January 9, 2012

The Hero’s Foot & the Cedar Branches: The Gift & Reality of Injury in Yoga Practice.

Wounded Achilles

Yoga injury has been a hot topic recently, mostly thanks to a feature article by William Broad in the New York Times Magazine entitled “How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body,” which has generated quite a buzz in the yoga community.

Several of my students have asked my opinion on the article, and it would not be surprising if ripples from the questions it raises continue to be felt in yoga circles for quite a while.

In the article, Broad goes well out of his way to find the extraordinarily few instances in which yoga actually has wrecked someone’s body, and tries to paint a picture of physical yoga practice that is deeply and very transparently misleading — implying, for example, that the number of 46 annual emergency room visits due to yoga represents something — anything — significant. More than twice as many people were admitted to ERs in America for lightning strikes last year, not to mention the hundreds of thousands of people that suffer bicycle injuries, running injuries, basketball injuries, gymnastics injuries, and even cheerleading injuries every year.

Although Broad fails to make a compelling case for the danger of yoga practice, his article does bring the valid topic of yoga injury to the forefront, and in that way it is a gift to the yoga community.  In many ways his screed is the inevitable fruit of seeds that have been planted by teachers within the yoga community itself — such as the fairly common notion that if you are practicing yoga “right,” you will never get injured, and — in extreme cases — the idea that yoga injury never happens at all, or if it does, its the students fault because they are not being aware enough.

The first thing I always tell my students in relation to injury is that injury happens and there should be no taboo or stigma around admitting that they got injured while practicing yoga. Our attitude towards injury in the west — in which material comfort is seen as the penultimate human goal and pain and adversity are run from at every opportunity — tends to be that injury is to be avoided at all costs and that pain inevitably = bad.

In the course of my 11 years of yoga practice, I have been injured many times. I’ve been injured while practicing with advanced teachers and with novices, with Indians and with Americans, while doing ashtanga and while doing anusara and while doing vinyasa. I have been injured while rushing through poses with an overly zealous attitude and I have also been injured while doing nothing aggressive at all. And while there are definite ways to work to avoid injury in yoga practice that I will touch on later, the first thing to recognize is that injury is completely 100% natural, even in yoga.

Injury is an essential part of the life cycle of any active biological organism. As incarnate creatures with bodies that are meant to move, it is inevitable that if we are very active — in the case of ashtanga yoga, practicing what amounts to over an hour of gymnastics per day six times a week — at some point we will get injured. We move, we open, we injure, we heal, we grow in new ways, we move, we open, we injure, we heal, we grow in new ways.  Injury is as natural to the active human being as the seasons are to the planet. Only in a world in which we seek an endless summer and a lifestyle of perpetual comfort would we consider injury as entirely negative. Our very life cycles say otherwise. Our mothers birth us in pain and rapture, structurally altering themselves — and often being injured — in the process. We ourselves are born through a passage that puts tremendous pressure on our new frames and warps them out of symmetry right from the start.  That original tapas (the initiatory, incubatory heat of spiritual effort is known as tapta marg, or the heated passage, clearly a reference to the primal birth canal) shapes us for life. As our bones grow and develop through childhood they tear and forcefully restructure the tissues around them, and as our muscles build throughout life they do so through micro-injury. Our process of physical growth and flowering, our journey towards openness, if we are embracing it fully, is fraught with both joy and with pain. We practice yoga to realign ourselves to an implied symmetry, but the beautiful fact remains that our physical selves are perpetually moving towards but never completely finding that symmetry, that implied center. As we unfold along such lines, parts of us adjust as other parts open towards center. As one surface or bundle or wing finds new stability, others open, and unfold, and maybe, yes, even tear a little bit. The growth process happens along that delicate line between the joy of opening and the pain of opening, just as the pupa struggles against the cocoon and the rose’s physical explosion of blossoming happens in equal parts of ecstasy and excruciation.

In this hero’s journey of physical incarnation, we are defined by our struggles as much as our joys, by our scars as much as our beauties. Achilles’ two defining characteristics were his strength as a warrior and his fallible heel. Samson’s hair bore his power and his weakness. Immortal Krishna was slain by an arrow through the sole of his foot, and indeed many are the stories of legendary heroes and the failings of the most basic and necessary tools of their heroism — their feet. The stories we remember and tell that reflect the journey of the human lifetime — since before the falling hunter in ecstatic rapture graced the walls of Lascaux — are the stories that reflect both the joy and struggle of life. Sthira sukham asanam — the asana should be steady and sweet. To find that sweetness and that steadiness, we have to work to open, and the process of physical opening is one that will be at times joyous, at times painful, and at times both.

