How is that possible?
I thought yoga was good for me and it was going to make me strong, flexible and healthy, not hurt me?! During my first few years of practicing, I justified injuries by saying, “Well, yoga like any physical activity risks injury.” However, as the years went by and as I studied and practiced other aspects of the yoga than the asana, I was less and less reassured by that reasoning. Yoga asana is definitely physical, but the motivation behind yoga asana is completely different than that of competitive sports where the focus is on winning or of dance or circus performers where the focus is on outer beauty and entertainment.
Yoga is about finding inner peace, not winning anything or performing something. As the ancient yogis knew, inner peace is difficult to achieve if the body is damaged, ill and in pain. In fact Patanjali lists vyādhi (disease) as one of the obstacles that distracts the mind and therefore comes in the way when trying to maintain inner peace.
So, why are there so many yoga related injuries? Unfortunately the answer isn’t very simple. Broadly speaking it is because of the kleshas: avidya and asmita.
Sri O.P. Tiwari translates avidya as lack of awareness. Often it is translated as ignorance or lack of knowledge. If you practice without awareness or knowledge, you are guaranteed to experience injuries. We must develop the ability to listen to the inner voice and notice even the tiny energetic movements within our bodies.
Asmita is egoism. Practicing yoga asana in order to satisfy the ego again is a guarantee for injury. Like Chuck Miller says: “don’t let the ego be in the driver’s seat, put it in the backseat or even better in the trunk.” In yoga, one of the objectives is to minimize the power of the ego.
Every single unenlightened person is afflicted by the kleshas. Therefore, it is extremely difficult and subtle to reduce avidya and asmita, to live with awareness and from Truth rather than the ego. It takes many years or many life times of practice; this is why we have yoga practices.
Below is a list of some of the reasons we experience injuries, accompanied by explanations of how avidya and asmita are at the root of all of them!
- Not respecting our limits. This is very tricky because we have to be careful not to make limitations become excuses. We definitely need to challenge our limitations; however, we need to do so with acute awareness, kindness and compassion. Learning to recognize the difference between kindly challenging ourselves and violently forcing ourselves. In fact, the outcome will be vastly different: when we challenge ourselves with awareness, kindness and compassion, we will be transforming not only on a physical level but also on a mental, emotional and spiritual level. On the other hand, when we challenge ourselves with force, we will only be physically hurting ourselves and bringing the opportunity for self-judgment and criticism, evaluating our self-worth on the state of our practice. This can look like progress for sometime, but it’s guaranteed to eventually result in something immensely different than progress.
- Performing for the outer form rather than the inner experience.
- Pushing when our body is cold. We need to adjust to the body, not the body adjusting to the external. For instance, when it is very cold, it may take longer to warm up and be able to straighten our knees during the sun salutations than usual. The same thing may happen if we have been on a long flight or sitting for a long period of time. It is best for teachers to allow the student to warm up as well, not to pounce on the student and start giving pushy adjustments on the first sun salutation.
- Being too tired while practicing. When we are very tired, we tend to be less aware. This is one of the reasons the practice is traditionally done in the morning, when we are able to be more alert.
- Zoning out and working on automatic. Just practicing to “get it done.”
- Previous injury or sensibility. Yoga is great in showing us exactly where all of our weaknesses are. This is an opportunity to use our practice to strengthen the weaker areas.
- Improper posture outside the yoga practice. Relating to the above point, sometimes we have a postural issue that gets exacerbated with the asana posture. Therefore, we can use the awareness of proper alignment to improve our posture in our daily lives. For instance, when walking up and down stairs, when sitting at our computer, when standing waiting for the metro train and even when sleeping. Think about it; we spend an hour or two a day doing an asana practice, and then there are 22-23 other hours a day where we can improve our awareness and posture.
- Too much emphasis on trying to go further forward or deeper into an asana without the stability and grounding. Very often we lose the ability to hold the bandhas when we go too far.
