I recently listened to a podcast interview with movement therapist Greg Lehman. Greg’s perspectives on movement, pain and pathology resonate strongly with my own, and I have shared his ideas on my Spacious Yoga facebook page numerous times. I found some interesting concepts in the interview which are applicable to my approach to Ashtanga Yoga practice.
The concept of “movement homeopathy” was my favorite takeaway. The concept is that we can train/retrain ourselves to perform movements that are painful and/or have been injurious to us by giving ourselves small or mild doses of the movement in question. “Movement Homeopathy” effectively describes my approach to recovery from injury or excessive pain in the Ashtanga practice. It also applies to how I approach the learning of new and difficult or intimidating new postures.
Standard professional medical advice after an injury or excessive pain/inflammation is either complete rest, or complete avoidance of the particular movement pattern that is associated with pain or injury, The application of ice to the injured or inflamed area is often included as part of the recovery protocol. Those who have experienced pain or injury while practicing with me know that I recommend against these standard procedures. Both the avoidance of movement and the application of ice to a painful or injured part of the body will encourage the trauma pattern (including the emotional and perceptual aspects of the trauma) to become locked into the body/mind/nervous system. Long term healing or resolution is inhibited.
When we the follow standard advice to avoid a movement pattern (or to avoid movement altogether in the case of complete rest), we generate a belief that continuing to engage with movement will cause us to deepen the damage or pain that we are already experiencing. This belief creates an emotionally reactive pattern (samskara) of fear, anxiety and aversion, which further compounds and complicates the discomfort that we are already facing. Moving (or not moving) in a perpetual state of fear and anxiety about our condition is highly unlikely to lead to healing or positive resolution of discomfort. The negative and apprehensive emotions we feel will tend to increase the overall tension levels in our body/mind/nervous system, and a negative feedback cycle, which perpetuates discomfort and inhibits healing, is created. I have seen numerous cases of yoga practitioners who report consistent chronic pain that does not improve, even though they are practicing carefully and mindfully and often avoiding or eliminating the movements which were originally associated with pain. In every one of these cases, I have observed high levels of fear, anxiety, and self distrust around particular movements or aspects of the practice.
Another common approach to pain or injury is to look for issues in the alignment of the body, and to expect that shifting to a “healthier” alignment pattern will resolve the discomfort. I have also observed many cases of practitioners with chronic pain who fixate on following certain alignment dogmas (which they have been told are healthier) in their practice, and yet continue to experience chronic pain and discomfort. Again, there is an emotional rigidity and fear which develops around the possibility that they may slip into “bad alignment” which will cause their pain and discomfort to worsen. The emotional and physical rigidity which develops around this obsession with certain alignment principles also serves to lock the pain and trauma into the body/mind/nervous system, and in some cases the pain and discomfort actually worsens.
In the above examples, something which began primarily as a “physical” discomfort, is propagated and maintained by psychological fixations and emotional reactive patterns (samskaras), long after the initial physical trauma (if there was any to begin with) has dissipated. Techniques which are intended to protect us from our pain end up creating a complex system of negative feedback loops which often intensifies and unnecessarily prolongs the experience of pain.
Freezing a part of the body with ice will temporarily reduce inflammation, which can be useful for emergency pain relief in the case of a severe injury. Reducing inflammation, however, does not generally contribute to long term resolution, especially in the case of chronic symptoms. Inflammation is a natural healing response of the human organism, and we could say that inflammation is creative in nature. Inflammation is a functional response of the intuitive organic intelligence of the body, and is part of how the autopoietic, self organizing human organism repairs and rebuilds itself. Freezing a part of the body cuts off the circulation of creative life force and awareness to the injured part. Blocking this creative flow of life force into a part of the body through freezing with ice is quite similar in principle to blocking the creative flow of life force by avoiding movements which stimulate that part of the body.
Avoiding or restricting movement or certain movement patterns; fixating on “correct” alignment; and aggressively reducing inflammation through the application of ice or allopathic anti inflammatory agents can have limited and temporary usefulness in certain contexts, but in general I de-emphasize their importance and in many cases I recommend against them completely. The short term benefits of decreased pain from these therapeutic techniques are transient in nature and do not contribute to long term resolution or aid in the creative process of self-transformation that Ashtanga practice brings about. In essence, all of these therapeutic techniques block pain to some extent, but this necessarily means that they also block the creative flow of awareness, intuitive intelligence and life force. This ultimately leads to stagnation and inhibits long term resolution and complete healing.
