Let Her Fall: the Road through Pain, to Suffering to Forearm Balance.

Via on Feb 1, 2012

Ashtanga Yoga is, first and foremost, a spiritual practice.

It is not an exercise where you judge your success by how hard you work your body, or how perfect the posture is.

You cannot measure a good yoga class by how many adjustments you get, or how much attention the teacher gives you. While it always feels good to receive the guidance of your teacher, either through verbal or physical cues, there is a deeper relationship to the practice that becomes possible only when you let go of the need to “get” something from the teacher or the class.

Some of my best practices have been in the shala in Mysore, when I did not have a single adjustment from my teachers. Instead, the energy of the room and the practice itself provided a forum for me to explore and experience a myself more fully. In some ways all the adjustments and guidance from a teacher are really just there to create a doorway to the realm where we experience the beauty and grace for ourselves directly. If we rely on getting adjustments and attention from our teachers in order to have a good practice, then we will always be focused on an external source for our own development. Eventually, we must take responsibility for our practice and our own journey.

In the beginning it is, however, essential to have a teacher guide you into the postures. And when you really need help, the teacher should ideally be there for you. But some students get too attached to having help in postures where they would benefit from trying several times on their own. For example, I recently heard R. Sharath Jois say to his assistants in Mysore, India, to let certain students work on challenging arm balances or backbends for awhile before going over to help them. His actual words were

“let him suffer”

or

“let her fall.”

These two experiences tie directly into the discussion of pain and suffering within the context of our yoga practice, and as such they also offer the most potential for growth and development in the student. When you learn a new posture you often need the teacher present to go to places inside of the body and mind that bring up fear and pain. After awhile, you will need to strengthen your nervous system and face these places with your own inner resolution. Sometimes, asking for the teacher to help you every day is a kind of escape that prevents you from experiencing exactly what you would need to experience in order to learn the tough lessons contained within some of the most difficult postures in the Ashtanga Yoga method. In a posture like Pinchamayurasana, you need to learn how to fall freely and safely to get over the fear of it. If you always either go to the wall or ask a teacher to spot you, then you will never develop the kind of self-confidence that it takes to master the posture on your own. You have to learn to…let yourself fall.

When I first learned Pinchamayurasana, I fell over and over. One day I even fell over more than 20 times. I was impatient and determined. Then after 18 months of trying and falling the balance came and stayed. Yes, you read that correctly! It took me a full year and a half of trying every day to learn how to balance in a simple forearm balance. While I was learning, I used the wall once a week and mostly practiced on my own, so I never even had the chance to have someone catch me. When I went to the wall I stayed for 25 breaths to build strength. When I toppled over I picked my body right back up and tried again. My back was always more flexible than I was strong so in order for me to learn how to balance in this posture I had to learn to be strong enough to control my spine. Pinchamayurasana was a lesson in patience (I am not a naturally patient person), perseverance (I wanted to quit nearly everyday) and ultimately a lesson in self-confidence (I had to learn to believe in the idea of my own strength). Every posture has its own time and its own lesson for each person. They key is to be willing to put in the work whenever you face a moment of difficulty, pain or suffering.

You have to let yourself fall. If you do you practice from the perspective of avoiding the uncomfortable feeling of falling then you deprive yourself of full scope of learning possible through yoga. If you can learn how to face pain and suffering without avoiding it then you have understood what the practice is all about. Learning how to fall is about understanding what suffering is, how to face it, accept it and ultimately make it your friend. This is at the core of yoga’s deepest teaching. Yoga is an ancient spiritual tradition, of which the practice of physical postures, known as asanas, are just one component. In Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras asana is in fact only one out of the full eight limbs of practice. Recent dialogue within the yoga community, most notably in the New York Times article on yoga-related injuries, presents the notion that yoga might be potentially discounted because of the risk of physical injury. Yet this fails to take into account the spiritual journey to the heart of each student’s essential nature that is at center of the yoga practice itself. A true student of yoga is a sincere spiritual seeker and is willing to go through the work of pain, suffering and potential injury if that road ultimately leads to liberation, happiness, healing and freedom. My teacher Sri K. Pattabhi Jois said that if you experienced an injury during your physical yoga practice the only real way to heal that injury was through more yoga. He also said that if you quit your practice after having experienced that injury that it would stay with you for a long time, perhaps the rest of your life. If pain can be avoided by students learning their lessons the easy way through an open heart, healthy alignment and accepting attitude that is the fastest road. However, when pain and injury arise it is crucial that you do not run from them nor allow their presence to rule your experience of your body, your practice and your life.

