Ouch! Learning from Pain in My Asana Practice

February 24, 2015    BY Allison Manheim

When I discovered yoga at 19, my body relaxed into hatha like an overdue yawn. I had always been flexible, and I took pride in the idea of being a “good yogini.” For me, progress in the asanas signaled internal growth, especially when others recognized my improvement. Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche calls this attitude “spiritual materialism”; as long as the ego maintains a fascination with itself, its expectations, and its accomplishments, spiritual practice remains superficial.

For me, progress in the asanas signaled internal growth, especially when others recognized my improvement.

During my early training in Integral Yoga, my teacher said something I thought was cute (but didn’t apply to me): “Sometimes if you need to learn something, you will hear the message whispered in your ear. If you still don’t get it, you will feel a tap on the shoulder. And if you still don’t get the message, it will break your arm.” I filed that story in the back of my mind as I immersed myself in the study of asana and raja yoga (the eight-limbed path). I committed the code of ethics (yamas andniyamas) to memory and felt fairly pure. When I studied Yoga Sutra 2.35 (“In the presence of one firmly established in non-violence—ahimsa—all hostilities cease”), I made a commitment to close doors quietly and not lose my temper when I got angry. Obviously, my vows were just skimming the surface. I didn’t understand how the teaching related to me.

My wake-up call did not come from a broken arm. It came years later during my morning hatha practice. As I flew through my regular sequence of postures, I found myself moving from triangle into revolved triangle—an asana I didn’t usually practice. After my body stretched very deeply in the pose, I heard a pop. Although I knew it was a bad sign, I ignored it. I was doing yoga, not being yoga—and I paid the price.

Later that day, even standing was painful. By the evening, I couldn’t walk. Bedridden for several days, I threw myself into an extravaganza of self-pity and doubt: “Poor me! Why me? What if I never get better?” I decided to distract myself by watching movie marathons, sleeping, and hoping that my body would heal.

Even after I could walk again, I continued to experience on-again, off-again pain. I wanted to ignore it and make it go away, but that didn’t work. Finally, I abandoned wishful thinking and sought help. I went to a physical therapist who explained that my muscles had become more flexible than they were strong. Although I could move into advanced postures, I couldn’t hold them without hurting myself. To compound the problem, since I hadn’t modified my hatha practice, I kept aggravating the injury.

So much for ahimsa.

Before my injury, meditation was just something I grudgingly tacked on for fifteen minutes at the end of my asana practice. I didn’t like slowing down and tuning in to my restless, hazy mind. Post-injury, I began to set aside regular time every day to simply be present with what Jon Kabat-Zinn calls “the full catastrophe”: the physical pain, the restlessness, the pride, the dark emotions. I began to practice mindfulness—an intentional, focused awareness—during my meditation. I learned to witness and sit with emotions and other dramas of the mind without judging them. And slowly, I tuned into the constant hum of anxiety that had always been a part of my life. I began to realize how I bulldozed through whatever bothered me—in my meditation practice, in hatha, in work, and in relationships—to make it conform to my expectations. For me, mindful meditation was the gateway to developing an intimacy with myself and my practice.

Post-injury, I began to set aside regular time every day to simply be present.

When I began to apply the principles of mindfulness to my hatha practice, I discovered several habitual emotional reactions that prevented me from being embodied in the present moment. I noticed that whenever my mind was disconnected from my body—planning my day, for example, instead of being present in shoulderstand—I was more susceptible to injury. And once I began to witness these seductive states without judging or clinging to them, I discovered that I could avoid their pull and resist the mind-body split that often results in injury. Here are a few of the ways these lessons showed up.

A Peacock Marathon

Once I witnessed my friend, Gail, embody the most beautiful extended peacock pose I had ever seen: Starting from a crouch, she tucked her elbows into her abdomen and placed her hands on the floor. With exquisite balance, she lined up her head and legs with her torso. Then she tilted forward until her chin almost touched the floor, and extended her legs up to the sky. She could out-peacock a peacock, I thought. Enter Desire: If only I had what she had—then I would be happy.

