Apparently someone broke his thigh in Marichyasana B

Here’s a story that could get the “yoga can hurt you” drumbeat going again.

According to the uniquely unreliable Mail in the UK, a guy practicing in a Mysore room tried to do Marichyasana B and broke his thigh:

A man suffered a painful break to his thigh bone while carrying out a yoga pose.

The 39-year-old man, who remains unidentified, had been practising yoga for two years, and had recently begun exploring Mysore-style Ashtanga yoga.

[snip]

In the emergency department, doctors found the man’s lower limb was shorter than usual and had rotated due to the injury.

X-rays showed he had a fracture in his ‘femoral shaft’, the long, straight part of the thigh bone.

Doctors said they believed this is the first documented case of a healthy person developing such a fracture while following a yoga stance. 

Here’s a link to the report on this that is the impetus for the Mail story. (Warning: X-rays that may make you think twice about doing Marichy B.) What strikes me is the description of this as a “low-energy” break. The report also concludes in part with this: “Yoga-related injuries are becoming more commonplace.”

(And note, we’ve now “broken” our taking Moon days off from posting twice today.)

Posted by Steve

Yes, we heard Kino hurt her hip

With other news during the past week taking up our bandwidth, we’ve let slide all the hubbub over Kino MacGregor’s injuring herself while adjusting a student.

The big piece on it, which I’ll assume you’ve seen, is by regular yoga writer Matthew Remski. Link is here, and a little taste (be warned; it is long, very, very long):

I’ve interviewed more than a hundred yoga practitioners about pain and injury. The acute injuries are dramatic: a hamstring tears in the moment of a harsh adjustment, or a rotator cuff rips upon the impact of leaping into an arm-balance that uses the upper arm as a brace. But there are usually pre-existing weaknesses or stresses that forecast these events, which means that sports medicine doctors and orthopedic surgeons are typically conservative when it comes to pinpointing exact moments and causes.

Even harder to definitively source are the repetitive stress injuries that creep in below the radar. I’ve interviewed several women who have sustained labral tears, for example, which first present as niggling pinches in the groin and either slowly or quickly progress to shattering pain. Many of these subjects continued to practice as their pain increased, unaware that they may be deepening a tear. Some practiced with modification, some without, but most continued with a firm belief that whatever the pain was, practice would heal it.

Then there are injuries like MacGregor’s, which are yoga-related, but don’t literally occur on the mat. MacGregor was initially firm via email. “This isn’t a yoga injury that came from my practice. It came from the impact of a student falling into me while I was assisting her.”

We’ve discussed Ashtanga and injuries pretty often before. Injury is inevitable, although mostly avoidable. But Ashtanga is a pretty extreme form of asana, and as with anything extreme, there will be consequences.

Kino’s injury has gotten more than its share of attention, of course, because she’s omnipresent on social media — often via photos or videos of her doing some of the practice’s most extreme poses. There are lots of valid topics to discuss, and they’ve been pretty well gone through in the comments on the article: the value of injury; what’s “real yoga”; how much is too much asana. For me, I think the most useful is to think about how our ego and our drive to get the next pose or perfect this particular pose really runs counter to what we’re supposed to be doing in a yoga practice. At the same time, we need that drive to do the practice; it’s the great mischief of practice and life: you require your ego to get rid of yourself. You have to want to not want to not want.

That said, I’d certainly have to argue that the Instragram-ization of yoga enables our egos in not the best of ways. Having heard stories from the first Western Ashtanga students, I’m not really sure that anyone today is particularly more driven or, to use this word loosely, more crazy than David Williams or Tim Miller, etc. were “back in the day.” Those folks charged through the Series pretty quickly. They wanted more poses, just like people do today. Perhaps the main difference is just how many people one can encounter who are driving themselves ahead, and doing so so publicly. And how it is that this drive is being packaged for public consumption.

Posted by Steve

What’s that popping in my knees?

This “Ask Well” piece at the New York Times doesn’t explicitly address an asana practice, but name me someone who hasn’t had cracking and popping happen and I’ll point out to you someone who isn’t practicing asana properly. Part of the answer:

The crackling or popping sound you hear is known as crepitus. In some cases, it may be nothing more than bubbles of gas popping in your joints. It can also result from the cartilage in your knees losing their smoothness, causing bones and tissue to rub together noisily when you bend your legs.

“Crepitus is extremely common,” Dr. Stuart said. “Our joints make a lot of noise.”

If things hurt, it could be arthritis or a meniscus tear.

Merry Christmas, if that’s the case. Ugh.

