Teaching Yoga: The Wisdom of Humility
For the past two years I’ve had the privilege of attending retreats at Spirit Rock Meditation Center led by Joseph Goldstein. Co-founder of the Insight Meditation Society, Goldstein has written or co-written—with the likes of the Dalai Lama, among others—11 classic books on mindfulness practice.
His voice has been a constant in my three decades of mindfulness practice. On silent vipassana retreats with my mentors, Pujari and Abhilasha Keays, we listened to Goldstein every day. This adds up to 200-plus hours of listening time for me over the years, not counting the many road trips I’ve taken with Goldstein in my car’s cassette deck. (Yes, my car is of cassette deck vintage.)
I’m exceedingly grateful for this. I could have stumbled into any practice and any teacher, but Goldstein’s intelligence, articulateness and humor have been the perfect guide for my temperament. In recent weeks, I’ve been pondering what I believe to be the most important quality of any teacher, and I keep coming back to another quality I’ve appreciated in Goldstein’s talks—humility.
In his talks, he regularly recounts misunderstandings that have led him to deeper understanding. After sharing a particularly humorous one, he said (and I’m paraphrasing), “Sometimes I think my path has been about making every single possible mistake.”
The Price of Bendiness
Later this month, I will be getting a new left hip joint. A recent x-ray showed “end-stage” degeneration, meaning there’s no cartilage left and bone spurs have begun to fill the gap where my cartilage used to be. I’m not surprised. Over the past few years, standing, walking, sitting, squatting, kneeling and lying down, basically everything, has been pretty painful. The diagnosis was actually a relief. Now I know there’s a pathway back to a more enjoyable life.
But you practice yoga!, you say. How can that be?
My first response is, it runs in my family. My mother had her hip replaced; my younger sister believes she may be headed in that direction. My cousin and her daughter—13 years my junior—both had their hips replaced in the past year. My surgeon tells me I have exceedingly shallow hip sockets. The diagnosis is hip dysplasia. This accounts for the extreme hypermobility I’ve had for as long as I can remember. Because my hip joints are inherently unstable, and the heads of my femurs don’t seat solidly in the sockets, they are predisposed to wearing out early.
On a scale of 1 to 10 in terms of the degeneration of my joints, both are 10s. I will likely have the right one replaced this summer. I’m grateful to live in a time when this can be treated, and I can regain my ability to do the things I love—walking, sleeping, gardening and hiking being first among them.
I also believe that some of the things I did in my yoga practice in my 20s, 30s and 40s may have hastened the process. There’s no way of knowing, of course, how much genetics contributed to the timing of my joint’s deterioration and how much my practice contributed to it, but at the root of whatever role my asana practice might have played was a lack of humility.
My shallow hip sockets have allowed me to do all kinds of extreme poses and none of them hurt. I was, in fact, listening to my body, but as long as there was still some cartilage in my hip joint, I wasn’t going to feel its gradual thinning. Cartilage has no enervation. You don’t feel pain in a joint until the cartilage is gone.
Several of my yoga asana mentors—Donna Farhi, Judith Hanson Lasater and Mary Dunn, in particular—suggested I focus less on increasing my flexibility, and instead pull back and build stability. Had I been more humble at the time, and less invested in being the most flexible person in the room, I might have taken their advice. Humility may have compelled me to listen and take to heart what these very capable teachers were telling me.
It’s safe to say I’m now sufficiently humbled. While I’m exhausted from being in constant pain, my unhappy hip joint has taught me a lot. The bone-on-bone experience gives me instant feedback. I’ve learned a lot about which poses, alignment instructions and approaches to practice can potentially cause harm—poses and instructions that are still popular in mainstream yoga—and the importance of creating continuity through all my joints.
Despite what I just spent three paragraphs writing, I’m not chastising myself. I practiced with the best information I had at the time. I went out of my way to work with the most experienced, respected teachers, who were also teaching from the best information they had at the time. We were all doing our best, and we have all learned a lot and have adjusted our teaching accordingly.
How Humility Brings Wisdom
Like Goldstein, my path has been about making mistakes and learning from them. Sometimes I think that I’ve unintentionally made my body a guinea pig for the sake of becoming a more well-rounded teacher. It’s really okay. Humility keeps me honest. It also keeps me curious.
One of the things that struck me about practicing with Goldstein is his endless curiosity. With the respect he’s earned from his decades of practice and teaching, he could easily rest on his laurels. Yet, his humility and passion for the dharma give him an insatiable desire to keep learning, to understand what he thought he knew in different ways.
This is what I admire most in him, and what my hip joint is teaching me. We never know it all, and knowing this, we never have to stop learning. Being able to do many of the extreme, fancy poses in my youth did not make me a better teacher. It did not help me understand what my less flexible students—which is most of them—were experiencing and how to help them develop a balanced practice. Having a hip joint that screams every time bone hits bone has taught me way more than doing fancy poses ever did. I’m looking forward to what my new, titanium hip joints have to teach me.
Bravo! Wonderful post. I am in complete agreement with hips and humility. My early years of Yoga were definitely focused on flexibility, but now stability is the key. I have listened to Joseph Goldstein many times, but never the privilege of being in his presence. Humility, curiosity, passion… Yes! Blessings and many thinks.
Thanks for your comment. I guess we all learn over the years of practice, and it’s so important to be flexible—so to speak—in how you approach practice as your body changes over the years. It was wonderful to get to practice with Joseph Goldstein after so many years of hearing his voice. His humility and wisdom have been cornerstones of my practice since the beginning.
