February 2, 2012

Pain, Injury & the Cool Revolution of Yoga. ~ Matthew Champoux {Article in English & Spanish}

(Para leerlo en Español, haga clic aquí.)

 “Progress towards this goal is achieved in some cases mainly through strong faith and devotion, but in general it is achieved by the power of reason. And if the transcendental path is systematically followed, reason itself will provide during the pursuit many causes for heartfelt belief.

– His Holiness the Dalai Lama

Robert Thurman, Photo attributed to Flickr user Tenzin Nyima.

Robert Thurman has long advocated the power of a Cool Revolution to bring about change in our world via developing society-wide mindfulness. This a non-violent revolutionary process and is an emergent condition that arises from the micro to the macro level via choices made by individuals rooted in the spirit of creating an enlightened society. Thurman recently gave a brilliant talk titled “Cool Revolution and the Age of Wisdom” which is now on YouTube  and on elephant here.

Large-scale societal restructuring has often times been initiated through Hot Revolution (violent) and humans tend to do the same in an effort to cultivate change in their bodies and minds through yoga. Yoga is a process that can serve to restructure how we relate to our mind and body, and has the potential to bring about a shift that moves us from habituated states of being towards mindfulness. Deprivation, abuse, and negative emotional patterns, violent actions and thoughts often accompany one’s initial foray into the process of our yoga practice due to the fact that these emotions are often lying just under the surface of a content façade. Using Thurman’s Cool Revolution as a backdrop, I’d like to look at the primary result of a hot revolution in yoga, which is injury and accompanying pain, and also the anecdote, the Cool Revolution.

In the context of postural yoga, the Cool Revolution can be defined as the process by which change occurs in the body and results in increasing proficiency in asana (posture that’s strong, stable, radiant, and joyous) and, which supports the mind to generate ever-increasing amounts of compassion and wisdom. This can happen either fast our slow. “Cool” does not necessarily mean slow.

I have benefited from all varieties of yoga I’ve studied (Ashtanga, Iyengar, and Anusara), but the “container” of the Ashtanga Vinyasa series has held the strongest appeal over the long-term. The Asthanga Series feel like a community of elders holding me, giving space and creating an environment to study the workings of my body, mind and ego. As an Ashtanga Vinyasa practitioner, I’m no stranger to the stereotypes out there: that the practice causes injuries, that it was designed for 12-year-old boys, etc. As a teacher, I’m saddened when the stereotypes come true and when people break their bodies with their committed endeavor to complete the Series. The Series also ask me to challenge my notions of what’s physically possible, and in this process of working the edge, I have, incidentally, injured myself—though never in a debilitating way like snapping a meniscus. I have had neck tweaks, back spasms, shoulder jams, gripped fascia lines, hamstring issues, and mystery pains, hip stuff, sacrum fishiness. You name it.

Photo by Marisol Delmotte

What’s important in general, however, is that I’ve moved though these experiences and the practice has continued to evolve. I have moved through injury and pain, and I want to assure you that blasting forward with blind devotion to “mula bandha” will not make the injuries, or the resulting pain go away. Also, totally submitting yourself to a strong assist from a teacher, without communicating what you are feeling is a great way to get injured. Speak up to your teachers! There are far sweeter options in life than waking up to the smell of your SI joint (sacroiliac) frying on the stove of your yoga mat in the morning. Sri K. Pattabhi Jois’ famous saying “99% practice 1% theory” or “practice and all is coming,” has long been used by students to justify a diligence of practice, which is indeed good, but that alone can come at the expense of a pain-free experience in the body due to too much faith and not enough reason. While beautiful, faith can come at the expense of critical thinking and reason. The effective use of reason will provide a rich landscape in which to cultivate heart-opening experiences and insights that form an integral part of the yogic process.

