WAWADIA Update #3 /// “Wild Thing” Pose: Impossible, Injurious, Poignant
Certum est quia impossibile est. — Tertullian
I’m closing in on fifty interviews for this project, and it’s getting richer every week.
[dropcap]I[/dropcap]’ve spoken to a trauma survivor who has been repeatedly triggered in asana classes by both invasive touch and psychological insensitivity. I’ve spoken to a medical doctor (as well as 30-year practitioner and teacher) who remembers the moment when he actively suppressed his critical thinking medical-mind so that he could overlook the unfounded medical claims that a leading instructor was making about postures. (He felt that his analytical skills had made him emotionally inflexible.) I’ve spoken to teachers who have been injured by adjustments from friends and colleagues who didn’t feel socially empowered to address the situation openly. I’ve spoken to teachers who have spoken up in such situations, only to be ostracized for “questioning tradition”. I interviewed one long-term student who tolerated chronic injury because she was told things like:
It’s just an opening, move through it and breathe.
You’re moving through your emotions – it’s not your hamstring.
You’re headstrong and have difficulty surrendering fully in forward bends.
You’re too tight – just let go into the movement and it will stop hurting when you stop fighting.
It’s a tribute to the integrity and resilience of these subjects that most have overcome their yoga-related injuries and continued to explore the boundaries of an eclectic and expanding practice in a way that helps them grow. Some teachers among them have also used their experiences of pain, neglect, and even abuse to commit themselves to higher standards. So despite itself, yoga education is improving. However people have been disappointed by their teachers, underserved by the typical knowledge-base, or silenced by the cultures of exclusion or charisma, there’s something about the idea and feeling of yoga – so hard to define – that keeps drawing many back. (Of course there’s still no telling how many simply leave in pain and anger.) My therapist once said that a relationship can only really begin after the romance is over. I’m beginning to think that for some people yoga is what occurs when people become disenchanted with yoga.
It all resonates with the other paradoxes that drew me to this project, such as: Why is it so difficult to distinguish between pain and progress in asana? Is asana something that uses the body for an immaterial end, or is it a celebration of the very materiality of life? What forces — beyond marketing — encourage people to believe that old religious practices that often involved self-immolation can suddenly be reframed as therapeutic?
[dropcap]O[/dropcap]ne interview subject in particular sharpened this feeling of paradox in modern yoga into the notion of “impossibility”. We talked about many things over an hour, but it was her brief description of the posture known as “Wild Thing” that really stopped me short. The subject is a yoga instructor in a large urban centre. She’s certified in Pilates with a whack of exercise science on board through her studies with many physio-savvy teachers. I’m no anatomist, so she kindly walked me through the dangerous biomechanics of Wild Thing. It made me see that the conflicting desires of modern yoga are not theoretical or psychological at all. They are as palpable as the difference between what a human joint can do, and what we want it to do. The joint in question in Wild Thing is the shoulder, by which the desire of the heart radiates into the world of action.
Wild Thing has been mostly popularized through the Anusara vocabulary. But it’s not new, of course. I’m a fan of modern dance, and I’ve seen variations on it in everything from Isadora Duncan and Martha Graham-inspired movement to gestures used by Alvin Ailey, Pina Bausch and John Alleyne. One of the notable differences between modern dance and modern postural yoga is, however, that no one in modern dance claims its movements to be therapeutic.
Engaging with dance is similar to engaging with sport: the risks are carefully calibrated in light of the rewards. But yoga is supposed to be different. Or is it? Dance and sport are transparently performative. You present the best face of your skill, regardless of how you’re feeling in the moment. While rehearsal and composition may involve self-inquiry, the actual dance or game necessarily emphasizes external action. But yoga is supposed to be different. Or is it? The reward of dance is aesthetic passion, while the reward of sport is accomplishment and victory. But yoga is supposed to be different. Or is it? When aesthetic passion and the quest for victory intermingle with a practice that equates skeletal symmetry with “spiritual alignment” and accomplishment with a victory over a mundane self, what do we get? (Hence the title of the project: What Are We Actually Doing in Asana?)
My interviewee suggested that as pleasurable as it may be, Wild Thing is virtually impossible to do in a healthful manner. The first version of the pose begins from a Vasisthasana preparation, in which the top leg is flexed at the knee and brought to the floor in front. Then the yogi begins to extend the thoracic spine into a backbend. If you take the time to look through a half-dozen examples of the posture, you’ll see something happening that’s crucial to shoulder health. As my subject pointed out to me, there’s almost no way that in a transition from side-plank to the backbend a practitioner can protect herself from the retraction, elevation, and anterior translation of the head of the humerus. (Retraction pulls the scapula towards the spine; elevation slides it upward; anterior translation pushes the humeral head forward.) When this happens, the shoulder quivers on the edge of dislocation. To keep the shoulder stable, the yogi has to protract the scapula (move the bony plate away from the spine), keep it depressed, and externally rotate the humerus. This activates the all-important stabilization of the serratus anterior muscle.
If, as the yogi goes into the backbend, the scapula is not protracted and depressed and the humerus is not externally rotated, the head of the humerus will smash into the acromium process and create impingement and/or a tear or fraying of the supraspinatus. Doing all three of these things successfully in this scenario is next to impossible for the average yoga practitioner. I have interviewed two practitioners with supraspinatus tears so far, derived not only from big poses like Wild Thing but more commonly with standard sun salutation movements.
I remember from doing the posture myself that it seemed natural to consider that pinching sensation, in harmony with the stretching of my pectoral muscles and my sternum, to be the uncomfortable but welcome feeling of my “heart” opening. I don’t know whether I’d heard Anusara-inspired instructors describe it this way back then, but a quick perusal of Anusara-type presentations of the posture online confirms that this link is clearly promoted. During the time in which I was having fun with it, Wild Thing irritated my dominant right shoulder, which was already weakened by a youth of pitching baseball. Now, my right humerus clicks in and out of the glenoid fossa on a regular basis. It feels like there’s a deep pearl of dry ricketiness in the centre of my shoulder. I feel it most when carrying my toddler, whose blubbery rolls of babyfat challenge my ability to keep my scapula back and down.
