Yoga Injuries II: What Happens when an Ancient Eastern Practice Meets Modern Western Sensibilities?
While much of the yoga blogosphere has moved on from the yoga injury discussion of last week, the issue is still percolating for me—probably because I’ve been thinking about this a good, long while.
Last week I wrote a post that posed the question of whether the root cause of the rise in yoga injuries might be caused by asana being severed from its roots as a part of a much larger, more comprehensive system. I was happy to see that this post generated a lot of thoughtful discussion. Speculations about the cause of yoga injuries and interpretations of the New York Times article that started the conversation were everywhere last week. Clearly this is an issue whose time has come.
As I read more posts throughout the week, I ruminated more on the issues associated with importing a fragment of an ancient Eastern practice into contemporary Western culture. It makes sense that in transferring a foreign practice into a completely different culture, adjustments must be made. For example, most of us who practice yoga are not holed up in caves practicing all day. We are householders with families, employment and competing interests.
The yoga tradition actually makes plenty of room for the householder. You might be surprised to find that the philosophy of one of yoga’s ancient and defining texts, The Bhagavad Gita says that a yogi need not leave the world in order to find freedom. According to Mircea Eliade, scholar and author of Yoga, Immortality and Freedom, Krishna encourages Arjuna to continue to be a “man of action,” finding his freedom in the midst of his life in the world.
East Meets West: Conditioned to Compete
The problem with plopping one small component of a practice as vast and deep as yoga into a completely different culture is one of context. In the West, from an early age we are conditioned to interpret physical endeavors through the lens of competition. Think about it: We watch competitive team sports for entertainment. Even sports where the judging is clearly subjective—think ice skating and gymnastics—are subject to competition. For many of us physical endeavors like running, hiking and bicycling that could be seen as purely pleasurable are subject to the “no pain, no gain” conditioning we’ve all grown up with. We almost expect to injure ourselves in physical practice, so on the surface, yoga injuries might even seem completely normal.
When asana practice is severed from its roots and brought to a culture that celebrates competition, it will be interpreted through the competitive lens because that is the lens we know. This is why much of the yoga that is popular today is active and fast paced, with a focus on a high-intensity physical workout.
Let me clarify that I’m not knocking competition. I grew up going to Cincinnati Reds games, back in the days of the “Big Red Machine.” My partner and I watched—and enjoyed—the World Series last October. I love watching the Olympics, especially gymnastics and ice skating. I’ll even admit to having choked up the first time I watched the video of my alma mater, Indiana University’s last-second three-pointer that gave them a win over #1-ranked Kentucky last month. Yes, I’ve watched it more than once.
I’m also not saying, “Western culture=bad, Eastern culture=good.” I’m simply pointing out that most of us have been conditioned passively, simply by growing up here, to equate physical activity with pushing oneself, striving for excellence, etc. This is inherently neither good nor bad. It is simply the context from which most of us, at least initially, will perceive and interpret asana practice because that is our most familiar filter. When competition, striving and forcing are our context, yoga injuries are more likely to occur.
I’m definitely not a Type A personality. Yet I’ve observed my own competitive tendencies—however subtle—surface countless times in my yoga practice and even in meditation. I was born with a body that is capable of doing fancy poses, and I heartily practiced them for years. Practicing fancy poses is fun, but when I was in the stage of practice where these poses were important to me, I did not find that performing them made me a kinder, wiser or more compassionate person. They did not make meditation one iota easier.
Wisdom Mind Meets Competitive Mind
Even now in my 50s, I sometimes catch my wisdom mind feeling the need to justify a slow, quiet practice to my competitive mind. I’ve found myself wondering if I’m really doing a legitimate practice when I simply lie on tennis balls for an hour to help heal an SI joint flare-up from an ancient car accident. My wisdom mind helps me remember that whatever practice brings my body/mind to balance in a given moment is the best practice. I continue to learn that asana practice must be flexible. I must stay flexible also—mentally and emotionally—to remember that asana practice is designed to serve the individual needs of each person in each moment. We are not here to serve asana practice; it is the other way around.
So even for a person as Type B as I am, the process of rewiring the competitive mind takes years. While I rarely act from competitive mind in my asana practice, it still makes its voice heard. The difference is that I now have the power to choose which mind to listen to.
Tomorrow’s blog will explain the Yogic context of asana practice and why yoga injuries are far less likely to occur when we practice from this context.