Although the reasons for starting yoga in the first place are as varied as the people who pick up the practice, many of us make our way to the mat with the intention of dissolving or addressing pain. Maybe even the pain related to what Ajahn Chah calls “the contraction of embodiment.” Whether its lower back pain, neck pain, or pain in the extremities, these experiences are best left out of our already challenging enough experience called life. For our purposes here, we’ll be looking at pain as it relates to injury and as an emergent phenomena of injury. In other words, pain that comes from an habitual pattern of movement or holding that is causing damage to some part of the body, e.g. lower back, sacrum, neck, shoulders, etc. In this, I’m interested in how our beliefs surrounding pain and suffering relate to our experiences of yoga. While emotional pain may arise and is a normal part of practice, there is no reason for physical pain to be a bread and butter part of your experience.

So, if I’m experiencing pain in my practice, where should I start?

First of all, addressing pain that’s resulted from a yoga-sourced injury is likely going to require reorienting your practice around alignment and asking yourself one very important question: Do I want to practice for the long haul, or am I cool with leaving behind this thing that gives me so much joy?  If we don’t ask these questions and decide to not work with our injuries intelligently then we’re just spoon-feeding ourselves the juice of samsara, or conditioned existence. Learning to move our bodies with proper alignment enables us to channel the energy of gravity as it moves through our body, which we create by working with action, counter-action, and directionality inside of the asana. The effective channeling of energy, or “good alignment” will prevent stagnation and jamming in the weak areas of our system. “Weak” in yoga is not usually related to something like “you have weak muscles” but is more often related to what comes easy for us: the places that are naturally more flexible.

However, weakness can come from being hard, or stiff, too, since as we try to break free from stiffness, the emerging freedom in the tissue often arises unevenly and at the expense of integrity in surrounding systems.  Non-acute injury in yoga usually arises from chronic movement patterns pouring energy into one particular area of the body (e.g. jamming your sacrum or the Lumbar 1/Thoracic 12 juncture in backbends), rather than allowing it to move gracefully throughout the whole system (e.g. actively channeling the energy of a backbend through the “bendy” points of spine using proper activity through the coccyx, pelvic floor, psoas lines, and rib cage to create a clean, radiant arc).  Learning proper alignment is the first step in addressing the causes of pain. Acquiring proper alignment requires a good teacher and an attitude conducive to receiving the teachings (curiosity and humor being key!). Said another way by my teacher Richard Freeman:

 “Proper alignment is vital for maintaining a lasting practice. And with the right attitude, proper alignment doesn’t feel like work, instead it is the joining together of opposite patterns that results in a smooth, even, integrated pose.”

What is Pain?

Photo by Matt Champoux

Pain, for starters, is not a “thing” in and of itself, but a locus, a point where numerous interrelating factors are coming together. It’s the result of something, or a series of things, coming together that causes the body to signal a particular threat to its well-being via pain. Pain is therefore the effect of a cause, and as yoga students, and mindfulness practitioners (ideally this emerges through our practice) it’s our job to study this process of cause and effect (known as karma) and learn from it. Inquiry, plainly looking at your situation with discernment, is the process by which the causes of pain come to be understood, and which concomitantly brings about changes inside our body that lead to authenticity and integrity in the practice.

Moving forward, I want to assure you that if you are suffering from pain in your practice you’re not a bad person, nor should you feel badly about it. Admitting or realizing that you have pain in your body as a result of your yoga practice, or during your practice, is the first step in fixing the problem. Desperation may be what finally drives you to this realization, but hopefully also a desire to be able to continue doing something your love. Paradoxically, and rather delightfully, pain and/or injury can also be blessings in disguise. Pain has the potential to guide us back to the honeyed experience of the middle path; of the true joy found in a yoga practice free from an addiction to extremes.

Buddhism and Postural Yoga

Over 2000 years ago when the Buddha realized the value of the middle path and attained enlightenment (freedom from negative thought patterns and obsessive concerns for the self) he distilled the essence of his realization into four truths, or what are called the Four Noble Truths. In Stephen Bachelor’s book, Buddhism without Beliefs, he nicely defined these truths as:

1) Understanding anguish (suffering);

2) Realize the origins of anguish (suffering);

3) Realize the cessation of anguish (suffering);

4) Walk (cultivate) the path of resolution that leads to the cessation of anguish (suffering).

