Traditional Tools for Preventing Yoga Injuries
Yesterday, I wrote about the issues inherent in dropping one component of a larger system of practice into a culture with a vastly different mindset. If you’d like to catch up on this discussion, you can read the post here. Today I’d like to talk about how Western yoga might look different if we approached practice from the perspective of its original intentions.
Traditionally, yogis studied and practiced the yamas (ethical precepts) and niyamas (personal practices) for years before beginning to practice asana. Integrating concepts such as non-harming, truthfulness, self-reflection, contentment, wise use of energy, non-greed and selflessness—making these practices a part of who we are—creates a very different context for learning asana than “no pain, no gain” does.
Most people who are dipping a tentative toe into yoga practice for the first time are not interested in philosophy, however. This includes me in my early years of practice. This is why it is important for teachers to have at least begun the long process of integrating the yamas and niyamas into their own lives. When we as teachers come from an integrated practice of the yamas and niyamas we are less likely to give the competitive message to our students. When these practices are integrated, we don’t need to talk about philosophy in our classes. The yamas and niyamas become our context, and the students are more likely to feel and act from this context.
I’m not talking about simply memorizing the yamas and niyamas. Rather, I’m talking about the process of setting an intention to consider your life choices, and asana choices, through the lens of the yamas and niyamas—for the rest of your life. This is a lifelong process that requires strong resolve and the cultivation of mindfulness so that we act in response to the reality of each situation, rather than reacting automatically from familiar patterns of conditioning.
If we all took just the concept of ahimsa, non-harming, to heart, questioning our intentions for practicing certain poses through the filter of non-harming, yoga practice in the West would look very different. As it is, we watch classmates, or the plethora of YouTube videos and magazine photos of people doing fancy poses, and we think this is “advanced” yoga. We judge ourselves as either good yogis or bad yogis based on how we measure up to these images. Judging ourselves in this way is not only antithetical to ahimsa, it is also antithetical to what the yoga tradition says about mastering asana.
Mastery According to the Yoga Sutras
The Yoga Sutras define mastery of asana as the point “when all effort is relaxed and the mind is absorbed in the Infinite.” (You can read more about the Yoga Sutras’ take on asana here.) There’s no mention of “perfecting poses” or performing “advanced” poses. The idea that some poses are advanced and others beginning is purely a modern invention. Until the British colonized India and introduced gymnastics, the majority of asanas were simple, seated poses designed to prepare one’s body for sitting meditation.
In the West our concept of mastery encourages doing the most extreme versions of poses, or performing so-called “advanced” poses. The class level system popular in many styles of yoga (Level 1, Level 2, Level 3, etc.) reflects this. IMO the distinctions created for class levels are neither accurate nor helpful in assessing the maturity of one’s practice.
For example, a person with a decades-long practice whose shoulder joints won’t allow full upward extension of the arms would be barred from many Level 3 classes because they wouldn’t be able to do Upward Bow with straight arms. Similarly, a yoga novice with flexible shoulder joints could take a Level 3 class on her first day. Classifying practitioners this way actually encourages injury, as people try to force their bodies into positions they are not genetically capable of accomplishing, just so they can attend a higher-level class. In addition, these ways of pigeon-holing people stigmatize students. A Level 1 student may feel inferior, while a Level 3 student might feel superior, simply because of differences in their bodies’ capabilities that are often attributable to genetics. And yoga’s not just about poses anyway.
If we in the West practiced from the context of the yoga tradition’s radically different idea of mastery, far fewer yoga injuries would occur. Instead of striving to force our bodies into poses that are structurally unachievable for the vast majority of people, we would instead relax into the pose we are in at the present moment—no matter what it looks like or how seemingly simple it is.
There’s no pose somewhere out there in the future that’s inherently better than the one you are in right now. Freedom is right here, right now, in this moment’s pose. It is accessible to all of us when we stop striving and relax into the beauty of this pose, right now.