So it appears that pain as a topic related to yoga and Ashtanga is a hot one. (Not nearly as hot as music and Ashtanga, of course.) Reading through the comments on our – more correctly, Bobbie’s – two posts on pain and why Ashtanga will never be popular, three main items came to mind, only two of which interrupted my Tuesday morning practice.
The type of pain
There seems to be some confusion about what “type” of pain Bobbie intends (and that I intend, in other posts where I’ve talked about pain). I will quote her:
I was very lucky to have this lesson early on–the “you take it you practice” lesson–from teachers who treated pain as part of the process. Otherwise, I certainly would’ve quit.
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 don’t want there to be confusion: We’re talking debilitating physical pain. She came to the mat in pain (she was even using a cane to walk), practicing through and with that pain, and as a result – the Primary Series is about healing, right, yoga therapy, yoga chikitsa – she got stronger and stronger so the pain was less, although not gone. The practice is still painful, but life less so–the cane is gone.
And so it is difficult for us to approach the Ashtanga practice thinking that pain won’t be involved. I recall Nancy Gilgoff’s stories about crying as Guruji moved her, physically, through the poses as she first learned Ashtanga. That sounds painful, and to a certain extent she wasn’t even “doing” the practice at that point. Guruji helped her until she got stronger and more capable.
And that leads me to topic No. 2.
Just what is “ease”?
We all, I’m sure, are familiar with the Guruji quote: “Ashtanga yoga is Patanjali yoga.” As a result, the Yoga Sutras are the fundamental text for this practice. But it seems to me that various sutras, because of their very nature, are too easy to interpret to one’s own point.
Which of course means I’m about to interpret a sutra to prove my point. I’m not saying my take is correct, however – but I’d suggest the following as a way to understand one of the central sutras within the practice of Ashtanga as we perform it.
That sutra? One of the few that mention our beloved asana: 2.46 sthira sukham asanam, The posture should be steady and comfortable.
I understand why this gets translated to mean that our yoga poses should be without pain. However, I want to add a critical aspect to Ashtanga: the sacred fire. Tim Miller often talks about the sacred fire that Ashtanga stokes, agni – the fire in the belly, the fire that burns away the impurities we bring to the mat.
The fire that heals: yoga chikitsa.
The thing is, you don’t get fire without some friction. You have to strike a match with some force, with some pain, to light it.
So I’d look back at Sutra 2.46 and reconsider where that comfort or ease comes from. Is it from the pose, from keeping your body on the happy side of pain or strain? Or is it within you as you find within yourself the steadiness amid the storm? (Note: I’m not saying if you blow out your knee you should keep going. All of this presupposes some level of discrimination, which we’ll get to in a second.)
I say it has to be the latter, otherwise there isn’t the fire of Ashtanga. And there has to be the fire. If you aren’t experiencing some sort of strain, some burning, some pain, you aren’t doing Ashtanga in a way that will benefit you. (Do I get my Ashtanga Police badge for that statement?) No benefit! But more to the point: No healing. No sacred fire.
That doesn’t mean you are stopped by the strain. Part of the practice is learning to find that comfort within the strain. Sthira sukham asanam.
For me, still, every pose involves strain. It’s one way I know I’m doing the yoga at least sort of correctly. Where there isn’t discomfort, there isn’t going to be the heat. If I just drop into a pose and all’s good, I’m not where I need to be.
I’m lucky – as painful as it is for me to admit this – to be as stiff as I am. It’s easy to find the edge, the straining point, in every pose. I can get right to it, from the first surya namaskara. If you’re really flexible, it might be more difficult to reach that point – but if you aren’t reaching that point, aren’t seeking it, I’d argue you aren’t trying hard enough.
As a result, maybe Ashtanga seems comfortable.
If you get injured, it’s your fault
The final point, I can imagine, might be the one that gets the strongest reaction. But I promised to talk about discrimination, so here goes:
If your teacher injures you, it’s your fault.
I agree there are exceptions, and there are caveats, and that’s a bit of a too cut-and-dry statement. But ultimately, we all are responsible for ourselves. And there are some fairly simple ways to avoid injury:
- Be thoughtful before surrendering to a teacher. Build trust first. Check the person out. Be wary. Slowly allow a teacher more and more control. (This is one of my problems with weekend workshops – it is hard to build that trust.)
- Be aware while you are being adjusted. I may be judging from a poor perspective as someone who typically is bigger, if not stronger, than the teacher who is adjusting me, but I’ve been able to put the brakes on with some of the strongest Ashtanga teachers. One can resist. And it is up to you to know where the edge is when you should start resisting.
- If you think someone is a bad teacher, don’t go to him or her. Or at least don’t let him or her adjust you aggressively.
Yes, there are bad Ashtanga teachers. On a wider scale, there’s the larger debate within yoga, generally, about the efficacy of teacher training programs. Even if every one were terrific, though, it is up to each of us to be aware while we practice, and to react if need be accordingly.
A final thought
OK, so a bonus topic No. 4. What’s “success in yoga?” That phrase from David Garrigues seems to have upset a few people. It isn’t really a difficult question, though, and I’ll quote Bobbie again:
I’m reminded (as usual) of a story Tim Miller tells about Guruji. “Practice, and all is coming,” they heard (as have we all). So they practiced. But one day they asked, “Guruji, what is coming?”
“Samadhi!” he said.
So easy, right? (And, yes, before anyone comments, I know the “samadhi” thing is another touchy subject.)
Posted by Steve