About a month and two dozen interviews into this research project and I can honestly say I’ve learned more about how folks experience yoga than I have over the past eleven years of teaching. The stories of pain, injury, recovery, and wisdom keep rolling, each unraveling unique twists of psychology along with the tweaks of tissue.
- I’ve heard from practitioners who came to yoga as elite athletes who submitted to invasive adjustments because their experience with overbearing coaching made them overly compliant.
- I’ve heard ex-ballet dancers say that it took years for them to understand that they were in pain in asana practice, because they’d been so well-trained to sublimate.
- I’ve heard practitioners say: “Well even if the practice did hurt I generally kept doing it, because I thought my body might be lying to me.”
- I’ve heard of senior teachers slapping students on the side of head for not paying the proper amount of attention, intimidations which functioned to soften the students up for radical adjustments.
- I’ve heard from a student who injured herself in a class in which the teacher said: “Stay strong for the person next to you. Don’t give in to the discomfort. Hold this pose for everybody.”
- I listened to several practitioners talk about pain as a threshold to mystical experience.
- I listened to a practitioner describe how she tore her supraspinatus so badly while doing intensive arm balances that her arm became useless for almost a year, but that her practice culture (paired with not having medical insurance) encouraged her to believe that the injury was a sign of her body “reorganizing”. (But not all of the culture, happily. A fellow student with medical training donated the several thousand dollars she needed for an MRI.)
- I’ve also heard poignant stories of how the pain and injury process helped turn baffled students into pragmatic and empathetic teachers. How continually testing a hamstring ligament tear stimulated a year-long meditation on the frustrations of self-identity. There have been a few interview subjects whose injuries were sustained through such teacherly negligence or outright cruelty that they carry the reasonable anger of survivors, decades later.
But the majority of subjects express profound gratitude for their injury experiences. Without drifting into a post hoc ergo propter hoc argument about the relationship between injury and growth, it would seem that āsana practice for many can offer a safer laboratory for exploring the transformative potential of pain than we can find in war, work, sport, or even our own homes.
The process so far has provoked many questions for me, many of which have come to a head over the past few days through the discussion generated by Maya Devi Georg’s viral post, which complained about certain āsana teachers “obsessing” over alignment, while ignoring the compelling reasons for which alignment principles have become so important for so many.
Georg, a yoga instructor in Germany, presents the general thesis that overthinking can disrupt the flow of physical practice. Of course. But further, that biomechanics distract the aspiring yogi from meditating upon the Self. Well, maybe. It really depends on what you feel the “Self” to be.
We’re endlessly creative when it comes to distracting ourselves from whatever needs the most tender work. But injury due to a lack of mindfulness can also be a bloody distraction from the Self (or non-self, or whatever it is), and the entire alignment movement, from the geometries innovated by Iyengar in the 1970s to the subtle patterning explorations of the students of (for example) Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen has applied an evolving kinetic intelligence towards injury prevention. There might be some compulsive tendencies amongst this lot, but their object isn’t to somehow avoid spirituality. It’s to use embodied experience to meditate on the potentially harmonious relationships between space, structure, and personhood. I responded to what, in my opinion, was Georg’s derogatory and minimizing position in detail in a little FB rant that was picked up by Yogabrains. I thought it worth expanding upon here by looking at some other questions that ripened in the ensuing discussion.
Why do we use Patañjali to guide our āsana ideas?
Maybe it’s because the three tips the Sūtras offer in 2.46-48 regarding āsana are excellent generalized advice: 1) be firm and stable, 2) relax your habit of effort, 3) feel the oscillations of reactivity become quiet. Or maybe because YS 2.1 can be elegantly extrapolated into a kind of “serenity prayer for āsana”, as per Leslie Kaminoff (who I had the pleasure of recently interviewing), who relates tapas to the will to change, Īśvara-praṇidhāna to surrendering to the unchangeable, and svādhyāya as the wisdom to know the difference. Such good stuff.
But might we also cling to the good book because it’s the one theoretical life-raft we can remember from our philosophy-thin trainings? Or do we cling to it because we don’t realize (or we actively ignore) that it’s not talking about the primary series, or even haṭhayoga at all, which emerges about a thousand years later? Maybe this omission allows us to overlook the complex aims of the haṭhayoga vibe – which are at the root of both āsana injury and therapeutics by design – and piously pretend that it’s all really simple, and that injured yogis have somehow sinned against the universalist storyline, and deserve thinly-veiled scorn for not abiding by aparigraha when they got tweaked in a backbend, following instructions to the best of their ability.