- Goal oriented teachers, or teachers trying to satisfy the student’s ego by giving them more advanced asanas than they are ready for. This can give the false illusion of progress. Sometimes, teachers do this when they are insecure and want the yoga student to like them by feeding the student’s ego. However, it is ultimately a disservice to the yoga student. In the short term, it may look like progress; but in the long term, the truth will be revealed. Like Ron Reid says, more often than not he finds that he is teaching the yoga student to ground and hold back rather than push forward. Positive feedback is great; however, why does it have to only be for the ability to do advanced, fancy looking asanas? Why can’t it be for the persistence to show up every day and do our practice with awareness, patience and compassion? Why can’t the praise be for challenging ourselves to maintain smooth, even breathing, a calm, peaceful interior and steady, strong bandhas? In my experience, it is way easier to push yourself around with the strength of the mind and ego than it is to have inner peace and supreme love!
- Inexperienced teachers who are not honest with themselves and pretend to know more than they do. Usually, it is not out of bad intention. It is just that the teachers are also on the path of yoga and are under the effects of avidya and asmita as much as anyone else. There is nothing ultimately wrong with a new teacher, it only becomes a problem if the teacher is insecure and needs reassurance that they are good teachers. A good teacher is the one who is able to notice and admit when they don’t know something. If a yoga student is disappointed by a teacher who doesn’t know everything, then they need to look closer and see that the teacher actually knows that truth is more important than reassurance for the ego. This may be a new teacher, but it is a mature human being.
- Not listening to the teacher who is trying to teach the subtleties of the practice and may be holding you back from moving too deeply into an asana. It’s hard because our ego is so strong and when a long time experienced teacher tries to pull us back we automatically resist. We need to move out of the ego and take the gift of years of experience from the teacher.
- Inadequate focus on technique and alignment. Vinyasa is the step-by-step process of learning something. No matter what we do, the results will always be more positive if we learn it step-by-step from the basics. In any art or sport there is a foundation to be learned. Once you’ve mastered the foundations, then you will be able to move safely into the intermediate and advanced versions of the basics.
- Too much emphasis on the destination rather than enjoying the journey. This is one of the problems with photos of yoga asanas. There are some incredibly beautiful photos of experienced yogis and yoginis doing asanas. They can very inspiring, but the downside is that it sets an image in our mind of where we think we have to be. Often we look at the photo and pick certain destination points such as the fingers holding the toes, the head on the floor, etc. and do whatever it takes to reach those destinations despite the safety of the back, hamstrings, etc. Pay attention to your face and hands; we move a lot from these two places.
- Moving too quickly in and out of the postures. What’s the hurry? Where are you going? Yoga isn’t about ‘going’ somewhere; it’s about ‘being’ somewhere. What’s going to happen if you don’t do all the asanas you want to?
- Bringing a sports/competitive attitude to the practice. It’s not only competing with others that can wind up injuring us, but competing with ourselves as well.
- Not enough softness while practicing. Think of effortless effort. We ashtangis can especially find ourselves being too rigid, having all or nothing personalities. As Tiwariji says, the rules should make it easier for us to practice, not more difficult.
So, how to avoid injury?
Once again we can look to the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali for advice. The first ‘limb’ of Ashtanga Yoga is Yama (restraints) and the first two restraints are Ahimsa and Satya.
Ahimsa is non-harming. Therefore, Patanjali is saying that we need to restrain ourselves from causing pain. Satya is truthfulness; this means we need to do our best to be as truthful as we can. At first glance, non-harming and being truthful sounds pretty easy after all our parents told us not to hurt and not to tell lies from a very young age.
As I’ve said, yoga is essentially an awareness practice, and we have to watch our mind almost like mental analysts.
As our awareness and self-analysis develops, we begin to see all the subtle ways we cause harm and are not truthful (especially with ourselves). The mind is amazing at covering up what we don’t want to see. In a way, it is a protection because if we saw everything all at once, I’m sure we would go crazy. But, if we allow ourselves to see what is really going on in our minds, little by little we develop qualities such as non-judgment, compassion and love. These qualities help to allow us to stop beating ourselves up. It’s more like an observation: “Hmmm, look at that; I’m doing this because the ego enjoys going into these complex poses.” There is no judgment there; there is just noticing. When we notice then we have more space available to choose to continue or take a different route, we are able to see more clearly our motivation.
Personally, I find it helpful to remind myself why I ultimately do this practice at the beginning of every practice, before or after the mantra. For me, it is to find balance: inner balance, relationship balance, work vs. leisure balance, health balance, etc. This practice helps me to know I am doing my best to have inner peace and maintain that peace even when I find the obstacles of life/yoga obstructing my path.
