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What Do Yoga Assumptions Make Out of You and Me?

 

The first fundamental of the spiritual process is that you drop all assumptions.-Sadhguru

I make assumptions all the time. I have a very vibrant imagination. I am absolutely guilty of mentally creating my own Game of Thrones based on 1 sentence I read on the internet or an off hand remark said by a random person.  Fortunately, I have friends, family and teachers to talk me off the ledge and get me to a place of truth. Through Yoga, I have become aware of my epic mental story creating capacity. Even though the stories still come, they come less often. Even when they do come, I try not to take action based on them.

My husband always says to go by your first thought, but that does not work for me. My first thought is usually insane. I have to go by my second or third one. LOL. Because I have worked with this part of me for so long, the process just happens really quick. I can filter through to my second thought without too much of a hitch in the conversation.

My first thought is usually based on events from my past. It is usually self serving and based on fear. Often, it is based on a fleeting emotion. I have learned that thoughts that are based on the present moment are always better and true and that I need to pause and base my actions on those words and to only speak those words.

Assumptions keep us making decisions that are based on the past. If you want to keep recreating the past, then that is no problem. If you want your life to be different and to evolve, the thoughts have to take the present moment into account. We have to let go of our assumptions.

Assumptions can be detrimental to a yoga practice for the same reason. They keep us stuck and they halt our evolution.

 

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Common Yoga Assumptions

 

All pain and discomfort means injury

When it comes to chronic or persistent pain (pain that lasts longer than three months), the link between pain and actual tissue damage is often very weak. Recent studies have repeatedly shown that many people have significant tissue damage in their bodies—think herniated discs and other damage in their spine; or torn rotator cuffs in their shoulders, etc.—but no associated pain. And conversely, many people who do experience chronic pain in their bodies have no associated tissue damage that can be detected by medical imaging technology like MRIs and CAT scans.

This almost mind-bending realization is the complete opposite of what most of us have learned about the nature of chronic pain. We’ve generally been taught that if something hurts, it’s necessarily because there is an injury or damage in that place. But the new pain paradigm reveals the brain can choose to create pain for any number of reasons, and actual tissue damage is just one of them. Other factors like emotions, stress, memories of past experiences, and quite importantly, our own personal beliefs about our body and pain can all influence the sensations of pain that we experience. For example, consider someone who experiences chronic pain and believes that her pain is the result of tissue damage. This person might adopt an attitude of worry or anxiety with regard to the painful area of her body, and these emotions can influence the brain to create more or continued pain, even though there might be no structural damage in that area whatsoever. And conversely, studies have suggested that simply learning about how pain truly works is often an effective tool in reducing chronic pain.

This almost mind-bending realization is the complete opposite of what most of us have learned about the nature of chronic pain.

This direct connection between our thoughts and our lived experience in our bodies is one of the most profound insights that the new science of pain offers, and it directly supports yogic teachings about the mind-body connection. One of the core intentions of our yoga practice is to quiet our thoughts, which often have emotions like stress, anxiety, or worry associated with them. If we successfully quiet these potentially negative inputs while moving our body in comfortable, pain-free ways during our yoga practice, this can be a recipe for pain reduction, and may explain why many people report a direct connection between practicing yoga and decreased chronic pain.

This new information about the science of pain has far-reaching implications for how we approach the body and mind in therapeutic settings like physical therapy, massage, and some forms of yoga. For example, once we understand that pain and tissue damage do not always correlate, a natural follow-up question might be: Is treating the body’s tissues, then, the most ideal way to treat all pain? Furthermore, if pain is a subjective experience that is created entirely by the brain, then when we do successfully reduce pain, did we actually change the body or did we change the brain?-Jenni Rawlings, Yoga and the New Science of Pain 

Pain and discomfort is just not black and white. Period. I know. Life feels better when we have nice little rules that have no exceptions. I feel your pain.

 

Some movements are inherently bad

Many poses are now being vilified in the Yoga community and placed on the “thou shalt not” list. Again. It is not that simple.

We are often taught that there are ways the body can move that are inherently bad for us. We’re told that these movements will cause damage, “wear and tear”, or imbalance in the body, which will inevitably lead to pain and discomfort. Some examples of movements like these are cervical spine flexion (e.g. “text neck”), lumbar spine flexion, and many classic yoga alignment taboos like placing the foot directly on the knee in tree pose (vrksasana).

While this perspective is certainly well-meaning, it is missing some key insights about the body that recent science has revealed to us. Instead of asking whether a movement is good or bad, a more nuanced and helpful question is: are one’s tissues adapted to withstand the load of a particular movement? When we approach movement from this perspective, it becomes clear that there are no inherently bad movements – there are simply movements whose loads our bodies are not currently adapted to handle.-Jenni Rawlings, Are Some Movements Inherently Bad? 

