Talking About Yoga Injuries Can Be a Way of Talking About Other Things

A few months ago there was an interesting thread on Yoga and Movement Research Community about the difficulty in establishing medical causality for yoga injury. The debate was vigorous as always, but this time reached a pitch that suggested to me that there are many things beneath the surface.

What I’ve learned in talking with the medical people who treat yoga-related injuries is that they are cautious about attributing exact causation to any particular moment or movement. They know that there are simply too many pre-existing injuries, repetitive stresses and loading patterns at play to pinpoint a particular action definitively as the cause of a new injury. 

Ask them to predict injury from a person’s asana practice, and they can be just as ambivalent. I’ve shown videos to exercise scientists in which celebrity practitioners break all of the new taboos of the functional movement world — passive stretching, pushing into and past end-range of joint movement — and they’ll only go so far to say: “I wouldn’t do it, and I would caution my students if I did, but I also have no idea what that person’s joints can tolerate. There are too many variables.”

Nonetheless, some practitioners will feel very strongly that a particular movement or adjustment holds the key to their injury. I can think of several moments in my own practice like this. My spine was injured precisely by that adjustment, my hamstring was torn by that year-long attempt at Hanumanasana. These expressions of certainty help me track the story of my self-inquiry, and make sense of it.

Tissue injuries seem easier to plot than the story of my psychological injuries, which I more often tell as a montage of shifting moods than a narrative with distinct turning points. The “breakage” involved with tissue injuries also intimates something more concrete than psychological trauma. It enacts the certainty of death. There’s no repairing a torn labrum. There’s acceptance, management, and rerouting of load.

Material and psychological injuries leave different categories of scars, arranged on a spectrum of visibility. It reminds me of something I’ve heard anthropologists point out: the hard things of history remain, while the soft things must be intuited. You can find the clay pot, but you must dream the soup.

But are “hard” wounds and “soft” wounds really that different in terms of origins and prognoses?

It might seem pedantic to say: perhaps a core aspect of the nondualism a lot of yoga people are trying to grasp is that bodies and minds adapt intrinsically with each other, and are inseparable from time and relationship.

On the tissue side, for example, a car crash seems to enter the flow of the body with absolute foreign newness. But what’s closer to the truth is that the impact meets a body that has or hasn’t already learned how to yield, roll, collapse, resist, or revolt in a particular way.

This is exactly what happens with a psychological assault, or a microaggression. The impact of an instance of abuse meets the context of the person’s entire history of social growth.

The impact of an injury is wrapped up in a holistic circumstance of infinite causes. Which is why asking a doctor about the cause of a tissue injury is like asking the Buddha about karma. They shrug and smile, and change the subject to treatment.

To my surprise, psychotherapists have at times seem a little more rigid — much more willing to pinpoint a single cause for the patient’s distress, usually a cause that serves the theory they are working with. A lot of time is spent exploring the poetry of that cause in relation to the theory. Perhaps the theory is a way of making the soft wound hard, graspable. But it never is.

One commenter on that post made the astute observation that “one of the natural results of yoga coming from an authoritarian culture is an air of certainty. Yogis love to be certain. This post does a great job of bringing up the idea that injuries fall into a category of uncertainty.”

So true. Further: the impulse to be certain can be very anxious, so it’s just odd when yoga discourse becomes a vehicle for the expression of an anxious need, rather than an exercise in curiosity. More importantly, what if the “certain” attribution of injury to a particular asana is an anxious way of usurping that authoritarianism? Of retaliating concretely against a false promise or a fraudulent teacher? Of taking back an agency one feels one gave away?

Do we feel good when the doctor says that the guru was wrong? Does that feeling heal our fundamental relationship with authority, or is it musical chairs?

The key emotions surrounding the injury discussion are mistrust, disillusionment and betrayal. These aren’t the products of asanas, but of relationships and cultural malaise. On the relationship front we might hear:

“You told me to do this and you said it would be good for me and my spirit, and now I have a torn labrum. I’m in pain and your teaching is the cause.”

Or: “You were demanding in a way that verged on cruel. My torn rotator cuff is the proof of that cruelty.”

Or: “I had faith in you, now I am in pain, and I feel humiliated about the fact that I had faith.”

So there’s an aspect of yoga injury narration that seems to be saying as much if not more about relationships as it is about practices and techniques. This makes sense, given the fact that there is no such thing as movement outside of relationship.

(Side-note: This is the one big gap I feel in “functional movement” discourse – its focus is on the individual moving in variegated space, as if the world was one big parkour site, and the subject is the lonely teenager seeking freedom within an abstract system. I don’t hear a lot about the fact that movement is a response to space and persons together – another aspect of the non-dual. Whether it’s functional or not, movement is always relational.)

Three more thoughts:

Firstly, over the past several years, the injury discussion I’ve been a part of (for good and ill) has often been criticized as a milking of a first-world problem:

Lemme get this straight – you got to do the yoga instead of working in a poultry factory, and then you started complaining that it gave you the ouchies?

It’s a point well-taken if yoga-worry ever seems to be its own reward. But at the same time it’s good to reflect on the fact that modern yoga for so many is a new religion: seemingly open, seemingly liberation-focused, seemingly culturally progressive, seemingly body-positive. People come to it when they need to change in multiple ways. Attracted by the promise of healing, they are surprised when older patterns persist, when guidance gets mixed up with intrusion, when self-work gets confused with penance, when a medicine becomes poison, when the body shows its age in the cracks between alchemical aspirations and Insta filters. They are disheartened to find that this religion has patriarchs, priests, politicians and con-artists.

So in many ways the injury discussion carries notes of a broader revolt against the betrayals of the culture at large, revolts against every way in which we were told “This is good for you”, when what that thing was really good for was maintaining order, or being good. The discussion resonates with a gathering awareness of the injuries of structural power, for which there are quite certain causes.

Perhaps we can begin to recognize that the drive for certainty in finding the causes for yoga injuries is not only as an assertion of agency against the echo of an authoritarian culture, but also instrumental to our faith that both private and structural harm can always be reduced.

Secondly: the passion and acrimony of the discussion around injuries is infected by the pressures of new forms of yoga branding. My project is certainly not immune from that.

Thirdly: Let’s be honest about the generational tensions at play. At 45, I’m at the young end of those involved in the anti-injury discourse. We should get clear about how much our passions are related to midlife regrets and the natural increase in movement conservatism that gathers with age, sickness, and pain.

If we’re going to worry younger people about getting injured in yoga classes, the least we should do is make a clear inventory of our own youthful patterns, past needs for self-obsession and intensity. It wasn’t just the dodgy instructions that hurt us. We hurt ourselves, and with good reason, sometimes.

If we’re really excited about how science can offer such sensible healing, we can ask whether that excitement is fuelled by the shame of remembering we might have been reckless, we might have chased pain. Does it make sense for the middle aged body, living with consequences of youth, to feel resentment?

If all that new movement research looks so rational and attractive, we might remember how attractive the irrational signals once were. When the body’s in pain, the doctor has answers. But back then, darker figures had different answers, maybe because the body was a mystery, and you didn’t know how far it could take you. They suggested a place just beyond the horizon. You reached for it, and that was natural, and it felt thrilling. But that feeling has changed, and change that comes without regret or accusation is rare.

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