Yoga Is Dangerous

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Whenever William Broad of the NY Times writes a sensationalist article, the yoga blogosphere gets all in a tizzy.

I’ve never participated before because, well, I don’t really think it’s all that important.

I am well aware that yoga is dangerous, because being a human being is inherently dangerous.

I know that every morning that I get out of bed there is potential danger lurking, but being afraid of that is debilitating and will not serve me in the slightest.

Inhabiting a human body means that you will inevitably experience pain, trauma, disease, degeneration and death. There’s no escaping it.

Practicing asana is certainly no more dangerous that running, climbing, skiing, or stepping down off a curb to walk across a busy street.

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Things I Didn’t Believe In

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One rather illuminating experience I’m having as I grow up is the process of learning that certain ideas and concepts that I was dubious about as a rebellious youngster are actually true. I guess that’s why cliches are cliches – there is a truth present that is so obvious it is thus repeated over and over and although its repetition makes it annoying, it is no less true.

I started thinking a lot about this over the weekend because I had a long solo drive to and from Aspen to work on some wedding flowers. As I drove, I put my ipod on shuffle, which meant that I ended up listening to lots of the tunes I loved when I was in high school and college (when I was collecting the majority of my music). Music always carries vivid memories and nostalgia for me.

One thought that occupied my drive was that old phrase “TIME HEALS ALL WOUNDS.” This is one of those quintessential cliches that, as I age, I realize is straight up capital T truth. Over time the physical and emotional wounds that feel so permanent when they are fresh, actually do heal. Just little scars and fleeting recollections remain.

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I’m Getting Rolfed

As a yoga teacher, practitioner and massage therapist, I fully appreciate, advocate and depend on good bodywork in order to live and work from a place of balance and wellness. Acupuncture, chiropractic, massage, cranio-sacral therapy: these modalities, among others, have assisted me in healing from concussions, infections, sprains, strains, popped-out ribs, headaches, depression and more.

That said, sometimes I forget to take care of myself. Sometimes I don’t want to spend that money, even if I know it will make me feel better faster. Sometimes I just hope that if I ignore the problem, it will disappear. Indeed, time can heal many wounds, but giving the body a little extra TLC certainly expedites that process.

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Pain – Practice – Gratitude

The past few days in my Ashtanga Yoga practice I’ve been struck with awe at the returned ease and joyful simplicity in my asanas. Since October I’ve been struggling with a very painful SI joint injury.  There were days when the spasms in my low back were so sharp and debilitating that I could barely make the shapes of any basic pose. It hurt to sit in the car, to stand up, to bend forward, to bend backwards….my back pretty much hurt constantly.

It was really frustrating and discouraging. Sometimes I could surrender to it and find patience and focus on other things. But often that catastrophe mindset would set in and I would begin to lament that my asana practice would never recover, would never be the same, would certainly never improve, that I would be stuck with this pesky pain for the rest of my life! I didn’t trust the practice, I didn’t trust my teachers and I was falling into fear.

But I kept practicing. I took a few extra days off here and there. I stopped trying to do dropbacks or leg behind the head stuff, I moved cautiously and slowly. I worked really hard with my teacher David while I was in India to build strength and to adapt my Second Series poses to bring more stability into my sacrum. Somedays it felt better, somedays it felt worse – there was no linear trajectory of healing with this injury. But I kept practicing….

And over the past few weeks, the pain is less and less noticeable. And now it’s gone, much to my surprise and relief. My practice is moving forward and even with these months of injury, it has improved in many ways. I have a new sense of awareness about my bandhas, the orientation and rotations of my legs in poses and of my own limits and needs in my personal practice.

I could have taken these past 6 months off practice. I could have fallen prey to my fears that the practice is just too hard, too dangerous, too much. But instead, I let the practice, in modified forms, heal me. My body is stronger for the work that I’ve put in during this time of injury. My faith is strengthened as well. My trust in the power of this tradition and this practice has been bolstered by this experience.

