I traveled to Chiang Mai, Thailand with the intention to study Thai massage and do as much yoga as possible.
I had the most profoundly intense bodywork of my life. The session began with a recollection of the history of my chronic injuries over the past 10 years. As I pondered my personal history written down in one place, I realized a lot of the funk got really funky in direct correlation with my rigorous asana practice.
The next day, I began working with a Thai massage teacher who would often exclaim vehemently, “Yoga headache!” and could point out the common areas of affliction in those with a regular vinyasa yoga practice. This Thai massage guru, as well as my physical therapist colleagues, yogis and non-yogis alike are accusing yoga of causing injury.
I have experienced that yoga can exacerbate injuries and inefficient postural habits rather than fix them, but is yoga at fault?
Since the controversial article in the NY Times last year, the response of yogis and Yoga Journal have been:discussing “alternative poses,” “what we should and shouldn’t practice” and that physical therapy programs are reporting increased injury cases caused by yoga.
I think we are all missing the point, as yoga has never showed up at your bedside, held a gun to our heads and forced us to get to our mats. That never happened.
Yoga is not a pancea. Yoga never told anyone it was. Yoga is not a noun and not capable of sentient actions.
Start with the Eight Limbs.
If we are only looking to yoga for a workout, we are only focusing on one of eight of the limbs of an ancient Hindu system of yoga. Classically, yogis were taught the breathing and philosophical disciplines before the postures were introduced, and they were never the goal, but means to end ”union with a divine self.” The first two philosophical points: Compassion (ahimsa) & Truth (satya).
You know your body better than anyone else in the world.
And if you don’t, then stop whatever you are doing and start listening. Breathe and listen. What is the purpose of your practice? Does it serve you? How do you feel during every moment? Do you need to change? Ask your body what it needs. Then sit, listen and breathe. Listen with profound, subtle attention to the rhythms vibrations and needs of your body.
“Yoga” postures can bring us into balance, but first we may spend many years cultivating a practice of deep listening so that we can find out where we are out of balance whether or not our mats are involved. I know too many people who spend eight hours hunched over a computer and blame a shoulder issue on their chaturangas.
Alexander Technique, Feldenkrais and Body-Mind Centering are just three subtle body awareness techniques that can and will change how you stand, how you sit, how you sleep so you maximize efficiency on and off your mat.
Ask for help and support.
If you are dealing with chronic pain or an acute injury, go to a professional*—a physical therapist, chiropractor or osteopath. Too often, I have waited until a place in my body is screaming in pain, making life unbearable and stopping the whole body before I address the “little” annoyances. Call in the professionals to help you find a better way to your best self. Getting bodywork, like Thai massage may help you get there most easily.
*Professional Yoga Alliance RYT 200 hour standards only required 20 hours of anatomy to become certified, and only five of that needs to be actual anatomy and physiology, hardly a medical degree. So as much as you may love your regular teacher, know their limitations.
Get crazy with self-care.
If you are an avid yogi or yogini, splurge on yourself and hire a senior teacher to design a personalized flow for you. My personal practice is always changing and has shifted drastically—I wake up every morning and ask what does self care look like today? It may be a mellow practice followed by a smoothie and massage. Or it may be a vigorous quick practice and a productive day of work at the computer. What does it look like for you each morning?
Change the channel.
Are you a hot Bikram yogi? Try out a different style like Iynegar or Shadow yoga class or vice versa. Are you going to yoga for a good workout? Taking a Zumba class or swimming laps for a week instead. By switching out of your comfort zone, you let go of the need to “be good at it” and allow yourself to open up to new possibilities. Learning a new skill (acrobatics, aerial yoga or AcroYoga) is a great way to cultivate your beginners mind, a curiosity on your mat so you can turn off autopilot and turn on embodied asana.
Take back your mat and let me know how it goes.
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Ed: Catherine Monkman