Kino’s Hip: Reflections on Extreme Practice and Injury in Asana

July 13, 2015    BY Matthew Remski
Injury in Yoga

Heyam dukham anagatam.
(Pain that is yet to come can be avoided.)
Yoga Sutra II:16

On June 14, Kino MacGregor posted a photo to her 782K Instagram and 264K Facebook followers. She’s in hero pose, her hands in prayer, eyes closed, on a beach. Fans would find it an uncharacteristic shot. There’s no floating movement implied, and her body is small against the wide-angled azure sky and placid sea. Her caption gives insight into the image, and why it seems to chafe her feed like an internal tear:

Yesterday while I was helping a student in Bakasana I heard a series of pops around my right hip. Then I couldn't bear weight, walk, or straighten my leg. After a visit to the doctor I still don't have a complete diagnosis but it's most likely a sprain of either the hamstring or the hip or both. Now the real yoga begins. I always say that pain and injury are the true teachers of the spiritual path and now it's time for me to walk my own talk. There is a lesson is [sic] everything, especially the hard and difficult stuff. If this is a hip sprain and not a hamstring sprain then it will change my whole paradigm on what it takes to forward bend. If it's the hamstring I'll gain valuable knowledge on how to heal and rehab a hamstring sprain. Today's #YogiAssignment is Wisdom. What is the wisdom that the biggest pain or obstacle in your life has to teach you? What wisdom have you gained from going through a difficult or challenging period in your life? Remaining equanimous with faith and patience through pain, injury and suffering is hard, but it is where the real inner work of yoga begins. Being strong in yoga isn't about how long you can hold a handstand. It's about how much grace you can contain when facing adversity.

MacGregor’s followers on Snapchat saw more of the backstory flash across their mobile screens that Saturday, and then disappear as if it had never happened.

“I put it all on Snapchat, because Snapchat doesn’t save anything,” she tells me via phone. Her enthusiasm is infectious. “I told everyone: ‘I’m at the Emergency Room. I feel like a drama queen!'

“But I knew I had to get it checked out. I had to teach the next day. I was really concerned about potential damage to the hip joint.”

The emergency doctor in West Hartford, Connecticut, surmised a hamstring sprain and inflammation of the hip bursa, and suggested patience before proceeding to imaging. MacGregor went for acupuncture that evening at the studio she’d been teaching in for the weekend, did only restorative postures the following morning, taught another class while keeping her knee bent in forward folds, and then flew back to Miami on Sunday night.

On Monday, MacGregor saw a sports medicine doctor who took an x-ray that ruled out any hairline fracture, and suggested physiotherapy. On a walk that afternoon on Miami’s South Beach, she paused to take a photo of herself in scorpion pose.

MacGregor’s physio is on staff at the Miami City Ballet. “She’s excellent,” MacGregor says. “She confirmed that my hamstring was pulled, but she didn’t think it was a serious tear. She said that my glutes were pulled. She checked my obturator and as much of the deep-six as she could, and she felt that they were all a little pulled.

“But then she checked my sacroiliac joint and found that the whole right plate of the sacrum had shifted and my right hip was raised, and there was a lot of compression. I thought, ‘That’s what all the popping was.’”

MacGregor has suffered yoga-related sacroiliac pain and injury in the past. It’s a common problem in the yoga world, and is widely believed to be exacerbated by seated and standing twisting postures.

“The therapist also said that there was probably inflammation around the joint capsule, and that may be because of the impact, the head of the femur had jammed against the socket. She gave me a list of movements I should avoid, and a whole 20-minute therapeutic routine that I did with her that day. I’ve been doing it every day before my practice. But I didn’t practice on Monday or Tuesday.”

On Tuesday, MacGregor saw her favorite massage therapist—“an energy healer who also does chiropractic adjustments”—who manipulated her sacrum back into what felt like alignment. “There were a whole series of clicks and pops around the sacroiliac joint, and these were really loud. Twenty-four hours later, there was a dramatic improvement in my whole hip area. The inflammation was down by 50%.”

By Thursday afternoon, MacGregor was back out on South Beach, having a photo taken of herself in vasishthasana. Neither that post nor the scorpion post make mention of the injury.