At first I believed what I was told about the irritation: that I was “uncovering scar tissue” and “unpranic” movement patterns through such positions, and that eventually the fluidity of the practice and my breath would clear the pain away. I was also taken for a while by the relationship that Vedic astrology makes between the right shoulder and one’s relationship with one’s mother — but that’s a long story. I continued to work with it, and would visualize my breath as though it were replete with George Lucas’ “midi-chlorians” in the Star Wars universe: so dear to Jedis wanting to connect to the Force. My breath was an angelic flow of microscopic organisms that would heal all ailments. As with all spiritualized or psychologized explanations, simplicity was the victim of the need for meaning. It seemed just too ordinary to say, I have an old shoulder injury that this posture aggravates. Mindful attention and breathing can’t hurt, but I should really rest it. Why is the bias within asana culture to believe that more movement is more therapeutic?
If the yogi goes further into Wild Thing, my interviewee explained, things get worse. To bring that top foot behind the supporting leg and incrementally increase the spinal extension just doubles down on the shoulder torture, especially given that the scapular elevation associated with the full beauty of the pose (drawing the scapula up beyond the top ribs) will tend to turn off the serratus anterior.
My subject’s analysis concluded that the pose is destabilizing by definition to the shoulder joint, and that it can only really be approached by very flexible people who would derive no benefit from it. It cannot help but to wear out the shoulder.
[dropcap]S[/dropcap]o why do I say the posture is impossible? It’s not, technically. Thousands of people are obviously doing it to one degree or another. And those are just the ones taking selfies. But it’s impossible to do safely, insofar as the scapula cannot protract when it’s being forced to retract. In its marketing, it offers the impossible promise of simultaneous bliss and physical health. This is a pose that is/was central to an entire asana mood: whole classes are/were structured to approach it and enjoy it. And it cannot help but to damage the health and functionality of shoulder joints.
Now if there were better biomechanics education around Wild Thing and more transparency in its instruction, students might be offered the pose along with a frank cost/benefit analysis, such as:
Okay, most of what we do here is designed to improve muscular intelligence, breath regulation, circulatory strength, etc. etc., but once in a while I like to throw in this crazy pose which involves doing this really dumb-ass thing to your shoulder that over time might tear it to shreds, but a lot of people really love how it feels, so if you feel like you’re in a kind of fuckit mood today this might be fun.
I don’t imagine we’ll hear this anytime soon. It would be interesting if we did, however, because it would have to come from someone who takes the Hatha yoga heritage seriously enough to be upfront about its most anxious and paradoxical sentiments: that our vulnerability and mortality are the primary conditions of our exploration, that pain and fear is a preview to or perhaps a misunderstanding of joy, that transgressive and disgusting and even dangerous actions can liberate us from the bonds of physical limitation, social conditioning and maladaptive psychic patterning.
The Hatha legacy of people like Matsyendranath, Gorakshanath and their redactors Gheranda and Yogi Svatmarama is laced with impossible challenges to existential limits. Their practices promise eternal youth, magical powers, and immortality. But the old masters aren’t capricious: their promises demand tapas, a sacrifice of flesh to the fire of transformation. The Hatha yogis cut their tongues, prolapsed their rectums into the Ganges for super-deep cleansing, and manipulated their breath hydraulically towards the edge of autoerotic-asphyxiated bliss. None of these practices are therapeutic, or intended to make the practitioner better-adjusted to aging gracefully and wisely with a low carbon footprint. They are designed to turn you into Wild Thing. And you pay for their benefits with your flesh.
[dropcap]W[/dropcap]ho wants to be a Wild Thing? Everyone does. Will being a Wild Thing hurt you? In the case of the pose, it will materially hurt your tissues in ways you may not recover from. Those of us who have had shoulder (or hip, or knee, or spine) injuries know that the joint is never the same, and will never be the same for the rest of our lives. Meaning: until we die. The injury marks us. I wonder if this is why we continue to pursue injurious postures in asana. Perhaps it gives us the feeling, unconsciously, of having control over the inevitable process of degeneration. We will be injured in life. We would prefer, of course, to have meaningful injuries. Like the kānphaṭas, who split their ear pinnae to mount crystals in return for the ability to receive mantric transmissions.
If we describe the Wild Thing as a sacrifice of the shoulder joint to the greater good of a few moments of a strong sensation we frame as ecstasy, then fine. If we want to go further and say that the sacrifice is a valiant choice in the face of an absurd existence, a noble way to burn in a holocaust we can’t escape: go for it. But if we say that same strong sensation is bliss and non-sacrificial and therapeutic all at the same time, then we are playing with an unacknowledged impossibility that resonates with so many other impossibilities at this dead-end of global capitalism:
We want to be Wild Things, even as so many wild things perish. We want a workshop – or even a daily practice – to change us, but the political economies and social constructions we return to after śavāsana are still in place. The oppression of capitalism seems as non-negotiable as the biomechanics of the shoulder. The heart rebels against both restrictions.
We want our naturalness restored. We want to be Wild Things in this suburban conference center, in this urban boutique studio, on this yoga vacay to Tulum. I wonder if VISA makes a Wild Thing gold-level credit card. We want something that’s impossible. We want it so badly we may fall asleep to what we really need.
‘Wild thing’ was a bullshit pose promoted by a bullshit teacher, who is now teaching more bullshit under a new title that he claims is even ‘beyond’ or better than yoga.
There are plenty of bullshit teachers out there, including ones who appeal to the authority of tradition because they don’t know any better, or are of a type who are drawn to rigid adherence to authority — whoever the authority is — and prefer endorphins to thinking or true self-awareness.
Yoga — including asana — has always evolved as its practices have been examined and reexamined in the light of experience. Much bullshit remains, as appeals are made (by westerners especially) to the ‘ancient wisdom’ of a culture that outwardly reveres authority and tradition over innovation and insight (and has nevertheless yielded innovation — just not outwardly admitting it).
If we redefine yoga more in terms of a commitment to inquiry and self-examination — for the sake of understanding and wisdom gained from experience and practice (and not unthinking practice) — then it becomes evident that it is not so much that we start doing yoga once we become disenchanted with it, but rather we start doing yoga once we question and see through our own bullshit.
The ‘yoga’ lies in the process rather than in what we ‘do’ — which is why it is nearly impossible to pin down exactly what yoga ‘IS.’ This understanding of yoga unfortunately makes room for the bullshitters to define it in service of their own purposes, especially in a western culture that likes to define things in terms of whatever we want it to be, especially so that we can capitalize on it.
