“There is nothing that does not grow light through habit and familiarity. Putting up with little cares, I’ll train myself to bear with great adversity.”—Shantideva
For a period of my astanga life, I referred to my practice as ‘the path of pain’. I was joking, but only a bit. The path of pain was nothing to do with masochism. I tried very hard not to hurt myself and I got intensely frustrated when I hurt myself anyway. The more I endeavoured to move ‘forwards’, the more I seemed to be pushed ‘backwards’ into a situation increasingly ‘imited’ by injury.
I was told that astanga injuries are the result of aggressive practice – an observation in some instances with sound foundation. I believed that in some subtle way, beneath my conscious awareness, I must be forcing my body. But this was puzzling because I would watch more robust types pushing themselves obviously much harder than I ever did and with no apparent deleterious effects. I now also felt guilty and wrong, but I didn’t know how to be right.
I don’t remember exactly when it began to dawn on me that I was hypermobile. I was formally diagnosed with Hypermobility Syndrome: Ehlers Danlos Type by Professor Rodney Grahame in 2007. By then, it was confirmation of what I already knew. When Rodney Grahame asked me what I wanted to get out of diagnosis, I explained that I would like to be able to set better boundaries for myself. What I meant was that I wanted to believe myself; I wanted to give weight to my own experience; I wanted to move into my own internal authority and be able to proceed consistently from it.
I have chronic tendonitis, triggered trigger points, over-stretched ligaments, frequent minor subluxations, and a hole in my right medial meniscus. In the medical model, these would be termed ‘symptoms’ of hypermobility. I prefer to relate to them as phenomena. This way, I’m less likely to problematise them and more likely to get interested in them in an open way. It’s my tendency for anxiety, dissatisfaction and a kind of improving antsiness that turns ‘little cares’ like this into a thing. But after several years of familiarisation, pain no longer feels like pain in the troublesome sense. I can only hope I’m a bit more prepared for great adversity.
Buddhist mythology tells us that throughout his life the Buddha received regular visits from the demon-god Mara, bearing doubt, discouragement and temptation of every kind. Each time Mara arrived, the Buddha’s servant, Ananda, wanted to bar him entry. He was, in Ananda’s eyes, the daddy of all bad influences. But every time, the Buddha welcomed Mara in, greeting him with the words, ‘I see you, Mara’ and inviting him to sit down for tea. Pain became a path for me when I started inviting my body for tea – not the fictional body, but the one that actually exists, with its tender joints, strung-out hamstrings, travelling carpals and all the rest. Because the reality is that none of these things is a distraction from my practice or an obstacle to it; they are themselves the ground of my practice, the royal road to enduring presence (‘enduring’ meaning ‘hard’ – a presence that remains solid and reliable), out of which flowers a particular kind of resilient joy.
In our culture, the sublimely perfected ‘yoga body’ is much desired. That it is also imaginary and therefore ultimately never attainable makes it the ideal commercial product, ripe for the commodification that it has richly received. The sexed-up, fantasy photoshops of adverti-media are in our faces all the time, while we rarely encounter images of actual bodies doing actual yoga or text describing the process of yoga as a real experience. Those of us who teach yoga are both products and promulgators of the industrial yoga machine. We, too, in our publicity most often depict the practice of yoga as blissful, love-evoking, leading smoothly to radiant health and a younger-looking body. We seldom offer an honest perspective on the actual complexities involved in the relationship between practice and product (pun intended – think about it, people), or of the intersections of yoga practice with our habitual human patterns of addiction, overwhelm, neurosis, anger and pain. No wonder. Such views feel tantamount to taboo.
It’s a radical act to acknowledge what we’re really experiencing in our bodies, on our mats, here and now. It’s revolutionary and it’s evolutionary. Hell, yeah! Let’s do it, people! Let’s put the kettle on, crack open the chocolate digestives and drink tea with the bodies we actually have. Because in the words of that great teacher Dr Doolittle, ‘It’s the truth, it’s actual, everything is satisfactual’. It seems that we are habituated consistently to prefer the fugitive promise of the dreamed-for body to the always-ready-and-waiting satisfactuality of the real one. But it doesn’t have to be like this.
That injury is a teacher is almost a truism, but it took me a while to understand how profound these teachings can be. They are not simply biomechanical in nature but have also to do with how we are in our whole life, as it manifests in our body. From where I’m standing, my body often appears unpredictable, illogical and capricious. Just when I think maybe I understand what’s going on, it throws in something that knocks me completely sideways. When the only possible response is to burst out laughing, you know you’re in the presence of a bona fide crazy wisdom teacher.
My physical technique background is in ballet, so I’m well schooled in the heroic capacity for carrying on regardless. And in a way, I’m very grateful for that training. It has been a valuable precursor to its meta-quality, which contains commitment and consistency, through rough-going as well as smooth; it’s a kind of indestructible self-discipline that keeps on keeping on, even when there is no apparent way through. It’s the habit and commitment that the bodhisattva Shantideva refers to in the quotation. Rather than forcing my body, denying the pain or trying to breathe through it (which to me would be anti-practice), this meta-quality entails getting on my mat anyway and doing what is do-able today. It invites mindful exploration of sensations and the emotional responses they evoke (or vice versa) without seeking to fix or change anything, but simply allowing any resolution to emerge, or not. It includes what’s happening on all levels, so that as little as possible gets swept under the yoga mat. Anger, resentment, envy, fear, grief – these too: chocolate digestives.
Being fully in our real, actual body, whether it’s obviously injured and in pain or not, requires of us sensitivity, honesty and patience. It invites an awake, listening receptivity to what is – whatever is. Because this is what’s happening now, and this, and only this, is the teaching. If I frame my reality so that it’s only ‘good’ yoga if nothing in my body hurts, I’m always going to be in the wrong, partly because I’m genetically hypermobile so some degree of pain and injury is tantamount to a given, no matter how or what I practise; partly because as a human being it’s a dead cert I’m going to encounter the full range of human experience. We breathe in, we expand, we integrate, we grow; we breathe out, we contract, we dissolve and die. A holistic yoga practice is a process of creating a container big enough and elastic enough to include all of this – all of this.