I remarked that in the vasishthasana photo she’s loading her injured hip.

“Yeah, but that’s a strengthening action,” MacGregor replied. “There was no strain on the hamstring. It felt good.”

_____
 

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 preexisting 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.

I’ve interviewed more than a hundred yoga practitioners about pain and injury.

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.”

But when a Facebook fan asked her during an online Q&A session: “What are your thoughts on how the intensity of the practice may have contributed to your injury?” MacGregor didn’t answer.

As we spoke, however, she opened up about borderline doubts, starting with her practice habits, and by the end, winding around to the value and impact of her YouTube channel.

I asked her about the public reaction to an Instagram she posted of herself in an “oversplits” position, with her front calf and bottom shin planted on opposing chairs, and her hips dipping into the space between them. The caption reads:

Got a new assignment today from Eugene: oversplits. He says that my hips have to eventually touch the floor. What do you think? How many month with [sic] that take? @beachyogagirl and I are snapping today—are you following our snap chat stories? Kerri caught more of the crazy things we did today. Snapchat: kinoyoga Leggings @aloyoga.

“People reposted that picture and said, ‘That’s the reason for your hip injury.’ And I thought about it, and I thought gosh, well, I don’t know…

“I had to think about whether I was pushing myself too hard in my practice, and whether that had created instability in my hip joint.

“But when I started my practice, I was really unstable. I’m not a naturally strong person. Or naturally flexible. It’s more like ‘floppy’ is my natural state. And a little clumsy. So my main emphasis in practice is the avenue of strength. Even in a flexibility posture like oversplits, I’m approaching it from strength. So I’m training with this Russian circus
guy—”

“Is that ‘Eugene’?” I interject.

“That’s Eugene! I wanted technique for advanced stretches and arm balances. And in the yoga world, there isn’t a lot of technique around. It’s more like, ‘Don’t do it.’

“But I know I’m gonna have to do it if I’m gonna keep practicing Ashtanga. I’m working on kroukachasana, in the Fifth Series. So let me get some technique, the way to safely support my joints. So with the oversplits, Eugene had me engaging really intensely to support my body while I was there. He didn’t let me sit there and hang. He was focusing on how to build more strength around the joint.”

There’s no doubt MacGregor is strong. She floats between arm balances and planking variations with a post-human grace that seems aided by CGI. She seems—on film, at least—to have achieved the perfect physical balance of firmness and ease described in the Yoga Sutra. But no one, including MacGregor, can know whether that alchemy is stable, and for how long.

_____
 

Almost exactly a year ago, I reported on the right-hip implosion of one of Canada’s first Ashtanga teachers, Diane Bruni. In 2008, Bruni tore the deep rotators off her bone in a seemingly harmless wide-angled pose following a five-year-long regime of hip-opening, which was paradoxically recommended by her yoga mentors to treat her ongoing knee pain.

It took Bruni several years for her to come clean to herself and others about how she felt that a program of extreme flexibility and spiritualized pain had dominated her practice and teaching ideology—and destabilized her hips by weakening her ligaments. “My livelihood depended on it,” she told me. “My studio was based on it.

“Before my injury, I used to say many of the things Kino says in the injury post and on YouTube,” Bruni writes. To illustrate, she sends me a link to “Yoga for Open Hips: Full Practice with Kino." It’s on the Kinoyoga channel, which has 271K followers and almost 70 million views. 

“Before my injury, I used to say many of the things Kino says in the injury post and on YouTube,” Bruni writes.

“I would say: ‘Notice the sensations. Notice if it hurts, it’s burning, or if it's tight. Tell yourself it's okay, practice surrender. Accept the pain, breathe into it. This will help you accept who you are.’

“Now I wonder—what does that even mean?”

At time cue 9:25 of the video, MacGregor sinks forward over her thighs in a deep butterfly posture, and pauses in a passive stretch. “Feel that burning sensation in the hip joints,” she intones. “Nice deep inhale. Nice deep exhale.”

Bruni sighs over email. “I said all the same things.” She’s since left Ashtanga behind to learn and teach what she feels to be more functional and sustainable movement.