For all this I am so grateful.

I am grateful for my teacher David Garrigues for his amazing support and asana mastery.

I am grateful for my teachers Joan and Eric of Ashtanga Yoga Denver for their patience and open hearts.

And I’m so grateful for Sri K. Pattabhi Jois and the lineage of teachers who have shared this profound practice throughout the ages.

Blessings and Love.

Frances

PS – Today is the last day to enter into the Kharma Khare free yoga mat giveaway! DO it!

Yoga Notes: Making the Transition

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Here’s the good news – My SI pain is virtually gone. It took a lot of meticulous thigh-squeezing, iron-lock bandha-holding and paranoid asana modifying to get here but I’m making progress and feeling good! Hurray!

Here’s the bad news – The rest of my body is all wonked-out, crazy confused and probably seriously out of alignment, like, I think my head is stuck on a bass-ackwards tilt right now.

Here’s the why – Yesterday I made the transition to just doing Second Series up through pincha mayurasana. That’s right, no Primary Series to gently butter up my stiff stubborn hip joints before I try to make all those funny leg-behind-the-head poses. Ouch.

After the guidance from one of my Ashtanga mentors/inspirations, the amazing Sarah Dee and my current Mysore teacher here in Denver, I made the choice to move on and start working more of Intermediate even though my leg-behind-the-head poses are less than exemplary. This meant learning titibasana and pincha mayurasana officially. Titi is a crazy quad workout and pincha is fun/scary and those are my deep thoughts about my new poses.

Anyways, making the transition is rough. I’m happy for the shorter practice, but jumping straight into Second Series is a whole new game. One that I’m psyched to be on, but wow, today my hips absolutely rebelled after the work I put them through yesterday.

Krounchasana is like a cruel joke without any of the Primary forward folds preceding it.

Breathing suddenly becomes labored and jagged. None of the oceanic smoothness that I’m finally tapping into after a few years of Primary Series.

Kapotasana is just bad on so many levels. So many. Let’s not talk about it.

Parsva dhanurasana hurts my bony shoulders and my tweaky knees. Plus, it’s just a silly looking pose. I always think about sailboats capsizing.

Nevertheless, it’s exciting and challenging to be making this transition. The time has come!

Right now in my life I feel very open to newness and pushing myself a little harder, but in the most positive way. I feel really passionate about my new career direction in flower design. I love flowers so much! I’m loving my new home and city. My marriage is growing as our communication levels deepen and our companionship sweetens. I’m thrilled by the expansion of my reach here on Lila and am super grateful for all the support and encouragement I get from my readers – that means you!

All in all… My body is being thrown for a loop with this new practice…just as my head gets topsy turvy twisted with every new change that occurs in my life, but -

I know and trust that whatever breaks can be put back together again. 

It just takes a little extra faith and grit to keep truckin’ on…even if that means walking funny for a few days.  :)

Love and Blessings,

Frances

PS – Awesome news! Denver yogis – I am going to be teaching Kundalini Yoga at Karma Yoga Center on Saturday mornings now. 7:45 to 8:45am starting this weekend! Please come practice with me !

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Pain Coming. Pain Going.

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This morning in Mysore practice I was struggling. The pain in my SI joint was making me feel miserable.

My back was stiff and I felt weak and heavy.

Over the past week I’ve been experimenting with modifications for my practice. I’ve played with doing all standing series and then going twice through Intermediate up through ardha matsyendrasana.

One day that felt great. The next day my SI was a mess again. Rest day came…that was nice and then Sunday it felt great again. Second series was hard, but my upper back was needing the opening of those early backbends. As always, I’m reminded of how non-linear this practice really is.

Today something shifted though. In my body and in my mind.

My kapotasana might just have been the hardest one I’ve ever tried. It wasn’t pretty. My fingers couldn’t even graze the tips of my toes. The memory of firmly grasping my heels and lifting my hips with strength felt like more of a fantasy than a recollection of past practices.