Tiwariji tells us that we should be absolutely clear as to our motivations for doing yoga. To obtain the results we wish for, this is unconditionally necessary. Otherwise, we can easily get caught in the trap of doing the practice to satisfy the practice. In fact, the yoga practice is exactly that, a practice on the mat that mirrors our life.
Are we rushing through just to get it finished? Are we rushing through life just to get where? Are we avoiding the real work in the yoga? Do we avoid the real work involved in having healthy, loving relationships or in finding inspiration in our jobs? Do we make excuses as to why we ‘can’t’ do something? Do we make excuses in our life as to why we ‘can’t’ live the life our heart desires? Do we mindfully decide to stay within our limitations and be contented and happy? Are we living a contented and happy life? Are we negative and self-judgmental about what we can or cannot do? Do we find the bad and judge everything around us? Are we proud of the external beauty of our asana practice? Do we find our self-worth in our physical beauty? Do we wish to be better than we are? Are we never satisfied with ourselves or those around us?
It’s worth the effort!
Wow, so many points…but don’t despair, the benefits of yoga without a doubt outweigh the possibility of injury. They are obstacles on our path, and if we can use the obstacles to further our growth, then all will turn out well. I will leave you with this long quote from Swami Satchidananda’s commentary of the Yoga Sutras, because it is so perfectly inspiring and positive:
“Sutra 1.30 Disease, dullness, doubt, carelessness, laziness, sensuality, false perception, failure to reach firm ground and slipping from the ground gained – these distractions of the mind-stuff are the obstacles.
They are more or less like a chain: the first obstacle is physical disease. Disease makes you dull, and a dull mind will doubt everything because it doesn’t want to penetrate into a thing to understand it. When doubt is there, there is a carelessness, a sort of lethargic attitude or laziness. And when the mind loses the interest and alertness toward the higher goal, it has to do something else so it will slowly descend to the sensual enjoyments. Actually, all these things could be summed up at the qualities of tamas, or inertia, dullness.
Another obstacle is slipping down from the ground one has gained. This puzzles many people. A beginner, for example, will practice with intense interest. Every day she will feel more and more interested and feel she is progressing steadily. She may even be proud of her progress. All of a sudden one day she will find that she has lost everything and slipped down to rock bottom.
It happens to many people. If we know it is a common occurrence on the spiritual path, we won’t get disheartened. Otherwise, we will say, “Oh, I lost everything. There is no hope for me,” and we lose all our interest. Let us know that this is common in the case of every aspirant. The mind can’t function on the same level always—it has its heights and depths. If there is going to be steady progress always, there will be no challenge, no game in it.
Remember, Yoga practice is like an obstacle race; many obstructions are purposely put on the way for us to pass through. They are there to make us understand and express our own capacities. We all have that strength, but we don’t seem to know it. We seem to need to be challenged and tested in order to understand our own capacities. In fact, that is the natural law. If a river just flows easily, the water in the river does not express its power. But once you put an obstacle to the flow by construction a dam, then you can see its strength in the form of tremendous electrical power.”
Thank you for taking the time to read and reflect on this writing. I thank all the teachers who have inspired and continue to inspire me!
Linda Munro was first introduced to yoga in 1996 in Toronto, Canada with Ron Reid and Diane Bruni. She had been in a car accident in 1995 and was in physical therapy when she became interested in yoga as a way to compliment the therapy. Soon after, she realized that the yoga would be a life time practice. A practice of asana, pranayama and meditation but also a practice of being truthful, a practice of being kind, a practice of being fearless, peaceful and happy. She believes that the practice of “yoga” is continuous; the practice does not stop when you roll up the yoga mat. The practice of yoga includes the way you live your life, the way you relate to your family, friends, co-workers and to the strangers on the street. This is the life-long practice of developing yogic awareness. In 1997, she moved to New York City with her work in the fashion business while continuing a daily ashtanga practice studying under Eddie Stern. The year 2000 brought her to Paris, France. After thirteen years in the world of fashion, she decided it was the time to move fully into the direction she had been moving since her first yoga class. She felt a strong desire to strive to give to others what her teachers have given to her; so she started teaching yoga as her own study and practice continues. She’s been teaching full time since 2002 and she and her husband Gerald Disse opened Ashtanga Paris in February 2004.
Editor: Cassandra Smith