“I practiced and taught all these poses which are totally inaccessible to most people. I learned the hard way. I hope I can help save at least one person the agony of my injury.”

_____
 

It’s unclear whether this setback will shift MacGregor’s practice in a permanent way, or be absorbed into her brand narrative, or both. Early indications suggest that the media juggernaut that projects her yoga may make it difficult for anything but business-as-usual.

Since the injury announcement, Kinoyoga Instagram has been updated with over 50 photos and videos of MacGregor in advanced postures. The hip-opening clip that Bruni sent me was published on June 29. Some critics have speculated that all of these visuals must have been shot before the injury, and have continued auto-uploading without disclaimer or warning—perhaps to fulfill endorsement contracts—as if from a virtual studio where injury is impossible.

But MacGregor says that only some photos date from prior to the injury, while most were shot on the day of posting. For instance, on July 1, several Kinoyoga platforms unrolled a “Back to Backbends” public challenge as part of a beta-stage collaboration with @beachyogagirl Kerri Verna. Fans are encouraged to post yoga-selfies that mimic a pre-set sequence, and to click into sponsorship sites.

MacGregor tells me that all of the challenge’s backbending photos and films were shot prior to the campaign’s start—within the two-week window following the injury. “As long as I stayed away from hip rotations, I was fine,” MacGregor says. “Backbending felt really good. Arm balances were fine. Straight-line handstands—good.”

“As long as I stayed away from hip rotations, I was fine,” MacGregor says.

MacGregor says that she didn’t want her media platform to reflect upon her injury while she was unsure about its status. Therefore, the regular posts continued.

“I really just wanted to figure it out, to go through it, and wait until I was on the other side of it,” she says. “I wouldn’t feel comfortable saying ‘This is the physical therapy I’m using to heal,’ because I wouldn’t be sure of it. Maybe after it heals I could talk about my experience and the step-by-step postures and be able to say ‘This worked.' I’d want empirical evidence that it worked, rather than just sharing it and having a whole bunch of people mimic my process.

“So I couldn’t share the physical part of the journey, but the #YogiAssignments I gave with every post that week took the flavor of exactly where I was emotionally, spiritually, and mentally.”

_____
 

Iain Grysak is an advanced Ashtanga practitioner and teacher stationed in Bali who I interviewed about a year ago for my project, because he emphasizes safety and moderation in practice. He seems to be one of those exceedingly rare advanced practitioners who reports no significant injuries.

“I have respect for Kino and what she does,” Grysak writes. “She gets a bad rap from part of the Ashtanga community because of her massive marketing and commercialization process. I have always respected the fact that she does it with integrity, by attempting to live the truth of what the practice means to her, as well as remaining in line with the current ‘tradition.’”

But as to the physical toll of MacGregor’s stated job of providing “a link between the pop culture of yoga and the more traditional lineage-based spiritual practice,” Grysak expresses concern.

He warns that even the most robust practitioners will hurt themselves if practice turns into a full-time profession.

His basic contention is that this fiery method can be healthy and even therapeutic when practiced with supervision in conservative amounts. But he warns that even the most robust practitioners will hurt themselves if practice turns into a full-time profession demanding endless jet-setting, teaching, and demonstration—whether for digital consumption or “weekend intensive” formats.

“It’s not what the practice is designed for. It’s not sustainable. The striving—for deeper opening in Bruni's case, or to give "inspiration" in MacGregor’s case—might lead people to take the practice to a place that it is just not meant to be taken if it is to remain a healthy technique.”

Grysak also says that the same teacher to whom MacGregor dedicated her recent book—Sharath Jois, grandson of Ashtanga founder Pattabhi Jois—actively discourages both the professional zeal and the mega-posture workshop culture now par for the course in the yoga world.

“Sharath is very opposed to overworking and speaks out against it regularly in Mysore. He admonishes people who go home after practice and continue to work on tough postures. He says asana practice should be done once a day, in the morning. I agree with him: get on with your life and wait until the next morning to do more asana!”

I asked MacGregor for a response.  

