These four ‘most dangerous’ yoga poses don’t seem to be

I figured once the news story about some dude breaking his leg in Marichyasana B (B, even, not D!) got around, we’d get to enjoy another round of “yoga is soooo dangerous” stories and related hang-wringing.

Here’s one, from Details magazine. It uses the broken leg hook to unveil the four most dangerous yoga poses.

Funny thing. I can think of a lot of other poses that are waayy more dangerous. I suppose the caveat is that these are poses that most people probably encounter, unlike something from deep in Third Series. Still… not sure I agree. They are (and I’ll use the names from the mag):

  • Shoulder stand
  • Standing forward bend
  • Bound triangle
  • Camel

I’m especially confused by Uttanasana’s being on this list. Here’s what Details says is the danger:

Also known as Uttanasana, this pose is great for opening up hamstrings, calves, and hips, as well as supposedly stimulating the liver and kidneys—but forcing yourself forward can easily undo all that good stuff, especially if you have any pre-existing aches and pains.

Ah, right. Don’t force yourself into it. That does make sense.

Details, by the way, describes Marichy B as “an advanced Ashtanga yoga pose;” maybe we should introduce them to the actual Advanced poses.

What it seems to all boil down to is this: Type A personalities go out, push themselves way too hard, and get hurt.

If it weren’t for that, I’m not sure Ashtanga would still be around.

Posted by Steve

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Explainer: Why you forget how horrible Kapo is and do it all over again

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.

[snip]

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

Tale from the practice room

Sundays are — right now — the only day Bobbie and I practice at the same time.

This Sunday’s practice seemed to be particular rough for both of us; I knew mine was. Stiffer than normal hips, crunchy shoulders — the physical side of things that can make getting to the non-physical a little more of a challenge.

You’ll understand how I could tell Bobbie was feeling much the same if you’ve ever practiced next to someone.

After pulling myself up and out of Supta Kurmasana — surely the exit was not correct — I just had to say something.

“I wish this was fun for one of us.”

Bobbie laughed, which was good. I’d seen she at least wasn’t in some crazy Second Series pose, so I had figured the timing was OK. I thought maybe we could both use a little break, a little pause in things

And then she put me in my place.

“I think that would be worse.”

Misery loves company, even in Ashtanga.

Posted by Steve

Where those mysterious little aches and pains come from

During our Yatra, we are re-posting some of our top posts from the past 16 or so months. We’ll also try to get new posts up from India, Internet access-willing.

***

Yesterday I was going about my usual afternoon business when I reached up to scratch behind my right ear, and I discovered a sore spot. “Ow!” I said out loud, to nobody. I poked around, investigated, and found a quarter-sized bruise behind my ear. “What the….?” I wondered. Then I started to think about it. “Ah!” I thought, “That’s from my left ankle bone.” Dwi pada sirshasana.

It made me start to think about the variety of goofy mystery bumps and silly boo boos we get in Ashtanga. My favorite of all time is when I kept splitting the pinkie toenail on my right foot as I jumped through. When I complained to my teacher about it, she said, with a bemused look on her face, “Lift your foot up higher.” Genius! It worked. And I felt like a dope.

During the Second Series teacher training with Tim, I had a gnarly bruise on the inside of my left knee that Tim’s assistant Holly Gastil figured out was from an overly exuberant fold in parighasana. Stupid bony shoulder. “Don’t fold so much. Twist more.” Oh. That’s better. Thanks, Holly. Bet you know what I felt like.

The sheer idiosyncracy of these small annoyances can be frustrating. Am I the only one who gets rug burn from pincha mayurasana? And please don’t tell me to fold back the rug. I’m a sweaty girl. Skinned elbows are better than face plants.

Sometimes these silly owies are a source of commiseration. At Tim’s training, I noticed a fellow student had both big toes taped. I asked him about it, and he told me the skin on the bottom of his big toes splits in the same place all the time. “Mine, too!” I said, in the exact same tone you’d say, “Hey, I’m also from that small town in Texas nobody’s heard of!” I asked if he knew the cause. He told me he doesn’t know why they split, but someone told him it was from “vata derangement.” Knowing what I know about how lame the causes turn out to be in the end, some sort of derangement makes perfect sense.

The most common thing I see in my fellow practitioners of Second is an array of bruises on the triceps, arranged in varying degrees of delightful bruise colors: yellow, purple, greenish—a veritable sunset on the backs of the arms. This, of course, is from letting gravity do a little too much of the work for you inkarandavasana. “Ooof!” you’ll sometimes hear in the Mysore room.

There’s also the bruise at the top of the thigh from the heel in ardha baddha padmottonasana. Now that I can get my heel into the hip crease, I don’t miss that one.

Because I live in Southern California, I’m tempted to count sunburn among the less intelligent problems in the practice. Nothing makes you feel more like an idiot than a burning sensation that didn’t need to happen in marichyasana D—like that pose isn’t hard enough, you couldn’t be bothered to reapply your sunblock yesterday.

What can we learn from all this? I think that Patanjali is correct: “Future suffering can and should be avoided” (2.16).  Also, there’s my own motto: There’s nothing that yoga breaks that yoga can’t fix. Except maybe sunburn.

Posted by Bobbie

Ashtanga and the lessons of facing difficulties

During our Yatra, we are re-posting some of our top posts from the past 16 or so months. We’ll also try to get new posts up from India, Internet access-willing.

