Learning to Stop
I did a hip clinic with Tiffany Cruikshank at Wanderlust Festival about three years back. She asked a crowd of 100 or so yoga practitioners to raise their hands if they thought they had tight hips. At least 70% of the crowd raised their hands. Then she asked us to go into Pigeon pose. No warm-up, just right into Pigeon. Most bodies who raised their hands easily slid forward into this deep hip stretch with the hip dropped all the way down supported by the earth. She said, “I hate to break it to you guys, but you don’t have tight hips.”
I have been a dedicated asana practitioner for just over 10 years. The intensity of my physical practice hits peaks and valleys. I still wrestle with the motivation to get as far or deep as I can into the pose. In my early days, deep hip openers were the easiest for my body to achieve. Leg behind the Head, Lotus, Compass, Pigeon, any pose were the hip joint is in deep external rotation; all these poses came very naturally to my body and I felt a sort of satisfaction in being about to achieve their ascetic.
Around the time of the Tiffany experience my left hip was really starting to ache. I’m also a long distance runner so I attributed it to increased miles and tightness. I did what I always did, I just keep stretching and stretching it more. It’d roll it out and lay in pigeon, which for in short term sometimes worked but the chronic pain and tension would always return.
Deeply stretching my hips in this way wasn’t working, but I just kept doing it.
A convergence of events helped to pull me out of my fog.
Around the time my hip started to ache, I also had recurring “crepitis” in my left knee. It started to get really crackly and creaky and though there wasn’t any pain, I could sense a vulnerability. I went to a Physical Therapist and she assessed my leg strength, which I thought would be off the charts! It wasn’t. There were simple assessments she walked me through that were so hard! At the end, she said, “You’ve got seriously weak glutes and hamstrings.” I do? Are you sure? I can do some amazing stuff with my body. Let’s try again. I’ll work harder. I wasn’t ready! It was clear from that assessment though that I had some work to do and it’s been a long but exciting learning curve from there.
Looking back, I realize how many wonderful things converged at the same time. When I went to the PT I had just started a certificate program in Exercise Science at the local junior college and was finishing up my first yoga teacher training. In your first yoga teacher training, you definitely learn a lot, but for me I also realized how much I didn’t know! There was a big gapping hole to be filled in human anatomy and the mechanisms of movement. I studied the body in books and in weight rooms. Learned how to assess other people’s form and develop individualized programs for my students. I started training my body in lots of different was and quickly gained a hell of a lot more strength, but I was still obsessed with cranking on my hips! I went to Wanderlust where Tiffany told me I didn’t have tight hips and worked with some of the exercises she gave us as well as all sorts of heavy load in the gym, but I still got at a high off of floppy pigeon and its relatives.
The last four years I’ve spent an insane amount of time trying to better understand our structure and as I mentioned, I started weight lifting and resistance training to cross train my asana practice. There was still a part of me that did it in order to achieve these big arm balances and inversions that have so long eluded me. Lifting weights can be a sort of fast track into hard poses that require a lot of upper body strength. While I didn’t really understand it at the time, I was still cranking on my structure, sacrificing the integrity of my joints to be able to do the hard thing. I was still stretching myself out to the max.
It wasn’t until a 25 hour intensive with the legendary Chuck Miller where I realized, “Oh wait, maybe I also have to approach my asana practice differently.” He less tells his students what to do so much as ask really poignant questions that reassemble your brain waves. One being, “Are you willing to be a beginner?” The second, “Can you practice ‘simple postures’ in a more advanced way?” It's the process, not the pose where we unlock the experience of yoga.
This was about two years ago, and my hip was getting really bad. It started to get more painful to do all those poses that required that deep opening. I was ignoring the signals and justifying it by thinking but if I just stretch my hip more, it will get better!
It didn’t and it won’t.
There’s a Yoga Sutra, I relate to this experience. Vitarka-badhane pratipaksha-bhavanam
When disturbed by negative mental thoughts, cultivate the opposite mental attitude.
Or as my teacher Jason Crandell translates it, “When something isn’t working, stop doing that thing and try the opposite of that thing.” I had spent a good eight years making myself into Gumby and maybe I just didn’t need to go any farther in that direction for a while.
