Thursday, March 24, 2011

Practice report, a little meditation on pain, injury, and the second arrow

Did full primary and second up to pincha mayurasana this morning. A couple of practice "highlights":

(1) For the past few weeks, I have been noticing that (knock on wood, or whatever it is that needs to be knocked on) my SI joint has been getting steadily better. For the past two or three weeks, I have been feeling no pain or discomfort in leg-behind-the-head postures. Sometimes, during the Suryas, I might feel something strange in the area of the left SI joint, but it goes away once I get into standing. In the Suryas, I have noticed that working on lifting the body off the ground from trini position before jumping back into chatvari really helps the SI joint. I'm not quite sure why this is so. My theory is that the bandha-engagement and whatnot that is needed in order to lift up from trini position provides traction to and strengthens the lower back muscles around the SI joint area, thus giving the SI joint some much-needed support. Well, this is coming from a half-baked (less than half-baked, actually) anatomist. If any of you anatomists out there have any better explanations for this phenomenon, please share. Also, if any of you out there suffer from SI joint pain, this might be something you can work on. Even if you cannot actually lift up from trini position, I suspect that just trying to engage the bandhas needed to lift up (without actually lifting up) would also have the same beneficial effect on the muscles around the SI joint.

Speaking of SI joint issues, I have also noticed that the cybershala does not seem to have any adjectives to describe SI joint pain or discomfort. I mean, we speak of "tweaky knees", "gimpy hamstrings", or "gimpy shoulders", but we don't say "[insert adjective] SI joint." Is this because SI joint issues are relatively less common? Just wondering.

(2) There have also been a couple of asana achievements in the last couple of weeks. First, I succeeded in floating/jumping into Bhuja Pidasana without touching my feet to the ground (see my March 22nd post for the juicy details :-)).

Secondly, I have finally achieved the "headless headstand" in the last couple of weeks. This is really just a fancy way of saying that I have finally managed to do Sirsasana with my head off the ground. Although I still have to bring my head down to the ground in Urdhva Dandasana (but I'm working on becoming "headless" here as well :-)). It's really interesting how much more I am working my arms when my head is off the ground in Sirsasana. I suspect the energetic effects are different too, but I haven't detected any noticeable difference in my overall energy levels. If any of you out there have anything to share about this, I would love to hear from you.

But the interesting thing is, I'm not that impressed by my asana achievements. They just... came. What really impresses me and makes me really grateful and happy at the same time is my recovering SI joint (or at least I think it's recovering... again, knock on wood). It's so nice to be able to do so many postures without pain, or fear of pain.  

This brings to mind a familiar Buddhist story. You know, the one where the Buddha says that whatever painful event happens to you is the first arrow, but your adverse reaction to the first event is the second arrow. The idea is that while we cannot avoid the first arrow, we have a choice to avoid the second one. The trouble is that most of us consciously or unconsciously choose to get hit by the second arrow, thus multiplying our pain and inflicting a lot of unnecessary suffering on ourselves.

This story applies to yoga injuries and pain as well. In a sense, the physical injury itself (whether it's a knee, shoulder, or SI joint issue, or what-have-you) and the accompanying physical pain is the first arrow. I say "in a sense", because there's obviously a way we could have avoided the injury and pain, if we knew better alignment, took better care of ourselves, etc, etc. But given our state of mind/body consciousness at the moment when the injury was sustained, it is fair to say that the physical injury itself and the accompanying pain was unavoidable, for all intents and purposes.

But the second arrow--the "arrow" of our emotional reactions--is avoidable, at least to a large extent. But many of us (including me) throw ourselves into the path of this second arrow; indeed, we sometimes do things that bury this arrow deeper and deeper into the wound. I remember that in the first couple of days after the SI joint injury, instead of finding ways to adjust my practice to accommodate this physical limitation, I actually tried to push my body through my usual practice, and my body had to show me who's boss (through excruciating SI joint pain). And then I went through this brief period of asking my SI joint, "Why? Why are you doing this to me?" But of course, my SI joint has done nothing; if anything, I'm the one who has done something to it.

But this is where I'm going to take a different spin on this Buddhist story. Perhaps the second arrow was necessary and, in a sense, unavoidable as well, because one needs to get hit by the second arrow in order to learn some valuable lessons. In this case, I think the second arrow serves to shatter an illusion; it shatters the illusion that the mind is always the boss of the body. I have a feeling that in western culture, we are socialized to see the mind and body as being separate, and to see the body as being in some sense subordinate to the mind. Mind commands, "Body, do X!" and the body obeys. But yoga shatters this illusion. If my hips are super-tight, and my mind says, "Body, get into padmasana!" Body will send a pain-message back to the mind. The mind can override this pain message only at the cost of great damage (blown-out knees) to the body and ultimately, to the mind as well.

So what is the moral of this long story? Hmm, I'm not sure. Maybe the moral of the story is that some second arrows cannot be avoided :-)   


  1. Yes, I think it takes a high level of awareness to avoid the second arrow, I wish I was more skillful at it....

  2. Yes, Claudia, it definitely takes a high level of awareness to avoid the second arrow. And we are all working on it all the time :-)

  3. This allegory makes a lot of sense. More often than not I find that aches and strains arising from yoga help to deepen my practice. It forces me to really slow down and pay attention, which annoys the ego of course, but enriches the practice in the long-run.

  4. Very true, savasanaaddict. I think the cool thing about yoga is that if we can put our egos aside, we can eventually learn something from everything, even from second arrows :-).