When Yogis Stiffen Up And Find the In-Between

One of the richest things for me about presenting on the post-extreme-asana paradigm with Diane Bruni is listening to her describe her former capacity to tolerate and then sublimate pain while she practiced.

“You get really good at directing your mind away from pain,” she said at a recent event, “or reframing it, or feeling the cortisol and endorphins you’re releasing as pleasure.”

As she’s talking, Diane will half-gesture at some of the things she used to do and teach. At one point she begins to lift her left leg up with both hands as though she were about to put it behind her head. She gets half-way, her spine begins to flex, and she quits, laughing a bit, and sets her leg down.

And then I’m flashing back to the first time I went to her studio, probably 2005. There she was in the Mysore class, rolling effortlessly through dozens of legs-behind-the-head postures with her eyes closed, in a deep trance.

I remember watching her back then and thinking to myself: she has something, she’s discovered something. She has a space of her own. She’s free.

I was so young. I did all the same things with sensation and pain that she did. I encountered it. It reminded me of other suffering in my life. I reframed it as different, productive, purifying, necessary.

Or – an illusion. A kind of excitement, masked by fear. The inseparability of pain and love felt familiar to me from somewhere. I could go into postures and feel the living crisis of my life in a way that I believed would give me mastery.

I also projected the same virtues I imagined in Dianne onto other teachers as well, especially hypermobile men onto whose bodies it was easier to project my own aspirations. How easy it was for me to conflate Diane’s postural trance with virtue, and to love something that would eventually tear her hip to shreds. From my existential stiffness I longed for the somatics of freedom, and the self-immolations of people like Bruni were the models I had.

The veneer of yoga philosophy, the sumptuous studio, the singing bowls — they all played into this strange conflation. We’re giving today’s talk in a studio with no incense burning, no murtis of deities, no droning harmonium. The studio complex houses treatments for massage and physiotherapy. It feels down-to-earth.

In a pause during Diane’s story, I butt in with a question. I say I notice her aping her former postures, and how it seems she’s stiffened right up.

“So how much has your body changed?”

“I’ve lost at least 50% of the mobility I had when I was addicted to extreme postures,” she says. “I have a normal range of motion now. I’ve never felt better.”

I could say the same thing. I’m stiff again, but it no longer feels like tension. It feels like I’m being held, like I have a silhouette, a boundary, like I can locate myself. I no longer want to be everywhere and nowhere. There’s no need to escape.

Then we took a break and Diane led us all through some movement things she’s discovered since branching out from the mat. She spoke about curved versus linear movement, roundness versus angularity. She described the infinite space you can within normal movement, if you can discipline yourself away from extremes.

She talked about all the feelings we miss out on when we’re at the end of things: all the in-between feelings, so vast and sometimes scary.

I’m left with the question of what wounds we carried within us that pushed us to those extremes, that made us feel like we might be finally healed if we went right to the edge of destruction.


  • We all were pushed into extremes if you think about it. The minute we were born we were forced by society to be “male” or “female.” Who knew we were looking for connection and went as far as we could go to be ourselves, only to be forced to conform to survive. So this rational never got met, so we are continuously looking for things to fill it instead of discharging those feelings which have nothing to do with reality. No amount of yoga is going to take away those feelings. Believing the feelings does the most damage.

    • Society doesn’t force us to be male or female. Chromosomes and hormones do. You can also say the moment we were born we were forced to be human.

    • seems to me a bit overstretching the gender discussion hype. Current culture allows the quest of finding ourselves in an unknown intensity in the course of history.
      Maybe we are forgetting that there are some defining biological …ehm what?”limits” “realms” “opportunities” which may produce unwanted consequences when misguided overstepping occurs just like the wish to come in full split when youre joints, tendons and muscles cry constantly:
      “Why are you doing this to me? It is not my destiniy!”
      Sometimes it’s better to believe your feelings…

    • I think this is such and interesting comment. I realize now…over 40…that I have a nervous system that has always found relief in the form of pain or pressure. I have an early memory of Restless Leg Syndrome at bedtime…I used to jam a dolll with a hard rubber head under my soft belly; it provided sensory feedback that allowed my whole system to relax…maybe by distraction? I remembered this experience when I was pregnant, and RLS recurred (one of the side-effects of pregnancy). Stretching and firm massage (sensation bordering on pain) helped to relieved it.

      When my daughter was nursing to sleep, she used to kick her legs sometime, and couldn’t seem to settle. I used to massage her legs as she nursed, so she would relax, a practice we still do together at bedtime. She’s 10. I have guessed she suffers(ed) from the same.

      I now have recognized that I come to the practice for the edges (don’t use that terminology when I teach…so 90’s!)…but that play settles my nervous system. Stress a tissue too much and you have injury. Stress a tissue just enough…and you might say you bring ‘prana’ to the tissue. “Moving energy” or redirecting restlessness/anxiety. The question is, can those of us with those nervous systems explore the sensation of the edge, without having to move the edge farther and farther away by adapting the tissue. Also, some tissues don’t adapt. Like bone. (With the exception density…and perhaps when they are forming…current research seems to show)

      Cutting probably would have also relieved that physical anxiety or restlessness. I chose classical ballet instead ;), and then ‘graduated’ to yoga for better or worse.

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