Or then again… the Yoga Sūtras might subconsciously provide a back door out of concern for the flesh altogether. The book’s argument, after all, moves towards an ultimate disembodiment, an a-yoga, as Edwin Bryant describes it, between consciousness (puruṣa) and the phenomenal world (prakṛti, personalized in the flesh). I wonder if repeated quoting of YS 2.46-48 may carry by association the hidden mantra of Patañjali’s thrust: In the end, your body doesn’t matter. Using this sentiment to question anality around alignment is one thing, but are we also using it to silence the existential question that will never leave us?
To me the takeaway is that solemnly quoting or misquoting old books neither softens the complexity of our evolving world nor does it let us off of the learning hook.
Why are teachers so eager to claim that no one has been injured in their classes?
Georg says: “My own lineage does not focus on alignment beyond safety. And yet, I can do and have successfully and safely taught thousands of students how to do advanced āsanas.” Another commenter agreed, saying: “No student has been injured in my classes because they were not in alignment.” I’ve heard similar statements for years.
Now I hope I don’t cause too much offense here by saying that such claims fit perfectly into a category of discourse concisely defined by Professor Harry G. Frankfurt as “bullshit”. Meaning: the claims could be true, or they could be false, but it really doesn’t matter, because the motivation behind them is to create an impression. It’s possible that Georg and fellows have never had students injuring themselves in class, but we must be honest that there’s no way of verifying this as fact, for the simple reason that the vast majority of people who injure themselves in āsana classes do not inform the teacher, and do not return to class. If we’re talking about “thousands” of students, the chances that no one has sustained a injury in a single teacher’s classes is extremely doubtful.
But even if we’re talking about very intimate settings in which teachers and students know each other well and the teacher can pay close attention to all aspects of biomechanics and breath, it must still be an overstatement to claim an injury rate of zero. Interpersonal dynamics are exceedingly sticky, and guilt and shame run deep. Consider how hard it is to set boundaries even within a family context. Can we really be so sure that students are always free and empowered enough to speak up when they feel they’ve been hurt by inappropriate instruction or adjustment, especially if they are close to their instructors? I’ve heard many stories of people being injured by instruction and not speaking up — not because they were intimidated by the instructor or the social environment, but because they felt speaking up would disrupt kinship, or hurt the teacher’s feelings.
The most honest claim I imagine any earnest instructor could make about the safety of their classes would be conditional, and within the context of a stated protocol. As in:
Because I follow principle x when instructing students of varying capacities, and use y method to check in with them repeatedly, and in addition I have z mechanism for feedback, I feel my yoga space is safe for most people, to the best of my knowledge.
Better feedback mechanisms are crucial. Here’s a good anonymous feedback resource from Michaelle Edwards. But we need personal and direct feedback as well. And generally getting clear on claims we can prove and claims we can’t will go a long way in clearing out the grandiosity that blights so much yoga marketing and obstructs the emergence of a culture we claim we want the scientific world to take seriously.
What is the impulse to reduce the āsana/injury discussion to simplicities?
I suppose this is an extension of my question about using Patañjali in a simplistic fashion. We seem primed to look for encapsulated answers, and in yoga culture this tendency is encouraged by a vestigial orality that’s big on pithy lists that each attempt to hold the cosmos. Five elements, kośas, vāyus, Pandavas, actions of Śiva. Seven cakras, dhātus, planets (minus the nodes). Three guṇas, doṣas, murtis, sources of karma. And the tristhāna of the Jois system: prāṇa, bandha, and dṛṣṭi.
Memes of encapsulation are poetic and juicy for memorization and contemplation, but they can lull us into a false sense of completion/coherence. I say this as someone who spent years memorizing the lists of Āyurveda and Jyotiṣa and daydreaming their beauty to myself, before realizing in the hard light of the therapeutic encounter that there are more things happening within and between people than are dreamt of in any philosophy. Lists can make a therapist feel accomplished, and this is dangerous.
Never mind lists: the simplest and perhaps most compelling encapsulation meme is singular. “It’s all divine.” “It is what it is.” “Everything is practice.” This default to singularity shows up in the present discussion as several commenters on Georg’s post reduce the question of alignment to the consideration of breath. “If the breath is calm and measured” I’ve heard so many say, “injury is impossible.” “Breath is the heart of practice.” Sure, unless you have bilateral labral tears.
To me, the problem is that humans are so adept at contradictory internal actions that calm and receptive breath is not necessarily proof of kinetic safety. Two senior yoga therapists have told me that they’ve seen ujjayi breathing function as an analgesic to tissue pain, whether through sensual distraction or psychological dissociation, or because it creates some sensation of control or regularity during an intense and unpredictable practice in which the student might be adjusted with shocking force.
Resisting simplistic formulas might also cast this old saw in a new light: “If you feel pain, you’re being told to back off.” This sounds like good, clear advice. But it won’t work for those who through prior trauma do not know how to identify what pain is, or for whom pain is actually a welcome relief from depression. Not to mention those who grew up Catholic like myself, standing in preteen confusion and acrid sweat beneath a looming crucifix, trying to see it as an image of love. Not to mention anyone who practices BDSM or bodily modification or extreme sports or watching Jackass.
