In my seven years of practicing yoga, I’ve managed to injure myself numerous times. One injury to my wrist resulted in my wearing a cast for a month, and then a splint for another month. I’ve also had ongoing problems with my right knee, my neck, my upper back, my right hip, and, more recently, my lower back. And now that I’ve suffered an injury to my shoulder from rock climbing, I’m starting to wonder if my persistent injuries might be due, at least in part, to my “no pain, no gain” approach to all forms of physical activity. I’ve always been one to test and push my edge–in yoga, rock climbing, academics, whatever–but lately I’ve been asking myself, How much is too much?
In yoga classes, you’ll often hear the teacher say “listen to your body.” This phrase is somewhat ambiguous, and is open to all sorts of interpretations. Some students take this phrase to be code for “as soon as you feel any discomfort whatsoever, back off.” To me, this approach is exactly the opposite of the spirit of yoga, which teaches us to be unattached. If we cling to comfort, though, and expect the yoga practice to be manageable and easy from beginning to end, then we are in the grip of a very strong attachment. We want to remain in our comfort zone, and our aversion to discomfort turns into a kind of pathology in which we think all discomfort is bad and that the whole point of yoga is to feel good. But this is precisely the kind of restrictive mentality that we’re trying to free ourselves from when we do yoga. In yoga, we learn to accept what comes, be it difficult or relaxing. Without challenge, yoga becomes self-indulgent and even hedonistic. Without challenge, yoga promotes stasis instead of encouraging growth.
But how much challenge is too much? Surely, there’s a point at which more challenge is a bad thing. Our bodies, after all, do have physical limits. And when we exceed these limits, we are likely to get injured.
Unfortunately, it’s often difficult to tell if you’ve exceeded your physical limits until you’re clearly injured. One approach is to just accept injuries as an unfortunate but necessary part of the yoga practice. (Of course, this doesn’t mean you should be reckless. And you should also respect where you are in your practice. Someone who is new to yoga shouldn’t, for instance, be trying to add handstands to their Sun Salutations. This isn’t pushing your limits–this is just being stupid.) In a lot of sports, people just accept that injuries go with the territory. Talk to any serious gymnast, tennis player, rock climber, runner, etc., and you’re likely to find someone who has not only suffered from an injury in the past, but who is currently managing one.
With yoga, anyone who practices with regularity will likely encounter some sort of injury at some point. This is especially true for people who practice Ashtanga and/or Flow. Eventually, though, you might get sick of all the aches and pains. Personally, I’m getting fed up with icing my wrists, shoulder, knees, etc. One way to avoid this would be to stop practicing yoga altogether, or cut back and do yoga less frequently and/or take easier classes. A better alternative, though, might be to try different styles of yoga, and to be open to different forms of challenge. It’s important to remember that there are other kinds of challenge in yoga besides physical challenge. Sitting still in silent meditation for 20 minutes, for instance, is a kind of challenge that is primarily mental in nature, but it is still a tremendous challenge nonetheless. Also, in yoga, you can find great mental challenge in physically undemanding poses, just as you can find great mental challenge in physically demanding poses. The key is to learn what those various challenges are, and to make sure that when you do practice yoga, you are open to challenges in whatever form they might take.
Iyengar and Kundalini are two traditions I hope to explore some more. Both offer the benefits of asana, but, from what I can tell, practitioners of these styles of yoga are much less likely to suffer from physical injuries. The reason for this, I take it, is that these styles of yoga do not adopt the “no pain, no gain” mentality that is dominant in other styles of yoga. Or, to put it more accurately, Iyengar and Kundalini seem to cultivate a much richer and broader notion of challenge, one that includes, but is not limited, to physical challenge.