In response to these truths, in the Introduction to Tantra, His Holiness the Dalai Lama has summed up how we should act in response to the Four Noble Truths with “know the sufferings; give up their causes; attain the cessation of sufferings; and follow the true paths.” Applying this to the experience of pain in yoga practice, know that there is pain, realize that the pain has a cause (it may a result of misalignment), adjust the practice accordingly to end the suffering, and the continue to practice in a way that resolves the suffering, and continue to practice in a way that leads to the cessation of anguish. Practice smart. Practice without violence. Practice with joy and discriminative awareness. Practice with an awareness of cause and effect, with an awareness of the workings of karma. Practice with an attitude of joy, of playfulness, or humor, and with the mind of enlightenment. Taking ourselves too seriously is one of the quickest ways to get hurt.

An important distinction to make is that pain is not necessarily suffering and suffering is not necessarily pain. Pain is the acute, physiological experience and suffering is the psycho-emotional aspect of an experience that we link often link to pain, e.g. freaking out saying, Holy @$^!%$@! My arm is trapped under a boulder and I’m gonna die vs. holy@$^!%$@! My arm is trapped and my body is experiencing pain, how am I going at act in a way to set myself free? This distinction is vital since the awareness of pain creates space for us to observe our situation and work with what we’ve got.

We need to use our awareness, our observational skills to see what’s up with the pain and why it’s there, but we also need to avoid a spiritual cop-out that simply says, “Oh pain is there in my body, and I can rise above it if I know that pain is not suffering and that pain is empty.” This is not the point. Ahimsa, non-violence, please!

If you have chronic pain in your practice why are you choosing to dwell in pain? There is no redemptive quality to suffering from pain.

Perhaps, you are not consciously “choosing” this pain, but if it has been present for a long time, perhaps, it’s worth looking at why it is still there, and why hasn’t that pain left. Many of us are subject to the undeniable attitude or “no pain no gain” or “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” that supposedly accompanies success in multiple dimensions of our life (both in our jobs and in exercise). Furthermore, many of our Judeo-Christian backgrounds reminds us of what we could call a “redemptive quality” that can be found suffering. This is even found in more traditional Hindu notions of tapas, or austerities, which involve going through extreme varieties of physical suffering for the purposes of purifying negative karma or acquiring spiritual powers, siddhis.  Although there are examples of these practices that intentionally cultivate pain with the purposes of observing the effect of pain on the mind, I don’t think most of us are heading to our nearest yoga studio with this intention at heart.  I can see it now, “Ahhh man, I’ve had I really long day at work, I’d really like to go rock some austerities right about now!” If pain is occurring in your body please take a step back and consider why the pain exists.

Photo by Annetta Kolzow

To many, injury and pain is perceived as evolution in practice, a symbol of advancement, or even in some circles, a status symbol, e.g. breaking a rib in backbends. I would like to argue that is not actually cool and that it’s a waste of your time.  It points to an unhealthy extreme. Yoga is about balance and about working with the nature of light and dark, yin and yang, prana and apana, inner and outer spiral to illuminate the truth.  It is about finding the middle path, and while pain can, indeed, be a sign that healing is occurring, it is worth consulting an experienced teacher to support you in determining whether the pain is, indeed, a sign of breaking the bonds of the dysfunctional psycho-physiological habit, or if it is a sign of violence.  Ultimately, however, pain can guide us and prompt evolution. It can be a guide that shows us where we might be doing something without intelligence, where there is a gap in our understanding. It can catalyze awareness of the internal sensation cues vital for making yoga something we can enjoy for our entire life!  Compassion, humor, and discriminative awareness are three of the most importance qualities to cultivate when actively working through the “hard parts “of our practice—in moving towards health.

I Hurt Myself in Yoga! The Practice Must Be Wrong For Me, and I Ought to Go Find Something Better.