“I would definitely agree. When I’m in Mysore, I do my practice, and then I go home and go back to bed. My body has been through a spiritual, emotional, and physical battle on levels I’m not even aware of. I’m like a soldier, no joke. I try to avoid talking to other people afterwards, because I’m in this sensitive, other world.

“But in Mysore there’s really nothing else to do. So after I sleep, the rest of the day is like ‘Do you wanna drink coconuts, or do you wanna go get lunch?’

“I have to admit”—I can hear a sly grin over the phone—“when I leave Mysore, I’m a bad Ashtangi. It’s not possible for me to keep up that kind of intense discipline. I practice six days a week, but I do not kill myself. I practice in a calm manner that gives space to my body and how I’m feeling that day. I’ll do the practice my teacher has given me, but I will not force. I’ll give myself little outs. That’s taken me a long time to get to that chilled-out place.

“So I totally agree. I wouldn’t be able to sustain traveling and teaching and making a few videos in the afternoon if I was practicing like in Mysore.”

_____
 

MacGregor has periodically faced doctrinal and pragmatic critique from within her subculture head-on. But she also faces scientific pushback from the wider movement-studies field. Opposition to the assumed benefits of flexibility-focused and repetitive-motion exercise is growing—most loudly against the passive stretching that might not be part of the Ashtanga method per se, but which MacGregor and others promote as preparatory for the deeply contortionistic postures of its advanced series.

MacGregor has periodically faced doctrinal and pragmatic critique from within her subculture head-on.

Most of the biomechanics specialists, kinesiologists, neurologists, and orthopedic surgeons I’ve consulted in my research are deeply skeptical of the borderline-mystical theories of stretching handed down through premodern yoga therapeutics. This new consensus is overturning popular notions of bodily alchemy that echo through sources ranging from medieval to New Age to high-end spa-speak.

Pattabhi Jois was fond of the adage, “With enough heat, even iron will bend.” But this new rationalist yoga discourse imposes clearer limits upon the aspirational body, insisting that muscles do not get “longer," and pain is not an “opening”—except in a pathological sense. The primal dream of bodily transformation through “being worked into a noodle," as Jois student Annie Pace described it, is being eclipsed by the simpler goal of enhancing a natural range of motion for functional movement.

Jules Mitchell, who works to incorporate the most recent data on the science of stretching into yoga studies, is unequivocal: “The yoga community has been dangerously obsessed with tissue distention,” she writes via email.

Interviewed by Ashtangi Tracey Mansell, Londoner Osteopath Jamie Andrews adds: “Prolonged exposure to progressive stretching can eventually lead to ligamentous laxity and joint hypermobility, increasing the risk of muscular injuries, ligamentous injuries, joint dislocation, and reduced proprioception.”

But Pattabhi Jois wasn’t just referring to muscles and ligaments when he used the word “iron," even though the body was his teaching instrument. For Jois, physical possibility on a gross level provided access to a subtler spiritual possibility. As almost all of his senior students recall, he was constantly speaking to the deeply conditioned wounds of the human psyche, clad in the iron of defensive self-concepts.

“Pain is good,” MacGregor quotes Jois as saying of the process that “releases” spiritual rigidity. If Jois’ terrifying postural adjustments are nauseating to the movement specialists of today, it’s in part because they don’t understand the premise that he was wrestling through stubborn tissues to get at his students’ souls.

_____
 

With regard to the general meaning of the human body, Kino MacGregor is faithful to Jois’ path. In video and print, she speaks of using postures to “access” the hips, the interior space of the pelvis, the inner body, and the heart (not the cardiac muscle, but the emotional center). For Jois and MacGregor, the body is a container to be opened and purified, and pain is a necessary sign of progress. “Practicing six days a week,” MacGregor writes, “accelerates the rate at which you experience the pains that purify weakness and stiffness, as well as the rate at which you experience the purified result of more strength and flexibility in the body and mind.”

For Jois and MacGregor, the body is a container to be opened and purified, and pain is a necessary sign of progress.

