I just read David Garrigues' latest post. I think I'm becoming a big fan of his. Maybe I will try to go study with him if I don't make it to Mysore soon. Anyway, in this post, David answers some questions from students about the practice. One student's question--and David's response--really jump out at me. This student was recently diagnosed with mild soliosis and carpal tunnel syndrome. The doctor told the student to quit Ashtanga as it places a lot of pressure on the wrist, and doing inversions "will only make... scoliosis worse." This student decided to write David to ask him if there is a way to continue practicing Ashtanga with these conditions.
David responds by suggesting various modifications for practicing with these conditions. He then concludes by saying:
"The essential ingredient is a love of ashtanga and in maintaining a steady devotion and trying to do the practice as accurately as your given circumstances allow... there will always be someone to tell you that you can’t do ……….. the list of possible things or activities or dreams is endless and so is the list of people who will tell you can’t do that something. Sometimes they may be right but equally sometimes they are wrong. And ultimately you have to decide how important something is to you. And when you’ve decided on that something that is important enough to you, you may need to guard and protect the heck of it in order to for it to remain a strong, positive force in your life. As people we can tend to be suspicious of what we don’t know about, and if on the surface something looks strange or exotic or very different from what we know or are used to, we can tend to form negative impressions of that thing. But our own fear and unwillingness to be open to new or different things can us cause to make wrong assessments of things and to unfairly judge what we don’t have enough information to be judging. I believe it would be a true waste for you to stop developing the ashtanga yoga practice that you have begun and love. If you practice properly there is a strong chance that ashtanga can help correct or at least minimize the negative effects of both of your problems better than any thing else that you will try. I have found that ashtanga applied properly, has huge potential for transformation and healing. Om! David"
David's response really speaks to me. For one thing, I also have mild scolosis. I've been diagnosed with it since I was in elementary school. And at least a couple of my yoga teachers have also spotted it: Eddie Modestini and Nicki Doane spoke to me after one of the sessions at their asana intensive on Maui in 2007 (which I attended), and asked me if I knew I had mild scoliosis (I said I did). They had spotted the curve in my spine while I was in Sirsasana. They didn't really suggest anything much more beyond that (they didn't ask me to stop doing inversions, which is why I'm still doing them today :-)), although Eddie did say that doing more backbends will help my condition in the long run. Anyway, I have this suspicion that if anybody had told me at any point that I needed to stop doing Ashtanga because of the scoliosis, I probably would have gone ahead and continued doing it anyway, knowing the sort of person I am.
But David's response also spoke to me because it highlights something I have been feeling very strongly for a while now. It seems to me that very often, expert knowledge and specialized training (in this case, medical training) have the effect of closing the mind of the individual who has received that training, accentuating the very human tendency to be suspicious of and form negative impressions of things we are not familiar with. It is probably not an exaggeration to say that many highly-trained experts operate from a place of fear rather than openness, automatically rejecting that which is strange or counter-intuitive to them.
But perhaps we can't blame people for having this attitude. After all, seen from many angles, the daily practice that Ashtanga requires is very strange and counter-intuitive to many people. This morning, for example, I had to wake up earlier than usual in order to do my practice and make it to campus for a meeting at 8:30 a.m. As I sat in the conference room waiting for the meeting to begin, I couldn't help wondering what the reactions of the other people present at the meeting would be if I had told them that I had spent two hours breathing, bending myself into certain shapes and standing on my arms as well as my head before I came to the meeting... I guess what I'm trying to say is that doctors are ultimately ordinary people plus some specialized training. And that specialized training may or may not prepare them to deal productively with things in their patients' lifestyles that they find unfamiliar or strange. So it is perhaps natural that many doctors, when confronted with such unfamiliarity and strangeness, would default to that "if it puts you in an unfamiliar or uncertain place, it's probably bad for you, don't do it" mindset.
Please don't get me wrong: I'm not telling anybody to stop seeing doctors. But David's student's encounter with the doctor brings up a feeling I have been having for a while now: It seems to me that, more often than not, the medical establishment in this country tends to disconnect and dis-empower individuals from their bodies. Rather than helping the patient to find out how best to work with a particular condition given his or her lifestyle choices, values, and things he or she holds dear, doctors often seem to just default to saying something along the lines of, "Take this pill or undergo this procedure, and you will be better. And don't do this or that." For instance, some time ago, I had a diabetic friend who was taking medication daily for his condition, as prescribed by his doctor. When I asked him what that medication was supposed to do, he said he didn't know! Which strikes me as very strange: If you had a particular condition, and somebody was asking you to put a certain substance into your body, wouldn't that person at least have a responsibility to tell you what that substance was supposed to do in your body? Or maybe it didn't occur to my friend to ask. Yeah, I suppose that's possible too. In any case, if my friend's experience is indicative of the state of physician-patient relationships in general in this country, then it seems to me that medicine as practiced in this country suffers a serious flaw: There does not seem to be any attempt to further engage patients as people, and help them to better understand and care for their bodies and minds given who they are as individuals. Doctors just see patients as machines that can be fixed with this or that drug or procedure. Which leads to a state in which people feel more disconnected from and dis-empowered with regard to their own bodies, and become ever more dependent on supposed health experts to tell them what is right and wrong and good and bad. I don't think this is a good way to go.