There is a mind-body connection that underlies the practice of physical postures. Yoga is more of a body awareness technique than a physical exercise routine. In fact the main purpose of all the postures is to prepare your body and mind for deeper states of realization. When you try to feel and awaken a forgotten area of the body for the first time it is often hard to rouse. Yoga students must use the posture to dig deeper into the layers of the body and reach through memories, emotions, thoughts and anything else to touch the heart of their human soul with all its foibles and vulnerabilities. In the path of yoga it is essential that when pain arises you do not run from it, reacting to the pain from a purely psychological perspective and throw out the whole tradition based on fear. In fact, when you do experience pain it is sometimes a better teacher of the inner work that happens along the path of yoga. Any injuries that arise can be used to learn a deeper lesson about life so that then actually the path of yoga is truly working from a broader perspective.

Editor’s note: that said, fear and pain can be two different things. If a yoga posture is hurting you, this can be dangerous. Needless to say, we hope! Being macho and pushing through is not the message here. ~ ed.

When you accept yoga as a spiritual path the notion of the need for “safety” is challenged. You have the confidence to let yourself fall with the full faith that one day you will catch yourself in the air. Think of the yogi as a brave warrior going on a long and epic journey to the center of the soul. Just as in every heroic epic there are fearsome, painful and worrying battles that test the limits of the hero’s ability, so too in yoga are there challenging, difficult and nearly impossible postures that test the limits of your body and mind. But if you are the hero who is committed to the whole journey, then you also have the heart to see the experience all the way through to the end and win your final freedom.

When you look back you will also see that every step—not just easy ones, but perhaps especially the hard ones—along the way were indeed crucial to the successful conclusion of the your life’s greatest epic.

About Kino MacGregor

Kino MacGregor is one of a select group of people to receive the Certification to teach Ashtanga Yoga by its founder Sri K. Pattabhi Jois in Mysore, India. The youngest woman to hold this title, she has completed the challenging Third Series and is now learning the Fourth Series. After seven years of consistent trips to Mysore, at the age of 29, she received from Guruji the Certification to teach Ashtanga yoga and has since worked to pass on the inspiration to practice to countless others. In 2006, she and her husband Tim Feldmann founded Miami Life Center, where they now teach daily classes, workshops and intensives together in addition to maintaining an international traveling and teaching schedule. She has produced three Ashtanga yoga DVDs (Kino MacGregor – A Journey, A Workshop; Ashtanga Yoga Primary Series; Ashtanga Yoga Intermediate Series), an Ashtanga yoga practice card and a podcast on yoga. Her next book, The Power of Ashtanga Yoga, is set to come out in the spring of 2013 from Shambhala Publications. As a life coach and Ph.D. student in holistic health with a Master’s Degree from New York University, Kino integrates her commitment to consciousness and empowerment with her yoga teaching. She has been featured in Yoga Journal, Yoga Mind Body Spirit, Yoga Joyful Living, Travel & Leisure Magazine, Ocean Drive Magazine, Boca Raton Magazine, Florida Travel & Life Magazine, Six Degrees Magazine as well as appearing on Miami Beach’s Plum TV and the CBS Today Show. Find her at: kinoyoga.com.

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42 Responses to “Let Her Fall: the Road through Pain, to Suffering to Forearm Balance.”

  1. IveyD says:

    Thank you Kino for the powerful information.

  2. Tanya Lee Markul Tanya Lee Markul says:

    Amazing article.

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

    Posting to Elephant Yoga on Facebook and Twitter.

