Happy Moon Day! Whether you observed the Moon Day today, are going to observe it tomorrow, or even if don't observe Moon Days at all, I hope this day brings you some well-deserved rest.
I thought I'd take advantage of this little break from our daily ashtangic grind to broach a somewhat sensitive topic: Pain and injury in the practice. Specifically, I'll like to discuss knee pain and injury, and hopefully get your opinions on this issue.
I would like to be able to say that I have never experienced any pain or injury in my ashtanga practice before, but that would be disingenuous. Over the years, I've had my share of pains and injuries (SI joint misalignments, knee tweaks, rotator cuff issues, to name a few...) I'll also admit that I do not always have the best or wisest injury-rehabilitation plans. For example, during the early days of my practice, I once endured a rotator cuff injury for a few months straight, and did all the usual postures without any modifications, even though just doing even basic postures like downward dog caused the rotator cuff to hurt like hell. Yes, it was my ego...
But all this is neither here nor there. I have a responsibility to you, my fellow blogosphere inhabitants, not to squander your attention, so I'll get to my point. So, back to knee pain and injuries. I don't think it is an exaggeration to say that knee pain and injuries may be the single most common issue facing ashtangis in the course of the physical practice. I have never practiced at a place where no one is working with knee issues. I have also noticed that over the years, from practicing with different teachers and practitioners, I have noticed that yogis and yoginis can be broadly divided into three groups when it comes to their views on dealing with knee pain and/or injury:
(1) The Yoga Journal Politically Correct/Conservative group: Practitioners in this group view the slightest discomfort or tweakiness in the knee as a sign to back off doing any posture that might place the slightest pressure on the knee joint, or any of its connecting ligaments or tendons. So, if you belong to this group, the slightest "off" sensation in the knee would be interpreted as an immediate signal to not do padmasana, half-padmasana, virasana, half-virasana, or any of their variations.
(2) The Yoga Journal Politically Incorrect/ Somewhat-Aggressive-Approach group: So-called because such a view would never make it to the pages of Yoga Journal. At least, I can't imagine Yoga Journal endorsing this view. People in this group will continue to do padmasana even if they have to endure pretty intense knee pain in so doing. This is probably a very unorthodox view in the yoga community, but I do know people who belong in this group. For example, my teacher told me that when he first started doing padmasana, his knees hurt for an entire year. But he endured, and somewhat managed to continue doing padmasana to this day without blowing his knees out.
(3) The Middle-of-the-Road group: People in this group think that there are limitations in the views of both groups (1) and (2). If you follow the approach of group (1), and simply avoid all knee postures (padmasana, virasana, or their variations) at the slightest sign of knee pressure, then your body might never learn to open up sufficiently to get into these postures. Which leads to a kind of chicken-and-egg paradox: You can't do padmasana because your hips are not open enough, but your hips are not open enough because you never try to work at padmasana. But, on the other hand, if one follows the approach of group (2), and just pushes into padmasana, there is a very real risk that serious damage may ensue. So, the middle-of-the-road-group proposes that one should find ways and means to do padmasana (or half-padmasana) that bring the knees to the edge, to the point just before discomfort becomes pain. The idea is that if you come to this point regularly, you will be able to "persuade" the hips to open up over time, and eventually get into a fuller and deeper padmasana. At her workshop, for example, Kino suggested something along these lines: If one has knee issues, one can try getting into half-padmasana by first bringing the foot to the thigh in a seated position (just like if you were getting into Marichyasana A). This closes the knee joint and immobilizes it, protecting it from instability. Then, keeping the knee joint closed, one slowly brings the foot to rest as high on the opposite thigh as possible without feeling pain. The idea is that, over time, the hip rotator will open up enough to allow the foot to snuggle deeper into the thigh and the abdomen, leading to a progessively deeper half-padmasana.
In representing the three views above, I try my best to remain detached, and to not take sides with any one view. I'll also admit that these three views are probably a little simplistic: It is quite possible that most people do not fit neatly into any one of these views, but either subscribe to some mix of these three views, or alternate between them. But I thought this is a start to getting us to think and discuss this issue.
One more disclaimer: If you are big Yoga Journal fan, I apologize for making a caricature of your beloved publication. If you want to throw metaphorical peanuts or eggs at me, go ahead. I hope my Jedi powers would be powerful enough to enable me to dodge all your projectiles :-) May the Force be with me.
But seriously, I would like to hear your views about this issue that, I suspect, has caused (and is still causing) much angst and frustration among ashtangis.