Yoga's Veiled Promise
We idealize the very things that we need into the things we want, reducing their ability to fulfill, setting the stage for disappointment. We do this with career, science, business or non-profits, and we do it with love. Consider how many conversations you have had with lovers that have the subtext, "Hey, why aren't you living up to my ideal?" For this exact reason, as a "treatment" for my neck pain, I fell in and out of love with yoga.
The things I learned from yoga were not what I initially wanted or came for. For example, I wanted "A stretch that, no matter how painful it is to do, if I just do it 10 times in the morning for 37 days, I'll be cured forever." When I got more realistic, I wanted "A series of postures, and if I get to some outwardly measurable level of skill, I will no longer have neck pain." I memorized an entire 1-hour yoga practice, and did it on my own at home daily when I couldn't make it to class for like 6 months. When I went to class, I took pride in my ability to stretch farther, to hold the hard poses longer than everyone else. At one point, I started to wonder, if I'm really the top of the class, why is it I still have neck pain and noone else here does? I said it was helping. It seemed to be helping. I told everyone I knew it was helping. And then, I realized, with sadness at my brown heritage, it was hurting. During the times when I was having severe neck pain, and did yoga, it got worse. I'd have even worse pain or stiffness afterwards. During the worst pain, I couldn't even do it. Was yoga just making it worse? I quit, often and repeatedly, but usually came back full of hope, surfing on the waves of my idealization until they crashed into the inevitable rocks of disappointment.
Aside: One odd question I'll mention now without comment, but will become important later in the unified theory. When I returned each time to yoga practice, there were certain areas that remained almost exactly as limber as before. That is, certain stretches, without ANY maintenance whatsoever, gave near-permanent flexibility and freedom to my body. Others, my neck and hips for example, were a permanent fight. Any hard-fought flexibility win was dashed through any period of non-practice, whether a day or a month. Why was it that certain parts of my body "got it" and others didn't?
In retrospect, I realize that experience and skill matters in yoga teachers. And while bad yoga could be good for you physiologically, the same way lifting weights or running might be, it could also be bad for you if you've already got weakness somewhere. It was like I was trying to learn French from a teacher that had never set foot in France. Sure, she could teach me something, but it had lost it's context, it's natural beauty. So what was the native language of yoga then?
Good teachers told me the language of yoga, but it was not what I wanted. I got paradoxical statements like "Relax to stretch more." "Slow down to go faster." One of my favorites, which stabilized a class full of wobbling one-legged balancers, "Instead of pushing down on the ground, imagine the ground pushing is up on you." I was a bit familiar with these nonsensical statements after I had studied Zen koans, which actually aim to frustrate the intellect into submission, and activate the intuition. Aiming to understand the vague statements in my body has actually done a lot for me, spiritually and physically.
For those of you that have pushed this far - here's a tip that I found very useful. There might be an "answer" in there, I'm not sure yet, but there is definitely some freedom through mastery. Use your skeleton to bear your weight, not your muscles. Kaminoff talks about the "energy" that people describe coming through their bodies during and after yoga as not necessarily mystical, but more literally a relief of not using muscles to hold up the weight that our skeletons were built to hold. This is also a core principle of the Feldenkrais Method or Chi-Running.
What does this mean practically? For your neck, it means (undis)locating your shoulder, moving your shoulder-blades down the back, tucking in your chin a bit, and opening your heart and the front of your chest. For your hips, it means striving to keep your thighbone planted in your hip socket. For your lower back, it means tucking your tailbone under with your tummy, but not by clenching the buttocks. We often develop habits of stretching that reinforce bad habits for the purpose of stretching further. I made a career out of this in my first few years of yoga, and I was very proud. But still in pain. So don't do that. Go to a teacher that gets it, and make a real effort to understand these things in your body.
And lastly, here's the secret to everything. Ready? Learn where you are carrying tension and let go! Easier said than done, you say? True. Awareness of tension was an ever subtler and yet valuable gift of yoga, which took me years to discover. I'll elaborate soon.