Flash forward a few years. I'm older, with a couple of grown children, some issues from past surgeries, the usual challenges which come with the years. As a yoga teacher in training, I want to do my best, so I'm in the studio a lot. I recognize that I can't practise the way I did in my early years and I know when to back off on a pose. I never "push through pain." So, it came as a great surprise to me when a decades-old physical problem began to bother me again in the past few months.
Simply put, I was literally experiencing a pain in the butt. (Yes, I do appreciate the irony.) The pain radiated from my left butt cheek down my left leg, and is most likely caused by problems with my SI joint. I've been sleeping on floors, in chairs and on hospital beds the past few weeks, so I was sure this was the cause of the flare up. I was also convinced that the way to fix it was to do more yoga asana and stretching. While some poses brought a temporary solution, the pain increased until I've had to take painkillers once in a while in order to sleep at night. I don't like taking painkillers.
Yesterday, I went to class, mentioned to Colin about the issues I was having and that I probably shouldn't practice lunges, or any poses which involved a lot of hip movement. Colin nodded. Class started and he began telling us that we would be experimenting with Triangle Pose. My heart sank. Things got worse when he called me up to the front to demonstrate the pose; I was so tentative that I nearly forgot how one moved into the pose and I couldn't resist asking if I was okay to do it. Colin assured me that I was.
I should have known better than to question Colin about building asana. (I do know better.) As I moved, in what I thought was true Iyengar fashion, I automatically squared my hips. At that point, Colin stopped me. "Let your hips move with the feet," he instructed. (How shocking!) Round went my hips, following the angle of my right foot as I moved to the right side.
Somehow, magically (not), my body moved without pain. As I allowed my hips to revolve and then adjusted my torso to move upward, I felt a sense of freedom. The pain in my butt eased. There was none of the pinching I usually feel around my rhomboid muscle into my shoulder blade every time I attempt Triangle. We used a strap to guide the shoulder and torso into place and I was amazed at the range of motion available to me. Later, practising at home in order to remember the movements, I discovered that I could bring my bottom hand nearly to my ankle. (This isn't a goal; however, we always practise these poses using blocks. It's been years since I could move this far.)
After class, Colin told me about an article he read which discusses the damage yoga can do by not considering the differences between men's and women's bodies. You can read that article by William Broad: Women's Flexibility is a Liability (In Yoga). (Update: Since I wrote this post, there have been several rebuttals to Broad's article, including one by "Shari," and another response by Paul Grilley.)
In a well-rounded practice, we take what we learn on the mat and apply it to our lives. My lesson from that practice was the importance of flexibility in all things. When we insist on a rigid view of the world, when we bow to convention or insist that there is only one way to practise, whether that practice be in yoga, spiritual concerns, politics, or more mundane matters such as spinning and knitting, we run the risk of causing physical and/or emotional harm to ourselves and others. At the very least, our rigidity closes us at times when we most need to be receptive. When we learn to move past our fear of change and into the possibility of the "Happy Mistake," we begin to grow into openness.
The next time you think (or are told) that "This is the way it's done!," try something else. Sometimes, you have to challenge your habitual practice. Sometimes, you need to be a pain in the butt in order to rid yourself of one.
|I took this photograph in Cuba. Apparently, it goes by the unelegant name of "Bombax." If you've seen it in bud, you'll know that it is a excellent representation of the union between Shiva and Shakti!|