Confessions of a Type A Yogi. ~ James MacAdam

Via on Mar 15, 2011
Photo: Ross Evans

In my early yoga days studying Anusara Yoga with John Friend, he once told me (through my girlfriend) that I could be a great yogi like my friend Darren Rhodes. What he meant was that I had the potential to realize the exemplary qualities of adhikara (studentship) that Darren embodied, like humility and commitment.

However, despite being repeatedly exposed to a central teaching of Anusara—that one should aspire to live up only to one’s own potential, not that of another—I took this second-hand comment from my respected teacher to mean that I, too would be able to contort my body into incredible formations, and demonstrate my world-class athletic prowess through the art of Hatha Yoga. This post is about my path of learning from that mistake.

I did have a lot of potential. I was one of those guys who could do backbends so deep it looked (and felt) like a rainbow was going to explode out of my chest. I was gung-ho, and loved the blissful energy that I tapped into through yoga. I especially loved the attention that came through the demonstrations we’d do at every workshop. “Going deeper” to me meant finally grabbing my foot in Natarajasana, taking Visvamitrasana to its full extension, and flying higher on the fumes of Grace generated by intense practice and the guidance of one of yoga’s most charismatic and powerful teachers.

But Grace had other plans for me.

Over the course of a few years, I had increasing problems with pain in one of my hips. Everybody thought it was a tight psoas muscle (deep hip flexor). So I stretched my psoas more than any one person should, with the trust that if I just followed the principles of physical alignment everything would heal. Unfortunately, the pain only increased—after every practice a nervy, burning sensation would radiate through my pelvis.  Despite superhuman stretching efforts, massage, Rolfing, physical therapy, prayer, many yoga therapy consultations and a lot of worrying, the pain persisted and got worse.

I began to lose function. At yoga workshops, as 100 other yogis pushed up into Urdhva Dhanurasana (full backbend), I held a gentle bridge pose with a block between my thighs. I lost the ability to hike and bike, and sitting in any position became very painful. I attended a Zen retreat and, because of the pain, did walking meditation alone outside while everyone else sat in the zendo. At the ripe old age of 30, I had blown out my body in a pursuit that was supposed to be healing and balancing.

What was most painful about the situation was this: my mind was so strong in its image of what my practice should be like, and my emotions so raw in their need for external approval, that I missed what my body was saying: stop! Stop pushing so hard. Stop trying to live up to somebody else’s (i.e. Darren’s and other great yogis’) potential. Stop mistaking the external form of the practice for the practice’s real meaning and purpose.

A moment of revelation came when in my search for answers, I stumbled upon Paul Grilley’s DVD on yoga anatomy. My “a-ha” moment came when the teacher illustrated how bones are shaped differently from one person to the next, and how the shape of their bones can limit their ability to go deeper in certain poses—particularly in the hips and shoulders. I felt a tinge of recognition as he showed how bone-on-bone impingements between the femur and pelvis could reduce range of motion and make certain poses impossible or highly restricted.  My eyes misted over as I thought ruefully of how many times I had pushed through just this situation, and encouraged my yoga students to do the same.

Three orthopedic surgeons later, I found out that that’s exactly what my situation was—I had “femoroacetabular impingement,” a condition in which the neck of the femur contacts the rim of the acetabulum in deep flexion and internal rotation (a.k.a. yoga).  The result was a torn labrum (a ring of connective tissue) in both hips.  I went on to get surgeries that would re-shape my bones, repair the labrum, and return both hips to full function.

After the surgery, I told my surgeon that I’d send him a photo of myself doing Natarajasana some day.  But almost three years later, I still haven’t gone back to that level of practice. The practice I do now is very internal and mild, not because I can’t practice at that level of intensity, but because I don’t want to. The yogic fire that I fed so intently has burned out, and now simmers as a pile of barely-warm coals.

Mine is a cautionary tale about the dangers of yoga’s appropriation by the ego. I pursued greatness in ways that didn’t make sense for my own limitations and potential. I also, like many, many people I know, made a crucial error in my understanding of what yoga is. Yoga is not meant to be a competitive sport, or an artistic form like ballet where the body is mortified to create an image of beauty. One cannot “win” in yoga, nor does “going deeper” in a pose necessarily mean stretching it further or holding it longer. Yoga is a powerful form of subtle body and spiritual practice. As such, it will tend to bring us face-to-face with our own egoism, with our own contraction amid the larger flow of life. Injury is one of the ways it does this, and it appears to be doing so for more and more people as its popularity increases.

Yoga can also bring about profound and rapid healing; but yogic alignment isn’t just about moving one’s bones around. It is a practice of bringing mind, body, heart and Spirit into conscious and harmonious relationship. For Type-A westerners like me, it may be difficult to remember that yoga is a practice, not an achievement. This remembrance only becomes more challenging as yoga is increasingly seen as a path not just toward spiritual realization, but toward money, power and fame.