But isn’t that understanding of yoga in terms of self-correcting inquiry pretty much what yoga has often been described as in various of its philosophies — and in different forms or words, with different descriptions of the bullshit (and those descriptions of bullshit have also contained some bullshit — isn’t that part of the process) from the start? Yes, at each stage there are those who proclaim what yoga now ‘IS’ and dig in their heels; but the arc of yoga historically is forward-thinking, including now, and including you, Matthew. In being a critic of the tradition, you are part of it (if you are willing to be constructive and not likewise rigid, if and when you move beyond critique).
We are always falling asleep to what we really need (in very practical terms — genuine health, both physically and emotionally/psychologically). ‘Yoga’ is a general name for the wake-up call. Even then, we keep dozing off, dreaming that we’re actually still awake in our ‘yoga,’ and even calling our dreaming ‘yoga.’ That’s on us.
The study of injuries and abuse is important as a wakeup call, and might be better titled ‘How NOT to do Yoga.’ But a lot is missed if yoga is judged solely on this approach, just as it is rather misguided to base psychology entirely upon the study of pathology, failing to include studies of health and the flourishing of the human being. If you include success stories from mature, self-aware practitioners of asana in your ‘What Are We Doing In Asana’ interviews, my guess is that you might even be more overwhelmed — and enriched — by the response than you are by interviewing the cautionary tales.
Despite its cultural and historical context (which is not entirely unique to India — appeal to authority and tradition despite evidence to the contrary is a theme that runs through human history), ‘yoga’ has proven to be a self-critical and (haltingly) self-corrective evolutionary process that is ultimately forward-thinking — from Kapila (who first dared to question the Vedas) onward.
To base a critique of yoga on the bullshitters and stubborn ‘traditionalists’ — and those who got hurt following them rather blindly — is problematic to say the least. Just calling a movement an ‘asana’ and imputing magickal (sic) properties to it doesn’t mean you’re doing yoga just on your own say-so. This is true of Gorakshanath’s day just as much as our own. Nothing forces us to accept the asanas and practices in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, Shiva Samhita etc. as sacrosanct. Nothing, that is, but ourselves.
Yoga is not what you do; yoga (in which the definition of ‘joining-to’ could also be interpreted as commitment — especially commitment to one’s own self) lies in the intentional quality of self-inquiry and self-correction that is brought to ANY practice — especially the ones traditionally associated with yoga, even when none of those practices are necessarily definitive of yoga (including meditation, which is ‘definitive’ only as a vague generality). Again, such a ‘definition’ of yoga in terms of self-correcting inquiry, such as it is, is frustrating to those who would rather ‘pin it down,’ especially for marketing purposes.
But as such, yoga is essentially forward-thinking. It began (as an official term in the Upanishads, with roots going back to people like Kapila and beyond) as a rebellion against religious or spiritual experience as subjected to the mediation of Vedic institutions and ritual. Its spirit lies in a continued rebellion against institutionalization and against those who unjustifiably claim and impose their authority, which includes a truckload of bullshitters. And those who, in one form or another, attempt to institutionalize yoga itself.
When we begin to shake free of THAT — that is when yoga begins; as an unmediated process of self-inquiry through the lens of a chosen discipline. Teachers are helpful as an introduction to such disciplines, with the benefit of the experience gained by honest (i.e. willing to recognize and admit the bad things that have happened from faulty conceptions, and willing to self-correct) practice — rather than acrobatics designed for the camera (i.e. to impress) rather than for the body.
There are actually plenty of good yoga teachers out there, doing good things and improving the health and well-being of their students as well as their own. It’s just hard to hear them because the bullshitters, their proselytizers, their victims and the critics on all sides are so damn loud.
PS your description of the ‘fuckit’ mood that leads to indulgence in ‘poses’ such as the ‘Wild Thing’ is entirely correct and accurate, and also describes one of the human responses of defiance toward mortality, especially among the young, hopped up as they are on their hormonal feeling of invincibility. With an element of ‘Die young; stay pretty’ defiance thrown in. That, of course, doesn’t make it a valid response, even when it is cultivated as a selling point for marketing yoga to the young.
Doug, thanks for the thoughts. It’s my fault entirely if articles like this don’t show “commitment to inquiry and self-examination” — because that’s really my drive. I love yoga with all my heart, and I can’t wait to see what comes of all this wakefulness in the face of disenchantment.
I started the project with a callout for injury stories, but my interview subjects have forced the scope wider, and have completely enriched my understanding of the ways in which people can grow through a mixture of inspiration, guidance, and attunement. Ironically, injury of both tissues and the heart is often an essential part of the story. So I look forward to producing a very constructive book, or at least as constructive as my constitution will allow.
I also hope it isn’t lost on readers that I find my informant a very good explicator. I haven’t taken class with her, but I’m pretty sure it would be excellent…
My fav quote from this provocative article What forces — beyond marketing — encourage people to believe that old religious practices that often involved self-immolation can suddenly be reframed as therapeutic?
What yoga teaches us is discrimination, between the real and the unreal. That is a process we all go through over years of practice. Teachers as well as students. So as a yoga student, perhaps look for a teacher who has had the opportunity to find this growth themselves, rather than following the latest 20 something hot yoga teacher who pushes you to your edge physically yet doesn’t yet have the experience to help you discriminate between a healthy challenging asana practice for you and a practice which may cause injury?
Am sorry but the above demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding. On an A & P level shoulder injury is almost certainly on the cards. But as we know as practitioners, the human form is so much more than the sum if its parts! No amount of A&P gets us to the inner understanding of a regular practice. With the greatest respect my friend; I suggest that you search out a proficient yoga instructor; or at the very least: Practice, Practice …
Hi Roger — Thanks for the note. The article really isn’t about “getting to the understanding of a regular practice”. It’s about how a specific posture forces an anatomical impossibility. I’m not quite sure what you’re suggesting. Materially there will be injury, but immaterially it can be avoided?
Firstly, apologies for the glib, hurried observation – train ride & mobile phone partly the issue here.
I fully appreciate that your article is about this so called pose. My point was/is that with practice we begin to go beyond mechanics. I found this pose a few years back in my own practice. Pose? Maybe better described as a transition??
Anyhow … To my understanding yoga is an inner science – no amount of A & P (Western Science, if you will) gets us to a place that a regular practice takes us – namely a unified approach to movement.
