Sunday, December 19, 2010

Kino on Pain and Injury, and some thoughts on Ashtanga's bad rep

I just read an article that Kino MacGregor recently published on her website about pain and injury in the yoga practice. Being somebody who is highly egoistic and who has the tendency to just "push through" uncomfortable sensations and pain, her words hit me like a bolt of lightning on a warm summer day (I know, I know, this might not be the best image, but I can't think of anything else better right now); they are very wise and sobering at the same time. Since many of us have worked with or are working with injuries and pain in the practice, I thought I'd share them here with everyone, with a little commentary from me. Kino says:

"It is not enough to feel pain and push through; actually pushing through some types of pain is pure insanity. Instead pain is your teacher on a much deeper level that forces you to dig deep into the heart of yoga... Pain is your motivation to learn healthy alignment, better technique and more efficient movement patterns. If the way that you approach your physical body leads to injury and suffering it generally indicates that it is time to use that sensation to motivate yourself to try a new method of movement. Many people take their first experience of pain in yoga as a sign to change styles of yoga, but if the deeper question of technique and alignment is not addressed the same injury will just reappear later. If you can recognize pain as a signal to retrain your movement patterns to an empirically sound method then you will find a new freedom in your yoga practice. Rather than jumping ship from one style of yoga to another the best course of action is to use your rational mind to learn a new approach to the postures and movements that give you pain. Discovering a healthy use of the body and making small adjustments to your approach will alleviate pain caused by unhealthy movement patterns. If you listen and change your approach the pain eventually disappears. When yoga says that pain is your teacher it does not ask you to plow through blindly. Instead pain is your motivation to make the changes in your technical approach to movement in order to be healthier and ultimately free from the kind of pain that will injure you."

As I was reading this passage, I thought about how ashtanga "enjoys" a bad rep among certain segments of the yoga community. I don't know the exact cause of this bad rep, but I think there are a couple of possible reasons for it. First, I think a big part of this bad rep has to do with the fact that people hear so many stories of ashtangis (myself included) who get this or that injury from doing this or that posture. I think it is quite understandable for people to react this way. A big part of the responsibility actually lies with myself: It is I who has injured myself because I did not bother to listen to what my body was telling me, to use my rational questioning mind to "learn a new approach to the postures and movements" while "making small adjustments to [my] approach [that] will alleviate pain caused by unhealthy movement patterns."

Looking at the same matter from another angle, we can also see whatever pain the practice brings up in our bodies as messages telling us that our bodies need to move in some other more optimal and efficient (and less painful) way. In this sense, pain is a teacher; it helps us to take the necessary actions to be more at home in the practice. If we react to pain by "jumping ship" to another style of yoga, the underlying imbalance or unhealthy movement pattern that caused the pain won't simply go away: It just stays right there, waiting to resurface at some other time and occasion.

This brings me to another possible reason for ashtanga's bad rep. It is usually expressed in this way: "I dislike/hate ashtanga! It's so rigid! Why do I have to do these postures in this particular sequence, and no other? I hate forward bends and hip-openers! Why do we have to do so many of them in the primary series?" But I think there is a reason why the postures of the primary series are arranged the way they are: They are arranged in that way to challenge us to "learn a new approach to postures and movements", to find a way to work through a particularly demanding sequence of postures with optimal comfort and minimal pain. The Yoga Sutra says, "Sthira Sukham Asanam", which can be translated as "Asana is steady exertion with ease, comfort without dullness." In my opinion, the challenge of the ashtanga vinyasa system is to enable the practitioner to attain sthira sukham asanam within the constraint of a set series of postures. Far from limiting our freedom, this constraint actually gives us a well-defined space within which we can fully realize the power of our mind and body by squarely and unflinchingly confronting and surmounting our limitations.

Of course, there is a sense in which anybody can find his or her own freedom if he or she were to just fashion a sequence of postures consisting only of postures with which they are totally comfortable, which they can easily work with. The question is: How much would such "freedom" be worth? The Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore says, "Emancipation from the bondage of the soil is no freedom for the tree." Similarly, we can see the demands of the primary series as the "soil" through which our mind/body has to break through in order to attain true freedom; a freedom which is deeply and firmly rooted in the soil of tapas, a freedom which can stand tall and firm in the face of the winds of adversity. Conversely, I think we would be well-advised to be wary of any promise of "freedom" which purports to give us liberation without the trials and tribulations of constraint and boundary. Such freedom, enticing as it may seem, may come only at the price of depriving us of the valuable soil which we need for our growth.    


  1. It is interesting how you portrait different views, I never ever hated ashtanga, I always loved it and maybe always will, perhaps because i never forced and never will... I do like to find the edge though, get on the asana and go for the energetic edge, so to speak, get to where I can feel the whole body getting engaged, feeling every nerve, every tissue, every naddhi even, but not go overboard into hurt... I enjoy that challenge, going to the edge! :-)

  2. Thanks Claudia. It's great that you never force. It's quite unfortunate that ashtanga attracts so many "forceful" people like me who mess up their bodies and then give ashtanga a bad rep. But then again, maybe different people learn the same life lessons in different ways...

  3. I was once an Ashtanga hater! When I attended my first led class, I didn't understand why anyone would practice that way. The sequence was not what I thought a yoga sequence should be. I felt as though once seated, it made sense to remain seated rather than insert vinyasas between everything. So the reason I didn't enjoy it was because it wasn't what I was accustomed to in a yoga practice (therefore, it felt wrong), and also it was more challenging from a cardiovascular and mental perspective. If I wanted to challenge my cardiovascular system, I would go to the gym. And no one taught me how to mentally deal with challenging poses everyone else in the class could do with much more ease.

    A few months after that class I changed my mind, and I don't know why. I felt like ordering an Ashtanga DVD, and started practicing. Anyway, I now love it and take semi-private Ashtanga instruction, and feel as though this is right for me. I think Ashtanga is right for many people, but it's the discovery of this that is difficult. Many people might believe (as I once believed) that Ashtanga is not accessible for non-athletic types. With the right instructor and the right information, I think it's possible to change Ashtanga's reputation.

  4. Elisa, I definitely hear you when you say "If I wanted to challenge my cardiovascular system, I would go to the gym"! I never thought about it this way, but I am beginning to see why some people might get put off and stay away from ashtanga because of this.

    I was never an ashtanga hater, but for a long time, I couldn't really understand the value of the practice, and was kind of vacillating between Ashtanga and an Iyengar-inspired practice. It was when I met my teacher and started practicing 6 days a week that my body slowly began to understand how to move itself in a way that enables it to sustain itself through the entire primary series. The key, I think, is to take everything breath by breath, as my teacher always said. So I think that a lot of it comes down to establishing a relationship with a teacher and building a daily practice based on that relationship.

  5. Dear Nobel
    Thanks for the post. Interesting to read her writing on the subject. I can walk to MLC from where I'm staying. I think she's traveling teaching at the moment...
    word verif ummittment, you need to have some of it do to ashtanga.

  6. ... in reference to Claudia's comment - yes, you do present differing opinions. it shows your philosophical training. in philosophy we are taught to look at different sides of an issue, stick with one and then explain why. :)

  7. Cool, Arturo. Please tell Kino I said hi if you see her.