The Wisdom of an Injured Hamstring
Back in February, when I found out that I had been accepted to Richard Freeman’s 200-hour Ashtanga teacher training, I questioned his judgment. He only takes 40 or so students a year. One of those was going to be me, a kind-of-fat middle-aged guy who took two years to vaguely understand where to put his hands during bhujapidasana? But I figured Richard must have had his reasons, even if those reasons mostly had to do with me getting my application in earlier than everyone else.
Was enlightenment near?
In the past, when I had studied yoga for a few days or even a few hours with a master teacher, I would leave floating on a cloud of mental calm. My “yoga brain,” as it’s sometimes called, would be fully activated. I would feel the uniting of the sun and the moon, of ida and pingala. Prakriti would stop dancing for purusha. Without even trying, really, I would activate my Yoga with a capital Y. So I wondered, with great excitement, what I would feel like after a full month of teacher training, after 200 whole hours of yoga. Would all my earthly illusions finally be shattered? Was enlightenment near?
Expectations ran high.
I prepared well. Just like Richard had asked, I listened to and practiced my Ashtanga chants, including the invocation to Ganesha. Though it took me two months and I fell asleep every five pages, I read Ka by Roberto Calasso, a deeply inscrutable retelling of Indian mythology. And, nearly every day, I practiced my asana, but not too hard, too fast, or for too long. I wanted to be mentally and physically ready, but I didn’t want to burn out.
One night, about 10 days before leaving for what I was certain would soon become the experience of my life, I got up around 3 a.m. to answer nature’s call. A suitcase lay in the middle of my bedroom floor. I didn’t see it in time, stumbled, and landed awkwardly on my left leg. Then I felt it, a mild tug that nonetheless burned red-hot. It was the telltale tweak of the hamstring. I’d done my last trikonasana for a good long while. I was still going to attend yoga school, but that fated moment shattered every preconception.
During my month of training in Boulder, I spent a weekend meditating in a Buddhist temple, held an actual human brain in my hands, read more Upanishads than I ever thought I would, and learned how to signify a compound consonant in Sanskrit. I also had to skip one asana class to go to the emergency room when my hamstring flared up fiercely, spent 100 bucks on a pair of athletic compression shorts, and generally passed much of June lurching, in varying degrees of agony, through the trailer park that sat between the yoga studio and my apartment.
My teacher training forced me to face yoga practice head-on, without much emphasis on what most Westerners identify with yoga. I wasn’t able to use asana as a crutch. Instead, I had to use an actual crutch, or at least a walking stick. While most of my fellow students contorted and leapt and stood on their hands, I had to tiptoe through an hour-long “therapeutic loop” that included a baddha konasana where Richard trussed me like a Christmas goose—with all manner of strap, block, and blanket—and several long stays in what he calls “camper’s pose,” so named because when you’re in the pose, you look like a camper doing his business in the woods.
My teacher training forced me to face yoga practice head-on, without much emphasis on what most Westerners identify with yoga.
Occasionally, I would feel a “yoga brain” moment. As I dragged my left leg through the trailer park, I’d gaze in wonder at the sunset, almost always magnificent in Colorado in June. It occurred to me that all matter, thoughts, and emotions are united under some sort of unknowable eternal consciousness. That perception, I thought, is the essence of yoga. But I had also experienced that perception before, and in greater depth. Frankly, I was a little disappointed that I hadn’t encountered it more fully or more often at yoga school. I paid my money, I thought. I deserve pure consciousness.
But the truth is, I don’t “deserve” anything, and that was one of the most important lessons I eventually drew from yoga school. Just like you can’t depend on your body to always be able to do the asana you were capable of when you were 25, you also can’t depend on your brain to constantly exist in the divine realization of pure awareness. When I came home, things were much the same. My kid still howled when his socks were uncomfortable. My Boston terrier still peed in the back room. I still had financial problems. People still cut me off in traffic. And all that stuff still annoyed me.
But I also found myself walking through life with a much greater sense of calm. I had certainly heard about non-attachment, to both positive and negative experiences, but now, suddenly, I began to put it into action. If I felt myself getting angry, or jealous, or otherwise mentally troubled, I would observe my feelings, even cradle them, as a famous rinpoche once instructed, but not let them rule me. For the most part, without even trying, I found myself feeling kinder and friendlier and more generous. Subtly, slowly, and by very gradual degrees, yoga was changing my very nature. I had learned to face reality head-on, to do my best to place the yamas and niyamas in the holes left by my dearly departed pashchimottanasana.
Living through the small agonies of my hamstring injury taught me that nothing lasts, either good or bad, and nothing goes exactly as planned. Maybe that was my Yoga with a capital Y. Once you accept impermanence, as the Buddha did, and truly understand that nothing is going to stop you from getting sick, getting old, and dying, then the practice can really begin.
Of course the Buddha, as far as we know, never had to do camper’s pose.
Neal Pollack is the author of eight books of fiction and nonfiction, including the bestselling yoga memoir Stretch and two Matt Bolster yoga detective mysteries. His ninth book, a time-traveling romantic comedy called Repeat, will be published in March by Amazon's Lake Union Press.