Monday, March 5th, 2007
Just about everybody runs into physical pain and injury at some point in their lives, especially those of us who exercise regularly. If you move your body actively, it will occasionally hurt. For some of us, it frequently hurts. We choose to get fit, tolerating aches and pains, because the alternative is…slow murky creep towards dark dreadful sluggish inertia and death- or something like that.
In all honesty, Ashtanga will initiate more aches and pains than gentler yoga. On the other hand, the potential for bodily transformation and psycho-somatic purification is far greater. Those who do the practice typically find the periodic aches and pains worth it in exchange for bodily vitality, improved postural disposition, a general feeling of well-being, healthy appropriate appetite and digestion, improved sleep, insight into relaxation and stress management, mental clarity, the capacity for delight in the present mundane moment due to happy body chemistry, surfing around in the higher spheres, occasional mystic glimpses into the bigger picture (or permanent ecstatic residence up there). See the comment below for more on this.
Occasionally, in Ashtanga, as in other forms of athleticism, actual injury happens. I will make the claim here that, if approached intelligently, Ashtanga is one of the safest ways to get highly fit. However, hurts happen sometimes. Most people who sustain practice over time, will eventually run into something. I’ve run into many snags, but I can attribute that to the fact that I went at this like a madman when I was in my twenties. Also, I’ve had a heavy teaching load for 10 years, and teaching Ashtanga, especially doing the backbends with people, is notoriously rough on the teacher. But I love it so much, what to do? Now, at the ripe age of 39, and with two dependents, I’m a bit more measured, as those of you who practice with me have probably noticed, the jackrabbit evolved into a tortoise. Anyway, there are many ways to address such an incident, many professions devoted to helping people heal. In this post, I would like to offer a way to approach injury from a yogic perspective.
Vedanta, the mature Hindu system of philosophy and practice, has placed great importance on the three major states of human consciousness. Existence was basically divided into three categories. The great sage Ramana Maharshi expressed these as:
1. The Open Courtyard: the physical body, the gross waking state, matter;
2. The Middle Chamber: the subtle body, the dreaming state, psychic stuff;
3. The Inner Chamber: the causal body, deep sleep, the void, nothing at all, but the matrix from which the others originate.
The accomplished yogic sages , certainly Maharshi himself, were able to realize the second and third states, dreaming and deep sleep, while fully awake. The completion of yoga is to pass through the third stage, the causal body, which leads to a recognition of the way in which the things of life, material, psychic, everything, arise from the void of the cosmic causal body. This is non-dual awakening, the capacity to simultaneously hold the emptiness of the casual body with the all the stuff in the other two bodies. It’s a mega-paradox, a monster polarity, for the few and the brave. Fear of wearing the wrong thing to that party, financial hardship, failure, pain, existential dread, old age, death…gotta get over all of that stuff. But in non-duality, we can participate in all of this- going to parties, whatever- with what could be called the ultimate perspective.
To get anywhere near this kind of realization, one must learn to bear that which was unbearable; that which is unbearable now, may become manageable with practice over time. If you are dealing with something difficult right now, it could be seen as preparation for much higher states of awareness. That’s no platitute; the only way to reach the higher states charted by the yogis is to get a handle on strong stuff which may be terrifying or deranging the first few times you touch it. The degree of difficulty of a challenge, that is exactly the degree of freedom one can gain from it, once the trace left by the challenge is accepted and metabolized. This is the case both for getting better at, for example, challenging asanas, as well gaining access to higher/deeper state of awareness.
Okay, so, the causal body: all of us hopefully pass through this every 24 hours or so, sleep research calls it Stage 3 or slow wave sleep. Adults fall into it rather quickly upon falling asleep, and usually stay there for less than an hour. There are few dreams during this state. This is the hardest state from which to wake somebody, and she may feel disoriented upon waking from it. The body needs it to survive. The consciousness of the most non-yogic person in the world, our archetypal couch potato, goes there every day.
The science of Physiology describes two important states: catabolic, the breakdown of cell structures, and anabolic, the synthesis/growth of cell structures. Anabolic steroids will help your muscles grow into the size of balloons, a very polluted way for the weight lifter to maximize his residence in the anabolic state. Catabolism: imagine you’ve had a long day, with not enough to eat, and your kids keep you up all night, (have twins like myself and you can stagger through a phenomenological thesis on this state.)
Sleep research indicates that stage 3 sleep appears to be the maximum anabolic state, the time when you heal the fastest, when the breakdown from your day becomes the stimulus for growth and development. Physical exercise and work stresses the gross body, which with rest, allows it to grow stronger. Typical family and job stress works the psychic body, which includes the higher part of the emotional body, and with rest it also gets stronger. Without rest…well, both bodies slowly or quickly get worn down. (Yoga also has a term for too much rest: tamas, which means dark sluggishness).
I’ll introduce a final element here: Patanjali’s main sutras, 1:2 and 3: “Yoga is the ability to cease fluctuations in the consciousness. At which time, the seer shines in its own true brilliance.” I’ll offer a physiologic reduction of this: “when the busy mind is quieted, the anabolic state can happen.” Busy mind, worry mind, becomes catabolic relatively quickly. Essentially, steady yoga practice will bring us closer to Patanjali’s yogic state, which is certainly a close match to Maharshi’s inner chamber, or the causal state. It will allow us the choice of quieting our minds when we so choose. If we do this over time, we will gain some understanding of the subtle and causal realms of existence, little glimpses here and there. Not everybody will be able to maintain the witness state while in the causal realm, but every inch towards this capacity, through the phases of the subtle body, is healing. The great spiritual traditions of the world tell us that the causal state is the creative matrix from which all form arises, including the forms of your own body and mind.
In last month’s post, I posed the question of why the yogis in the Ashtanga lineage have lived long lives, (Krishnamacharya 100, Indra Devi nearly 103, Pattabhi Jois still active and strong at 92, BKS Iyengar, still active and strong at 89) and my response today is that the ability to remain close to these higher states and to choose to invest such energy back into the body, this will make the body very happy. Yogis will gradually work their way closer to maintaining degrees of the anabolic state at all times, and to turn it on at will, and we could even pose the possibility of some individuals developing the ability to stoke it way up through long-term focus development. Which is to say: to heal injury and disease at will.
Practical application: (this is how I’ve healed from multiple, occasionally scary injuries incurred from being an Ashtanga teacher): when you retire in the evening, begin your rest lying flat on your back and quiet your mind by feeling your body. Stay with this night after night and you will begin to feel your way deeply into the inner psychosomatic sheaths of your being and the mind will begin to quiet. Next: feel the area that hurts or is hurt- if given attention, an injury should begin to reveal itself, it may throb or hurt, or it may just be something you can feel down there. “If you feel it you can heal it”. Notice the qualities of the sensation of the injury, keep noticing over time. Relax tensions in the area as they become apparent. Breathe steadily and direct the energy in your breath into the sensation. Practice Pratyahara, which takes outward vision and turns it inward: see your injury, which I hold to be the visual part of your brain redirected to give qualities and features to felt sensation. The same for hearing, tasting, smelling. This will set the stage for the anabolic state soon to follow: true delta sleep, the “medicine by which you need no medicine”.
My point here is that besides all the outward modalities of healing- acupuncture, physical therapy, all that good stuff- there is also the option of developing a way of being that promotes healing, entirely apart from diet and nutrition, ingestion of drugs or outward manipulation: the way of the yogis: life as a path into the inner chamber, direct knowledge of the place from which all life forms originate.
Thanks for reading,