As we practice yoga, what is important is that we be able to distinguish the difference between an injury that is part of our natural cycle of opening and an activity or behavior or way of practicing that is structurally damaging or will have long term consequences. We can adjust and practice through and around those hamstring tweaks from Warrior III and those wrist pains from arm balances. We may even pull or strain a muscle in a way that requires us to take a few weeks off of practice. This is all within the realm of what is natural in the process of opening. What we want to avoid are deeper problems in our practice — long term habits that have a debilitating effect on us structurally, like the unfortunately common practice among us ashtangis of systematically grinding our C7 vertebrae into pulp because we haven’t learned how to guard the spine properly in shoulderstand.

The long term promise of yoga practice is to repair and reconstruct old injury and old postural habit patterns and to align ourselves structurally along a center that will keep us lifted, open, and strong throughout our lifetimes. And on the scale of things, the pain and annoyance of short term injuries of activity is far, far more benign than the long term debilitation and deep internal injury caused by lethargy.  Our sedentary lifestyles have resulted in a global rate of obesity and heart disease that is bordering on preposterous. This is where the real injury to our systems lies.  One need only look at photos of Krishnamacharya in his later years, or Iyengar — who last I checked was still doing 30 minute headstands daily at age 90 — or Wanda Scaravelli and her lively, youthful toes to see what regular asana practice can do for us as we age. The long term benefits of practice — to be able to live life from a place of openness and lift and full breath — are why we do asana practice, and these benefits deeply outweigh any short term injury.

As we practice, it is very important that we remember that long view, because that view can deeply effect how we practice today. When we practice a challenging asana, we take a pause and a breath and remember that we aren’t practicing in order to “get” that certain asana right now. In the greater view, we are practicing to have lift in our hearts and alignment along our center 30 years from now. If we start to develop the longer view of our practice — if it becomes something that is not a quick fix or something we’re doing to achieve a short-term physical result but a way of living that we are committed to for many, many years — then the urgency is suddenly removed and the chances of injury of any kind drop. Patience is our greatest gift in our practice of asana and in our spiritual practice of daily life, and patience will both keep us from many injuries and get us through the times when we are injured.

Off the mat, we can start to cultivate the attitudes and lifestyles that will lead to a more patient and more aware practice on the mat. It is no accident that ahimsa, non-harming, is the first of all the yogic practices. The more we cultivate attitudes of non-harming in our lives — from how we treat our bodies to how we treat others to how we approach our practice — the more we can bring that fundamental spirit of non-harm to practice. The process of injury often starts well before we take that first sun salute, and a very real part of the practice of non-injury is to practice non-injurious behaviors in life. If we show up repeatedly to practice tired, or stressed, or angry, or hungover it has a very tangible and very cumulative effect on our practice. The negative effects of even moderate regular alcohol consumption, for instance, on all types of athletic performance have been well documented, and the difference in the rates of athletic injury among drinkers vs. nondrinkers is staggering. If we practice after a night of drinking, we are practicing dehydrated, with increased lactic acid levels, with less oxygen in our bloodstream, with higher blood pressure, with less proprioceptive function, and with less body awareness — and our chances of injury go way, way up, far after we feel that the alcohol has “left” our systems. We want to show up to the mat with awareness and clarity, so that when we practice we can fully explore the process of opening from the deepest possible place.

Once we get to the mat, the place in our practice where we need to turn all of our attention, all of our breath, all of our patience, and all of our love is specifically that line of opening, that line between what is safe and familiar for our bodies and the new depths of openness that await us through practice. That line is a very vast and very daunting place to the new practitioner, because as we get into that space we encounter pain of many varieties — good pain, needed pain, the releasing pain of thixotropic opening, the structural pain of tissues reorganizing, or the sharp pain of a collagen bundle splitting or a fibrous mass dislodging. The number one ally we have in navigating this sea of many unfamiliar pains and sensations is our breath. We work with our breath and with patience over time to get to know our body’s own process of opening, to get to know what pains are the pains of the rose blossoming and what pains are signs of problems that might impede that blossoming.  In a pose, as in life, there is always the dynamic tension between the immediate will that wants to stick to the familiar, and the larger surrender. This is Arjuna’s battle, which plays itself out every day, in every asana we practice. We play day in and day out along this line. And sometimes we cross it.