James MacAdam an essayist, spiritual student, teacher and Renaissance Dude.  He writes a monthly column with an integral perspective on sustainability, entitled “Thinking Beyond Green,” for the monthly The New Southwest. Links to his most recent columns are here.

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20 Responses to “Confessions of a Type A Yogi. ~ James MacAdam”

  1. Great advice for everyone, James.

    See the closely related How My Body Became My Guru- Part One: Why I Hated Mysore

    Posting to Elephant Yoga on Facebook and Twitter.

    Bob W.
    Yoga Editor

  2. Just posted to "Featured Today" on the new Elephant Yoga homepage.

  3. Rebecca says:

    I really needed to read this! A recent hip injury (that sounds a lot like yours) has left me unable to even touch my toes, much less achieve the depth of poses I'm used to doing without so much as a thought. Now I realize, rather than force my way back to those postures, I will just have to let it be what it is. Thanks for a much needed wake-up call!!

  4. Jerry says:

    Great article – very true and I think I may be experiencing something like this now. Thanks for writing!

  5. kajyoga says:

    Dear James,
    Thanks so much for sharing your story and for sharing the understanding and insights you have gained through your experience. I can relate on many levels. The birth of my daughter and post-partum recovery have completely changes my body. Poses that used to be easy are difficult/excruciating and I don’t have near the same level of access to my energetic system that I used to because of pelvic floor damage. It is all getting better, but it requires more patience than I thought I had. I am still working my way to a practice that feels genuinely satisfying. And of course redefining again and again what exactly is practice.

    I look back at myself as a yoga teacher in my younger days and smile at my unbridled enthusiasm and conviction that yoga could cure anything. That evolved to realizing that there should be the disclaimer that “good yoga” could cure anything. And nowadays I see the question as irrelevant and all about application. Yoga has an incredible vast span and toolbox but knowing how to choose what tools, understanding what are legitimate limits to respect and what are blind spots to illuminate.

    It is so refreshing to read genuine intelligent writing on yoga!
    THanks, Kimberly

  6. yogiclarebear says:

    Wow I feel like I sort of read my story. Injury wise, different and maybe not as severe, but ever as ego infested. My injuries and recovery continues to speak softly but boldly to me… “Your yoga practice is internal.”

  7. Nadia says:

    Thanks so much for this James!
    I had a similar experience in my own asana journey (anusara too!), although not as extreme as your experience. And i thnk lots of other anusara yogis could breathe a sigh of relief reading this, as it does attract a lot of A types!
    indeed going deeper in a pose and further in your practice can mean so many things.

    thanks so much!

  8. Jessica says:

    Its not 'illegal' yoga – or cheating on the quest for grace – to look towards methods and models that specifically focus on kin. I started in yoga and ended up teaching Pilates, now I just tell students that I am a movement teacher. I work with a number of former high level asana practitioners – resolving psoas issues – and see a lot of hip instability. yoga takes on a massive amount of the human experience – there is a lot to share in any one session, and given which area the student is attracted to – the physical basics (if they are there at all) run risk of being glossed over. There are tools outside of asana that will give depth of understanding to poses.

    My suggestion for restoring and opening to the 'grace' of slowing down – take a few Feldenkrais classes. Find a Pilates teacher that is not classical, but versed in therapeutics and open to other movement practices – and from there – find your own truth via the tools you'll find. The local muscles (close to the joints) respond to different quality of movement – not found in asana. Low reps, low resistance – and often require dis-engagment of the global muscle to isolate and access them. This is quite opposite in practice – to asana.

    Paul Grilly is an excellent influence – but again – focuses on stretching. Rolfing – on traction (again, pulling the muscles). It may seem contradictory – but all this pulling needs a contraction to hold the bones in place somewhere.

    On a personal level – with a certain degree of Vata and hypermobility – when ever my hips start to talk to me (ache a little) I avoid my yoga practice and opt for side lying hip conditioning and prone hamstring engagement – they quiet right down – almost immediately. Neutral bridging (having the spine in extension puts a load on tired adrenals – its an opt to engage the core trunk muscles and glutes, and turn the hamstrings on after forward folds in excess)

    Noted, everyone's structure has a different balance – and while advanced teachers in yoga are good at correcting a pose – I've yet to meet one who can body read gait and anatomical neutral – to identify postural deviations and understand what's long and short in the body to explore imbalances that take the body back to peek performance in everyday activities. Yoga to my eye is like dance – its creative – and non neutral. Yogi's – with a heart for the practice – seek to explore neutral and micro movements + stability of the major joints. The renewal it will bring to your practice will be worth the effort.

    To happy hips, shoulders and a supple spine! Thanks for this beautiful article.