The blocking techniques all work on the principle of avoidance of the phenomenally embodied experience of the movement (and pain) in question, and through this inhibition of awareness and embodied intelligence, they generate a complex of fear and aversion which runs deeply through all the layers of the body/mind/nervous system. The lack of trust in bodily movement patterns ultimately represents and deepens a lack of trust in the self, a lack of trust in the practice, and a lack of trust in the relationship of the self with the practice. The intuitive, embodied intelligence of the animal self – which is where embodied understanding and natural healing intelligence arises – is forced into slumber and the ideas of the abstract and rational mind are imposed on the movement experience of the body. The result is a highly disembodied practice and disembodied experience of the self with strongly etched grooves of physical and emotional tension.
The other point that Lehman made in the interview which is highly relevant to the present discussion, is the fallacy of the goal or expectation of being pain free. Many branches of medicine and physical therapy ask patients to rate their pain on a scale of one to ten, with ten representing the highest amount of pain, and one representing the lowest. Lehman mentioned that expecting everyone to reach “a level of two or three” is completely unrealistic. The fallacious expectation of being pain free also percolates through the postural yoga community. It is common to hear certain well respected yoga authorities say things like, “If it hurts, you are doing it wrong.” I disagree with this trend. Lehman’s perspective resonates much more strongly with me.
When we allow ourselves to actively engage with movement and with our discomfort or pain, rather than applying the previously discussed blocking techniques, we allow the creative response of the human organism’s innate intelligence to work most effectively. As blood, life force, and both intuitive and conscious awareness flow into the wounded or painful area, so also will aspects of the intuitive intelligence which are related to the reconstructive process of healing and transformation. Inflammation and pain are an unavoidable aspect of this process.
We may wish to keep the ideal part of the process (creative healing energy and intelligence) and avoid the unpleasant part (inflammation and pain), but, we can’t have one without the other. The human organism is a highly refined, self-organizing system which has attuned itself to function as it does over two billion years of evolution. These phenomenally pleasant and unpleasant components of the healing process work together, and we cannot separate them with a few simple bio hacks. Pain is one dimension of the innate intelligence of the human organism, and attempting to block or avoid pain necessarily causes us to block and subdue other important aspects of our innate animal intelligence.
Striving for a pain free practice or a pain free life is undesirable, if we are aiming for self-transformation and self-evolution. The saying “no-pain, no-gain” is more appropriate than “if it hurts you are doing it wrong.” Without pain, an important stimulant for increased awareness and for the mobilization of creative intuitive intelligence is removed. A pain-free life and a pain-free practice would be a life and practice that easily slips into complacency and stagnation. For me, pain is the creative juice that keeps self evolution flowing. Without discomfort, there is no challenge to overcome, and hence no stimulation to change. Evolutionary biology recognizes this principle on a broader scale. One of the main driving forces of biological evolution is adaptation, and this force becomes more relevant and important when the environment is shifting and changing in a way that makes life more challenging. Adaptation occurs as a creative response to a problem (which is likely a painful problem) and this dynamic perpetuates the evolutionary process. Without pain – problems and challenges which require adaptive response – the entire creative process of the evolution of life would stagnate. If we wish to continue to grow and change, we must consciously experience the discomfort involved in problems that we face, in order for the creative flow of adaptive response within us to occur and lead us forward.
The creative flow of adaptive response to problems effectively describes the process of restructuring the human organism through the sequential learning of the asanas and vinyasas of the Ashtanga system. In my article “A systems thinking perspective on the resolution of pain in Ashtanga practice”, I describe the restructuring process in more detail. The long term process of changing how the different parts and systems of the human body relate to one another and to our environment is a highly creative and nuanced process. The self-regulating system of the human organism must continuously reorganize and rearrange itself in novel and creative ways, in response to the controlled pressure we place upon it through the repetitive application of asana and vinyasa sequences. There is no doubt that this creative process involves inflammation and the experience of pain. To expect to experience creative transformation of the structure of the self without some degree of pain and inflammation to flow along with the mobilization of creative energy and intelligence, is to completely misunderstand the nature of the human organism and how it participates in the endless process of change. I am highly skeptical of the depth of understanding of teachers who state, “If it hurts, you are doing it wrong.”
