Monday, July 15, 2013

Pain, yoga, Cylons

A lively exchange on pain and the Ashtanga practice has sprung up recently at the Confluence Countdown. As with most such lively exchanges, commenters come from all points on the pain/practice/sadhana spectrum. Some people agree and resonate wholeheartedly with Bobbie's view that pain is part of the growing process and sadhana associated with the journey of the practice. Others feel that Bobbie is setting up a false dichotomy between pain/long-term sadhana on the one hand, and no-pain/no-sadhana, on the other. These people feel that Ashtanga is not, and should not be an all-or-nothing proposition, that it is possible to practice Ashtanga and still lead a relatively "happy" and pain-free existence.

As for me, I'm not sure how I should even start talking about this, or if I should even talk about this at all. One problem I've noticed with exchanges like this in the blogosphere is that people tend to talk past each other. One person would say that pain is good and necessary; another might say that pain is bad and should be avoided. But are both people talking about the same thing when they talk about pain? It seems to me that in these exchanges, there is a lot of jumping around between different concepts while using the same word. For instance, at times, Bobbie is referring to the physical pain from her degenerating disks; at other times, when she says "pain", she seems to be referring to sometime more emotional, maybe even existential, like when she compares the pain that arises from the practice with the pain of poetic creation. I'm not sure what to make of this myself. I'm no poet (even though I sometimes try to write bad poetry), but I would be cautious about linking the experience of one process (Ashtanga practice) with another (writing poetry) so liberally; the two are, after all, distinct from each other. And even if there are similarities between the two processes, why tag on more baggage onto our practice than is already there? But well, what do I know about all this? As I said, I'm not a poet...

But in any case, what I'm trying to say is this: In this exchange, there clearly seems to be an equivocation between different senses of the word "pain". Bobbie, as we have seen, switches quite liberally between two different senses of that word. And God only knows how many other definitions of pain the various commenters are working with. Which, as we can imagine, is not too helpful for useful conversation.

But enough of complaining. Let me try to see if I can say something useful for once. Well, I'll just state the obvious. If you have pain of any sort (whether it's the physical kind, emotional/existential kind, or any other kinds that are out there), you have a few options:       

(1) Ignore it;
(2) Push through it; 
(3) Find ways to practice and live with/around it;
(4) Seek professional help, either from a teacher, medical practitioner, psychotherapist or.... poet (?) or.... philosopher (?)

I should also add that these options are not mutually exclusive. For instance, it is possible to find a way to live with/around the pain while seeking professional help at the same time. In any case, we are all adults (whatever definition of "adult" you choose to go by), and are free to choose and live with the consequences of whatever option we choose.

But of course, I should also add that things will probably be a lot easier if you are a Cylon. If you are a Cylon who suffers from unbearable pain (of whatever kind) arising from your practice, you can just kill yourself and then download into a new body; if you don't know what I'm talking about, watch Battlestar Galactica. But would Cylons need to practice yoga in the first place? Well, I don't know; but Cylons have been known to practice taichi on their basestars. Here's a model 8 doing taichi in the nude:


If some Cylons practice taichi, it stands to reason that there must be other Cylons out there who practice yoga. Maybe even Ashtanga? Hmm... might Kino be a Cylon?

 Could this be the latest humanoid Cylon model?

Maybe that's why she is so strong and flexible... Heck, maybe all long-time Ashtanga practitioners are Cylon sleeper agents; they think they are human, but are in fact Cylons who have been placed on earth to assume the cover identities of yoga practitioners and teachers. But why would whoever's in charge of the Cylons want to place Cylons here as Ashtangis? Well, how would I know? I'm not a Cylon. Or am I? Yikes... 


  1. would be interested to hear you carry through and forward with your thoughts on the two different types of pain that are being conflated and their presence (or not) in ashtanga (which i anticipate would lead to two very different discussions)

    1. Thanks for the suggestion for the follow-up post. But I don't think I am the best person to write that post, since I wasn't the one who introduced the conflation in the first place. I'll probably just add to the confusion :-)

  2. How long did it take you to find that most cylonesque of Kino pictures.

    Good thing about the Kidney stones pain I'm going through at the moment is that I'm glad of the distraction Battlestar Galactica brings, so much so that I've raced through the second half of the first series, all of the second (sublime TV) and am on to the third.

    Haven't read the confluence posts on this, it's just common sense isn't it, pain, some good old fashion discernment.

    Had my first kidney stone practice today, one posture (mahamudra), leading in and out from standing....discernment.

    And yes as you hint at no doubt 'language games', trying to talk about Ludo from the perspective of snakes and ladders.

    1. It didn't take long at all. I had originally used that picture in my post on ninjas, so I simply recycled it:

      I'm happy to hear that you have found a way to adapt your practice to your present pain. Moreover, there are clearly more painful things in this world than watching Battlestar Galactica... wait, am I equivocating here? :-)

      Common sense... hmm, what I do know about common sense?

  3. Nobel.

    While I appreciate your diving into matters of pain -- surely one of the most difficult when it comes to a variety of asana practices -- I don't see the confusion you're claiming. Unless people just aren't reading Bobbie's words closely.