 

Assuming Ashtanga information on the internet is accurate

Kind of funny because this is a blog…on the internet. Please don’t assume any of this information is accurate…LOL. This is what Sharath has to say about Ashtanga information from the internet.

Swadhyaya, self-study. This is very confusing for many people. Selfstudy—”self”– many people think self-study means, “Oh, I don’t need a teacher. I don’t need a guru. I can just read books.” Now there are lots of videos about yoga. Someone will teach you handstand. You see someone doing handstand. That means he’s a big yogi. “Oh, I don’t need a teacher. Oh, I’m doing swadhyaya.” Long back I met a crazy person. She came to me and, “I was a trained dancer,” she said—and she was asking questions. To the answers, “Oh, I know, I know, I know.” If you know, then why are you coming to me and asking questions? Then I was very curious. I asked her, “Where did you learn yoga? Who’s your teacher?” “Oh, I don’t have a teacher. I’m doing swadhyaya,” she said. “Swadhyaya, what does swadhyaya mean?” I asked. “Oh, I’m watching videos. I’m reading books. And I’m learning yoga.” I said, “Okay. That’s where your knowledge is only this much [gestures small amount].” Swadhyaya means, whatever you learn from your guru, you try to know and practice that. After this workshop, whatever you have learned, to practice, and study that.To improve that in your daily life. And to read all the books. Not the modern books. Ancient books. Veda, Upanishads. Bhagavad Gita. Samhitas. There are so many books. Patanjali Yoga Sutra, Hatha Yoga Pradipika-Sharath Jois.  CONFERENCES AT TAPOVAN KUTI, UTTARKASHI, HIMALAYAS, NORTH INDIA, Namarupa Magzine

 

Assuming the Scandal is Accurate

I have been a victim of having my information taken out of context and sensationalized.  When you see an article where someone’s character or teachings is being slammed,  it is important to look at the person’s full body of work, to ask questions and to gather information that comes from both sides. Here is certified teacher, Kino Macgregor’s, personal story of being misrepresented in the media.

 

Emma Hudelson: Do you feel like the Mathew Remski interview covered all sides of your injury? What was your experience of the interview and the following article?

Kino MacGregor  The main takeaway that most people got from that article was that I had injured my hip because of my practice … and that seems to be the way that Matthew wrote it … What, in fact, actually happened was a really unlucky circumstance.

Honestly, practice was probably the thing that made me be able to bounce back from the injury. All the factors that were at play that day were not mentioned in the article.

I had done my own practice hours before. The studio had a hot class immediately prior to my class. I taught a room of about 100 from noon to 2:00, then we had a break, then we did a strength workshop. The afternoon sun started streaming in the window, so the room was hot. Really, really hot. We got to Bakasana at the end and I was helping everyone jump back from Bakasana, and I went to help a woman who was new to the practice … and when she went to jump back, instead of jumping back she jumped forward and threw her whole body into me. There was an impact. It was an impact injury. This woman had actually jumped off of her hands, so her entire body weight jammed into me, and I just picked her up and threw her back as best I could, because if I hadn’t, we would have both gone over.

Both of my femurs jammed into the sockets and my right femur spun out, which made my hamstring click on to bring it back in. There were a lot of factors: it was late in the day, I don’t normally teach at that time, it was unbelievably hot. And I didn’t know the student, but I wanted to help her, and that’s my fault. Those are more factors than my practice. It wasn’t like my hips had been extraordinarily stretched or anything. In fact, the two days before the injury, I’d done primary series. Primary usually makes my hips a little tighter. My physical therapist thought that the heat was a huge factor in my injury.

What I’m most saddened by is the fact that my presentation wasn’t included in the article. My own story, the factors that I thought had contributed to that injury, weren’t included. Instead [Remski] asked me a lot of questions about oversplits. I was confused by the relationship that he saw between the two. The oversplit is unrelated to the area that was injured … It doesn’t make sense that that would have contributed to my injury, but everyone is going to draw their own conclusions.

EH: It sounds like part of your story was disregarded.

KM: Absolutely. He used a few things out of context, too. At the end he asked me if I’d ever made any mistakes. I said, “I’ve made a ton of mistakes.” I’m a human being. And he used that as evidence that I had done something wrong. What I was honestly thinking when he asked that question was more like mistakes I’ve made in my relationship with my husband, mistakes I’ve made in life, mistakes I’ve made as a teacher, sure, but I thought less about mistakes I’ve made in my own practice.   Ashtanga Dispatch. Injury, Equanimity and Compassion

 

Assuming that if an authorized/certified teacher did it in a video or posted it on Facebook or on Instagram, it must be official.

 

Q: What are a few of the most common mistakes you see among students in the asana practice, and maybe not even in the asana practice, but –

R. Sharath Jois: Generally?

Q: Yeah.