I promptly embarked on a peacock marathon, practicing every day for months in quest of Gail’s perfection. Soon, my wrists were inflamed with osteoarthritis, and I found myself back in the doctor’s office. My orthopedic surgeon gave me a stern prescription for preserving the mobility in my wrists: no more downward-facing dog, no more crow, and no more peacock. I felt as if I was being sentenced to mediocrity; how could I become a great yogini if I couldn’t practice any weight-bearing postures?

As it turns out, arthritis was a blessing in disguise: following doctor’s orders, I was forced to tune in to my body and explore which postures worked and which ones didn’t. When I let go of my quest for perfection, my hatha practice became a kind of moving meditation.

The Laughing Locust

How does a yogini act out aversion in her hatha practice? By avoiding postures that she doesn’t like. For years, I had a nemesis relationship with locust pose. When I began to practice mindful hatha yoga, I noticed that my body was extremely tense in the posture. And I had created a rather unyogic mantra: “I hate this pose! I hate this pose!”

How does a yogini act out aversion in her hatha practice?

My friend Padma suggested that I try some visualization, imagining myself as a shimmering, green locust laughing my head off. Although it’s impossible to belly-laugh in this pose, her suggestion helped me cultivate a more friendly attitude toward it. When I loosened my grip on the dysfunctional mantra, my body relaxed into the posture, and I was able to lengthen and tap into muscle groups that had been previously frozen by tension. I was able to watch and not react to the judgments in the mind. Locust lost its nemesis status and my mind dropped some of its negativity.

The Veil of Fog

For months I felt incredibly lazy in my hatha practice. Every morning sloth descended like a two-ton gorilla when the alarm went off, and I’d start making excuses to stay in bed just “five more minutes.” When I finally dragged myself to the mat, I moved quickly in and out of postures just to get done. I also had to fight the urge to curl up and sleep between postures. In the back of my mind, I knew that by not attending fully to my body during hatha practice, I was increasing my risk of discomfort and pain.

After some contemplation, I realized that beneath the sloth were layers of depression and fear related to my job. Because work was so draining, I tended to stay up late at night doing things I enjoyed. When I woke up in the morning I was too tired to be present with my practice.

After some contemplation, I realized that beneath the sloth were layers of depression and fear related to my job.

Once I acknowledged the origins of the sloth and saw how I perpetuated it in my daily routine, I opened to the possibility of making a career change. I also adapted my practice to include mostly standing postures, resisting the gravitational pull toward the floor. When I finally decided to leave my job, the sloth dissipated in my hatha practice as well as in other aspects of my life.

The Present Moment

I recently saw a cartoon drawn by David Life, co-founder of Jivamukti Yoga, that exemplifies restlessness in hatha: A man is doing two versions of standing head-to-knee pose (uttanasana). In the first image, his movements are synchronized with his breath. In the second image, he is doing the same posture, but the focus is a series of thought-bubbles: “Ooh, my back.” “I hate my boss.” “I should have worn green.” “Wow! She is really cute.” “I’m going to look for a new job.” “I think she noticed me.” “I look good.” “Ooh, my legs.”

It is precisely this restless state of mind that leads to pain in my hatha practice. I, too, have discovered that it is possible to breathe, ruminate about past and future conversations, and plan elaborate dinner menus, all while practicing asana. But on those restless days, I am not sure who is actually practicing. And (surprise, surprise) after running through such a disconnected routine, I’m usually rewarded with an accompanying muscle ache, pain, or even injury—like the time I hurt myself in revolved triangle years ago.

It is precisely this restless state of mind that leads to pain in my hatha practice.

Now when I feel restless in my practice, I return my focus to the breath, feeling the air move in and out of my body as I explore a pose. Breath awareness helps me reconnect my body and mind, bringing me back to the present moment, and reducing my chances of injury.

Putting It All Together

Who would have guessed that my quest for perfection would lead me to embrace my body and mind exactly as they are—moment by moment, pose by pose? This is the key to mindfulness. By applying its principles to my study of asana, I was able to transform ahimsa from a distant concept into a living, spiritual practice.

Allison Manheim
Allison Manheim, MA, ATR, is a registered art therapist and yoga teacher who has trained in Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction at the Center for Mindfulness at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. She leads stress-reduction programs in schools, hospitals, businesses, and the community.

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