The art and skill that comes with experience in working with a system like Ashtanga Yoga is to understand how to adjust the parameters so that we can experience creative transformation – and corresponding pain and inflammation – to a degree that is sustainable and does not overly inhibit our ability to function normally in our day to day lives. The main factor is how much of the series or which series we practice and how quickly or slowly we should add to that series. In my opinion, the main role of a Mysore style teacher is to determine this for each student. How much of the series, or which series, is appropriate for each particular student to experience a sustainable level of creative transformation. Or, to provide a healing response to an injury or excessive pain.
The Mysore style teacher is overseeing the long term transformational dynamic which occurs between each student and the particular set of postures or series they are practicing. Many students believe that the main benefit of going to a Mysore style class is to receive a few good adjustments in the postures. An experienced and effective Mysore style teacher will give much subtler, deeper guidance using their own experience with the dynamics of how the system of Ashtanga reorganizes and restructures the human organism, to monitor this aspect of the student’s practice. I sometimes receive emails from prospective students that say things like “I only have time to practice with you for one or two days, but I’d like to learn as much as possible in that time.” I usually don’t say anything, but I chuckle to myself and think: “Nothing. I can’t teach you anything about this practice in one or two days, all I can do is give you a safe space and good energy to practice in. If you really want to learn about how this practice works, one month is a bare minimum for the transformational dynamics within your practice to start to really respond to my guidance.” The process of relationship between the self and the asana sequences requires deep time to evolve and manifest in life-changing ways. So also does the influence of a teacher on this process and relationship.
Let us return to the specifics of “movement homeopathy” in Ashtanga practice. My advice to practitioners who are experiencing pain related to injury or to an excessive amount of structural transformation is usually to continue practice, but in many cases to back off to a more basic, shorter practice. The homeopathy is that we are “treating” the pain or injury with the same thing that has caused or aggravated it. We are reducing the intensity or quantity of the movement, to a degree that the human organism’s intuitive intelligence is better able to process and integrate it. This ensures that the creative intelligence is flowing into the process of structural reorganization or healing, but at a moderate level and rate, so there is a reduced amount of pressure on the organism to shift and evolve in the restructuring process. This slowing down and de-intensifying of the process allows the intuitive intelligence to adapt to the movement patterns in question more effectively and with less pain. Because we are still moving, and even performing movements that are painful, we are still presenting the adaptive intelligence of our animal selves with a problem to address. And so, the creative adaptive response of the organism will still be engaged. This stimulates evolution and change which will eventually generate an enduring resolution to the pain or discomfort which is present.
As the pain and discomfort dissipates, and correspondingly the level of confidence in the self and in the movements of the practice increases, the intensity of posture and movement can be gradually increased again. In other words, as the adaptive intelligence of the animal becomes stronger and more capable, we can again increase the pressure we place upon ourselves to change with more asanas, or more intensive depth in the asanas.
There is no set formula for how much or how long this “homeopathic” process needs to be continued for. In severe cases, one may need to switch from a practice of a full series or even multiple series to a very short practice of just a few surya namaskar and standing postures. In other cases, one may need to simply back off on the intensity of the last posture of their practice for a little while. In some cases the reduction to a homeopathic dose of practice may only be necessary for a few days or a week. In other cases, it may need to be applied for months or even years. It all depends on factors unique to each individual case, and a good teacher should be able to help a person determine the exact prescription. Ultimately, it is one’s own embodied experience of, and familiarity and willingness to engage with the phenomenal experience of pain, inflammation and structural change, which allows one to adjust the homeopathic dosage accordingly.