In recent years there has been a notable shift in anatomy circles towards more focus on facia. Google facia & we get: “It’s All Connected: Changing our viewpoint from seeing ourselves as assembled parts to a unified organism”.(perhaps, I suggest, Western Science confirming to some extent what we already know as yogis?). It is certainly my belief that a rounded practice can tune us into this unified movement / approach & once tuned-in we can move differently; with a unified – yogic – awareness. It is here we touch our yoga or union.
Clearly as described above the shoulder/ rotator cuff is in for a hiding. However; if we add:
activate & lift through from the foundation of the palm – this lifting includes fingers & thumb – through the length of the entire body we find the shoulder girdle reaching/lengthening away from the core (spine). The hand almost magically rotates inward as hips lift. Voila. Note: Hand rotation essential! Unless we are actively lifting away from the floor (inc. fingers, thumb) the rotator cuff will take the brunt of the energy transfer which is what in sum, I understand to be your take.
Thanks Roger. I think the problem is that a “unified approach to movement” will be injurious if the movement contradicts basic biomechanical facts. I’m not sure how your description relates to the central challenge of the pose: that the scapula cannot protract while it is being forced into retraction through the turn. As in: there’s a point at which it doesn’t matter how much we try to “actively lift away from the floor” — we just won’t be able to, full stop. Just like I can’t detach and reattach my head at will.
What I think I hear in some of your comment is that perhaps there’s a holistic or energetic understanding and embodiment that would allow certain “apparent” restrictions of the anatomy to melt away. Is that part of your reasoning, or am I over-reading?
Thanks for the article. Interesting….
I promise only to do wildthing if a teacher presents it with your “fuckit” disclaimer! 😉
I’ve just removed myself momentarily from my desk and from my high heels to work my way into Wild Thing in my office (yay, yoga jeans …). I’m feeling my way carefully through my shoulder. I can get there with no instability: then again, I have HYPER FLEXIBLE shoulder joints, but also, I had a shoulder injury as a child I have to be careful about to this day. So maybe I’m the genetic freak who can do this pose safely (don’t hate me: particular orientation of acetabulum / greater trochanter means even half lotus is totally impossible for me)
Hm. My teacher worked with us for years on side plank variations that aimed to teach shoulder integration. And worked on how most injuries happen in transitions. And worked on building strength before going for the stretch. The process of building to Wild Thing was probably way more valuable than ever doing the pose would be. But here I am in my office clothes now back at the computer and completely blessed out from having just done Wild Thing, both sides.
I’m ambivalent. Even though I think this article is one hundred percent correct.
I don’t teach wild thing though not for any of the reasons stated above. I don’t know how to teach it anyway. Wild thang does not cultivate a skill set applicable in functional breath centered Yoga. It can take years to develop the strength and sensitivity to do much simpler arm supports like chaturanga, for example. Therefore there is no one to teach it to, more generally. However, I have practiced it on occasion in my personal space and it is fine for me in its place. I don’t feel the Anusara version actually adheres to functional architecture… but exploring it for its own sake has value. I am strong and healthy and sensitive. I don’t believe being overly cautious and avoidant is necessary to ahimsa values… for me. To repeat though,as a long time teacher of the Vinyasa Krama lineage… I don’t feel the posture is particularly useful and best avoided as a teaching choice.
Your commitment to self-inquiry does show through your work, Matthew, so no worries.
Thanks Matthew for this informative and entertaining article.
I do not include Wild Thing in my vinyasa classes. This was a timely read though as I have been spending time recently, teaching my students safe shoulder openers with straps and blocks. As a 42 year-old Mom of three, my commitment is that my students make asana practice work for them, and that they honor and embrace their bodies as they are now, whatever the condition. There are so many less risky, yet highly beneficial options. Simply to feel oneself move and breathe with real awareness – not the showy postures – is a gift that I am grateful for each time I step on my mat.
You have a rare gift for peeling back the layers of the philosophical and psychological underpinnings of various self negating spiritual attitudes toward the body, mortality nd the limitations of the reality we actually inhabit. Thank you
Observing the comments section here and on FB, I wonder how many can digest what you are saying.
Having various muscles ‘turned on’ by using our ability to move in the field of gravity, is an advantage.
Yoga can create an advantage for the body mind.
To what end?
For -pain management,
for -pleasure, for -physical acumen.
For mental acumen. To be able to do –with grace and strength– and to feel the ‘power’ of bodily integrity. The benefits of being in relationship with our bodies is such a positive place! Yoga can create such a positive place.
The nonsense layer of yoga needs stripping away. And there is sooo much stupid ghoulishness in the yoga world.
For myself, I lost most of the use of both infraspinatis and supraspinatis on the right side of my shoulder girdle. I suspect the quick twistings in kundalini seated movements. I can see why some think ‘energetic’ when they think of kundalini yoga. However, for me: These quick deep twistings, back and forth, can irritate nerves, and lead to brachial plexus injury. I can no longer hold up a pair of binoculars.
No more bird watching for me! But I have learned to use my serrati complex.
The ‘intelligence’ of the body is there to be aware of. Or not. Our marvelous body is able to find ways to do what needs doing. With or without our ‘buy in’.
Out to the garden for me, Spring has sprung.
Matthew, thanks for this article and project. I’m often perplexed by the appeal of asana that clearly have no physical or skill benefit but are high on the gestural/aesthetic scale. I have on-going disagreements with our teacher training faculty about the value of this and other asana because I see no benefit in teaching the poses to neophyte teachers, but the response is that “everyone is doing these poses, and if we don’t teach them, they will practice them without instruction.” This critical anatomical analysis makes the case for teaching why not to do the pose. I wish I had similar ammunition for ekapada rajakapotanasana, which every seems to use as a warm up.
Thanks for the note, David. The “everyone’s doing it” argument is a hard one, as much a product of the competitive infrastructure of trainings as a sincere confusion about what to spend precious YTT hours on. In my experience so far, most professional movement analysts/therapists outside of the “yoga bubble” have very clear responses to the demands of a variety of asanas. The comments are often disarmingly frank. “You can’t do that without screwing up _____ ” is a common response.
I love this article. I appreciate the frankness of your insight and the time you commit to the understanding of yoga in a modern context.
I find it interesting that while the rest of the world involved in various kinesthetic pursuits keeps moving forward, involving the evolving information of physical science, nutrition etc, many yoga practioners continue to look back (way back, fall back …). Tradition is a wonderful thing. There is connection and warmth in celebrating those that came before us. But my grandmother’s cookie recipe, as wonderful as it is and as much as it reminds me of the beautiful woman she was, has a pound of butter in it. She died of a heart attack at 59.