    Tanya Lee Markul, Yoga Editor
    Like Elephant Yoga on Facebook
    Follow on Twitter

  3. Rebecca says:

    I once had a teacher “help” me into an arm balance and then push me over! Talk about learning to fall and realizing its okay and how we grow!! Thank you for this beautiful example, Kino! Can’t wait to see you in June :)

  4. sarollaa says:

    wow

  5. Voz says:

    “Think of the yogi as a brave warrior going on a long and epic journey to the center of the soul” – Excellent article, thanks.

  6. Beautiful piece, Kino! A fellow EJ contributor, Jeannie.

  7. [...] is why I could relate to this blog entry on why it’s okay to fall down – in life, or when practising yoga. Suddenly I [...]

  8. elephantjournal says:

    Via Aernout:

    Ashtanga yoga is not about getting hurt. There are some good things in the story, but hurting your self and getting injured or falling 20 times out of the same pose in one practice is not necessary to Ashtanga yoga.
    Practicing like that, we could be breaking ahimsa toward ourselves. A teacher should stop us from harming your self and won't let us do the same pose 5 times in a row?
    It is good to go out of our comfort zone and face the fears we have, true! But that should not include of harming our self or any other student sitting next to us. I'm sure that's not your point.
    There are enough people getting injured by doing yoga…we should never encourage things like that, is all.

    Namaste
    Aernout

    • aernout says:

      Why was my post edited? I find it sad to see that my posting isn't any more what i did wrote down yesterday.
      Is it wrong to post negative comments on here?
      A lot of my posting was edited and softened towards the story. If you are a true yogi you should accept positive and negative things coming along the road like its handed to you.
      I never said in my posting that `we could be breaking ahimsa ` because you are breaking ahimsa practicing like that.
      Its a one letter change from would to could that makes a lot of difference,and with other changes in it my whole post is put in a different perspective.

      I find it sad to see that such well known teacher is encouraging students to hurt and suffer pain in their astanga pracitce. Ashtanga yoga should never be practiced like that and a good teacher should prevent it from happening.

      a Quote from Everyday Peace Letters for life, written by Baba Hari Dass:
      "The aim of life is to attain peace. The world is a school where we learn about pleasure and pain. The person who shows the path to escape pleasure and pain is a guru. "

      Namaste,
      Aernout.

    • Dee Greenberg Dee says:

      Via, with all due respect, falling out of a posture 20 times may not be a necessary part of *your* process for learning yoga but it clearly was for Kino McGregor who without a doubt has an outstandingly beautiful, strong, yoga practice. This was her process and kudos to her for having the bravery to share so honestly from her heart. Who are you to judge someone else's practice. Maybe I choose to hold my yoga postures for 10 minutes and that gets me to a state of yoga. Maybe you only hold for 30 seconds. Who is right and who is wrong? Who has the right to judge someone else's yoga practice?

      On the other hand if Kino was saying I fell 20 times and was so beat up I had to miss 3 days of work — well that's another story and clearly counter productive. I don't think she's saying that.

      Perhaps what she is saying is that any lesson worth learning, requires that we move through pain. The pain of falling in this case is mental (frustration) non physical as in injury. When we transcend the pain and the posture becomes effortless it becomes yoga. I applaud Kino for working through her stuff and having the self confidence and courage to share from her soul.

  9. [...] Let Her Fall: The Road through Pain to Suffering to Forearm Balance [...]

  10. Tina says:

    Beautiful. Thank you.

  11. Realistically speaking, this may be a good approach in theory but extremely challenging as any yoga teacher will admit to in actually teaching to 'real' students. Take the vast majority of students who are not trying or wishing to be yogis. They spend most of their day on a chair in the office. Coming 1-2 times per week to a yoga class cannot be taught to them with this sort of philosophy. As well, should you injure a student without guidance you might be center of a serious law-suit. In India, that is another story.

    Having studied yoga for many years including going to India to study with Indian Masters, yes, this is the approach. While I too have struggled and fallen in handstands, scorpion and all the rest, this was MY quest, desire and interest. I wanted to learn the difficult postures and was willing to "suffer" what that takes, and requires.

    However, I am NOT convinced that this is the same approach that can be placed upon others. Just because this is how one has learned DOES NOT equal this is how one should teach or try to teach. This is how I also learned re: what Kino describes. I fell, got up, tried again and suffered many injuries. My teacher watched….it was my desire to get to the other side…..And this took place from DAILY and regular practice. And yet…I would not suggest this approach for all or recommend it as being the way to go.