    Some suggestions:

    Global vs Local Muscles : http://www.anitaseiz.com/Site/Blog/Entries/2010/3
    Feldenkrais (google for your local center)
    Balanced Body: pilates.com (plenty of podcasts – Elizabeth Larkin is a teacher to watch for, yoga/gyro/feldenkrais/dance & sports therapy versed)
    Psoas: read: The Psoas Book – and/or visit — coreawareness.com (ps – she's coming to Toronto for a workshop in 6 weeks)

    • Yogini5 says:

      Also, don't underestimate the value of developing core strength (as a major emphasis) in strengthening and stabilizing the lower back, increasing the range of motion of the torso, and taking some of the load off the arms in floor poses and some of the more intermediate transitions. I have extremely stable hips, tight hamstrings and relatively stable shoulder joints–need all the help I can get for yoga.

      Lack of "ambition" is not the question … but intelligent ambition is the answer.

      I lack the movement knowledge that a yoga teacher has; but I do have the ability and knowledge of an amateur choreographer … some of my later yoga classes (after I was done with the trendy "yoga as workout" shala) enabled me to home-practice with this intention and emphasis …

      • Jessica says:

        I will say, I do find myself curious about the mainstream yoga take on 'core strength' – often again- quite superficially – oriented on connecting to global muscles – glossing over the subtle details of approach and alignment during motion that can totally change which muscles are felt/accessed – and in which recruitment pattern (I like to say, its not what you do, but how you do and how you cue).

        A great ex would come from a number of yoga classes I've been in, where teachers ask me to curl forward and hold my legs way up – and hold(!) – now just the opposite to the psoas (that are over stretched in asana) – it becomes over engaging – and equally aggravating to the sensitive hip flexor tissues. The psoas respond to very subtle movements in very profound ways. The subtle movements of the pelvis (the full spectrum of the figure 8 motion) have a lot to offer – again – this is from combining Feldenkrais and Pilates. Sequential movement of the spine in all directions (ie bridging/standing roll downs/slow cobra to swan/lateral side bending) are some excellent tools to integrate the deep core musculature to the global musculature.

        I won't necessarily refer to yoga as a method of movement, technically speaking. It discusses how to hold as opposed to how to move. Perhaps as I see the emphasis (in the beginning for many, at least ) is on the form rather than the function.

  9. amy annis says:

    Great article. This is also a good reminder to students to listen to their own bodies when on the mat and not allow the ego to push them over the limit.

  10. James MacAdam says:

    Thanks all for reading and your in-depth comments and suggestions. Jessica your comment "yoga takes on a massive amount of the human experience" struck me in particular. I think it is common that young, enthusiastic yoga practitioners like I was want the yoga practice to provide everything–physical health, spiritual growth, emotional balance, community, etc. (I met my wife at a yoga studio!). A full engagement of all eight limbs of yoga might provide that blueprint, but that's far from what most of us modern hatha yogis are usually involved in. Regarding just one element of practice–the physical–I have found tremendous balance and healing on several levels by engaging in regular weight lifting.

    • Jessica says:

      Yes – what I meant by this was that while creating the blueprint – all these varied elements – are big puzzle to make sense of. Its the kinesthetic experience that the majority gravitate to in the first place – and in my experience – many questions early in my practice – were followed by hazy answers drawn upon from another layer of the limbs (meaning – when I'm talking about bio mechanics – can we talk bio mechanics? The ego won't go anywhere while this one is wrestled out :) I connect very much with getting solid in the first chakra – the physical and moving up from there. I feel that having this base knowledge empowers the physical practice – and that alone is very profound in how the practitioner will relate with every other layer. This knowledge via simple tools leads to exploration and permission to question – and owning your own practice.

      Again – great conversation James.

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  12. [...] asshole-ery. And so, when I began to make my very public switch from self-identified actress to self-identified yogi—I was on the lookout for [...]

  13. Hey James, thank you so much for sharing this. I am an Anusara yogi and I too have begun to have dull hip pain from time to time. Passing it off as either the beginnings of tendonitis or arthritis in my hips, I haven't paid much attention to it. But after reading this, I will. Thank you for sharing!

  14. Yogini5 says:

    I am half-headstanding for a split-second; or using the wall – if allowed for the particular class – for any time longer than a split-second. I have "low blood pressure issues" to all my teachers. That is not far from the actual, medical truth.

    But the truth is much more like yours, than what the actual reading is on the sphygmomanometer.
    That is the main advantage of having had a primarily HOME practice … I keep such a low profile and run faster than those avaricious (spiritually, by proxy – I'm not talking just tuition) yoga teachers could catch me …

  15. Yogini5 says:

    Chest to the floor in straddle? Are you talking about Upavistha Konasana?

    I injured myself trying to do that in a home practice once. One of my hip joints was in great pain for six weeks, and I could hardly sit down.

    I recently got injured a little worse in a yoga class – one I like!

    I am very lucky that both times I did not need to go to a doctor, because I had/have either no or inadequate insurance at the time. (Thank you, health insurance crisis in America, for not allowing me to be a fully-fledged Type A….)

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