As teachers we must evolve to know better and be better. We must teach for the general audience. And the general audience isn’t sitting in the Ganges with prolapsed rectums (thanks for the visual by the way), they are sitting behind a desk for 10 hours a day. Looking at the ceiling would be enough to open the heart these days.
What do we want for our students? What do we want for each other? Should we be dedicated to challenging ourselves physically through asana and use our experiences to help others use asana as the tool it can be to climb the ladder to samadhi? Sure. Should we use old ancient information and refuse to allow current science to adjust our path? Is there only one way up the ladder?
I hope that’s not what I teach …
Thank you again.
As a teacher, I think I will leave this pose behind! Thanks for the article and the interesting discussions on this topic. As teachers, we need to be thoughtful to what we teach and why we teach it, not taking tradition as the truth until we actually understand it and it makes sense to us, so then we can teach the why and how we can accommodate each student in the asana. Great discussion.
Hi there Mathew,
I’m far too familar with the posture ou are talking about, I believe I’m certified by the same school the “BS” teacher (as someone put it above). I’m still with the school to woring on the curriculum board, (now that he is gone) for the percise reasons I think you and a few of the comments above point out.
Practicing physical postures for creative and palyfull purposes can get dangerous.
I also have a degree with an emphasis in human Kinesiology & Physiology and worked for years training and studying sports science. You would never do a lot of the things on the yoga mat that you would do to improve a persons human performance, and thats a serious issue.
I’m working on it, traveling and teaching a more functional side of bio-mechanics for yoga asana rather than inspiring folks to continue to push the envelope of how far a yoga pose can go and trashing a body.
When you really get into the science of human function for longetivity and durability, there is a lot going on that pushes the limit of healthy and runs right over the cliff.
That said, if you want to do wild thing, first you need to be really well conditioned to do it very safe and it’s a unique type of conditioning. Secondly, from side plank if you move the hips up and begin pressing the hand into the floor (which has to result on the opposit side of the ribs moving upward – this is a good indicator that the serratus is engaging and yes the scapula moves a little away from the spine when you do that) and then transition with the hips and ribs a little higher than the shoulder joint, you can make it a lot more safe, maybe completly safe.
I have no arguements with your analyses of how dangerous what you described is, but there are a lot of mechanics that can easily be done to transsition to a very advanced (by safety standards) yoga posture.
If you ever want to add to your interviews, I would happily add to your interview’ees on both the danger of yoga postures and better function of them, which is different than describing what’s going on when a typical person does them.
Thanks for the note Adam. Do you feel that the movement you describe would also help avoid the forward translation of the humerus that comes with rotation of the torso? Is there something special that the supporting hand needs to do during that rotation? I’m really glad you’re doing the work you’re doing… I’ll definitely be in touch for an interview.
Hi Mathew, there are actions from the hand that can help a lot. Before that though, the person doing the pose really needs to make sure they are more extending through the arm, and moving the hips and ribs up enough that the arm is essentially ellevated even though you are still in side plank. This means that if you took a picture of that person and looked at it sideways so they looked upright, that the arm looks like it’s higher than the shoulders and extending up and away from the ribs. It does’t really matter what you do, if you are more leaning into the arm and the arm is lower in the side plane, you can’t do much to prevent some sort of torgue or stress to the front of the shoulder joint in transition, even if you are strong enough to avoid an injury at that time. Once the body is in better position for shoulder function with this type of stress and weight bearing through the arm and into the shoulder or pectoral girdle, you can work the hand and arm to help the transition. You have to creat enough coordination though the hand, lower & upper arm and shoulder joint that the action of twisting the hand open clock-wise results in scapular movement, even when the hand doesn’t actually move (isometric). This is based on what is called a closed chain movement and a muscle chain. If you try to do this with poor activation and coordination it can torgue any of those major joint areas and either cause an injury on the spot or long term chronic stress. Sounds tough, I know, but yoga asana can be complex as all heck.
If you can do this well, and that’s measured in the result – not the attempt, you can move the scapula to essentially broaden at the top and narrow at the bottom without negative stress to the hand, wrist, arm or shoulder. That movement of the scapular takes serious coordination but would actually help press the mid thoracic spine up and tip the upper thoracic spine and head down hill, allowing for even easier shoulder mechanics. Arms that are weightbearing, in the side plane and not elevated above the shoulder, have natural body weight forces that move the shoulder joint towards the head which works against the mechanics of rotator cuff, no matter how hard you squeeze the shoulder blades together. So, when you begin to twist open, the head of the humorous moves forward toward the front plane of the body and isn’t safe. If you can’t identify all of this in the sholder joint, then you might be able to witness this in how flat the torso or chest seems when a person in poor alignment does this. Scarry to watch.
I would say good luck, but I wouldn’t leave this pose up to just luck. Adam Ballenger
Thanks so much for the added nuance here, Adam.
The mechanics of the shoulder are rather complex and often misunderstood. If the shoulder (humerus, scapula, and clavicle) are all aligned correctly, Wild Thing can be done without harm to the shoulder. Notice the “if” there. I agree that many students are taught this pose without the right cuing and training. As yoga teachers our work is to empower our students to get in touch with their own body as they use it as a tool to perhaps discover something outside of their physical body. And that is a big challenge! Many outstanding yoga teachers do not fully understand the kinematics of the shoulder and it is not fair to expect them to. It is fair to expect a yoga teacher to understand his or her own limitations and work from the knowledge they do have. It is safe to avoid teaching poses you do not really understand. And it is imperative to empower students to practice with what they have available on the mat in in the moment they are practicing. From there they can grow.
It is not fair to put the blame on Wild Thing for shoulder injuries. Most shoulder injuries occur from faulty mechanics over time and there are a lot of poses in yoga (particularly Vinyasa flow) that can compromise the shoulder correctly. For example, Chaturanga without correct shoulder alignment is often responsible for overuse injuries. If the rhomboids are not active (to retract or squeeze the shoulder blades toward the spine) as one lowers down from a high plank position to a low plank position, the humerus is likely pushed forward. This causes strain on the ligaments, joint capsule, and rotator cuff tendons in the front of the shoulder. (It should be noted that the rhomboids are not the only key muscle here in preventing the forward movement of the humerus.) Over time the structures weaken as they are strained. If a student develops weakness in the front of the shoulder and attempts Wild Thing, the risk for injury increases. During wild thing the scapula needs to retract in order to let the humerus move towards the back of the body. The key to a safe transition to Wild Thing is balance of strength and flexibility of the many muscles that guide the shoulder blade to rotate up and down as the humerus moves up and down. The scapula is not being forced to protract unless the muscles that retract the scapula are not doing their job.
