Healing the Hurts: Yoga and Injury

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).

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 that 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 states 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: anabolic, the synthesis/growth of cell structures, and catabolic, the breakdown of cell structures. Anabolic steroids will help one’s 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 me 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-  in fact, very few-  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,


This entry was posted on Monday, March 5th, 2007 at 4:29 pm and is filed under Ashtanga Yoga. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

10 Responses to “Healing the Hurts: Yoga and Injury”

  1. KB Says:

    Hi Steve,

    I love the blog (which I discovered through Yoga Peeps) and the insightful discussions that you have about Yoga and if I lived anywhere nearby, I would surely want to study with you. I do want to question an implication from your post. You say in comparison to softer yoga practices that,

    “In … Ashtanga … the potential for bodily transformation and psycho-somatic purification is far greater…[for]…surfing around in the higher spheres, occasional mystic glimpses into the bigger picture (or permanent ecstatic residence up there).”

    As to the physical/well-being component, I won’t question. However, do you mean to further privilege the Ashtanga practice (above others) as to give the practitioner a ‘far greater’ access to the ‘higher spheres.’ I think immediately of my grandmother to name one who, through prayer and love, has intimate access to this place while being diabetic and unable touch her toes.

    Maybe you could elaborate upon this issue. I’m curious as to your response.


  2. Steve Says:


    Thanks for your reply. It’s an important question, that of yes or no to asana for those pursuing the higher realms.

    I won’t say that Ashtanga will get one to the higher spheres any faster, necessarily, than gentler yoga. Ramana Maharshi got as high as possible and advocated NOT doing asanas. But psycho-somatic purification is one kind of assistance that we can receive on the path, and some degree of strenuous exercise is needed for that. I do not believe that you can visualize or meditate your spinal column to be as strong as that of a long-time Ashtanga practitioner. Those who just meditate and don’t do asana may say that the gist of the matter is within the spine and the skull etc., and that these can be exercised and purified with outwardly sedentary practices. I’ll respond by saying that the POTENTIAL for purification, and the likelihood of it happening, is far greater if the gross physiology of those areas are made “fit” in addition to fitness of the subtle. A strong spine is like a pedestal that can keep you up/in there.

    I would say that your grandmother most likely has a fit subtle psycho-somatic body- not something that everybody has. Applying oneself to prayer and love can be seen as a workout of the subtle physiology.(Check the “sublimation of impressions” post). Many stiff grandmothers with diabetes don’t even attempt the higher spheres. For some reason yours does. We could call Maharshi an utterly elite athelete at this level. He held that asana workouts would make his realization more dense, more worldly. But I agree to disagree on that one. I advocate bringing the body UP, bringing the world UP, the deeper we penetrate into the body, the higher the soul can fly. There are many yogas, and all of the legit ones will get us there/here if we persevere. Ashtangis simply like the feeling of being physically fit and clean, and use that to get it up. But if your grandmother is in the higher spheres, that means she’s a good percentage warrior, no way around that.


  3. elastigirl Says:

    Hey, you’re in blog format now! Hooray!

    Thanks for doing these posts, Steve, they’re invaluable motivation for a stay-at-home practitioner such as myself.

  4. alexandra moreano Says:

    hi Steve

    I just discovered your blog and really enjoy reading and learning from it.
    I studied with you in New York last year and won’t forget those great backbend adjustments you gave us and probably gave you some pain to work on.

    I guess the practice you mentioned on the piece on pain could be directly related to Savasana, or at least to how i view Savasana, as a space to feel the body and quiet any tension that could be going on.


  5. an Says:

    Hi Steve and Michele,

    I happened to stumble on the blog and thought some of the commentary on
    injury to be quite original and deeply sensible. I practice with Jesse
    Schein here at Yoga Works in Santa Monica but have a chronic injury relating
    to spasm in the iliopsoas and it has been a real challenge these last
    months. I began prolotherapy 3 months ago and have experimented with many of
    the other healing modalities but am coming around gradually to believing
    that until I face the deeper causal and psychic origins of this I may never
    heal in the midst of training.

    Any details if at all on how to stimulate or welcome the anabolic plane of
    growth and healing would be appreciated. hope this finds you and your sons
    very well,

    best, a

  6. Steve Says:

    Hi A:

    Curious to know if the prolotherapy is helping.

    Look at the blog entry for sublimation of impressions (October 2006). To that I would add this: when we encounter new internal or external fields they often register as complex and chaotic. Eventually, with the application of deliberate attention, the chaos resolves into a simplicity, as we see the harmony beneath it all, a harmony that we could not “hear” before, but which emerged as we learned. The elements in the field are still arranged as before but now we’ve cracked the code, and so they present a beauty where before was dissonance. That beauty is good for the health of the body.
    An injury can be seen as a result of foces which we cannot contain right now. To establish such containment strength, we need to drop into a deeper layer of psycho-somatic being, the injury often is the intitiator for such a move toward greater depth. Depth sounds nice but the reality is a bit different than “nice”: there’s chaos down there: worms, bugs, grim dark dangerous warriors on strange murky quests; the little blessings that we’ve relied upon may get snuffed out, our good luck may turn bad, our antanae get confused and receive strange unwanted songs, etc. Why go deep at all?
    Because we have to. Anyway: resolution of chaos allows the mind a degree of quietude. My claim is this: the great sages didn’t know everything, ie: they can’t sit down and speak Icelandic, but, they had resolved their internal history into a state of beautitude, saw the beauty behind the chaos, could hold that energy with a quiet mind, which is closer to the anabolic state. The sages dropped deep into the heavies and resolved it for themselves, and for humanity. They weren’t air-heads: they had mastered complexity so that it could be seen easily.
    Practical advise: hear the atonality of internal material as it arises (there is usually plenty of it already active) and bear naked attention into it over time: it will resolve, guaranteed, hopefully in this lifetime. The beauty of the injury is that it presents its material in such a clear way, very easy to consider it, and just do that, feel it deeply, hour after hour if need be, study it like a beautiful holographic artwork, constantly noticing new details. Notice static and transform it into beautiful lotuses.

    Something like that?

  7. brynn leggett Says:

    I am a junior studying Sociology at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas, and I have recently been introduced to the concept of using yoga for healing. I am working on a paper for one of my Sociology classes about spirituality and medicinal or healing practices, and I am very interested in your viewpoints on how yoga can have medicinal effects, as well as how this might have conflicted with Western Medicine.

    Thanks for your time, and your blog!


    -Brynn Leggett

  8. Panama Says:

    I trust you would not have reservations if I placed a part of this site on my univeristy blog?

  9. Elizabeth McCloud Says:

    Hi Stevie! “) Like the blog. If you can add me to a list so it comes to me regularly I would be very :). Hope to see you all soon!

    Formerly PG, currently… Balboa Island

  10. rana Says:

    hi Steve,
    i totally relate and agree with all that you have stated as that is my final goal, and i think ashtanga yoga has been instrumental in the slow transformation that i am experiencing. I would like you to experience yoga nidra (if you have not already). This is taking what you are stating to a more methodical conclusion. there are books on the subject and cd’s of the same are available as well. i think this contribution from the bihar school is easy to experience and after a good yoga practise, instead of just savasana, yoga nidra takes it to a whole new level.

Leave a Reply

  For more information, email Steve & Michele or call them at 805-965 7175
©2008 Ashtanga Santa Barbara.

Created by NDIC