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.