Thursday, July 7, 2011

That rather painful feeling of being stuck at a certain place in the practice

"Your pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding.
Even as the stone of the fruit must break, that its heart may stand in the sun, so must you know pain.
And could you keep your heart in wonder at the daily miracles of your life, your pain would not seem less wondrous than your joy;
And you would accept the seasons of your heart, even as you have always accepted the seasons that pass over your fields.
And you would watch with serenity through the winters of your grief.
Much of your pain is self-chosen."

Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet

Most of us who have been practicing Ashtanga for a while probably have had this rather painful feeling before. It can come up in a couple of ways:

(1) Perhaps you are relatively new to the practice. You go to class everyday, or several times a week. Everytime you go to class, your teacher gives you a new posture or two, and you learn a new shape to put your body into in every class. Naturally, you are excited ("I didn't know my body could do all these things!", "I am becoming more flexible/stronger!"). Then one day, you get to a certain posture which resists your most earnest efforts to contort your body into (one of the Marichyasanas is a common candidate, but it really can be any posture). You look with dismay at the practitioner next to you, who gets into (and out of) the same posture with total lightness and ease, and you feel that the universe is not being very fair to you. To make things worse, your teacher comes up to you and says, "That's it for today. Go into finishing backbends now. You will stop here." And you continue to stop here for what seems like an eternity. "Will I ever go beyond this posture?" You ask yourself. Most frustratingly, your teacher refuses to say anything about this.

(2) You get certain postures "taken away" from you because of injury or some kind of physical or medical condition. This actually happened to me last year. One morning in June last year, as I stepped onto my mat and got into my first Surya A, I noticed that my back and hamstrings were feeling unusually stiff; actually, they had been feeling unusually stiff for a few days before that, but I hadn't been paying too much attention to it, because I was in the process of moving to a new place, and many other things were clamoring for my attention, both on and off the mat. Nevertheless, I told myself that it was just morning stiffness, and that it would go away after the first few Suryas. I did become less stiff after a few Suryas, but something still did not feel right. I decided to go ahead with my usual second series practice anyway. Bad decision. The backbends up to kapotasana felt okay, but when I tried to jump into Bakasana B, my back tightened and seized up in mid-jump (which might have been quite comical, if I weren't the person experiencing it), and I had to abort the jump. There was this swollen, painful sensation around the left SI joint. I quickly went into the finishing lotuses and then took a quick savasana. Then, still in a panicked state of mind, I called my teacher at his shala. He listened, and then told me that I should go back to doing primary only for a couple of weeks; he said that the strong emotions associated with moving to a new place had probably led me to do certain unwise things in my practice, leading to injury. He also said that according to Sharath, one should practice primary only for two weeks after moving to a new place, in order to adjust to the energy of the new place. Well, I kind of wish he had told me this before I got injured... but oh well...

So I duly followed his advice. The couple of weeks turned into a month, and then two. And my body still wouldn't allow me to get beyond primary. In my frustration, I emailed my teacher. He responded by telling me that I should restrict myself to doing primary only for the foreseeable future; when I get to the point where primary series is "like taking a walk in the park", then and only then should I start thinking about doing second series "as a hobby." He also added that this is where his practice is, and it is where he sees himself at for the rest of his life. Argghh... some consolation this is. Of course, now, with the benefit of hindsight, I can see that he was really just putting in a different way Guruji's famous words, "Primary series, very important; Second series, somewhat important; Third series, demonstration only..." But in my very frustrated and disappointed state of mind at the time, I couldn't see this.

The funny thing is, it was only when I accepted (even resigned myself to) the fact that I was going to be practicing primary only for a very long time--maybe even for the rest of my life--that my body started to sort of let go and open up. It took me three months from the time of injury to get Kapotasana back, and another four to five months after that to get back up to Pincha Mayurasana. And if you have been following my recent posts, you'll know that it's only in the last month or so that I have gone back to working on Karandavasana. And it's been only in the last week that I have carefully begun splitting again.

My experience, and the experiences of others that I have learnt from, teaches me that it is not what postures one is doing now, or what series one is at that determines the quality of one's practice. Our bodies and lives and specific circumstances are constantly in flux, and the practice that is right for this mind/body today may be totally inappropriate for it tomorrow. Perhaps because of the linear order of the Ashtanga series, there is a tendency to see postures in the later series as being more "advanced" than postures in the earlier. But this is, strictly speaking, not true. In his recent series of videos on Ashtanga as Bhakti Yoga, David Garrigues says that the purpose of performing asanas isn't really to increase physical prowess or flexibility. Rather, we can see the practice as a sort of devotional dance to the universe, so that when we perform a particular asana, we get our bodies to be in a specific position that aligns us to receive the most that the universe has to offer us at that particular point in time (this, by the way, totally butchers David's words; please watch his videos for the actual words he uses :-)). Seen in this light, doing only Surya A is not less advanced than doing, say, Yoganidrasana; they are just different ways of putting the mind/body into specific alignments, so as to optimize the mind/body's capacity to receive the most that the universe has to offer it at any given point in time. By the same token, if one gets "stopped" at a particular posture, or if one is restricted to practicing only certain postures because of injury or changes in life circumstances, it does not mean that one's practice has become "less advanced"; it simply means that one is now in a position where a particular set of postures would better serve one's needs.

Perhaps, then, if we can try to see things this way, and accept the seasons of our practice "even as you have always accepted the seasons that pass over your fields", we will be able to weather the ups and downs of practice (and maybe, life as well) with more equanimity and grace, and less kicking and screaming :-)  


  1. This really resonates with me - particularly the 2nd example! I'm just about to go back to yoga class again after 5 weeks of not being allowed any yoga, because of a meniscus injury. My osteopath (who practices Iyengar) went through a 1st series list of poses and cut what I could do down to about half!!

    It could kind of break my heart - those poses like marichy C and D I'd been working so hard on will be further out of my reach by the time I get back to them! But really I'm so glad to be able to start again, and it will be an opportunity to work on different areas of my practice ... :)

  2. Hello susiegb, I'm sorry to hear about your suffering; I feel your pain, as I have also worked with knee issues. But very often, an injury forces you to focus on other areas in the practice. As a result, you will become strong in areas you never thought possible. I think David Garrigues wrote something about this as well. Check out his blog.

  3. Thank you for posting.
    i'm currently struggling with a meniscus injury which basically means no lotus positions at all on one side; and even the janu's in primary are extremely painful...
    I feel so so so frustrated. Its been a recurring problem since I was in my teens - even before I started yoga, and all has been well the past few years, and now here it is again.I feel completely useless.. and my practise has just gone to pot...

  4. Hello Maria,
    I feel your pain. I also have instability issues with my right knee joint from my reckless years of martial arts training. But with patience and good faith, we will overcome these issues. I think Matthew Sweeney wrote somewhere that the practice has this tendency to bring up certain old injuries/issues in the body. But if you stick with the practice, and work patiently and gradually, they will heal.