine… These disciplines too have much to teach regarding a client centered approach. The PhD level practitioner in these disciplines is well versed in placebo, in psychology. There is no lack of intuition, both from themselves and from their clients. Teaching the next generation of ‘practitoners’ in these disciplines is centered with the principles of observation, trial and error. Progress and regress. The mantra is basic: Keep Moving.
Coaching and sportsmanship been a part of physical culture for a very very long time. The culture of ‘competition’ is rife with precious salvos and bon mots (yoga berra isms), so in this way, the philosophy of yoga isn’t all that distinct from Athens and gladiators, oiling the body, removing the hair with a razor, and shining like a cool diamond atop Prometheus Hill.
Always the issue is: is the person in front of me sensitive to their body and aware? Can the person in front of me do what I’m telling them to do? Usually, the answer is, not really.
The rejoinder is: It doesn’t matter –all that much– if the therapeutic movement isn’t precisely correct, some good will come. IF the –starting position– is safe enough for that individual.
The intelligent therapeutic is: a safe starting position to limit the potential for harm.
To Matthew: Regarding the bicameral mind apparently evolving(?) into ‘a more fully interiorized’ mind. Waaait a minute…
?? -After- homo sapiens is homo sapiens?
— I’m going to need to see where this idea is put forth (in researched in peer reviewed journals).
— I guess I can think about being fully human -and nod my two heads in agreement.
— I think this is allowed, hehe. There is latitude in all the disciplines.
I’ve been practising and teaching the yoga of TKV Desikachar since 2000. I’ve never been remotely injured from practise, nor have the many hundreds of people I have taught over the years. Actually i would consider pain as an indicator to cease that particular movement and possibly find a different trajectory. My guiding philosophy –as I believe it descends from Krishnamacharya– is Yoga as a creative endeavour seeking to uncover personal truth rather than as an inert skill to be mastered.
Thanks for the note Andy. I appreciate hearkening back to the figure of Krishnamacharya as an appeal to a kind of movement intelligence that has been lost. But I think this can white-wash the fact that he had many prominent students who claim him as their root teacher, and that unfortunately, sketchy biomechanical knowledge and conflictual, non-pragmatic attitudes towards the aims of asana are on clear display throughout his legacy.
It’s also good to remember that catastrophic pain can follow a long pain-free trajectory if movement practices are ill-informed. I see this in the numerous stories of labrum degeneration and tearing, unforcasted by any “warning” type pain, simply because cartilaginous structures are poor in nervous sensitivity. What’s becoming clear is that practice may be pain-free in the moment, and have very negative results in the long term.
This is quite a bummer article. Although truthful, it’s still a bummer. (Matthew, I wonder, as an aside, what you’d find if you sought out the stories about how yoga has healed people? What you seek, you invariably find. And I’d be very keen to hear a Part Two to this.) Yesterday, coincidentally, I stumbled upon a very useful website about injuries and how to avoid or heal from them. http://loveyogaanatomy.com/articles/yoga-injuries/ Please be careful folks.
Thanks for the note Gail. I don’t think the therapeutic effects of yoga need my marketing assistance. There are enough people working that vein already, with good data on hand — as from the good site you posted — but also with outright misinformation: note Light on Yoga‘s medical claims or Yoga for Dummies claiming that yoga stimulates metabolism.
What really needs exposure in my opinion are the stories we’re not hearing, because they don’t fit the general salvation narrative. I talked to one RMT who told me that she couldn’t even count the number of people she’d massaged who had been injured in yoga and never went back. Yoga culture in general needs to hear their stories in order to improve standards and really make good on its promises.
That said, this project will of course report on benefits. How could it not? Stories of harm and healing have been intertwined from time out of mind.
Matthew, I definitely agree that this is very useful to double click on what we aren’t hearing about yoga, and appreciate your article and qualitative research. And, I really like how you put this, “Stories of harm and healing have been intertwined from time out of mind.” You are a good writer, and I’m happy to know of your work! All the best with this project.
I think there are ’caused’ injuries that happen in many areas of life, during growth and development as a child/young person –and beyond into adulthood.
–You have to wonder if the lack of PE classes isn’t happening for reasons well beyond budgetary.
I mean, let’s face it: PE class is a can of injury worms!!
The individual kid and his or her reality is not front and center.
