This is another of my applying something to Ashtanga, at risk of its not quite working. (I recognize the risks of bad “science journalism.” I’m also not sure we’ve ever claimed to be journalists here. Maybe journal-esques?) But the goal is to add something to the thought process behind the practice, a little context beyond the usual from the Sutras or the Gita. (And another risk: Having too much to think about.)
A new study — nicely explained at the New York Times — suggests that we develop a sort of amnesia or at least forgetfulness about the extent and quality of a painful experience, especially if there was something pleasant or positive to it.
The study hinges things to marathon runners (link to the study is in the quote below). Per the Times:
A new psychological study offers some explanation of why people do this, by finding that some marathon runners seem to develop selective amnesia, forgetting over time just how much they hurt. But the extent of that amnesia may depend on how much someone enjoyed the race.
Our memories of pain are “influenced by the meaning” of that pain, the study’s authors concluded. Surgery, rarely a happy occasion, had led the women to amplify their recalled pain, while childbirth, presumably accompanied by joy, had caused the women conveniently to forget much of the pain caused by labor and delivery.
But whether exercise pain likewise is recalled inaccurately and whether such variations would tend toward dampening or intensifying the pain had not been closely examined. It could have implications for whether people stick to exercise routines, among other issues.
So for the new study, which was published recently in the journal Memory, Przemyslaw Babel, a professor of psychology at Jagiellonian University in Krakow and an author of the earlier study of childbirth and memory, turned to marathon runners.
The study was pretty simple. He asked runners immediately after finishing a marathon to rate the unpleasantness and intensity of their pain; and then he did so again, either three or six months later. The average response dropped from a 5.5 on a scale of 1 to 10 down to a 3. And an interesting piece: Those who found the experience the most unpleasant initially were more likely to remember things like they had originally. So, the more pleasant it seemed right away, the even more pleasant it seemed months later.
So, the jump to Ashtanga, and something like Kapotasana. There’s certainly a pleasant or exhilarating rush from finding the state of a tough pose; on that level, I think there may be some correlation between this study and what a study of Ashtanga practitioners might find. (I imagine the idea of studying yogis would never happen, since I doubt many scientists would equate yoga with something so harsh).
But what I think could be more interesting is the purpose or rationale behind practicing Ashtanga vs. running a marathon. While both, I think, have a certain meditative or more self-fulfilling aspect (self realization, maybe?), I’ll hazard the guess that all the qualities we think of as defining “yoga” are more inherent to your typical, dedicated Ashtanga practice than a serious marathon training.
How then, if someone perhaps finds a stillness in life, a deeper sense of place in the universe or a connection to existence around them in their yoga practice, might those qualities — which I think go beyond exhilaration — affect someone’s memories of the pain of practice? Is it a piece to the puzzle that helps build a lifelong practice? Is there something to this that explains how people can take their yoga so far?
Posted by Steve