All the talk about the physical issues arising from asana practice that surfaced in the wake of the infamous NY Times article, How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body, by William J. Broad have largely dealt with Yoga wrecking your butt, head, life, ego or practice.
All these five things are intertwined for better or worse. Wreck your rear and the other four things can collapse faster than you can say Hasta Padangustasana. This is how the Shakti, the manifest creative force, goes about her business. The divine b-itch goddess just keeps shoving your sh*t in your face until something shifts.
Yet you can strive to cultivate greater sensitivity in your practice whether you’re a tentative newbie or a vinyasa veteran.
In the words of Yoga teacher and writer Godfrey Devereux (emphasis mine):
There is no greater safeguard in yoga than sensitive, honest awareness. To push yourself beyond your limits will reduce and not expand them. Rather, bring yourself gently to your current limit, and stay there awhile: then your limits will naturally and easily expand.*
Gently. Naturally. Easily. Yoga? Really? Those three words come up more frequently in ads promoting the benefits of laxative products than they do in relation to Yoga practice.
It’s time we start listening to the whispers within before they turn into shouts. Otherwise we keep acting out Benjamin Franklin’s definition of insanity: Doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. Hinduism ascribes that tendency to the samskaras—root of “scars”—karmic leftovers that still need to be cleared.
Unfortunately the Shakti’s stealth tactics can include physical injury, given that being forced to stay down for a prolonged period forces us to let go of some things and put our trust in others.
Such was my predicament in 2005 when a seemingly minor hip irritation that I was too busy teaching to deal with escalated into a pinched nerve, the pain and inflammation keeping me home all packed in ice like a tub of brewskies for over two weeks. This right after I’d started a gig with good money teaching at a resort. Lying there in cold damp sweatpants, shivering on the couch all I could do was trust that funds would somehow come into the household. A few days later they did, when my husband’s art dealer arrived in town and gave him a healthy commission to create several paintings for him. And yes, I did return to teaching at the resort. Sounds like a happy ending but it wasn’t the end of the lesson by any means. I still had plenty of self-study to do.
Situations that arise from injury can indicate that it’s time for a validation check. What validates us as Yoga students and teachers? Outer praise or inner progress that’s not just physical? Who do we want that validation from? Our teachers or students? Our peers? A parent or someone from the past? What effort are we willing to put ourselves through to receive it? Is it all about the body or is there room for meditation and philosophy?
It’s imperative to examine the need for external validation by authority figures. Yes we all want that pat on the back from a “higher up” to fire up our morale. Considering how being positively touched on the backside of the Heart Chakra feels that’s understandable. Through dedicated Yoga practice that includes—at the least—the limbs devoted to meditation, self study and philosophy we eventually stop seeking validation from the world, not even from the most enlightened spiritual figures.
But in the beginning we may start killing ourselves to get an approving glance or shoulder tap from Teacher. Whatever we habitually do to progress or get noticed—i.e. validated, i.e. loved—out in the world shows up in Yoga class like a stain on a microscope slide. And it may persist for years. As my guru, Gurumayi Chidvilasananda, said, “If you stick your neck out, the Shakti will cut it off.”
That almost literally happened in the case of Patricia Sullivan, a sculptor and master Yoga teacher. Writing in Yoga Journal a few years ago she describes how her excessive practice of Headstand led to numbness and pain that was radiating into her hands, keeping her up at night. One day she fell asleep while driving around a lagoon, sending her car over an embankment to land in shallow water 50 feet from the road.
Though unharmed from that incident her X-rays told a tale of “extensive damage, including a reversed cervical curve, disk degeneration, and bony deposits that were partially blocking nerve outlets.” As Patricia writes:
I had been practicing long holds of Salamba Sirsasana (Supported Headstand) for years, even though it was painful. My longing to excel both in my asana practice and as an asana teacher, had led me to ignore my body’s signals and cries for relief. Faced with my now-brutal reality, I began a deeply humbling journey of examining how my practice had caused me so much harm. (See the entire yogajournal.com story here.)
I’ve had the pleasure of studying with Patricia. Her teaching is filled with wisdom culled from years of Zen practice and humility—the result of using the pain she experienced to expand its parameters. She gives some of the most deeply sensitive assists I’ve ever experienced.
Having a teacher who can accept us as we are and guide us toward wider aspects of practice is essential. Especially when first taking up Yoga a well trained, experienced, supportive, compassionate teacher can facilitate the healthy evolution of your practice—whether that’s classical Hatha, Iyengar, Ashtanga or Hot Booty Boot Camp.
*Source: Yoga+Joyful Living (the magazine of the Himalayan Institute), July-Aug. 2008.
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