On ending my Ashtanga yoga practice in India

My first visit to a physical therapist was yesterday, in India.

It is kind of crazy, considering all of the injuries I sustained in my years as a competitive gymnast. Broken bones, sprained ankles, pulled muscles — you name it, and I likely experienced it between the ages of 5 and 17. These mini-tragedies never included any formal physical therapy in the healing process, oddly enough. I would heal just enough to jump back into the gym and return to business. Oh, the resilience of youth and the competitive drive of a teenage overachiever. It can be a dangerous, if not efficient, combination.

Fast forward to age 34, and my body isn’t so resilient even if the competitive drive still exists. A mini-tragedy reminiscent of my gymnastics days has brought me to tears. Actual tears. Something in the Ashtanga yoga practice has triggered an angry, angry, angry lower right back. The excruciating pain and the utter disappointment attached to it has transformed me into a sad, sad, sad creature. I did not leave my family, friends and job to travel halfway around the world to practice yoga … only to get injured. This wasn’t part of the plan.

The tears welled up four times yesterday: once in early morning yoga practice (cut it short because my back flared up); once on the way home from painting class (had to leave early because it was too painful to sit); once in front of my yoga teacher (when I told him I was in terrible pain and didn’t think it wise to continue asana practice); and once on the table of of a local physical therapist (while receiving trigger point pressure therapy).

Holy hell, did that trigger point pressure therapy hurt. I screamed and cried in way that might mirror how I’d sound if I were to ever give birth. I had no shame as the therapist pushed deeply on specific muscles in my butt, hip and back and counted slowly, very slowly, to ten. I wailed loudly. I gripped the edges of the massage table. I tried to remember to breathe. It hurt like a mother f$&@er. But I knew that it needed to be done. I screamed with gratitude … if that is possible.

I found this physical therapist on the advice of a few yogis at my shala. They said that he was “the man to see” if you are injured in Mysore, and his fee was 1000 rupees, or US$15, for one hour. (The joy of quality medical care at Indian prices.) One yoga peer even cryptically told me that it would be a experience that I wouldn’t forget. Sweet Jesus, he wasn’t kidding.

After a very thorough examination, which included a highly professional tutorial of my specific muscle issues on a massive digital monitor, I was diagnosed with “sacroiliac dysfunction” and a possible disk bulge in the lumbar region.

Great. Just great.

Here’s how I understand the explanation: The muscle in my right sacrioillic joint (hips) is locked and this has created a pulling on the muscles surrounding it — the glutes, low back, psoas. This collaborative muscular “dysfunction” is causing the low back pain. It’s not as simple as a single pulled muscle in the back. That was wishful thinking.

The heightened amount of practicing and intense amount of forward folding in the Ashtanga Primary Series — in sun salutations (standing) and in the asana series (seated) — have exacerbated an issue that was likely already building. I don’t normally practice like this, and this daily repetition has created too much stress In my body. Like a volcano ready to explode, my body popped.

Sun salutations are painful. Sitting for long periods of time is painful. Walking can be painful. It is extremely humbling and extremely frustrating. I was supposed to be knee-deep in advanced asana practice; now I can barely roll over in bed without whimpering.

I’ve decided one thing for certain: I am done with Ashtanga yoga as an asana practice. Definitely for the remainder of my time in India, and perhaps moving forward. It is not a rash decision. This month in India was always intended to be an experiment with a lineage of yoga outside of my normal routine. I gave it 150 percent. I learned to appreciate it for its structure and discipline. But I also didn’t hesitate to internally question some of its methods and sequencing.

However, just as I wouldn’t want to get into a debate over which religion could best serve everybody in the world, I would never do that with yoga either. There is an appropriate yoga for everyone — as each person is unique and will respond differently to various approaches. I have simply come to the conclusion that Ashtanga yoga is not for me. And that is OK. Perhaps it would have been appropriate ten years ago, just not now.

My primary objective now: Use yoga to gently heal my physical body, not push my body to its limits. I’ll be relying on pranayama and gentle asanas … as I try to appreciate why this happened to me, and how I can use the experience to move forward in positive way.

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