As a physical therapist and yoga teacher I am naturally inclined to provide a lot of alignment cues in my group classes. What I have come to learn from teaching yoga is that helping a student align their body provides a mechanical advantage to bring more stability and openness into their physical asana practice. And when that happens, the student feels something powerful in their body. This feeling empowers them to do the work to align things off the mat to find a balance of stability and openness.
Thanks for the comment, Trish. I’m confused about the protraction/retraction issue. Did you confuse the two when you typed: “The scapula is not being forced to protract unless the muscles that retract the scapula are not doing their job.”?
Isn’t the issue that the protraction cannot be maintained as the torso moves into rotation?
You write: “During wild thing the scapula needs to retract in order to let the humerus move towards the back of the body.” Yes — and isn’t the problem that that retraction (which decreases stability generally) is taking place while the joint is not only load-bearing, but beginning to rotate?
Well here we are with trying to understand the complex mechanics of the shoulder joint in a few paragraphs. (It takes physical therapist students ~2-3 weeks (with a cadaver) to understand how the shoulder really works.)
In regards to protraction and retraction, I did not confuse the two. In side plank, the humerus is out to the side of the body. When transitioning to Wild Thing it moves to the back of the body (via horizontal abduction). Since the humerus is moving backwards, the scapula has to also. This backwards movement of the scapula (towards the spine) is retraction. If a yogi activates the muscles that retract the scapula during the transition from side plank to Wild Thing, the scapula will retract. If they do not activate these muscles, the shoulder blade not retract and therefore it will protract. As noted previously, it can’t move in both directions simultaneously.
Retraction does not decrease stability. A stable shoulder has the ability to fully retract and fully protract. The shoulder is naturally a very unstable joint. We were created to walk on our feet (therefore have stable hip joints) and use our arms to reach for things and bring food to our mouth. The shoulder has a lot of freedom to move. The only way to create stability in the shoulder joint in through a balance of strength and flexibility in all of the shoulder muscles.
I also want to note that the scapula does not just simply retract and protract. In general, as the humerus moves up, the scapula rotates upward. This upward rotation is caused by a contraction of several muscles that attach to the scapula in several different directions. When the humerus comes back down towards the body, the scapula rotates downward. This is also a result of several muscles that pull on the scapula in several different directions.
I hope this helped to clarify. It is a challenge to explain briefly!
Thank you Matthew for getting this dialogue going!
Trish Corley, PT
Thanks for the clarification, Trish! Several other PTs have suggested to me that the retracted scapula provides for far less stability in the load-bearing shoulder. What would your opinion of that be?
Just came back to this conversation after being away for a while. There are so many variables involved that it is difficult to agree or disagree with the statement about a retracted scapula providing less stability in the load bearing shoulder. A stable shoulder comes from strong scapular muscles that work in a timely manner to rotate the scapula in a particular rhythm that coincides with the position of the humerus.
Hope you don’t mind the comment or question, you are the PT so I thought I would throw this out there.
You mentioned that the scapula doesn’t simply retract and talked about the job of the muscles that cause retraction to do their job in transition. It seems to me that there is a fairly natural mistake that occurs often here.
In side plank with the hips low and before someone tries to rotate very upward, the scapula can retract passively because of body position. (i.e. with the arm in the side plane, and leaning into it can move the spine towards the scapula without any muscles needing to be activated.) And if the arm is abducted below the shoulder joint, that rhomboid activation could easily impede external (in the lower – below the shoulder joint, abducted arm) and then internal rotate (as the arm elevates above the shoulder). this arm rotation seems necessary for transition through the planes of movement towards a backbend. For someone doing a backbend and extending the arm up and essentially back, the upward rotation of the scapula prevents better inward rotation of the humerus which is much healthier and natural to the back-bending movement versus the upward rotation of the scapula that is more natural for forward folding or thoracic flexion. Try arching back and rotating the scapula upwards and rotating your thumbs forward versus the opposite.
It seems that the much more natural mistake is trying to fix this issue with muscular activation of the retracting or abducting muscles of the girdle instead of fixing the issue with body better body position, pre-opening or pre-transition. Or, it seems much less natural to stabilize the scapula in a closed chain movement, on the weight bearing arm and expecting the arm and girdle to articulate well through transition. I think your presentation would prevent the collapse in the front of the shoulder in side plank if you did it before rotating the torso upward but would present a transition issue and at least some torque in the joint, if not some other issues. Elevating the hips enough so the arm is abducted above the shoulder join for easier arm and girdle rotation and then using the lower tissues the the Trapezius for better scapular movement and stability, seems healthier for this transition.
Of course there would be some serious other peripheral stability and coordination work as well but I’m curious about your response to what I’ve written
“We want something that’s impossible. We want it so badly we may fall asleep to what we really need.”
Matt no matter how the anatomy conversation goes, you’ve nailed the crux of the asana discussion when the impression is that the harder or more complex the posture, the greater the enlightening. This is the possibly the fault of the teacher but we pick the teachers we want so we are complicit though innocent in our quest.
My experience tells me that risky form done in the spirit of dance; of creating an emotional landscape for oneself and the viewer is not unlike the risk an athlete takes for the sake of the game. We know it’s hard on the body but we do it because it gives us pleasure.
But the spirit of asana is a different practice or at least is more reliable in a different light; approached from a quieter place, to accomplish the best result.
I did not know this from my experience as a new student (and I would consider a minimal of ten years experience as new where yoga is concerned) but time gave me pause to notice what my experience had wrought. I believe you’re right that it’s when you are done with that aspect of yoga that the yoga begins for those of us who tested our physical limits as our primary asana experience.
I just came back from a “master” yoga class with a revered 75 year old teacher. I can also say that I came back from a bullshit yoga class taught by a bullshit yoga teacher. The class was taught in a huge room of the local convention center and had (I am not good with crowd estimation) upwards of 100 people in the room. No props, except some blankets in the back, of which only a handful of people had bothered to make use.