Pain is by definition outrageously subjective and unshareable, as Elaine Scarry’s extraordinary book, The Body in Pain, makes clear. (I cannot recommend this book highly enough.) We can tell students to keep clear of their pain thresholds until we’re blue in the face, and we have no guarantee that we’re understanding each other. Which is just to say: yoga requires a constant effort at building intimate relationships with the difference we learn in intersubjectivity. It’s endless work. A person would only really undertake it out of a burning love for the mystery of others.
What do theories of prāṇa and nāḍis add to the conversation of embodiment?
I’ll end by treading water a bit, because this question baffles me. Central to the investigation of pain and injury in āsana is the question of whether the body is merely instrumental to a disembodied goal. In the Upaniṣads, the Gītā, and Patañjali, the body is just that. In the teachings of Tantra and haṭhayoga, the matter is less clear, not only because the flesh finally begins to be valorized as the site of an always-available revelation, but also because the sign of internality – the ātman – becomes increasingly woven into the fabric of the tissues via countless visions of how subtle motivating energies form networks of selfhood.
Over time, the flesh becomes a more complex container for the vitality that animates it, such that flesh and vitality resist separation. They cling to each other in yoga, we could say. Very broadly, it seems that in the intensity of physical practices advocated by the haṭhayōgapradīpikā, for instance, we see discourse approach a kind of materialistic non-duality. If the flesh were really still an illusion, why on earth would we go to such lengths to heat it and stimulate it and cut it and milk it and strike its perineum against the earth? And yet to the extent that all of these paths retain a commitment to some version of transmigration it is clear that some essence separable from the flesh remains the target of effort.
So what does this have to do with alignment?
Commentator Michael Bridge-Dickson posted this view:
Alignment is all about praṇic flow, ultimately, not anatomy. Anatomy, however, is the structure on which prāṇa moves. Know anatomical alignment to understand prāṇa better. All the stuff about feet, femurs, SI joints…. is all about ensuring not only optimal praṇic flow from a breath perspective, but also to keep the 14 major nāḍis balanced and flowing freely.
The comment is firmly embedded within the haṭhayoga paradigm, and so the subservience of anatomy to prāṇa (and therefore flesh to spirit) is par for the course. But as I re-read the passage several times I wondered what bearing this view could have upon the discussion of alignment as a focal point for practice, especially as we consider the prevention of injury. Is prāṇa prior to/more important than the flesh that feels it?
What is prāṇa? I’ve come to feel it as the raw sensations of movement, whether surging and gross or expansive and subtle. I don’t feel it as an “animating” force, something that’s driving my flesh around like a car, because I can’t imagine myself not moving, and I don’t really have to. I will surely die, and this will mean that both movement and selfhood will vanish, the latter before the former. I can’t feel or imagine any supplemental part of myself beyond these two that could lift itself up and out of who I was, to go become something else. I can imagine the microbes of my gut consuming the flesh that people once called mine. I can imagine the me-that-was becoming compost. But that’s as far as I can imagine.
To me, prāṇa is the fact of sense and movement. It resides and moves within whatever I am, but it is not isolated from any other source of movement that exists outside of whatever I am. Whatever I am is porous. But I cannot feel this flesh as just the instrument of something else. Vitality is not its driver, but its shared nature. I can be driven or possessed by sickness or by emotion or the unconscious, but this does not feel to me like being possessed by a god or a cosmic force. Prāṇa is environmental, and social, and within me it is the very motivation of my personhood. In other words, the flesh seems an instrument not of the soul or of cosmic energy, but of the ongoing construction of myself. As such, I can’t really distinguish prāṇa from “will” and “intention”. But whose will and intention? I’m not so sure.
If, under the conscious illusion of my free will, I want to move the flesh in a particular way, it behooves me to feel and understand the graceful efficiencies of movement. Do the concepts of prāṇa and nāḍis add to this? When we say that “alignment is about praṇic flow, and not anatomy”, are we substituting the seen for the unseen? Do we lose anything in that process?
Do the terms of subtle anatomy distance myself from my will with a complicated layer of abstraction and impersonality? Is that attractive to me, or useful? It comes down to this: am I moving for myself, or are my movements aimed at facilitating the movement of something within me that’s not me, or more than me?
If I make my intention and my flesh subservient to prāṇa, am I moving to serve something that is by nature separable from me? Does prāṇa want me to remain uninjured as much as my osteopath does? Or does prāṇa want to break my granthis — the knots that hold my spine and self together? Who am I moving for? The teacher? A god? A cosmic force? Myself? Others? Is using the word “prāṇa” a way of confessing that I will never be able to tell the difference?