Oh Charlotte, this article SO resonates with me, and it’s like you’re telling my own story (“The diagnosis is hip dysplasia. This accounts for the extreme hypermobility I’ve had for as long as I can remember. Because my hip joints are inherently unstable, and the heads of my femurs don’t seat solidly in the sockets, they are predisposed to wearing out early”). I could really use your wisdom on which poses to avoid or tweet, as a doctor I recently saw is suggesting that I quit doing yoga. This is heartbreak for me. I am 50 now, and was a hyper-flexible advanced gymnast in my younger years when there was no such thing as a spring floor. Soon I will be seeing a more specialized hip doctor. My concern is what I will be prevented from doing after hip surgery (yoga? dancing?). Your thoughts? Thanks ever so much!
Thank you for your comment. I’m sorry to hear you’re going through this. I can certainly relate. My first suggestion as to what to avoid would be anything that hurts. It seems abrupt to say that, but if your cartilage is gone, you’ll know what I’m talking about. Since my left hip gives me the most instant and intense feedback, I also avoid doing anything on the right side that hurts on the left. Leading up to my surgery, which will be March 23rd, I’ve been focusing mostly on strengthening and balance poses. I will likely be writing a lot more about this in the future.
The good news is that hip replacement surgery is so much better than it used to be. If you are a candidate for anterior hip replacement surgery (as opposed to the more traditional posterior/lateral surgery) the recovery is much easier and quicker. There will be a few movement restrictions in the first year; extension coupled with external rotation can dislocate the joint after anterior surgery. But for the most part, after your surgery has healed you will be back to full functioning. I know people who have had both hips replaced that are back to dancing, yoga, skiing and backpacking.
I currently have four yoga students who have had hip replacements, including one who’s had both hip joints replaced. In one case, the person’s titanium hip is more flexible than his original one. Of course, I will know more about what recovery entails after my surgeries, but I hear nothing but great feedback about how much better people’s lives are after surgery.
It seems to be a trend these days if it is happening to you. before my diagnoses I only heard of this happening to a few very elderly people, certainly not yoga teachers and certainly never me. After my bike fall and pain began and then the X-ray and diagnoses 8 months ago, I am scheduled for march 16th for surgery. Yes it is humbling Quite.
I have been stunned to read about why yoga may contribute. I even heard that because Lady Gaga did yoga she had to have a hip replacement! Not considering all the other things she did on stage that may have been a greater cause of her situation. Basically I have come to the conclusion that SHIT HAPPENS! We who have done yoga are typically athletes for 40 years. As I am in my early 60’s I have always been active and yoga has been my main love and always balanced all that I did (hiking, biking swimming) Yoga has saved me, healed me on all levels, physically included. If I were to be forewarned that the forward bends, backbends or twists were contributing to my present situation, do I wish I never did it? NOPE. Would any athlete stop doing something for fear of possible outcome> How many yoga practitioners are out there? thousands. My parents never did anything past the age of 25, they ate what they wanted they smoked and drank and lived into their 80’s.
Shit Happens We have bodies. They age, regardless of what we do, eat, vegetarian, paleo or whatever is the latest politically correct food trend on the calendar
I am humbled. I am humbled by my arrogance as someone who has done yoga for so many years thinking that I am beyond what all others will have to go through
I too have been practicing strengthening poses balance poses and anything else I can figure out in this unchartered territory. We should stay in touch and start a club so we can help others who have the same.
Thank you for your comment. You are absolutely correct in understanding that sh*t happens. Our bodies are designed to wear out over time. It is not a mistake or something we should feel guilty about. We do yoga and eat healthy food so that we can enjoy living in our bodies in the time we have, not so that we will never age or pass out of our bodies. We are lucky to live in a time when procedures such as joint replacement have become so good.
My parents were an anomaly, in that despite their Depression-era heritage, they were into exercise and were very active. My mom had a hip replacement, and unfortunately, my dad (who was an elite athlete, a gymnast, and active his entire life) passed from a heart attack at a young enough age that it’s impossible to know whether his joints would have worn out early too. As you say, would I take back my years of asana practice? Of course not. It’s brought me peace that’s beyond physical comfort. It introduced me to meditation.
I think it’s a great idea to have a discussion group about yoga and hip issues. Stay in touch. Good luck with your procedure. I hope it goes well.
Thanks for your quick response, It seems and it is nice that we share the same sentiments. I really think it is a great thing to be able to help others who are experiencing the same thing and I am realizing that to help them have a mobile life with yoga might be in my future. It would great to have nice community of experienced teachers.
Thanks again and good luck on your upcoming journey.
You can add me to the list of yoga teachers having a hip replacement, scheduled for May 4. What is life like, afterwards?
Having done yoga for 43 years and teaching 38, I can’t imagine not doing yoga, or asanas, at least.
I guess, it’s only for awhile…
Thanks for your comment. I had anterior surgery on March 23rd and I was able to walk without crutches two weeks later, although I used one crutch when I’d go out just to be safe until about three weeks post surgery. I started teaching two weeks after the surgery and at this point, there are only a few basic yoga poses that I don’t feel ready to practice. I stopped doing crazy asanas a while back and have no desire to return to them, but I’m amazed at how quickly my practice has come back. The best news is that I’m walking two miles now without pain.
Are you having anterior or posterior surgery? The recovery time and restrictions are very different, so if you had anterior surgery, I could probably give you an idea of what to expect. I’m not so familiar with the recovery for posterior surgery except that I know that there are more movement restrictions for the first six months.