A few points:
–the class started with some kind of a lecture, which i did not comprehend entirely, but caught a few things. One was that we had to work to shut off all of our senses in order to gain perception. The other was that when we found our true self, everything shrank, as in distance, and time was no longer relevant. So the elimination of time and distance seemed to be a goal worthy of a yogi. Somehow, by disembodiment and dissociation from the environment, we were to find our true self, which was immortal.
–we were told that we “must” become vegetarian; otherwise, we, of course, broke the first rule, ahimsa. Translation: to be a yogi, you must be vegetarian. No acknowledgement of constitution, needs, circumstance, time of life, etc.
Now, to the asana part:
–the warm up consisted of crescent lunges (lunge with back knee down and arms up overhead with fingers interlaced and index fingers pointed up to ceiling). We were told that the body had to look like a crescent moon. We were also told to go to our limit, where the hips descended down and forward to their limit, so that the front of the back hip can open as much as possible. The teacher then demonstrated the “tight” version of the pose—the way it would look if your hip flexors were tight and your shoulders were not hypermobile. And made fun of it. He then again demonstrated the “real” pose, which basically looked like overstretching the ligaments at the front of the back hip and taking the arms behind the ears, essentially dis-locating the shoulders to an extent. To me, this accomplished two things. It made fun of the tight people and encouraged the hypermobile people to go where they should not go. For both types of people, this essentially created instability, dis-location and dis-emodiment on a number of levels, very much consistent with the lecture from the beginning of the class.
–another essential part of the warm-up was side plank and yes, that thing, the wild one. We were told that this pose was powerful and potent for the shoulders and the wrists. No comment.
–while we are asked to do padangustanana B (standing on one leg, while holding the other leg out to the side with the same hand), we were told that how we did the pose was what its effect on us was going to be, because each pose was designed to have a profound effect on us (by whom, I am not sure). The implication was that if we did the pose with the right kind of enthusiasm or attitude, it was going to have that effect on us. If we did it lazily, for example, then it will have a lazy effect, etc.
This was the warm up.
We then plunged into tripod headstand, with no other weightbearing preparation for the hands, head and shoulders, except a couple of cursory down dogs and cobras. We did a few of those, or rather I watched from the back while the collective humanity was “purifying its psychic awareness,” and jamming their necks. The next pose was shoulderstand. Some people made little pads with their mats and perhaps a blanket, but most were lying bare on the floor. We were given some points about the pose, but nothing that had any relevance to make the pose safe.
It was at this point that I left. With an hour left of the class. The first hour was taken by half an hour lecture and half an hour of said warm-up.
I’m pretty sure from your description who the teacher is (in NYC?).Too bad he has gone so big time with his giant studio and is just soaking up the adulation and gorging on his own press. Almost self cannibalizing—so much for vegetarianism!
I have enjoyed reading the comments, but feel it is worth saying this: for the most part, we are talking about what consenting adults are doing with their time and attention and mostly doing the best they can within the limits of their experience and capacity for experience.
Ana… you could’ a walked out and I hope you articulated that to the event hosts or whoever. Students are responsible for their own experience. It’s unfortunate that critical thinking is not more encouraged in Yoga culture and so called spiritual communities more generally… because wild thing, whatever the biomechanics, is not rocket science. Yoga, more generally, is both simple to articulate and incredibly difficult to actualize.
Pain or embarrassing confusion can serve to correct us on our path and few of us will find ourselves truly exempt on this front…. fortunately or unfortunately.
Thanks for the comment, Kerry. Anna did walk out, and provided a good cautionary description. I’d say that’s a good contribution to the principle of informed consent.
Can someone help me understand how Wild Thing is different than Urdhva Dhanurasana (Upward bow/ Wheel)? Is it the orientation of the hand on the floor with fingers towards the body, or the fact that both hands are supporting weight, or is the latter dangerous/impossible as well?
While writing my first comment above, I was unaware of Matthew’s latest post, which articulates much more eloquently than me some of the points I was trying to make.
As for informed consent, yes and no. Technically yes. But in reality, no. Because of the way yoga is packaged, marketed, offered and sold to the general public. Yoga is sold as healing and therapeutic, which it isn’t in a mass market class type class that I attended today. But because of the way it is sold, the practitioner’s discernment is numbed and replaced by blind faith in the effectiveness of the product that they were sold. After all, we all like to think of ourselves as savvy and informed consumers. So, yes, I walked out. But I am jaded and very critical of the yoga roadshow and have enough penchant for anatomy, biomechanics and self-practice to know that I was in a woo-woo environment that I had to vacate. Informed consent implies that people know where their limit is, but they don’t. Further, what the general practitioner recognizes as their limit is usually way past that. Saying that we all consented to go to the class is basically the same as saying that we are having an individual experience on our individual mats and thus refusing to take responsibility.
Matthew can chime in here, but we are arguing between a neoliberal model of instructing and offering yoga vs. something different that is not yet crystallized.
Good analysis of the consumer fog. Your last sentence: yes.
From my personal practice experience (not specifically studying Anusara to teach it but only taking classes from teachers of it over the years) the way “wild thing” was taught in these classes was taught more as a back bend almost as if going into a one armed Urdhva Dhanurasana. This in my personal experience, in my own body, always felt dangerous and unstable to my shoulders. I have also seen a pose referred to as “flip the dog” that has a similar feel and look.
However, I have been taught, and myself have taught, a similar looking posture. This we used actually more in Jiu Jitsu warm ups, when I was practicing martial arts, where the shoulders are stacked and one foot is behind a straight leg. It could be described as a “modified vasisthasana” with the benefit that you can raise and lower your pelvis using the support of the deep core muscles and strengthen the shoulder while exploring your range of motion safely (assuming your not compromised by an already existing injury in the wrist or shoulder). We used this specifically to strengthen the shoulders safely so you could eventually do it while supporting another person on your ribcage over the course of a year. I also used this “posture” to slowly rehabilitate my shoulders over a couple years after injuring and compromising the rotator cuff on both shoulders in a trapeze accident in my mid 20’s.