Posted by Steve

In defense of yoga that hurts you

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 ShaynaDiana, 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

Are Ashtanga and ahimsa incompatible?

Pain and injury are reoccurring themes here.

I’ll let you guess why.

We’ve found both to be simply part of the path of the Ashtanga practice. As with nearly any activity one undertakes, good comes and bad comes, too.

Via ucr.edu

We continue to take the bad with the good.

As the countdown to the Confluence kicks into high gear, I’ve been thinking about last year’s gathering and guessing how this year’s may go. One of my many lasting impressions from 2012 was the focus on Ashtanga as one ages. This time, the discussion sounds like it will be a bit broader during a session titled, “The Jungle Physicians.” It promises the “opportunity for students to ask questions of the teachers regarding the application of asana as a healing modality.”

That’s the same asana that keeps hurting us — and, I bet, you.

So what gives?

In my experience now with quite a few Ashtanga teachers, there seems to be two pretty distinct camps. On one side are those who shun pain and hurt. David Williams might be the most vocal proponent of this, in my experience. Pretty much nothing should hurt was the message I took from him.

On the other are those who suggest that injury is inevitable. We wrote about this topic most recently after David Garrigues talked about Guruji’s relationship to injury. Those posts are here and here. David quotes Guruji in response to injuries: “New body is making.” He quotes him as being enthusiastic about it.

We’ve all heard or read stories about Guruji’s strong adjustments, as well as the ones he received from his own teacher. (Remember, a documentary is coming!) “Sometimes walk funny six months,” I’ve heard people say, imitating Guruji. That doesn’t happen without some pain.

But does that mean we have to put Guruji in the camp that assumes pain and injury to be inevitable? If we do, does that mean there’s some inherent value to pain and injury? (At the least, that there’s some lesson to be learned from it?)

This then brings us to the first of the yamas: ahimsa. Take your pick on a best translation: nonviolence, non-harming, peacefulness. Both to others and — here’s the key — to yourself. The rest of the yamas grow from this seed.

And here’s where I’m stumbling. Is this a contradiction? Is there something fundamentally at odds between Ashtanga and ahimsa? (Keep in mind, I’m talking about Ashtanga as the yoga Guruji taught, not the broader Patanjali yoga. You know the old confusion.)

One answer, perhaps the easiest, is: Ashtanga continues to be refined. I’m OK with this. I want my “healing modalities” to continue to advance — yes, through “research.” Perhaps students of Guruji’s have learned new lessons — lessons perhaps especially relevant to Westerners — that suggest there’s a path without injury, or with the least injury possible. (More practically, there are also all those lawyers to worry about.)

Another, perhaps related, is that Westerners just aren’t ready, in this life, for the full monty Ashtanga. We’ve got to take Ashtanga-lite, for the most part. And that’s good enough.

There’s also a matter of perspective. What’s injury? Is it inherently a bad thing? It would seem like it, but what if Bobbie’s back had never caused her pain and thus she’d had no reason to come to Ashtanga? Which way would have been the path of ahimsa? (Well, she would have done less harm to me by not pulling me in, too!)

Or: What’s being injured? Our bodies, right? But are our bodies what we are working on through yoga? If they aren’t, then are we really being injured or hurt?

And we could continue down the rabbit hole, I suppose. Instead, I want to try to draw this back to the grosser levels.

Can we practice Ashtanga without experiencing what we generally call pain and injury? Is that a realistic goal? What might we miss if we hold back, just enough, to avoid that hamstring pull, that ACL snap, that fall out of Pincha Mayurasana?

Are Ashtanga and ahimsa incompatible? Can we hope to heal ourselves without first hurting?

Posted by Steve

The experts on Ashtanga, injuries and pain

Our post on Tuesday about Ashtanga and injury, featuring a great video by David Garrigues, did not surprise me in being popular.

We all wonder and worry about our injuries, after all. And Ashtanga, as I noted in that post, seems to be unusually tied into pain and injury.

As I thought more about it, I realized that many of our best Ashtanga teachers have touched on this topic on their websites or in other media. Here’s a sampling:

David Swenson:

When we are confronted with bodily pain it is not only that we feel the sensation and discomfort in our body but it is the resultant inability to do what we once could where the deeper pain and frustration resides. Ashtanga Yoga wielded in the hands of an adept teacher should be accessible to anyone. Ultimately the yoga has not changed since I first came in contact with it but maybe I have changed. I find the same to be true for most practitioners that are still involved with the practice after many, many years. There is a point where we must each look within and find what this practice means to us and how we can best utilize it as a tool in our life.

(More Swenson here, too.)