So I stopped. I stopped flopping myself into pigeon. I stopped trying to get in to the deepest forward bend that anyone has ever forward bended. I am now fully in the throughs of experimentation and restructuring my asana practice. Some of it to the naked eye might look exactly the same and other stuff you might think, “Is that even yoga?”
I don’t know the answer to that question yet. But to the question, "Are you willing to be a beginner?" Yes, yes I am every damn day."
As I explore new territory, I am having an amazing time and enjoying and learning from my body in a way that I haven’t since I took up the practice a decade ago. And would you believe it? My hip feels so much better!
I’ve had certain thoughts in the laboratory of my home practice. “Where did I think I was going when I reached my hands out beyond my toes?” “Is there a quota of deep hip stretches you get in your life and I’ve just hit mine?” As another great teacher of mine Tony Briggs always jokes in class, “You know what happens when you can finally do the biggest pose of your life?” Nothing. Nothing happens.
Even with all my practice and study and all the knowledge I’ve accumulated over the years, it was a realization that I arrived at slowly. Like snail slow, but slower. What can I say? I’m incredibly stubborn.
It's a hard thing to let go of, the striving. You get these little pings of validation when you can do something that looks a certain way ascetically. We only have to search the yoga hashtag for 15 seconds on Instagram to see how we are rewarding people for extreme range of motion. It’s not really my business to make the judgement on who is and who isn’t doing yoga.
Here’s what I do know. A lot of yoga teachers are getting really hurt. Injury is a condition of having a body and doing stuff with it, for sure. The yoga related injuries that are becoming more widely discussed aren't really one off injuries, however. They are chronic conditions that may take a lifetime of dedicated work or even surgery to repair. I don’t think it’s “yoga’s fault” or their fault or my fault that I hurt myself. For a long time in my practice I sacrificed structure for the pose because: A) I really wanted to be able to do the pose and B) I honestly didn’t know any better. It didn’t make me a bad person or a bad yogi. I was having a good time, until I wasn’t. I can’t make that claim anymore, that I don’t know any better. I can’t unlearn these lessons and we shouldn’t either. We can’t ignore the stories of these dedicated students of the practice even if they communicate in a way that feels accusatory or challenges your conditioned belief around your own practice.
I believe whole heartedly that yoga is an inquiry based discipline. Let’s Inquire. Check in every now and again with ourselves and with each other on what we’re learning from our own bodies, from observing our students bodies, from conversations with other dedicated teachers and practitioners.
Why didn’t I share with anyone except my massage therapist that my hip hurt? What if super tight hamstrings are actually a sign of spiritual purity? What makes a cloth strap with no give more holy than a rubber strap with resistance?
Why are we doing these things with our bodies?
Are they safe? Are they smart? Can we stay true to the nature of asana practice while adding variance to the form?
Like I said, I don’t know all the answers to these questions, but I’m ready to ask them and I hope you’ll join me. Because what is asana really? A bunch of poses? Or the science of moving from the gross to the subtle? Of Exploring our architecture to reveal our inner landscape.
I pick on Pigeon a lot in this blog. I'm not saying that there is anything wrong with Pigeon but some variations of the pose may not work for certain bodies or at certain periods in our lives. I'm not practicing that pose the way I used to right now, but 30 years from now I might flop myself back there. I'm willing to take it out for now because it wasn't working for me and it's not the pose that is sacred and holy, it's the download of information I get from my body.
Let’s not mistake the form for the process. I look forward to being in conversation with as many people as possible about what yoga means to them and how their asana practice contributes to their experience of yoga. Whether you’re new to yoga or you’ve been showing up for generations, what information and lessons are you getting from your practice?
Related to this, I’ve decided to start a YouTube channel. A forum to share instructional videos on everything from mechanics to savasana. I hope you’ll join in the community there. Ask questions or even appear on the channel yourself to share from your own tool box.
CLICK HERE to be the first to subscribe to this community.
May our studies be vigorous in support of one another. May this practice reveal to you the wisdom of your inner teacher. I look forward to all we have to share together.