Then there are the injuries sustained while at the Physical Therapist!
I often recommend to my students: Walking.
This walking –is– your yoga practice, -along with paying attention, -and study (students choice).
The first hatha yoga teacher training and practice I enrolled in my first chronic injury manifested . It was a 50 hour Ashtanga TT. That was 16 years ago. The teacher was poorly trained and had not developed the ability to see or understand dysfunction or hypermobility. Many years later, an x-ray and assessment by one of the best chiropractors on the planet confirmed this.
After a couple years of dedicated Ashtanga practice I moved on to more alignment based practices and structural integration. I started to meet yoga teachers in their 40s, 50s, 60s and 70s who talked about their yoga injures. I have recently gone back to power yoga with a greater understanding of body mechanics, age changes and limitations.
Matthew, this is a fantastic project. I am always in awe of the way you take very complex subjects and write about them in ways that are non-judgmental and thought provoking.
Would it not be just to surmise that several centuries ago a similar conservation about the safety, effectiveness, and quality of instruction concerning the physical practices of the Haṭha Yoga Pradīpikā were taking place in certain circles? In fact, aren’t all practices and disciplines (physical or not) subject to scrutiny as they evolve and ride the wave of time? This is why the controversial aspect of the the yoga/injury conversation always strikes me as unusual.
To quote Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche:
“With a body made joyous through movement, the mind is able to relax. With mind/body balance, we can take the power of feeling good and generate compassion.”
This is a message that resonates with me and that I try to convey in my teaching. I teach asana classes primarily to beginner students, and mostly in health club settings. In this setting, I generally deal with people with no or little knowledge of the non-physical practices of yoga, so I find this theme to be most helpful in communicating with my basics students.
However, you can add this sentence to the end of that quote and it might strike some truth with many practitioners: “Unless you injure yourself, then your just going to be a cranky person who is angry at the world.”
Our bodies are designed to move. Would it not be a terrible waste of ingenuity for our incredibly capable bodies to not move? It’s tantamount to a Lamborghini being garaged for most of it’s existence – very sad. And just like race car drivers with impeccable training and technique, some will crash and get hurt despite their good training.
My belief is that attachment to the idea that good training and technique prevents injury is the cause of this controversy. Is injury in spite of proper training and teaching not just impermanence?
I really enjoy your work and insightful synthesis. However, I think that it is prematurely incorrect to call the Iyengar method “harsh.” The Iyengar system is the only system of Hatha yoga that takes bodies as they come. Mr. Iyengar and Geeta Iyengar are compassionate and gentle in their approach. Simply their voice (a cultural difference no doubt) and demanding teaching style (probably another cultural difference) do not define the profound nature of the method other than the physical aspects.
Thanks Beatrice. One thing is for sure: the variety of experiences practitioners have in Pune is diverse.
“The Iyengar system is the only system of Hatha yoga that takes bodies as they come” is a pretty big claim. Do you have evidence for this?
I’ll give a perspective of someone who started studying yoga at 64. Doing Halasana and Salamba Sarvangasana steadily reduced the Range of Motion of my neck. I was told that continuing these two asanas would increase my neck’s range of motion. It just got worse.
Salamba Sirsana compressed my neck. If I used blocks between my shoulder blades, I could raise my head off the floor and relieve the pressure. But I was told doing unsupported headstands would FIX my neck. No, it won’t.
I developed a rotator cuff problem and when I couldn’t bind in a seated twist my arm was wrenched further back than it could go and did more damage. The shoulder problem also turned out to be A/C joint arthritis, which leaves many asanas off the doable list.
I think there are too many Yoga teachers who feel it is necessary to imitate Geeta Iyengar and BKS Iyengar, or some other guru.
What has saved me from bad injuries is I work with a physical trainer once a week. She never fails to help me heal and avoid injuries, and too really correct body alignment issues.
Western Physical Therapy is fixing my shoulder.
Thanks for the note, Ed. Without naming names, can you describe the level of accreditation that your teachers are working from? Also, feel free to contact me directly through the contact page if you’d like to be interviewed for this project.
Thanks for sharing such great information. Yoga changed my life a lot, and is still changing it. Yoga Asans are not just about showing your physical capabilities, but you have to do it in a right way and under the right instructor. Cheers!