When we do, its good to bring as much patience and love to ourselves as we can. The reality of having to miss a week, or two, or three, or six of asana practice is one that can be emotionally difficult for us, but its good to practice patience with ourselves, to speak to our teachers honestly and openly about it, to practice not reacting negatively to a reality that is as natural as the practice itself — and, indeed, is part of the practice itself. The injuries that I have had in yoga practice have without exception opened new areas in my practice. Ribs open on one side to provide breathing space while the other side of the body is stabilizing. Deep femoral muscles engage and develop when the big-bellied hamstrings are not up to the task. The body re-knits itself along center, adjusting to the alternating areas of strength and weakness as it develops. Injury also requires that we work directly with our vritti-cycle, which goes into high gear the moment we are injured and continues through the entire process of rest and rehabilitation. Sometime, the patience that is required to work through an injury properly is exactly what our practice needs.

Perhaps the greatest practice within injury is how we respond to it. From the moment we are injured, we have the opportunity, as with all distinct moments in our lives, to practice deep awareness, breath, and transformation. In the Vedic descriptions of rudra, the transformative fire reveals itself in times when life becomes more urgent — at the point just before a thunderstorm, when we see a lover we haven’t seen in a long time, when we receive unexpected good news, at the moment of sexual climax, and at the moment of injury. The transformational promise of yoga lives in these moments of urgency and in how we respond to them. Do we respond in fear, holding that part of the body tentatively for years to come? Do we respond in anger, lashing out with blame for the fact that we are injured? Do we respond by giving up our practice altogether? Or do we try to ignore our injuries, thinking of them as something to deny or get past rather than to learn from and explore. Do we keep silent about the injury, assuming we’ll just be able to grit our teeth and bear it on our own? Or do we take the slow and proper steps necessary to work through our injury, seeking guidance from our teachers and slowly building a new foundation of structural health? How we relate to and work with injury is a clear lens into how we conduct ourselves in all aspects of our lives and practice.

The reality is that injury — like all things in this realm of physical preciousness, up to and including death — is a gift if we take it as such. Many are the individuals who have taken seemingly impossible physical limitations and turned them into their greatest strengths. Stephen Hawking — whose thoughts on God and reincarnation run completely counter to everything that I know to be true in this world but yet I respect him immensely nonetheless 🙂 — has let his mind soar to the outer edges of the physical universe while trapped in a motionless body. Numerous athletes compete at world-class levels without the use of their arms or legs. Christy Brown taught himself to live a functional life only having motion in his left foot. There are injuries that define us, and it our practice to elevate that definition to its highest place, rather than let it drag us to despair and resignation.

To have this open discussion about yoga injury is a wonderful gift, and fortunately awareness of this topic as a real issue is only growing.  Contrary to what Eddie Stern wrote in his rebuttal to Broad’s article, the movement of yoga to the west has brought a welcome increased sensitivity to injury and how to avoid it. While Eddie is absolutely right that there are many under-qualified teachers in the west today and while it is certainly possible that under-qualified teachers might not be teaching their students to avoid injury properly, its misleading to suggest that in the old days people practiced in a way less conducive to injury. There are many, many people who have been injured practicing in a “traditional” setting in India, and in historical yoga, keeping the body safe from injury was not a concern whatsoever. The emphasis on bodily transcendence in traditional yoga drifted often into self-denial and self-mortification, and the strictness with which traditional masters taught left little room for a student to stop practicing if they felt they were on the verge of injury. The sense that one should practice with care and awareness for the physical body rather than with disdain is only growing, and as  yoga practitioners who value this practice, who know its benefits, and who know the reality of the cycle of injury and health, we can all look forward to many more discussions on the topic.

A few days ago after reading Broad’s article, I went for a hike to the top of a wide open mesa in the mountains near Santa Fe. The mesa — a wild, exposed plateau often visited by high winds and extreme weather — was home to a forest of ancient cedar trees that grew in beautiful, varied spirals and twists. It was clear that exposure to the harsh elements had brought many traumas to these trees throughout their several hundred year lifespans. And in each case, the tree found new ways to grow towards the light. Structures reinforced, limbs branched in new directions, new spirals of growth unfurled. Throughout our lives and our practice, we are presented with many opportunities to grow towards light in new ways, to examine ourselves and to transform and elevate.  We work to be conscious in our practice, to be patient, to use the breath, to get to know the beautiful line between too far and just far enough. And when the natural cycle of injury does occur, we use it to reach deeper within and express ourselves forward on our path. Just as the cedar tree fans out new branches from these places of pause, so the injuries we face can bring a new kaleidoscope of structures with which we reach for light.

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