Of the many great things that yoga has brought the West, one of the things that we have brought to yoga is a rapid diversification of systems and styles. In this we have brought the tendency to “shop around” as we look for which is best, even if it’s just because of price. Our minds are well-trained to discriminate when it comes to our materials and consumer goods, and the trick is, how do we apply this same discernment to our experience in yoga systems? In this we often think, “this practice works for me and that one doesn’t” or “this is the heart centered yoga and that style’s not” or “oh, that practice injures me and this one doesn’t,” or “the heat helps be detox.” So while I have formed my own opinions about yoga and what is right and what is wrong, on a more holistic front, I advocate that whatever practice you choose, you should a) be attentive to your alignment, and b) sit with your style for a while before necessarily jumping to another. Sit with your style when the going gets tough and check it out; check yourself. Ask yourself what part of the experience is nourishing you. Ask yourself why you are spending so much of your time impersonating pretzels. If you get injured in practice at first, it doesn’t have to be considered to be a reason to jump ship to a different approach.

In cultivating a postural yoga practice, minor injury (e.g. resulting from boundary testing that is required for evolution) is normal from time to time, and it can be a signal that your practice is evolving and moving to a deeper level. It can also mean you are practicing in an unbalanced manner. Pain and injury will come and go, and the healing capacity of a well-developed practice has the potential to support us through even the most gnarly experiences. Ideally, our practice is cultivating a safe space for the mind to relax and, ultimately, supports us to begin an exploration of the deeper implications of yoga. Practice ought to be a forum for developing your discriminative awareness, your ability to look into the cause of a particular effect and then acting accordingly. Meaning: a) either seeking another yoga practice to fill out / augment your understanding of what yoga is and how to work with alignment; b) slow down and listen to the body; c) and ask more questions of your teacher. Healing ourselves through yoga requires attention to sensations deep in the body and in the how these patterns are reflected in the breath.

I was taught early on that injury is not a bad thing, but is rather an opportunity for practice. Injury can create a pathway for understanding the nature of damaging movement patterns and has the potential to bring us to an authentic, core place of practice. In other words, if you pull your intercostal muscle or have a twisted rib, how can you adapt your practice to the experience not in the sense of avoiding the injury but in the sense of dancing with it—of considering the obstacle to be a friend in disguise?  How can the container of your school of yoga support you to effectively address these issues as they arise? If, after this variety of inquiry you find that your yoga school is not a safe container for your work, then I recommend finding another system to support your highest evolution and awakening. Although it is considered to be an advanced practice, I advocate to most of my students that we should practice in the container of the injury with and open, attentive mind, soft eyes, and compassionate heart. We should use every situation that arises to deepen our experience of breath and of the yoga itself.

However, in the sage words of LeVar Burton, “you don’t have to take my word for it!” Checking all this out for your self, really chewing on it, is what builds fire in the heart and what will ultimately liberate the greatest potential of yoga as a vehicle for positive transformation, a pain-free life, and healing on multiple dimensions of your being.  This great work will ultimately change us, our community, and by extension, the world.  This is the cool revolution of yoga.

Wishing you joy, compassion, and wisdom on your evolving journey of yoga!

Matthew Champoux is a yoga teacher, conservation anthropologist, and ornithologist. He has been a student of yoga since 2001, but grew up having Buddhist teachers around his home in Boulder, Colorado. Matthew’s background includes in-depth studies of Hinduism, Tantra, Buddhism, Ecology, Biology and Anthropology, and he has been teaching Ashtanga Yoga since 2005. As a yoga teacher, he promotes the practice of ‘inner’ transformation to affect positive change in the ‘outer’ world. At Human-Nature Photography, Matthew uses his images to cultivate enthusiasm for the natural world, in order to garner support for its protection, in addition to providing the yoga community with yoga portraiture. Matthew teaches yoga immersions stateside and internationally, and is currently based out of Yoga Workshop in Boulder, Colorado. 

This article was prepared by the Elephant Yoga Staff.

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