Tuesday, August 20, 2013

the therapeutic quality of advanced asana, or, how i learned to stop worrying and love the bomb

About a month ago, during my Sunday morning practice, as I lifted my feet off the ground into Badha Hasta Sirsasana D my left shoulder made a sound like fabric ripping, just like when you finally retire a favorite old cotton t-shirt of yours and begin to tear it apart into rags.  As horrific as it sounded, there was very little pain.  Mostly what I felt was a slight loss of stability.  Furthermore, it was a sound I had heard before when I first discovered an injury a little more than a year and half ago.  On that particular day and in that particular instance I had been working on Viparita Chakrasana, aka "tic-tocs."  What I have is called a SLAP lesion. This means that the labrum (a ring of cartilage which stabilizes the joint, not unlike a meniscus)  in my left shoulder is torn from front to back.  Fortunately, an MRI revealed no damage to the musculature or the rotator cuff and, interestingly, it revealed that I'd had the tear for some time before the first acute ripping-fabric-sound incident.

Evidenced by the fact that I went and got an MRI, I am not one of those knee-jerk, "never trust Western medicine" hardliner yogis when it comes to health and medicine.  I believe in ibuprofen, vaccinations, antidepressants, antibiotics, chemotherapy... all that shit, when it's appropriate.  That said, when the orthopedist read my MRI and said, more or less, "when can we get you in for surgery?" I balked.  I got a second opinion from my friend Danny, who is a radiologist at Mount Sinai.  Very nice of him.  I remain grateful.  He talked me back from the ledge by pointing out that since the tear had been there for who knows how long I had probably just irritated and would be fine with rest and physical therapy.  So that's what I did.

On the other hand, I remain open to non-Western notions of the body as well.  Both my teacher Kino and my student Claudia have suggested that the injury and its persistence may have a deeper meaning, one that is not strictly physical.  Kino advised that such an injury was an opportunity to explore, or rather, an opportunity to learn something deeper about myself.  Claudia told me that she learned from her research that a shoulder injury typically means that one is dealing with a psychological burden of some sort.  Lord (along with faithful readers of this blog) knows I have plenty of psychological burdens.  I think perhaps even a little more than most people, even.  Could be anything.  As with the Western medicine stuff, I believe that this line of thinking has its merits to a point and when appropriate.  To say, as some do, that all psychological trauma is stored in our body is a slippery slope to absurdity, though.  If you're not careful, you could be attributing the cramp in your pinky toe to the time your best friend called you fat back in seventh grade.

So, it's coming up on two years now, and the shoulder still fluctuates between periods of stability and not so much stability.  Should the periods of not so much stability persist to a point where they vastly outnumber the good times, surgery remains an option.  When the shoulder is in a bad place I reduce my asana practice drastically (down to Surya Namaskara A and B, standing postures up to Parsvottanasana, and then the three finishing Lotus postures) and do pranayama to supplement.  This is what I did in the immediate aftermath of the most recent incident.  I gave it a week.  Kino and Tim approved.

The next week after, though, was a different story.  Kino was still in town and as I rolled out my mat to begin practicing along side of her she looked over and asked, sweetly, "How does your shoulder feel?  Do you want to try your regular practice?"  I was hip to what she meant.  Kino is a master at making an interrogative statement which is an actually an imperative one.  At least that's how I read it, but then again I always aim to please.  To be perfectly honest, I was quite scared and I didn't feel ready to air it out, so to speak.  My regular practice these days is a little goofy: I practice 3rd series up to Viranchasana A, and then switch back to 2nd series from Pashasana to Kapotasansa.  I do drop-back back bends and half tic-tocs, i.e. from feet to handstand to backbend, but not back the other way.

Fuck it.  I made a leap of faith, surrendered, trusted, opened up... all that. Maybe this is rotten to say, but in making the leap of faith one of the things that gave me courage was the abdication of responsibility.  If something would have gone drastically wrong, I could have put it on Kino.  I think this insulated me from any hesitation which might have, in fact, aggravated my injury situation.  As I practiced my regular practice, my trust was soon rewarded:  the protracted ass-fuck which is the arm balance sequence towards the beginning of 3rd series (depending on how you count it, eight or ten arm balances in a row), instead of hurting my shoulder as I feared, actually made it more stable.  I learned a profound truth:  there is potential for therapy in every asana, so long as your technique is clean.  I think there's a concept that Ashtanga yoga is like a progression of walking on a balance beam, to a tight rope, to a razor blade.  It doesn't have to be that way.  If you focus on clean technique and your bandhas, the potential for all kind of healing is there.  With faith and trust in a good teacher, the sky's the limit.


  1. Thanks for sharing, Patrick. I really feel the trust that you have in your teachers shine through in your writing. It's such a beautiful thing.

    I have a question: When you write about your technique being clean, do you just mean good alignment? Or is there something more to having clean technique?

  2. Damn you and your steel trap mind, Nobel! You always keep me on point and on my toes. I do appreciate it, though. So, upon reflection, my sentence about clean technique and bandhas is actually redundant. I would say clean technique is a combination of proper alignment, bandhas, and vinyasa. I don't mean vinyasa in the most strict sense, by the way. I'm told that 3rd series done in a strict led setting is murderous. I try to be conscious of lifting on inhalation and descending on exhalation, but I do take extra breaths here and there in transition when necessary.

    Thank you for reading and taking the time to comment. I'm honored. Truly

    1. I didn't know that I have a mind that is good for trapping animals :-)

      I don't do third series, but I think I see what you mean about not doing third in a strict led setting. For me, I can pretty much follow Sharath's strict vinyasa count for primary (except binding on Sapta in Mari D), but I am still very far from being able to do second (or whatever part of second that I regularly practice) to a strict vinyasa count. Still can't imagine what it would be like to go into Kapo A on "Ashtau".

      But all this is neither here nor there. When I first read your post, I suspected that clean technique involves more than simply good alignment. But I thought I'd ask you anyway, just to be sure. For me, the phrase "clean technique" brings to mind the sort of clean, precise execution of technique that we talk about in Japanese swordsmanship and in the martial arts in general. The idea is that clean technique can only be attained with a "clean" mind--one that is fully in the moment and not tainted with regret about the past or fear of what the future might bring. Easier said than done, of course, but that's why we practice, right? Do you think there is any connection between what you call clean technique and this martial arts state of mind?

  3. Hello Patrick,
    This Aimee from Los Angeles. I used to work the front desk at Corpo Yoga.

    I came across your blog from links leading to links, etc.. I remember you having a few shoulder issues and reading this entry REALLY puts how deep rooted emotions play a physical shift with an individual.

    I'm entering my 10th year into a yoga practice and though I've grown in many ways and the journey will always continue on. As change happens more shifts occur. A few steps back, then forward. I'm more Yin-like with my practice these days

    Thanks for sharing this. Hope you're doing well.
    Feel free to check in .


  4. Your condition sounds me to bad. You should perform some special kind of exercises and yoga which provides you betterment in pain. You should perform yoga asana that is much better for you.
    physical therapy center