    Krishnamacharya said it best when he said something to the effect of, "do not teach what applies to you but what applies to others." Understanding this as a teacher is one thing, but actually following through is another.

  12. Hm, interesting…it also David…a very long time teacher and student of yoga who said, "if you are hurting yourself you are doing it wrong."

    Check out ~ http://www.ashtangayogi.com/HTML/biog.html

    • Sam says:

      David Williams:

      "If it hurts, you're doing it wrong."
      "One millimeter past a stretch is tearing."
      "You cannot heal pain by adding more pain."
      "Yoga will cure everything except injuries caused by improper yoga practice!"
      "Do not tug."
      "In India, the words yoga and meditation are synonyms."
      "What is most important is what is invisible [moola bandha, deep breathing, and mental focus]."
      "Yoga is a path to self realization and liberation … it is meditation in motion."
      "Pay attention, be aware, be present in life."

  13. As someone who practices yoga regularly (not daily, currently unrealistic) I appreciate the idea of experiencing "pain" through pushing oneself past comfort levels and the potential embarrassment of falling, etc. Due to my personal struggles with a competitive ego I usually set my intention to be humility and/or acceptance and/or love.
    However, as someone who is also hyperflexible I have to be especially careful not to injure myself by overdoing it, my body does not say STOP when I push it too far. Therefore, I have learned that I must actually hold back somewhat rather than push too hard and end up too injured to practice.
    My mantra in yoga and in life simply must be "To thine own self be true."

  14. Jen says:

    I agree with Editor's note and caution. What about ahimsa (non-harming) and yoga?

    The author of this article correctly states "In Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras asana is in fact only one out of the full eight limbs of practice."

    However, where does Patanjali state in the Yoga Sutras (in the context of asana practice):

    "You have to let yourself fall. If you do you practice from the perspective of avoiding the uncomfortable feeling of falling then you deprive yourself of full scope of learning possible through. If you can learn how to face pain and suffering without avoiding it then you have understood what the practice is all about. Learning how to fall is about understanding what suffering is, how to face it, accept it and ultimately make it your friend. This is at the core of yoga’s deepest teaching"?

    Pain as defined by Merriam Webster is: "localized physical suffering associated with bodily disorder (as a disease or an injury)".

  15. [...] Let Her Fall: the Road through Pain, to Suffering to Forearm Balance. [...]

  16. yogajanet says:

    As I continue with my practice…currently an at home practice in a foreign country, I've become less focussed on achieving a certain posture; less looking ahead; less goal oriented. There really is no end to the practice, no matter how many levels or postures are attained.

  17. Dee Greenberg Dee says:

    I think Kino's main message is — ya gotta take risks in order to grow. Encouraging us to be fearless risk takers is certainly a yogic path. People can sit around *wishing* to GET a certain posture and Kino is saying — It's hard work and it takes tenacity and perseverance. Throw in a dose of unwavering devotion and you're a yogi!

    As far as the editor's note – - people need to chill. She / he was exercising a bit of responsible editorial caution . . . .
    knowing that may possibly misinterpret Kino's message and clearly many of you have done just that.

    Much of the pain Kino speaks of is psychic, / emotional – She is not saying — hey everybody let's go ahead and stick knives in our bellies. If we don't suffer a little bit in the practice, we never get to look at this pain.

    I, personally like to go deep in my yoga practice as I do in my life and I define myself as a Spiritual Warrior. I sense a kindred spirit in Kino.

  18. Very true. It is a great article by Kino. Getting others, however, to go on this path..and stop the whining and complaining is a challenge in itself. People find lots of excuses for themselves including the lights being too low, the floor too hard and the teacher's voice too soothing!!! Sounds a bit like Goldilocks….