After two attempts to move through the challenge and pain of it, I was truly feeling like giving up on the world (I know, I know, such a drama queen!).

I collapsed into supta virasana and lay back in defeat. I had this urge to tuck my pelvis and flatten my lower back to the floor. I did so and suddenly this “click” released on the right side of my sacrum. I immediately unfolded my legs, placed both feet on the floor and then gently squeezed my legs towards each other. My inner right hip/groin area popped.

Suddenly all the burning pain in my lower back dissipated. It was exhilarating.

I lay flat and enjoyed this feeling. But my relief quickly faded and instead was replaced by a nagging anxiety ….”What do I do now? I’m afraid to move and keep practicing…what if I lose this feeling and the adjustment in my pelvis? What if all the pain returns?”

After a minute or two of rest and stillness, I sat up and prepared for my next pose, supta vajrasana. Eric, one of the authorized teachers who leads Ashtanga Denver, came over to assist and I shared with him what happened in my pelvis and my fear about “losing” this shift.

He told me that Guruji used to say “No pain? Pain coming. Yes pain? Pain going” to students working through hard times of opening and injury. Eric said that this was Guruji’s way of reminding students that bodies change, that pain comes and goes and that it’s important to practice non-attachment. By clinging to the feelings of ease, or hiding in fear from the pain, you only bring yourself more suffering. Pain is real, suffering is optional.

This is such a basic tenet of yogic practice, but somehow I had overlooked it throughout these months of injury. Non-attachment is something I know in the book-learning way of knowing something (jnana), but apparently not in the vijnana or true experiential understanding way. This was really illuminating and such a wonderfully humbling moment.

With these reassuring words ringing through my ears, I finished my practice. Knowing that this too shall pass, these words about the inevitability of pain were somehow comforting. But only if I didn’t grasp, only if I could just let it be what it was, let this practice unfold without fear. I could appreciate the therapeutic nature of these Second Series poses. I could practice with more lightness in my heart, and with a deeper sense of trust.

I love when my yoga practice humbles and teaches me in ways like it did today. I am grateful for the challenges and the opportunities it provides to self-reflect, open and grow.

 

Blessings and Love,

Frances

 

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What’s Inspiring Me Today…

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Remembering Shyam Das – a true Bhakta so full of love, devotion and a real gift for sharing this with others. His kirtans at Bhakti Fest were always some of the best. He left his body in India yesterday and he will be very missed. He opened the hearts of so many people with his hilarious yet deep stories and perfectly bhav-bubbling-over kirtans. There are many beautiful words and stories floating around today about Shyam-ji. This post from Krishna Das is especially moving. Haribol!

This video of B.K.S. Iyengar as a young man practicing awe-inducing asana. I find these old silent films of the Krishnamacharya’s devoted students absolutely awesome – way more cool than the groovy tuned, scantily-clad yoga-girl videos so prevalent on the web today.

David Garrigues talking about pain and injury in Ashtanga Yoga. I needed to hear this today. My SI pain has been acting up a bit, so it’s good to have this reminder….still trying to figure out what the lesson inherent is….but no doubt about it, pain is real.

I’ve been into digging through fanciful assorted images of dancers, actresses, antique prints and other oddities on the web recently. I’ve been compiling a board on Pinterest of some of my favorites.

 

What’s been inspiring you recently?

Love and Blessings,

Frances

 

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Yoga and SI Pain.

One of the most common areas of pain and injury for yoga practitioners is the temperamental sacro-illiac joint.

Quick anatomy lesson – you have two SI joints – they connect the sacrum (the flat triangular bone at the base of the spine) to either side of the illium (the largest bone of the pelvis, the bone that you rest your hands on when you put your hand on your hip all sassy-like).

