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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