Even though your hamstrings are aching, you approach the first Sun Salutation of class determined to keep your quads lifted and legs arrow-straight, all the while ignoring an internal warning to shelve that ego. You wince: "Uh-oh, this is going to hurt," and push on through your pain, believing our competitive culture's myth that pain means progress.
For many American yoga practitioners, it takes an injury to learn how to advance at a safe and comfortable pace. The learning curve was precipitous for Robin Aronson, associate publisher of Tikkun magazine in New York, who wandered into a yoga class at her gym two years ago and fell in love with the sweaty, Ashtanga-inspired practice being taught there. "It was a competitive environment, and I became fairly aggressive in it. I wanted to be really good," Aronson says. "So if something hurt a lot it didn't stop me from trying to do it. I was excited and just wanted to go for it—that's the culture of the gym I was in."
Within six months Aronson had begun to experience the debilitating hip pain that eventually drove her off the mat and into the office of an orthopedic surgeon. The journey, with stop-offs at a variety of alternative and traditional health-care practitioners, was excruciating. "When walking home after a long day, there were times I would be in so much pain I could not breathe," Aronson recalls.
As an MRI confirmed, the source of Aronson's pain was not tendonitis or soft tissue problems—the misdiagnoses of a movement therapist and rheumatologist, respectively—but a torn labrum, the band of fibrous tissue that surrounds the socket of the hip joint. Two weeks after the test, Aronson underwent arthroscopic surgery to repair the tear.
According to Aronson's orthopedist, Dr. Bryan Nestor of the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York, "We can't be sure yoga is what caused it, but the extreme positions of the hip she assumed with yoga postures likely contributed to the injury."
Aronson is less equivocal about where her practice failed. "Some teachers at the gym really encouraged pushing yourself. I learned a lot about my body from them. But it was the movement therapist who said, 'Don't push; the point of yoga is not to do it until it hurts, but to find where it's right for you.' And I thought, 'Well, how about that?' That was not the instruction I'd received."
If there's no single definable answer for how Aronson got injured, one thing is certain: By disallowing her observations, by doing yoga rather than being it, she arrived at the zone of potential injury all practitioners enter when asana practice supersedes yoga.
Are You Pushing It?
The psychology of injury has long interested psychotherapist Stephen Cope, M.S.W., L.I.C.S.W., scholar-in-residence at Kripalu Center in Lenox, Massachusetts, and author of Yoga and the Quest for the True Self. In his 10 years of teaching and studying, Cope has observed practitioners from beginners to considerably adept students striving for perfection. These days, as more and more guests arrive at Kripalu Center demanding vigorous practices—a departure from Kripalu's slower, mindful style of yoga—Cope finds himself urging a return to clarity about the intentions behind practice.
"Classical yoga is crystal clear about the goal for practice—attenuation of the kleshas [causes of suffering]," he says. "But in its transmission to this culture, it became about achieving: altered states of consciousness, the perfect body, perfect health, perfect alignment, perfect stretch. The paradox is that all that striving and clinging and holding on tends to intensify kleshas; it intensifies attraction, aversion, and ignorance. And it increases our chances of hurting ourselves."
Stop by a health club yoga class and you may see a fair amount of competitiveness and physical exertion. Many of these students—and teachers—will tell you that what they are doing is Ashtanga Yoga. But to watch Ashtanga master Richard Freeman practice is another thing entirely. The very definition of slow, deliberate movement, he defies laws of velocity, weight, and gravity as he melts through the series of poses. Yet he acknowledges that Western practitioners of Ashtanga continue to hit speed bumps.
"One tendency of people in Ashtanga Yoga is to become obsessed with advancement and physical fitness, often completely losing touch with the intention of the practice: self knowledge and liberation," says Freeman, who teaches in Boulder, Colorado.
Preoccupation with the external experience, Cope explains, triggers what in Western psychology is known as the "false-self complex," when highly charged ideas about how we should be, look, and feel create a deep disconnection from the body, leading us to be out of touch with how we and the things around us really are. In asana practice, this false, disconnected self uses external instead of internal references to "achieve" postures, measuring oneself against other people, photographs in books, and even how the posture felt yesterday. This prevents us from being here now, Cope points out.
Donna Farhi, an international yoga teacher and registered movement therapist based in New Zealand, also laments the desire of students and teachers to be "perfect."
"During the early days of Iyengar Yoga dominance in the United States, teachers bombarded their students with detailed mechanical instructions as if they were talking them through a bomb defusion," says Farhi, who was originally trained as an Iyengar teacher. "This kind of heady overload and overemphasis on alignment causes people to shut down or ignore their feeling function, leaving them more prone to injury."
Farhi stresses the importance of giving students "permission to explore and discover without the pressure of failure." She includes experiential anatomy inquiries in her classes where students can learn to feel rather than think about their structure, not only their musculoskeletal system, but also the organs that support integrated movement. By "reawakening healthy-feeling function," students are able to find their own alignment, something they're fully capable of doing, she insists. In this way, Farhi says, "students are less likely to injure themselves because they will be able to feel the sensations that signal trouble."
Cope, Freeman, and Farhi offer what may be unpopular injury-prevention tips in the face of the current sweet tooth for ever more challenging, nearly aerobic-style practices. Cope champions "slow, deliberate movement," which he calls a key way to promote optimal learning and unlearning. "When muscles are moved slowly and consciously," he says, "that movement is brought under the control of the most refined aspect of the brain, the neocortex, and away from the more primitive second layer, so we're less and less driven by regression to aggressive behavior and involuntary reaction."
To prevent injury, Freeman encourages incorporating the principles of alignment, meditation, and Pranayama into the practice of the postures, keeping you close to the present moment and lowering the chance that you'll injure yourself.
Farhi's particularly wise advice is to back off-and she practices what she preaches. While she always sensed that extremely deep and repetitious backbending was not healthy for her body, Farhi recently discovered the reason: congenital weakness in the lumbar region of her spine where vertebrae have not fused. She has stopped pushing it.
"By outside standards, it would appear my practice is not as good as it was 15 years ago," Farhi says. "But my body is much better integrated than before. The standard for me now is about feeling good all the time, having a back that can sit at the computer for hours, garden, lift, sustain meditation positions-not necessarily a back that can bend like a noodle. If we used these kinds of standards rather than be dictated to by competition and pressure to do amazing postures, I think there would be far fewer injuries."