The same principle can also be applied to learning new postures and movements, even when no pain or inflammation is present. Very difficult and intimidating movements, which may seem impossible from the outset, can be experienced to be much more palatable, when tasted in small, homeopathic doses. When I give a difficult new posture to a student, and that student cannot perform the posture to it’s full expression, I rarely give strong adjustments in the beginning. I let the student play around with the preliminary versions of the posture, and watch how the intuitive intelligence of the student adapts to those movements. Only if I see a real capability to move into the final version of the posture without excessive strain or shock, will I use some physical manipulation to put the student there. Otherwise, it is much better, and more sustainable to allow the intelligence of the student’s own organism to work it out naturally and gradually. I have learned over many years of teaching that less adjusting and more observing is a more effective method for students to learn the postures in a way that is enduring and sustainable. I feel that a student has fully learned a posture, or portion of the practice, when I am confident that they can go away and do it on their own, just as effectively as they could do it in my shala or with my help.
One example of this process from my own practice is in the difficult third series posture “gandha berundasana.” I began to practice this posture with my former teacher Rolf more than a decade ago. There was no possibility of coming even close to completing this posture under my own means, but Rolf would be sure to put me into the final version of the posture every day. It was always an extraordinarily terrifying experience to prepare for this posture, but over time I began to trust my ability to experience the full version of the posture – with Rolf’s assistance. There was no homeopathy involved. I don’t think he ever let me try to work my way into the posture alone – not even once. It was an all or nothing experience. When I was practicing with him, it would be “all” and when I would be back at home, practicing on my own after my visits to my teacher, it would be “nothing.” On my own, I would simply find it too intimidating to even attempt without help, and for more than a decade I resigned myself to the fact that this was one posture which wasn’t for me to experience on my own in this lifetime.
My attitude changed last year, when I realized that I might have to practice gandha berundasana with Sharath on my subsequent trip to Mysore. I dreaded revisiting the posture again, and wondered what Sharath’s approach with me would be regarding it. I gave myself an easy out, by telling myself that Sharath wouldn’t expect me to be able to do it. Many students do get moved past this posture in third series without having to complete it.
While I was beginning to contemplate this, a friend of mine visited my shala, and it so happened that he had recently been given that same posture by Sharath. We talked about it and my friend felt that “Sharath will expect both you and I do be able to do it.” I knew he was right. A short time later, another friend of mine who can do gandha berundasana very nicely visited my shala. Both these events inspired me, so I decided to begin working on it in my home practice.
I began in earnest, and without any real expectation of success. I started with very small homeopathic doses of the posture, and would only work as far into it as felt safe; and to a point where I felt like my body’s intelligence would be able to understand, process and integrate the structural changes which were taking place and would be necessary to continue to move deeper into the posture. In the beginning, I was certainly nowhere near even the first stages of completing the posture. Not surprisingly, with daily homeopathic application the organic intelligence did begin to take over, and a surprising amount of progress took place. After about six months of daily application, I succeeded in being able to catch both of my feet with my hands and to be in the most rudimentary version of the final posture. This continued for about a month, and then suddenly it was completely gone. I was back to square one, perhaps even further back than when I had first begun to tackle the posture six months earlier. What to do? Nothing, but to start the homeopathic process over again, which I did. This time it took five more months of homeopathy to attain the final stage of posture again. Only this time, I did not lose it, and I was able to continue to perform the final version of the posture every day for several months. Interestingly, I have now had to stop it again because I am currently in Mysore practicing with Sharath, and I am still a few postures away from reaching gandha berundasana in my practice with him. It will be interesting to see, if he gives me ganha berundasana on this trip (or if not, when I go back to doing it at home after the trip), whether I will be able to return to doing it straight away, or whether another homeopathic process will be necessary. I no longer have any fear or apprehension about the posture, as I can feel the deeper embodied understanding and integration from my practice of it over the past year, so I do expect that it will come back fairly quickly the next time I tackle it.
As I was finishing up this article, I came across another sports therapy based article which resonates with what I have just written. It provides an interesting footnote and compliment to Lehman’s statements from the interview, and my own interpretation of those statements: Putting Ice on Injuries could be doing more damage than good
I don’t claim to represent the work or teachings of Greg Lehman. I have never met or directly learned from him. He may very well disagree with how I have interpreted his own perspectives on pain and movement. Or, he may agree with me. The views expressed in this article are my own, and are based on my own experience with the practice of Ashtanga Yoga.
This article is conceptual in nature, and does not represent specific advice for any individual reader. Each situation is unique, and involves many factors, and I can only give specific advice in the context of a personal relationship with a student who is present in my shala.
Thank you to Clayton Loizou for helpful editing and suggestions about the article.