***

At the last Confluence (2013), a question about the challenges of Ashtanga was directed at the affable David Swenson. “I don’t do Ashtanga anymore,” he said, “It’s far too difficult.” Laughter.

The author with Tim, not too cool for school.

“One of the main reasons to do this practice,” said Tim Miller, “is to teach us how to face difficulty. You learn to be calm when facing a difficult pose, so that when life throws something really tough at you, you don’t freak out.”

The past month of my practice has been tough. Every now and then, the arthritis in my joints flares up, and I am en fuego—everything hurts. Feet, hands, knees, elbows, shoulders.

Now, I’ve had arthritis since I was in my mid twenties, so it’s no mystery to me. But thanks to Ashtanga, I have long stretches of time when I’m free and clear of pain. I think, every practice, “Whew!” and have a blast.

Then things change, and I wonder, Is this it? Is this the corner, and now the new normal?

Morning practice, not happening. Even in the afternoon, when I’m warmer, less achy, movement is slow, deliberate.

Sometimes I have to play music or I won’t make it. (Hey, don’t judge—if Nancy Gilgoff can play Santana I can play Led Zeppelin.)

The real fight, though, is not against pain. It’s against self-pity, self-indulgence, self-centeredness. Stopping myself from wallowing. The poet G.M. Hopkins called this “carrion comfort”: indulging in your suffering. Maybe feeling a little pride in it. It’s a test of adversity.

So it was in the middle of this pity party that Tim’s words were brought back to me, because a friend of ours passed away after a long fight with cancer.

Suddenly I remembered what Ashtanga is. It’s nothing, really. A daily lesson in what’s important, a daily reminder that it’s not important at all. Every day, you get tested. Why are you doing this practice? And every day, you either pass or fail.

Grief over great loss. Something really tough. It stopped the massive flow of pointless pity I felt for myself, shifted my pain around out of the center of my life and moved it decidedly into the minor inconvenience category.

And from there, the pain I’m feeling now became something to be appreciated, in a way. I can still do the practice, in the face of the pain, and that makes the pain unimportant, really.

In the memorial service program for our friend, I found this poem, a reminder of where to put the emphasis:

Four things are beautiful beyond belief:

The pleasant weakness that comes after pain,

The radiant greenness that comes after rain,

The deepened faith that follows after grief,

And the re-awakening to love again.

Posted by Bobbie

The prep for real pain and suffering

While working more deliberately with my breath recently — especially during the past week or so, which is really too short a time to take seriously — one of the starkest pieces of information I’ve received about which poses are the most demanding can be broken into two categories:

  • The poses that are so difficult, my breathing becomes extremely labored
  • The poses that challenge my mental focus, aka the boring ones

The latter of those two categories is easy to describe. It includes the two “longest” poses — shoulder stand and headstand. I understand why Pattabhi Jois (and maybe a few millennium of yogis before then) kept students in headstand for five, 10, 20 or 60 minutes. There are lessons to be learned there. (Well, I suspect. Not sure I’ll ever have the patience to find out.)

The former of the two categories, I assume, varies depending on the person — and for each person, on the day. But for me, the pose that is by far and away the one that is toughest to maintain a steady, deep breath in is Parivritta Parshvakonasana.

It is, as a result, the one I think I’m “learning” the most from: recognizing limits of fight/flight; discovering where physical strains and restraints are; and dealing with that edge — trying to hold calm in the storm it creates.

It demonstrates why I think yoga without pain or difficulty is missing something: The lesson comes in trying to remain calm and steady during stress. It’s easy to be calm when things are calm. It’s easy to be happy when things are all going great.

I just finished Ram Dass’ last book, “Polishing the Mirror,” and he talks quite a bit about dealing with pain and suffering and the lessons that come from that experience. They’re imperative and unmatched. And needed for when pain and suffering come along in every day life.

Posted by Steve

Another way to think about pain in the Ashtanga practice

The question of pain — perhaps even more precisely, the value of pain — in the Ashtanga practice has been a popular one here. I think our most popular post on the topic was this one: “Why Ashtanga won’t ever be popular.”

David Williams probably is the most famous for promoting a pain-free practice.

Bobbie and I have, for similar but not exactly the same reasons, staked out a position that pain is a necessary aspect to the Ashtanga practice.

Arguments about this idea tend to fall into one of two categories: There are those who affirm or deny that pain is inevitable in the practice, and there are those who want to dissect what someone means by “pain.”

I suppose that latter argument strikes me — to be fairly blunt — as a yogic form of Sophistry. I don’t think it is that hard to agree on the meaning: It hurts, it is something one wants to avoid, but it is something that, at times, has to be endured or experienced in order to learn. It can be physical, emotional, spiritual or psychological.

I’m not sure why some people seem so averse to acknowledging there is some pain to the Ashtanga practice.

At our recent workshop with Tim Miller, he touched on this idea of pain in the practice. He even pulled out a David Williams impression, briefly, as he noted Williams’ anti-pain position.

Tim’s of a different perspective. But he made it clear that we aren’t talking about the pain of forcing the body during asana practice. It is the “overall intensity of the experience of the practice.” There is some discomfort one has to endure, he said. (Clearly, pushing the body is part of that experience.)

And he contrasted that to a lot of modern, Western yoga, which doesn’t seem to want to do too deep — doesn’t want to polish the mirror or peel back the koshas — for fear of what it might find.

For fear, I think it fair to say, of the pain of experience and self-knowledge.

Posted by Steve