The reason I refer to the martial arts in this conversation is they had a specific reason we were using this specific technique as a tool. It was to create a certain efficiency in the body for a certain necessary skill set required for that type of training. “The form served the function.” The question I always ask is “WHY are you choosing that particular posture or asana and practicing it in that particular way?” What function is it serving you as an individual? Or are you just focusing on form because it’s pretty and esthetically pleasing to look at? This has become more and more challenging to avoid as photographers make more an more beautiful imagery of the symmetry of these poses setting ideals that most peoples bodies could never live up to… and even the ones who can get to those extremes… should they?
The teachers I learned the most from both in asana and various forms of martial arts were the ones that gave me safe parameters to work in while also giving me the freedom to have my own experience based on my individual and unique anatomy. AND to “never place form over function.” Yoga is not ballet or modern dance in that sense. It does not have to be pretty or pleasing to the eye to by functional. Sometimes the “prettier” it looks the less functional and more potentially damaging it might be to the individual. (this of course requires practice, and patience, and self study.)
So my question is, as an individual practitioner, WHY are you practicing “wild thing” or “flip the dog” or any posture for that matter? Is it because it serves a function you need to assist and support your lifestyle, or is it just because you saw it in a magazine and it looked pretty… because it really does… it sure does look beautiful.
I think i would sum up this article with the great dancer Erick Hawkins’ oft-repeated refrain: “Just because something is possible doesn’t mean it’s desirable.” So just because we can plunder the Earth – or the body – doesn’t mean it is desirable…Thanks for keeping the fire going with your discussion!
What is of value is exercising the ‘discernment muscle’ of self inquiry before subjecting our body to poses that may have no inherent value in real life functional movement. Yoga asana in many cases requires one to engage the body in positions that compress the spine and flex and extend the joints far past natural anatomical functions. If you look at the big overview of how most of us have spent half of our lives in a ‘brace’ we call the chair, it becomes clear that we need to evolve asana to put space back in our spinal column and strengthen the muscles of inspiration and extension. Trying to force our shoulder joint in positions that may damage it is a violation of the intelligent design of the human body. The shoulder is built for mobility and is a suspensory joint that is not designed to bear the weight and force that many yoga postures impose. Practice ahimsa towards the body and avoid these positions which in many cases do not lead to a favorable outcome.
Nice discussion Mathew. Glad that I found you guys. I agree generally with the anatomical analysis of wild thing. The first and only time that I have seen a shoulder dislocation in yoga class (been doing yoga classes for 20 years) was in a large workshop with that B.S. Style of Yoga that you mentioned . We did wild thing and various other “heart opening” gymnastics. The one person was not strong enough and hyper-mobile in the Gleno-hHumeral Joint so she blew it out.
I have been teaching anatomy for yoga for 9 years and find the process a constant reality check for most teachers and aspiring teachers.
“What forces — beyond marketing — encourage people to believe that old religious practices that often involved self-immolation can suddenly be reframed as therapeutic?” This is hitting the nail on the head. Only people who have not really investigated and seen the traditional ways of hatha yoga can believe that it is designed to be just therapeutic. It is hard core. It’s not a path for the infirm of mind or body.
And Yet….In the hands of a skilled practitioner. I think Yoga is incredibly therapeutic. I believe it is a way to energetic long life and vitality.
Maybe one has to just thread the needle through the many dangers, tricks and red herrings to find that skill
I know this is an old article, but the idea of consent has struck a chord. For adults to give true informed consent, they need to be informed.
The average person, and probably the majority average yoga practitioners, are not informed in any significant or practical manner in biomechanics. Most probably don’t have a cursory understanding of the things offered in an introductory A&P course. They can’t give true informed consent. And certainly not in large, packed classes.
We need more than a disclaimer of ‘get your doctor’s okay before undertaking any exercise program’ or even the sort that skydiving would have: ‘death can occur when taking part in extreme activity.’ While certainly it is good and noble for teachers to keep reminding students that they are the person in their body and therefore have a better position/view of what it can and can’t do – that’s still not going to be enough. Especially as aesthetics overtake foundational functionality for every Jo Blow in the activity (formerly?) known as Yoga.
I keep studying anatomy so that I can stay informed and intelligent about the bodies I teach to. I’ve been annoyed for years at the idea of Yoga being safe and good and even beneficial to practice everyday all the time – it totally ignores basic body sciences! I constantly flounder, doubt, have to reassess the why/what/how of my teaching. On top of my internal process I have to keep up with the unrealistic and inappropriate ideas of students of what Yoga looks like, what they want vs can do, and is suitable for their individual bodies and needs and find ways to diffuse the form over function that they’ve slurped up from media. More and more I’m feeling that my little sliver of A&P is enough, but the conversation with students is of prime importance.
There are three strands in your article that I think are important – the first being that entering wild thing from side plank is unsafe, so really we’re saying that there’s no uniform approach to asana (generally agreed upon, I think). Second, that students – even if those students are seasoned practitioners and teachers – must be empowered to reject a transition, pose, or adjustment and teachers need to approach enhancements with humility. (My teaching partner and best friend is still suffering two years later from a shoulder adjustment given at a yoga festival. The pose she was adjusted in? Vasisthasana.)
And the third, that if we know there’s no uniform approach to asana, what do we do?
In terms of biomechanics, wild thing offers challenges and opportunities. If you have a highly functioning scapula and gleno-humoral joint, and the inkling of thoracic spine mobility, wild thing is accessible. It’s challenging for the same reason side plank plus an arm brought into shoulder flexion (reaching overhead) is challenging: most people have poor thoracic spine control, even less shoulder stability, and rarely bring our shoulders into extension (unless we all move our phones above our heads and start typing there).
With proper attention to detail, and individual assessment tools (you can examine shoulder range for wild thing from chair, actually), you can teach wild thing from a seated position – no need to flip into it from downward dog or side plank.
I teach in a way that assesses range of control and joint mobility, and peak pose methodology builds into larger postures in a way that gives everyone a similar experience of their joints… in different expressions for different needs.
Anusara did a great job of thinking about muscle control, but in a complex, niche manner that eludes students of other lineages. Personally, I want to integrate strength, security, and awareness in every class that I teach. It’s not going to happen if I’m teaching a room of people what I want to teach, rather than responding to the bodies in front of me.
I had to search for WAWADIA’s meaning, but I’m glad I did. Great conversation. Peace!
I’m most thankful for this article,
and the myriad of insightful comments, -extended the conversation wayy past that pose,
through mindful anatomical awareness,
and into the broader topic of “yoga” itself 🙂
Im still yet to read everyone’s replies, and am looking forward to absorbing all opinions here 🙂