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This little joint can get out of alignment and aggravated from a number of things. No matter how it happens, let me assure you – it hurts. Both super active people can experience SI pain sometimes (like Ashtangis) as well as very sedentary people. Pain can arise from over-stretching (this is commonly why it occurs as a result of asana) or from the joint getting jammed and the ligaments being too tight (in this case, a little stretching would do the pelvis good). All this is to say, like most injuries, there is not single solution or easy “fix it”.

An injury (especially one that occurs from doing the yoga practice you so very much love!) is a bummer, no doubt about it. But, an injury can also provide you the opportunity to get to know yourself, your body and your practice on a new level. If you are not learning about yourself through your yoga practice, I don’t really see the point of it.

In a challenging practice like Ashtanga (or say, life), pain is inevitable. As you learn new asanas and deepen into familiar ones, sometimes you will experience discomfort. Your job as a responsible practitioner is to determine whether you are feeling good pain (growth, stretching, opening) or bad pain (pulling a muscle, tweaking a joint, over-extending a ligament/tendon). Sometimes you will make a mistake and this is often when injury occurs. Live and learn.

My SI injury happened as a result of my overeagerness to master dwi pad sirsasana. Despite my impatience, I’ve been taking my sweet time with these leg-behind-the-head postures in Ashtanga Yoga. Like many women with bendy bendy backs, I am blessed with stubborn tight hips. I’m afraid I don’t quite have the pelvis of my dear husband, seen here chilling out with his morning chai (decaf of course) and scripture.

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Anyways, there was a short period last year when I began practicing with great fervor sitting up out of supta kurmasana to put both my legs behind my head and then lowering into the pose (instead of waiting for the teacher to tangle my legs into place for me). And then one day, it happened! So easily and so perfectly. There was no pain – just this sense of relief that I had finally done it all by myself with no help at all after 2 years of finagling on the floor in this pose. This relief quickly subsided as soon as I finished my dropbacks and realized that a hot, piercing pain was radiating all through my sacrum and right hip and it was not going away.

That was in the middle of October and I am still recovering. Needless to say, I haven’t tried that little trick since then.

So what have I done for practice in these past few months?

I have scaled back in the amount of practice as well as the method of practice. In the very beginning there were some days when I did not practice any yoga asana at all. My body needed rest, so I listened.

This injury coincided with our moving across country so there was a good chunk of time there when our days were full with looking at real estate, moving boxes and furniture and getting organized in a new home. In the first month of my injury, I took some more Vinyasa, Kundalini yoga and Pure Barre classes. The strengthening aspect of Pure Barre (which includes lots of Pilates-like movements) has been beneficial for stabilizing my sacrum and helping me feel strong and toned during this period of less aggressive Ashtanga practice.

I stretched at home a bit each day and I only attempted Primary Series in full once or twice a week for most of November and December. I imagine that if I had been settled and connected with an Ashtanga group during this injury-healing time, I would have attended Mysore more regularly, but because we were floating in Boulder and not set up with our home and schedule in Denver yet, this was not the case.

Now that we’ve been up and running with Ashtanga Yoga Denver since the holidays, I’ve been getting into the swing of things practicing a full sequence 5 or 6 days a week.. I am now at the point where I can do all of Primary Series without any pain. I am aware of some tenderness in my SI joint, but with careful monitoring and an extra focus on strong bandhas, I feel safe and happy to practice.

Outside of yoga, I’ve found it very beneficial to get occasional bodywork to help support the healing process. I initially went in for a few chiropractic sessions. This helped because my SI joint was literally jammed and causing some extremely painful spasming throughout the day. A few chiropractic adjustments ameliorated this, but the micro-tears that resulted from the spasming were still quite sore. Since then, I had a fantastic deep tissue massage which included some manual adjustments and an acupuncture session which immediately relieved the pain in my SI as well.

Self-care such as regular application of healing salves and arnica has been an important daily step in my healing process. When I am experiencing pain, I almost always apply heat. This is because heat such as a hot water bottle or a hot bath (or even better, some hot springs!) encourages blood flow. Blood flow is essential for healing connective tissue. I know that in more traditional sports medicine, ice is almost always recommended, but my acupuncturist once told me that “the only body you ice is a dead body”, and I’m with him on this one.

