Thursday, February 9, 2012

Really Yoga: Understanding Pain as a Teacher and Working with Injuries

It is true pain, discomfort and disturbances surface by practising yoga.

"Pain? But isn't yoga supposed to be a 'feel-good' activity?" 

Pain is not a Qualifier to a Good Practice 

While I am implying that it isn't and for those already familiar with the rigors of the practice, a nodding look might be surfacing. What I mean is just because you feel uncomfortable does not mean you are doing it wrong. Conversely, having pain is not a qualifier for a great practice either. The trouble lies in understanding that no spiritual practice (whether it be yoga, meditation or any other related practice) was never meant to be an unobstructed or easy ride.

In fact, it is the most challenging and demanding path an individual can pursue (Georg Feuerstein, The Lost Teachings of Yoga).

With the increasing number of people practicing yoga (estimated over 40 million since 2004 in the United States), which is absolutely incredible it is bound to stir hidden tensions and stresses in the body and mind. The practice is carefully designed to uncover what has been repressed and neglected. The unexpected takes place, it looked easier than it is and demands so much more than the 1,2,3, you’re done approach!

Push, Relax or Do Both? 

When I first started practicing yoga I had some flexibility but certainly not to the degree I later developed. I also lacked strength in many parts of my body as well as my mind. Studying under Indian Yoga Masters helped drill this latter point into my head. That is, the practice of the physical asanas is a direct route to training the mind.

Practice for everyone at no matter what level of expertise should not miss this point. That's why telling students to relax more and not push too much might not be serving them. Perhaps a habit has been made out of relaxing and chronically not challenging themselves and resting on their laurels. That said, I am also not in favour of throwing a student into the lion’s den, pushing people over and watching them fall and calling it “building up fear tolerance”. It's ignorant, counter-productive and gives teachers a bad rap for being 'bad' teachers, but more that Yoga HAS to hurt! It also leads people to think all pain is good. Yoga is pain and without it maybe I am not working hard enough.

Because yoga has been narrowed into the physical stream with pain as a trophy for many (i.e., I suffered this and achieved that) there is a slow landslide in understanding why, how and what it is all about. Paradoxically, we work with the physical postures to heal the mind, awaken the dormant energies and develop a better understanding of our strengths, weaknesses, habits and ultimately an inner purpose.
Pain as many great teachers say is the greatest teacher of all (Jon Kabit-Zinn, a meditation teacher in America). And yet learning or rather finding out how to use and work with pain is the biggest challenge for us all.
The Tools of Yoga 

Yoga provides us with these tools in a real and tangible way. If we want to walk on the path it will challenge us in all directions revealing what it is we need to know and where it is we need to go. It may also reveal what we do not want to face, which is equally difficult in working with personal mental resistance.

I used to have a lot of pain in my knees when I studied under Shri K. Pattabhi Jois in Mysore. I brought that pain with me so I do not see it as the fault of yoga or the Guru. Early on in my practice there were many impurities and weaknesses to work with. As a former figure skater I used my right side more and my left side became quite tight. As I learned lotus and other postures it was during the time of a lot hands-on assistance; there were also very few students present and the popularity of Ashtanga-yoga was yet to come. The approach back then was to let me practice, strap my body into the asana (ready or not) and continue to practice. Each day I hobbled into class Pattabhi Jois was not baffled at my pain. Call it my ego, my impure body and mind or that I was not fit enough, I struggled like a worm trying to break free of its cocoon every day.

Guruji (the affectionate name for Pattabji Jois) used to say, "little pain today, gone tomorrow." I don't think I appreciated this until tomorrow became many, many tomorrow's and much later (even years later).

What I have discovered is the journey of yoga is built upon how to work with the breath, the gaze point and the bandhas. It was not until one day during my practice that something inside of me totally recognized my physical pain was connected to both mental and emotional barriers.

Intuitive Knowledge is Under-rated 

Working or rather practicing alone on the body only takes you so far. We have been conditioned in the West to look for the teacher to give us the solution or to make it right for us. However, it was on my own and from countless practices that inner guide slowly awaken. As teacher this is what we owe to our students. To show them how to do this. The external teacher can only reveal where we are stuck physically and mentally. And like it or not, it is up to us (you and me) to find our way home. That is why Guruji did not hold my hand or wipe any students' tears. I never saw him phased by all the people groaning and moaning either. I was actually happy he did not speak a lot of English. And the reason I say that is because I think many teachers talk too much! Of course, it is better than not talking at all. However, words are limited and talking can potentially over-intellectualize the practice and prematurely make assumptions and conclusions.

Silence as a teacher is stronger than verbal discourse and Guruji was not a man of many words. He let me practice and watched; supporting me with his energy and his gaze.

Sometimes students feel this is a cold and uncaring approach. However, it is the student who has to do 80 per cent of the work and the teacher 20 per cent. Having worked through numerous layers of the body, I slowly developed a system that allowed me to keep building posture after posture after posture. I encourage all students to start like this and how I taught yoga at my school ~ The Yoga Way. Start off with a basic element of a posture and practice it 3-4 times each time you practice. I never heard of a musician running through a piece from start to finish. So the same logic can be applied when working on the postures of yoga.

Goals and Pre-Goals 

Take for example the desired lotus pose. First, understand it will not come from shoving the knee into the pose. It will grow like the lotus from a deep place and with an intelligent approach that starts from working from the outside in. If the goal is lotus then the pre-goals need to be in opening the hips, the lower back, developing stomach control and loosening the legs. The umbrella to this is the connection of the mind and its habitual clinging to the disturbances of the body. This umbrella will also be the bridge between them: the breath.

The Breath

Breath directs thoughts, feelings and consciousness. Through the breath the body moves (not vice versa). Through the breath the mind moves (not vice versa). This is a fairly simple revelation but a critical aspect to practice.

When working through intense pain this is the approach. While working through layers of physical or mental resistance this is the approach. When having fun this remains the approach. That is, breathe.

Technique is Not Enough

Knowing the technical aspects is also not enough. In fact, the techniques can be learned pretty quickly in just about any posture. I sometimes think you really do not need a teacher for that. You can read it in a good book, watch youtubes or sit down with a dvd. What takes time (a life-time) is the understanding of the multiple layers of the mind, the nuances of the postures and bringing the scattered mind to a still place in a single posture. That is why my teacher Yogacharya Venkatesha had me practice less postures for more internal work.
And he would often say, "You have worked a lot on the physical level, how about your mind?"
Today, we either have people saying pain is necessary for practice and let’s bull-doze through it. Or feeling afraid of the pain and becoming paralyzed. The fact is as many Buddhists discuss life is pain, life is suffering and yet it is also beautiful (Chogyam Trungpa).

Patience - Where Can I Get Some 

One of the most wonderful things my teachers demonstrated consistently is patience. They did not scorn or ridicule but offered encouragement by saying, "it will come."  Having worked through many injuries with my knees, pain in my back and joints as well as a car accident (before yoga), it is because of pain that the practice keeps going.  I once even walked to class because of the pain to Yogacharya's class. It was my last class and I was very disappointed.
He only said, "It will go."
Pushing through pain only creates more of the same. Therefore, working carefully, gradually and consistently is the only way to understand pain as a teacher and not to remain in pain. Practice is not about getting rid of it, but slowly ironing it out and leveling it down.

Breathing, meditation, postures, chanting, reading scriptures and working with a qualified teacher creates a practice and space that teaches you how to work with your own body, your breath and your mind as it is, and in any given state.

Understanding yoga (really) is having yoga work for you as a life practice and partner; sharing in all that comes, goes, is, isn't and remains to be seen and yet to be experienced.