Richard Freeman:

If this doesn’t feel good, or doesn’t help, there is no virtue in pushing through the pain and further irritating or tearing the cartilage of the inner edge of the meniscus. Work carefully and slowly and find someone who knows the mechanics of the knee joint—who also understands the benefits of yoga—to consult with for this situation. Pushing through joint pain can further damage a joint and upset the pranas of the body.

And again:

Working carefully and intelligently with injury is an important part of any yoga practice. Yoga should make the body healthier rather than harming it. Though one has to be intelligent rather than fanatical and mechanical. Having a good teacher to give guidance and feedback, and listening carefully to the internal cues that your body is giving you is very important.

Eddie Stern:

One reason that injury can occur in yoga is due to overzealousness, or even just plain enthusiasm, on the part of the student – I have of course experienced this myself – it is a natural response for a particular type of person when it comes to any activity that has physicality associated with it – no matter what a teacher may caution. Of course, injuries can happen anytime we do physical activity, whether or not we are taking risks.

Tim Miller:

Eventually it became obvious that I would need the root canal. Last Friday night, the night of the lunar eclipse, the pain was so intense that I barely slept all night. I went outside at 4am to check on the moon. At about 4:45am a shadow began to creep across the moon. For the next hour and a half I watched the moon slowly being eclipsed by the shadow of the earth while meditating on the nature of pain. As the sky began to brighten with the rising sun the effect was much less dramatic so I went inside. My wife, Carol, freshly awake, asked me what time I had gotten up. When I told her 4am she looked at me as if I was crazy, “4am on your day off—why?” I told her about my tooth and she said, “Honey, I’d really like to be sympathetic, but if you took Lena’s advice you wouldn’t have to go through this.” What I wanted was sympathy, of course, not a lecture on the Law of Karma.

Guy Donahaye:

The purpose of yoga is to overcome unnecessary pain – physical and psychological pain – and to become indifferent to it as it arises. Yoga is a means by which we learn to navigate our life and our bodies differently – so that we stop doing that which causes us to suffer. Whether these are mental patterns or physical symptoms – only we have the power to change them. Thankfully yoga provides us with many tools to achieve this.

Kate O’Donnell:

Sweating it out in a full conference at the shala yesterday.  300 people heat it up pretty quick.  But it worth it to hear Sharath say: If there is no fear, there is no fun.  Of course, that’s why those of us who are drawn to this practice go through all the craziness of waking up at odd hours and doing physical work that pushes us to the brink.  Its fun!  It’s a rush! It builds Prana!

And finally, David Garrigues, to bring these back around:

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. Inversions don’t necessarily have to contribute to your scoliosis, but I would advise you to eliminate them until you are able to receive instruction from a highly qualified teacher. There are many aspects of the practice besides inversions to develop and enjoy at this time. Hopefully sometime sooner than later you’ll be in position to get some hands on help with the challenges you are facing. But in the meantime you can try experimenting with the suggestions I’ve made and let me know how it’s going.

One last small note is that 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.

If there are others, feel free to add them. Given this topic, I’m sure there are.

Posted by Steve

Not That Yoga–This Yoga

I’ll admit here that I don’t take the best care of my feet, and that I am aware that as Ashtangi, I should. They take a beating. We’re standing, jumping, and sitting on them every morning. We pull on them. We roll over them (over and over and over, in fact). They deserve some love.

I didn’t show mine the love. During practice last week, I jumped back, rolled over the tootsies, and felt the nail on my big toe crack. You know how that goes. There’s a pause, and you think, “Meh. It’s won’t kill me,” and carry on. I carried on. The nail kept splitting, et cetera et cetera and pretty soon, you’ve got a bleeder.

So that landed me in the doctor’s office, toe full of Novocain. I’ll spare you the details (because those aren’t the point of this post, and this isn’t Tosh.0). When I asked the doctor The Question, “How soon can I get back to yoga?” he replied, “Oh, tomorrow. As long as you don’t put pressure on the toe here, here, and here, you should be fine.”

Now, good people of Ashtanga, I know you’re with me in this moment. You realize you are talking to someone that when you say, “yoga,” they are thinking this:

So, I’m putting a cry for help out there. Can someone please post a “Not that yoga! This yoga!” video somewhere? Short. Concise. Not those slow demos with funky music in the background. Something I can pull up on my iPhone and hold out and say, “How soon can I start doing this yoga?” Something that, when you say “yoga,” your listener will now think something like this:

I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking I ought to be able to figure out when I can get back to the practice myself. But if I were capable of doing that, I wouldn’t be sitting here with a taped up toe, would I?

Posted by Bobbie