Recently I reached out to one of my Ashtanga role-models, Sarah Durney Hatcher and asked for her advice on practicing with SI pain. Sarah is an amazing inspiration to me. Her practice is light-years ahead of mine.  She is the most supportive, loving and encouraging teacher I have ever met and seriously one of the most fun and enthusiastic ladies to hang out with. She truly lives her yoga practice, always coming from a place of devotion, discipline, joy and a desire to grow and learn from everything she encounters. She currently teaches at Bristo Yoga School in Edinburgh, but I met her when she was living in Philadelphia studying with David Garrigues.

These are her words of advice and encouragement:

” I have some advice for the SI but really, you are doing the right thing, taking it easy and just going slow. My approach to SI pain is basics, back to the basics.

About once a year I do a ‘reset’ button on my practice and do primary for about two weeks up to a month. Working on basics and alignment and breath and just moving. Whenever there is pain especially, I always do thi. So this could help…and if you do this, don’t lift up at Supta Kurmasana and take dwi pada – just bind your hands and cross your legs when you are already down from the kurmasana position.

Watch the speed at which you are learning intermediate. When you are in India, you know David G is going to push you. Do not have fear about this – and do not doubt, but protect yourself by doing serious meditation and worship so that your intention with the asana practice is internal and not external. For me to practice so intensely with DG for a whole year day in and day out, to stay safe and healthy, I did serious worship and meditation before every asana practice so that I was grounded. I got many very very difficult adjustments from him; because I think I was grounded and sure of myself and my intentions, I never got hurt. This is what you do, madam, especially when studying intensely with DG.

Dwi pada sirsasana takes some people 2-5 years to get it just right. Not that you should stay there until it is perfect (this happens a lot as we both now) but be cautious not to try too hard in the asana. As the back opens (kapo) and you go bigger and bigger in backbending, the hips tighten. And it is the opposite for hip opening. The more hips open…the tighter the back gets. SO!

Be sure you are keeping your tailbone down when you forward fold. And when you go forward in any standing or seated asana, anchor the backside down. Simply put: forward bend like you are wearing a short skirt! This is kind of like ‘tucking’ but not quite; it is more like engaging the bandhas – which are required for dwi pada (core core core) to hold yourself there and let the hips open.

Another thing you can do is do eka pada sirsasana three times instead of one time per side…try doing urdhva dhanurasana with wide legs for a while and narrow your feet only when it starts to feel better. Don’t do any coming up to standing or dropping back until you can have no pain walking your hands almost all the way to your feet and then walking back out and coming down to the ground.

Bandhas! You must do some serious bandha exercises. Pelvic floor – the mula bandha for us women is located in the cervix – so at the backside of the vagina. Must start engaging this with each and every dwi pada. This will protect the pelvic floor as well the si joint.”

As I’ve been practicing Ashtanga more regularly these past few weeks, this advice has been crucial. The idea of tucking the pelvis (which has long been my secret for an easy jump through with straight legs) has changed my forward folding dramatically. The image she gives of folding as if you are wearing a short skirt, has helped activate my mula bandha in a deeper and more internal fashion, all the way into the cervix, as she says, and not just on a physically superficial level.

But even more than the very important physical suggestions she offers, I am especially grateful for the encouragement and reminders of the essential components of practice: faith, fearlessness, devotion, mindfulness and trust. These are the qualities that will protect you in practice and help you grow, not only in asana, but as a person on the spiritual path.

So grateful to Sarah for all this, and so grateful for my personal practice for all that it teaches me about self-awareness and patience!

 

Long post, I know, so thanks for bearing with me. I hope you’ve gained something from this.

I would love to hear from you, dear reader, about any experience you’ve had with yoga and SI pain and what has helped you heal and grow.

 

 

Blessings and Love,

Frances