Friday, September 16, 2011

The body reminds us of what the mind has already forgotten

I just watched this video of an interview and a backbend demonstration by Anne Nuotio. I don't know much about her, except that she is an Ashtanga teacher based in Helsinki, Finland.

What she says in the interview really speaks to me. Nuotio says that the physical body has a memory that is activated by yoga. In particular, the intense nature of the Ashtanga practice has the tendency to bring these forgotten or repressed body memories to the surface. Some of these memories surface as pain--pain that the body had amassed at some point in the past, but has forgotten. The practice brings these to the surface and forces one to deal with them.

In my experience, I feel that this is especially true of backbends. Sometimes, despite one's best intentions with maintaining good alignment and form, one still feels pain in backbends, especially with intense backbends like Kapotasana or dropbacks. This pain is not bad pain. A couple of teachers I have studied with have alluded to this pain. For instance, at his Minneapolis workshop in July, Matthew Sweeney said at one point that very often, pain that is felt in backbends actually points to an issue that can lead to future injury. This being the case, backbends give us an invaluable opportunity to address the issue now, rather than in the future, when it surfaces as injury. A few years ago, Eddie Modestini made the same point to me in a rather less elegant way. He said, 'Well, if you still have an "ouiii!" sensation in backbends after you have done your best with alignment and all that, then maybe the "ouiii!" sensation needs to be there!'

Last but not least, in light of all the Ashtanga and senior-teacher-bashing that has been going on in the blogosphere lately, maybe I should end this post with a disclaimer: Please, please, I am not telling you to go inflict pain and injury on yourself in backbends. Please take care of alignment and be responsible for your practice (Ashtanga has a bad enough rep, as it is...). I'm just saying that not all pain in backbending is bad pain.


  1. I watched this video before I started Ashtanga practice and thought they mislabeled it. If this is only "intermediate" and not "super advanced", there's no hope I'll get very far in this style of yoga. At the time I thought all the back bends and tick tocs were totally insane and not possible for my body. Strange watching this again now and realizing that these poses just maybe within my reach some day. I do experience pain in the lower back in my drop backs and it feels like injury, except I feel totally fine if I stop for a few days OR if I just push through and try it again the next day. I can't tell if my alignment is right or not but I actually feel my discs or veterbrae shifting and wiggling in my back bends. I guess I should keep practicing but take it slowly?

  2. Yes, Yyogini, there was also a time when I could never see myself doing something like Kapotasana. But now I do it five days a week :-)

    "I do experience pain in the lower back in my drop backs and it feels like injury, except I feel totally fine if I stop for a few days OR if I just push through and try it again the next day."

    I have never seen your practice, but I'd like to make a little suggestion here, if I may. Maybe the next time you feel this painful sensation in the lower back in dropbacks, try to consciously take an extra breath or take a deeper breath in that exact position, and see if the pain subsides or if the quality of the pain changes. There's a possibility that at least part of the pain may be caused by some kind of tension or holding pattern somewhere, and breathing more and deeper may help alleviate it, or at the very least help you to understand the exact nature of the pain.

    Perhaps you can also get your teacher to look more closely at you when you dropback, and see if he or she can identify what might be causing this pain?

  3. That's really good advice actually Nobel, I'll give it a try. I've had 3 teachers assisting me with drop backs now and none have said anything correctional (besides grounding my feet more and really engage my leg muscles). I am going to guess that the "pain" comes from having never bend my body this far back ever before.

  4. Good luck, Yyogini! Tell me how it goes.