    She wrote:

    "If I had landed in any other yoga class, I certainly would’ve heard, “If it hurts, then back off.” Everything hurt. I would’ve backed off, and right out of the room. So I learned from my teachers Shayna, Diana, and Tim that if I were to be freed from the constant pain of the disintegrating disks in my back, I would have to ignore it as part of the process, in order to get stronger. As Tim puts it, “Sometimes you have to use a thorn to remove a thorn.”"

    I think it is pretty clear that the pain being talked about isn't anything existential, except in the ways that near debilitating pain makes one question the universe.

    The follow-up post on poetry, I think, was more about how both Ashtanga and poetry -- when done "right" (and I'm making the claim to be able to say what that is) -- are hard, and therefore unlikely to be "popular." People tend not to like things that are difficult.


    1. Hello Steve,
      I don't have any problem with Bobbie's description of her experience of using the practice to heal from her back issues; I actually find it very inspiring and eye-opening.

      It is the part about poetry that raises a red flag for me. If you don't see the confusion, just read the many comments that have sprung up in response to Bobbie's follow-up post on poetry.

      I suppose it is true that both poetry and Ashtanga, when done "right", are hard and would involve pain. But I'm not sure whether (nor am I in a position to judge) the two pains refer to the same thing, or are even universally part of the process for every single person out there. So why equivocate between what are probably two very different things, and risk confusing issues? Also, why risk projecting one's own experience of things on others?

  4. Hey there. I have thoughts on the conversation that recently sprung up, and like you, also suspect people are not really talking about the same things, but I have decided to just stay out of it and refrain from commenting. There are enough comments. Personally, I'm happy lately to blog about dogs and cheese plates and keeping things light. I don't know - I'm practicing harder than ever but just can't seem to get worked up about discussing the serious business of ashtanga yoga lately (and I do wholeheartedly think it is serious business). To your point about poetry and the futility of talking / writing / blogging about yoga - I'm with you. Sometimes, there is a flash of something meaningful I want to write about and I take my best stab. Other times, there is a lot of feeling of "meaningful" but no words to account for it in the right way. So, I just take a pass and talk about the weather. Hope all is well with you - Kristen

    1. I think you are very wise to refrain from commenting; it seems that these "serious" Ashtanga business issues get people's underwear in a wad; and not always for good reason, I believe. After all, every single Ashtangi's practice and sadhana experience is different and uniquely hers, and unless you are her teacher and/or know her practice well, how can you recommend or say what is right/good for her? And besides, after a certain point, talking serious business doesn't serve much of a purpose, and the only thing to do is to... practice, and all is coming (or not). So I think it is probably wiser to not talk too seriously about practice issues on the blogosphere, even though the truth is that talking about these things are good ways to generate lots of comments/traffic to your blog.

      That said, however, I really do enjoy your dog-and-headstand stories. I'm sure there's a lively "market" for this kind of blog post out there :-)

  5. Hey Nobel,

    I think it's pretty important for people to be able to distinguish between pain that they are bringing to the mat - like Bobbie's chronic pain - and pain that is caused by their yoga practice. If you're a person in chronic pain then it's unreasonable to assume that when you step on a yoga mat your pain will magically disappear. You will certainly have to practice with your pain, just as you live with it everyday. Pain caused by practice is a different thing altogether, and as Grimmly says, "good old fashioned" discernment is the way forward. It's normal when you are strengthening and stretching your body in new ways to experience some muscular pain, and this is the kind of pain that we just breathe through in our practice. But there is also pain that is indicative of an injury: say, a torn rotator cuff or a strained ligament, and in this case, "pushing through" will make our injury worse. So I don't think there's a one-size-fits-all answer on this one.

    One thing though: in yoga I don't think we'd ever "ignore" a bodily sensation. The whole point is awareness, right? Maybe a better word would be "observe."

    Battlestar just caused me pain on a whole other (existential) level. I stopped watching it around Season 4.5 because I just couldn't bear witness to all that suffering. Let me know how you feel when you get there! That said, I'll never get enough of Grace Park.

    1. Yes, it is very difficult, if not impossible, to ever get enough of Grace Park. Which is probably why the writers of the show have so many Model 8s running around :-)

      Your pain-caused-by practice/pain-that-you-bring-to-the-mat distinction is a good and useful one. To that I would like to add a further sub-distinction: Pain caused by a previous yoga injury that you are working on healing from (say, a knee injury from prior yoga practice that you are healing from by modifying postures). When one is working with this kind of injury, there will typically be some level of discomfort for a few weeks or even months (although, as a general rule of thumb, usually less discomfort is better, in order to better facilitate the healing process), but the discomfort should gradually subside as one heals.

      Yes, I think "observe/witness" is a good word.

      Alright, that's all I have to say for now. Time for my nightly Battlestar session. I'm now at episode 9 of season 3 (the one where they discover the eye of Jupiter). I'll let you know what I think of season 4.5 when I get there; I might even write a review on this blog :-)

  6. Hmmm... I clicked over here because I've been reading and blogging a lot about Stoic philosophy, relating it to my yoga practice. But the only place I see any mention of Stoic is in the title... And if you study Stoic philosophy you realize it's a whole lot more than our current definition of the word...

    1. Hello Boodiba,
      I think you read the wrong post. Read my latest post (July 25th). I definitely say (and quote) quite a bit about Stoic philosophy:

      I'll love to hear your thoughts on this.

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