Thursday, December 8, 2011

Why I enjoy my yoga practice now, even though it's so much harder

Earlier today, I read Pakistani Ashtangi's latest post, in which she ponders the questions, "Do I enjoy yoga? Why do I do it?"

Her post really speaks to me: Without being totally conscious of it, I have also recently been asking myself the same questions, particularly after I injured my left knee. There have never been any dramatic moments (I'm generally not the sort to engage in theatrics). But as anybody who has ever worked around an injury in the practice will probably agree, injury presents the practitioner with challenges on two levels:

(I) Pain and limitations on the physical level: There are clear physical limitations (in terms of postures to be modified or even avoided for the time being) on the practice imposed by the injury. Even many postures that are "kosher" to do probably will be accompanied by a certain level of discomfort.

(II) Pain and limitations on the mental/ego level: Along with physical limitations come the effect of these limitations on the ego. The ego always wants to go further than is physically safe (at least mine does); it always thinks it can somehow enable the body to get away with doing this or that inappropriate modification or posture just this once without aggravating the injury. And (at least in my case; I can't speak for anybody else) a big part of the practice then becomes this process of wrangling with the ego and not letting it have its way. In my particular case, it also doesn't help that I probably have a higher pain threshold than many other people. Which means that it is possible for my ego to override even pain where other egos would have just backed off.

I will even come right out and confess that dealing with (II) has been by far the more challenging part of my practice journey over the last month or so than (I).

I wonder if all this is more information than you want to know :-) In any case, over the past month or so, I have found myself asking myself on more than one occasion: Why am I still doing the practice? Why am I practicing, if it seems like only one of two things can come out of the practice on any given day: (1) I listen to my ego, and hurt myself more/take longer to recover (bad), (2) I don't listen to my ego, which crushes my ego (also bad, since as much as I like to be able to say that the ego is not a part of me... well, it is.).

Given (1) or (2), it seems to me that any sane person would probably just say, "Why don't you just take a break from practice, and get more sleep?" There is, of course, an obvious answer to this question. As studies in sports medicine have shown, except in cases where one is so severely injured that one can't move, total bed rest is in some ways just as risky as pushing through pain and injury. After a period of bed rest, the body becomes de-conditioned and thus, more injury-prone. So it is actually healthier both physically and psychologically to practice around an injury than to not practice at all. 

But while this answer makes a lot of sense from a medical point of view, I feel that it still misses some important thing that is really motivating my daily practice. I feel that this answer somehow fails to capture that missing something which gets me on my mat every morning despite my physical limitations. And I think PakistaniAshtangi's post goes a big part of the way to capture what is in my mind. She writes:

"I really enjoy the way it makes me feel, physically and mentally, after practice. Often even during, now that I think about it. Interestingly, and with the risk of getting into over-share territory here, I’ve even had times in Savasana when I was struck by the similarity of that feeling to that of post-orgasm – which says something about how intensely the practice sometimes affects me, physically. There’s a thorough feeling of well being after practice that I don’t quite get from any other physical exertion that I’ve tried. And I think that that physical state is deeply connected to the mental calmness one gets after practice too – it’s like I’ve been run in the washing machine, spun vigorously in there to get the last dirty water out, then shaken out powerfully (like my mum used to do it, snap SNAP!) to straighten out the wrinkles, and hung up to dry all relaxed and content in the bright sunshine. I don’t think I could get one without the other."

The practice definitely gives me a powerful feeling of groundedness and well-being that no other physical exertion (or non-exertion) can offer. In my case, I would also like to add that there is an ironic way in which my injury actually adds to the feeling of groundedness. I think B.K.S. Iyengar says somewhere that asana practice is an inward-looking practice, because the very process of paying attention to one's body and what it is going through takes one's mind away from whatever else might distract it, and grounds it radically in the present moment. I think this is all the more true when one has to work around an injury: How can it not be, if the difference between attention and inattention at any moment might mean the difference between excruciating pain (and more injury) and a productive, healing experience? To practice around an injury is, in this sense, to practice on a knife edge. But the knife edge can also be a gift, since it forces one to pay more attention than one otherwise would have.

Well, thank you for listening in on this monologue. I should probably end this post with a disclaimer: I am not glorifying injury. There are many ways to find this knife edge of mindful awareness, injury being probably the least desirable one.


  1. Hey Nobel, nice to hear that you found my post interesting. I can so understand what you're saying about injury, about balancing between pushing it too much and, I guess, too little. It's so easy to get enthusiastic and go to far, partly because one misses being able to practice the way one usually does. I was struggling with that this spring when my arm hurt in every downward dog... I think I read somewhere, though I can't remember where, that injury is a gift in a way because one can learn so much from having to be patient and hold back and not pushing it. I find it very hard to see it that way myself, but I can really understand the idea, and whenever I'm not capable of doing a full practice I try to remind myself of that. ("Try" is the key word here ;) Good luck with managing your injury! And, if you're capable of it, maybe even enjoy the period of a more low-key practice - I found that I kind of did.

  2. Thanks Bibi. Yes, injury can be a gift, in more ways than one. Recently, after consulting with a few people, it occurred to me that my injury may have been caused/precipitated by an underlying muscular balance: There might be lack of flexibility in the muscles surrounding the knee joint (IT band, adductors, etc.). So in this way, injury and pain is a powerful, albeit painful way of bringing greater awareness to the body. In the bigger scheme of things, one can gain so much from injury, if one approaches it in the right way. Maybe I'll post about this soon.

  3. Oh, I meant to say that my injury may have been caused by an underlying muscular IMBALANCE :-)

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