From Ouch to Om

Dear Fellow Human,

You’ve probably experienced pain and injury at some point in your life. And sorry to break it to you, but you’ll most likely experience them again.

This is nothing to get depressed about, it’s part of the deal when the sperm met the egg. However, I feel that many of these injuries could be prevented, and pain could be managed in a better way than through avoidance/just pushing through it, drugs, or giving into the pain and letting go of the activities we love for fear they will hurt us. Given that yoga practices are what I feel most called to share in this season of my life, and the fact that yoga injuries are on the rise (for reasons I propose later in this post), I feel a certain responsibility to share my understanding of how to prevent injuries from occurring during a yoga asana class and how to work with the often debilitating experience of physical pain. The byproduct is a more solid yoga practice and a greater sense of freedom in life.

The experience of pain, managing an injury, and finding your perfect edge in a yoga practice all begins in the brain. Most of our daily lives are spent labeling sensations, thoughts, and emotions as good or bad. This sweater is damn itchy and I’m not okay with it. The thought “I’m ugly” came into my awareness and now I can’t focus and don’t want to go on that date. I feel anxious and I need to not feel anxious in order to do well on this exam. In reality though, sensations, thoughts, and emotions are all fleeting, we don’t choose them, and they aren’t inherently “good” or “bad”. The problem is that we believe them when they happen, and then we tend to act upon them.

We usually act in order to move toward pleasure and avoid pain. We go to the party because we think we will make friends and then feel like we are a part of a group and then we’ll be happy. We eat the cookie because it tastes good. We don’t exercise because we don’t want to feel the discomfort of exerting ourselves. We don’t approach the person we are attracted to because we fear they don’t feel the same way and then we’ll feel sad. This inclination to move toward pleasure and avoid pain (termed dukkha in Sanskrit) is a completely natural human inclination that is deeply ingrained in our brains (for good reason: centuries ago we’d be someone’s dinner if we decided to investigate the experience of a racing heart rather than let it compel us to run the F away) . The good news: we (usually) aren’t confronted by tigers wanting to kill us AND we can train ourselves to think and relate to ourselves in a different way so that we aren’t stuck in the hamster wheel of pleasure and pain, and instead experience a longer lasting happiness not dependent on our external circumstances being “good” (termed sukha in Sanskrit). All the yogic techniques were designed to strengthen our ability to do this. And asana (postures and movement) was just one technique, by the way.

So, how does yoga help us move beyond the inherently dissatisfying process of going through life just seeking pleasure and avoiding pain? How does yoga help us enjoy life as it is vs. IF and ONLY IF it meets specific criteria we have? Consistent yoga practice builds up our ability to witness and observe what is happening in our experience rather than giving it power over the way we live. The part of our consciousness that witnesses and observes is called buddhi in Sanskrit. Some of its translations to English include “to be awake, to know, wise discrimination’.

When buddhi is strong, we can find joy in everything. When buddhi is strong, we are not attached to outcomes. When buddhi is strong, we don’t act from fear or impulse, but from love and wisdom. When buddhi is strong, it is literally impossible to hurt ourselves from an asana class or from any sort of movement. When buddhi is strong, there is no need to impress ourselves or others, and we do not need to meet our own OR others’ perceived expectations of what we can do. When buddhi is strong, we know exactly what our body needs and doesn’t need. We know our edge perfectly, allowing us to challenge ourselves with every yoga practice to the ideal amount, no more no less. I promise you, if you make strengthening buddhi a goal in your practice of yoga and life, you will have a greater understanding of who you are and gain freedom from all your stuck places physically, mentally, and spiritually.

The problem with modern yoga asana classes today, and why so many people get injured is that…

  1. students (and often teachers) put more emphasis on the poses than on strengthening buddhi.

  2. classes are usually too large for teachers to be able to spend the time needed to understand each student and their previous and current injuries, weaknesses, and general limitations. Even in small classes though, it is not always visibly apparent (even to a very skilled teacher) when a student is going beyond their edge. The teacher has to hope that the students’ buddhis are strong (which is usually not the case, especially in beginner classes). Lastly, and perhaps the most difficult pill to swallow, is that,

  3. strenuous and heat-producing yoga asana is not always what the body needs, particularly following an acute injury or when the body is compromised in some way. Yes, it can be a transformative practice when done skillfully and with a lot of integration, but it is not the end all be all. You can still practice yoga with meditation & pranayama (breath techniques), and you can find similar benefits by doing ANY kind of movement with intention and awareness. Also, other forms of yoga asana (like restorative yoga or yin yoga) have evolved over the centuries to provide a myriad of benefits to the physical body and an opportunity to practice postures without the potential repercussions of an overly vigorous practice.

So what to do?

I will be sharing several tools and techniques I have accumulated over my years of teaching and practicing at my workshop, From Ouch to Om on Saturday, January 5th, from 1:30-3:30. at Asheville Community Yoga. This workshop is geared toward everyone interested in learning more about the practice, reconnecting to the heart of yoga, and strengthening their experience of life, regardless of if you are in pain or have an injury. During this 2-hour informative and experiential workshop, I’ll discuss the following keys in ensuring a balanced movement practice and a reconnecting to the heart of yoga:

1. Strengthen buddhi

What does it look like to be aware of sensations without being obsessed or ignoring them?

What do you do during practice if a sensation, thought, or emotion is just too intense to be with?

How does strengthening buddhi deepen my practice and enhance my quality of life?

2. Strengthen your body

Why do the same muscles always get tight, and why doesn’t stretching always work?

What are some techniques I can use during yoga practice to retrain overworked and underused muscles?

How do I ensure my joints are strong and supported during yoga asana?

3. Lengthen your body

Why can’t I seem to ever get into some poses?

What are proprioceptors and what do they have to do with gaining flexibility and overstretching?

What are the best ways to stretch?

4. Soothe the nervous system

What is pain really?

When do most yoga injuries happen?

Why is Savasana at the end of class so important?

If you’re in town, I hope to see you on January 5th at Asheville Community Yoga. If you’re not in town, but are curious about yogic techniques to work with injury and pain, I am available for yoga consults via FaceTime/Skype/phone - shoot me an email at anne@annelowell.com to schedule a session.

Be well :-)

- Anne