I asked MacGregor how she and her students distinguish from the spiritually necessary pain that she seems to be describing in her book and the pain that indicates injury. She affirmed the difference between acceptable delayed-onset muscular soreness and pain that is to avoided: joint pain, or pain within practice that makes the yogi wince.

But the longer part of her answer detoured back to the ideal spiritual attitude the yogi should have toward the injury that’s already happened.

“When you’re injured, you have to ask, ‘Am I really going to do marichyasana C, or am I going to let my hip joint heal?’ In my case, I’m going to let my hip joint heal. Does that annoy me? Sure. But it’s my ego that’s hurting. So then that is the tapas. That is the real teacher. That’s more yoga than just going in and hammering out the asanas.”

The circular argument that MacGregor transparently makes is so hard to understand; it seems to validate the popular argument that yoga cannot be conceptualized. Pain is described as a necessary spiritual tool in a practice that claims to heal the body and ego and free the person from all limitation. But if you have too much pain, or the wrong kind, you’re courting injury. No one wants that.

Or do they? If too much pain does injure the yogi, the bright side is that renewed focus upon bodily healing may hurt the ego as it contemplates its new limitations. This is ultimately good news because, as MacGregor says, “the real yoga is the burning up of the ego."

The more rationalist approach, larded with biomedical jargon and devoid of MacGregor’s poetic paradox, may never capture the hearts of truly devotional practitioners. Kinesiology doesn’t turn the body into a vehicle for spiritual lessons best learned through fire. Jois may have called his Primary Series “Yoga Chikitsa” or “Healing for the Body,” but his esoteric paradigm for health, quite distinct from contemporary biomedical goals, includes the capacity to commune with pain and to embrace the inevitability of injury as proof of the omnipresent Divine.

Senior students I’ve interviewed have insisted that the late Jois didn’t invite them into his shala to help them avoid the fear of pain and death, but to encounter it fully, and face it down with the same steady gaze and even breath with which he performed his ritual fire offerings every morning.

_____
 

Amongst MacGregor’s fan base, a few commenters on the injury photo have offered her friendly but imaginative healing advice. They tell her she should take raw garlic to battle the parasite infection that will now invade her hip. They tell her to be mindful of the effects of Saturn, or to determine which chakra is causing her acute pain. One dreamy supporter suggested that MacGregor discover which past memories were tightening her hamstrings.

But by and large, MacGregor’s following has flooded her channels with less intrusive wishes for a full recovery.

So have her esteemed colleagues in the Ashtanga community. Eddie Stern, founder of the iconic Ashtanga Yoga New York, commented by email, “I think it was very brave of Kino to post about her injury, and share it with her following.

“I hope that she didn’t do anything too serious,” Stern continues. “And I hope that her recovery is quick. She will probably gain some insights that she can pass along to her students and social media fans that they will perhaps benefit from.”

_____
 

Elsewhere, lesser-known asana practitioners riding the yoga media wave that MacGregor has churned are also coming clean about the painful fault line between practice and performance.

Twenty-three-year-old Instagram yogi Irene Pappas (@fitqueenirene, 476K followers) is now practicing with one arm only to protect her arm-balance-aggravated necrotic wrist bones, which may never be able to bear weight again. Another Instagram yogi, @blue_yagoo (21.5K followers), reports on being removed from her home via stretcher after tearing her trapezius muscle, following a period of intense practice.

She posts: 

I was ‘listening to my body’ intently the same way I had a thousand times before, and I STILL assessed the situation incorrectly.

The paramedic asked me how I got into my predicament as I was lying on the stretcher. I tried explaining the asana verbally, which only rendered confusion. So I showed him the photo.

His eyebrows shot up. "Yep. That'll do it.”

This original article first appeared, in it's complete form, on Matthew Remski's blog. 

Matthew Remski
Matthew Remski has practiced meditation since 1996 and asana since 2000. He’s taught yoga, yoga philosophy, and ayurveda in Toronto and beyond since 2005. He maintains an active ayurveda consultation practice from his home, which he shares with his partner Alix, son Jacob, and someone else who's on the way. He’s authored several books on yoga and related subjects, and is working toward completing What Are We Actually Doing in Asana?—an examination of pain, injury, and healing in modern... Read more>>

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