    In the end, everything including any article needs to be taken in the context in which it was written. Some very good points to consider……

  19. Danielle says:

    This resonated with me on several levels. A couple of months ago I found that I was spending a lot of time in class looking out for the next positive comment from my teacher, or the next fun chat at my studio. I started focusing again on my practice, enjoying it for its own sake and not for validation or approval. But I was still seeking a lot of help from one teacher on inversions, or avoiding them altogether, as they scared the daylights out of me. After reading your post I decided I needed to face this fear, as it was only that — fear, not a lack of strength or skill that was keeping me out of these poses. I signed up (and pre-paid for, so I wouldn't back out) a two-hour inversion workshop on Saturday. With a little attitude adjustment — not physical adjustment! — from a wonderful teacher I successfully got into and held headstand for 30 seconds or so. It was so freeing and I feel like I've broken my anti-inversion curse! Thank you for your powerful words.

  20. [...] Let Her Fall: the Road through Pain, to Suffering to Forearm Balance. [...]

  21. patricia Ardner says:

    Hi thanks dear Kino for the keys you gave each time so usefull , Pinchamayurasana will be try in a different way now
    Have a nice summer
    Patricia (france)

  22. [...] of every part of the body. Along with the pure physical benefit associated with developing heightened awareness of the body, there are numerous mental and emotional benefits that accrue as [...]

  23. Amie says:

    This is me and the headstand! I still haven't gotten it, but I will keep trying!

  24. Exactly what I needed to hear. Everything happens on time and in the right way. I can't believe I missed this post over a year ago. Thanks, Kino.

  25. yogajanet says:

    It is easy to fall when you are a kid. It is easy to fall when you are fit and in your twenties. Falling gets a little more complicated in your thirties–that ankle twist I suffered walking out the front door onto a patch of ice still bothers me 5 years later. After 40, it is a whole new game and I can't speak beyond that. The physical aspects of falling are much more complicated when your body is not as bouncy as it once was. Allowing yourself to mentally "fall" is a little more educational then the actual physical fall. It takes wisdom and age to recognize that

  26. mariavlong says:

    I agree. You exhibited editorial bad manners. I know all of you are volunteers and do the best that you can but courtesy towards your contributors is essential in order to keep the quality of your content.

  27. elephantjournal says:

    We love Kino. That said, encouraging a student through pain one on one with such a skilled teacher can be done. In a blog, a note is necessary. Injuries happen.

    For those of you under the impression that we're a bulletin board, sorry. If you think editing is bad manners, go read a bulletin board.

    ~ Waylon

  28. mariavlong says:

    Bulletin boards do get a fair amount of graffiti too Waylon, Editorial notes/comments/ caveats belong at the beginning or at the end of an accepted submission. Editing is not bad manners -doing it incorrectly is. I think you know I meant that.

  29. cathy g says:

    I am glad you netered and wrote a comment. I am bothered by the ton e and implication that pain is a deliberate result of yoga which teaches have a right to impose or allow to happen. Somehow my comment would not post!

  30. elephantjournal says:

    I hear you! I personally felt that the note needed to happen where the conversation was taking place, not at the beginning or end as some sort of fake, false, cowardly disclaimer. The point was legality, but maitri or kindness to oneself. ~ Waylon

  31. Nobel says:

    If it is rude to interrupt somebody in the middle of a live speech to give your commentary (editorial or otherwise), isn't it equally rude to do so in the middle of a written article, no matter how much you disagree with the author? There is nothing kind or brave or un-fake about this kind of editorial heavy-handedness. If anything, it reflects a certain insecurity and sense of inadequacy on the part of the editor, who evidently has so little confidence in his or her ability to moderate the conversation that he/she feels the need to interrupt somebody in the middle of what is clearly a very sincere and well-thought-out piece.

  32. Dee Greenberg Dee says:

    Cathy, I don't think Kino is saying pain is a deliberate result of yoga. But for the true yogi, the spiritual warrior, pain is inevitable. Feel free to practice "country club" yoga if you like. Just make sure your mat matches your yoga pants. :-)

    And I don't mean this in a hostile or judgmental way. It's ok to simply bliss out on your mat. But if we never find our edge, we don't grow. Risk taking breeds HUGE growth surges and some of us crave that.

    As a teacher I respect my student's boundaries – but if the student is open to it, I may push and prod a bit.
    I am eternally grateful for those teachers who pushed me past my self imposed limits.!

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