R. Sharath Jois: That Facebook thing. [Laughter] One mistake people make is following too many teachers. As you know, as I told you, following one parampara, following one system, is always better for learning, seeking. So if someone goes here, there, here, there, then they get confused. They don’t know what to listen to. It’s the common mistake, generally. In asana, mistakes will be there, that you will learn, it needs lots of practice. You need to come more. You have to take more classes.

CONFERENCES AT TAPOVAN KUTI, UTTARKASHI, HIMALAYAS, NORTH INDIA, Namarupa Magzine

This issue is rather complicated and I will tread lightly here. Sometimes girls and boys just want to have fun.  Sometimes girls and boys just want to make money. Sometimes girls and boys just want attention. Sometimes girls and boys are bored. Sometimes girls and boys are just experimenting. Sometimes girls and boys are just testing their limits. No matter what the reason, just because a certified/authorized teacher posted it, does not mean that Pattabhi Jois, Sharath or Saraswathi green lighted it.

 

Assuming that “Proper” Alignment= No Injuries

Too much, too fast, at the wrong time, on the wrong body and with the wrong person, even when done “properly” can still result in injuries.

 

When I was first considering trying Ashtanga yoga, I bashfully approached one of my friends with the idea. “Be careful,” he said, shaking his head, surprised that I could be so foolish. I had heard this warning many times, often from other yogis who had incurred lifelong injuries from this traditional style.

I had been practicing yoga for nearly 10 years, but for one reason or another, I was never truly exposed to the lineage as passed down by Pattabhi Jois. Aside from dabbling in Vinyasa here and there over the years, I was mostly drawn to any style that emphasized and prioritized proper form.

Alignment-based styles—such as Iyengar and Anusara—were all I knew and, in yoga like in anything else, I knew that my preferred styles were the best. Ashtanga yoga, from what I’d been told, was relegated to those lower life forms that were more concerned with getting into “crazy poses” than actually connecting with and healing the body. As for the breath—of course that was central to any practice, not just Ashtanga, and I didn’t really understand how one style could “emphasize” the breath more than any other.

Ashtanga was also meant for what can only be described as “Type A” personalities, a kind of extreme segment of the population that I have tried to distance myself from at nearly any cost. Part of me has always feared that joining a culture of such rigidity and dedication would exacerbate my own perfectionist tendencies. I am someone who lives heavily in the mind, for better or for worse, and I feared that somehow I would lose it through the pressure of a set, daily practice.

But my own practice was developing cracks and fissures. As much as I had thought that Anusara and Iyengar were for us “normal” people, I was so focused on using my brain to get into the perfect pose that these traditions were doing little to help soothe and direct the energy trapped in my thinking mind. And I was hurting myself; rather than truly listening to my breath and staying in the sensations of my body, I was using my brain throughout any and all yoga classes in order to perfect my alignment to the detriment of my body’s health.

A friend of mine, when I was telling her my borrowed theory on crazy Ashtanga types, said that she had always considered those who practiced Iyengar to be much more rigid and strict. That was certainly true, I had to admit; most Iyengar teachers I had practiced with were intense, fiery drill sergeants with massive egos. I had internalized all of those voices, and practice no longer felt good for me—my body was over-stretched and achy, with injuries that simply would not heal because my mind would not let them.- Madeline Schaefer, My Journey from Iyengar to Ashtanga

Assuming that Fancy Poses=a Strong Practice

I will never forget being a young naive Yoga teacher and being devastated when I witnessed a first time student effortlessly do a pose that I had been working on for 5 years. My whole world came crashing down. I had always assumed that difficult Yoga poses came with hard work. Now, I know better.

I know people who can barely do Side Angle but they can do Handstands worthy of Cirque Du Soleil.  I have seen a new Yoga student stand outside and smoke a cigarette then come back in and do a perfect jump back on the first try.  I have met people who get stopped in Sun Salutes but go right into the last 3 Full Lotuses without even batting an eye. I have seen people who can float like David Robson on their first day of practice. I also know people who have been practicing every day for years who cannot do any of these things.

Why is this bad for you? I have also seen these types of people, after practicing for a year or so, take a teacher training, post a picture on Facebook of them doing their God given skill, and immediately getting teaching gigs around the world. I have also seen these people do teacher trainings.  I am just saying. Do your homework.

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Shanna Small has been practicing Ashtanga Yoga and studying the Yoga Sutras since 2001. She has studied in Mysore with Sharath Jois and is the Director of AYS Charlotte, a school for traditional Ashtanga in Charlotte NC. She has written for Yoga International and the Ashtanga Dispatch. Go here for more information on AYS Charlotte. For information on workshops, please e-mail shanna@ashtangayogaproject.com.

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