Opening as Injury

I have been following babycrowyoga’s accounts of dealing with her hamstring injury with a certain personal interest, as I am faced with the same sort of injury myself.

Like many long-term Ashtangis I am susceptible to “Yoga Butt“. The first occasion of injury was in August 2000–roughly twenty months into my practice–in parighāsana of Second Series: part of upper right hamstring separated from my sit bones with an electric, almost-audible “pop”. It took nearly three years to recover.

The new injury–to the same leg but probably in a new location–is about fourteen months old. I followed a friend to a Cross Fit workout, tried out the dead lifts and woke up the next morning knowing that something had gone very, very wrong. I’ve taken various approaches to the problem–even the radical step of laying off practice entirely for one excruciating month–but there have been no significant signs of improvement. Not yet anyway. I’m no yoga therapist, but when it comes to Ashtanga I can be a very patient person: I’ll just keep working around the edges of the injury. Sooner or later I’ll find the right angle into it. And yet I also know that won’t be the end of it: even in the long periods when I was blissfully free of pain I could tell, by the tentative character of my everyday movements, that many years of practice had lengthened and weakened the connective tissue of my hamstrings. It will be interesting to see what the future has in store.

But along the way I have been thinking about injury. I’m glad that in the last few years Ashtangis–and yoga folks in general–have begun to acknowledge that yoga is not inherently a safe practice, that there is no special magic about yoga that lifts it above other forms of intense physical activity in such a way any occurrence of injury is to be ascribed solely to carelessness or impatience on the part of the practitioner.

It’s also a great relief that one does not often hear an Ashtanga injury referred to anymore as an “opening.” That term was a dreadful cop-out, on a physical level at any rate: there never was any hard evidence that once you had gotten over the pain you would then be able to move deeper into the posture. There is of course an option to spiritualize the “injury as opening” identification: to regard the injury as an opportunity to build character, to play with various metaphors–e.g., to construe backing off in a posture as an invitation to exercise samtoṣa in other areas of one’s life or to explore the dimensions of ahimsa that most powerfully benefit all beings. But spiritualization of injury has never done much for me: for all of the character-building that might have accompanied my dealing with injury I know that I’d trade it all in a flash for relief from the discomfort and hassle.

So “injury as opening” was a failure, both as physical diagnosis and as spiritual metaphor. But I wonder if we might not learn something by turning it around, and thinking of opening as injury.

By “opening” I mean here the little realizations that accompany practice. No great crashing final experience being claimed here–as far I know I have not settled the Great Matter–just the little things that come along in the practice or that come alongside the practice, especially in the last seven years or so, as I managed, through the support of a small Zen community in the mountains an hour east of me, to settle somewhat into regular and extended meditation. Moments when you look up at the buds on a dogwood or down at the crimson leaves under your feet and realize that there has been some release in you, some wordless resolution. Other moments when a vastness opens inside of you, as if some greater Self sees the world through your eyes. Or other moments when you open up into a vastness. Moments that are as if there is no God, and every being is so electrically and utterly alive that it is almost leaping to fill the void left by the Divine Absence, but no–never a God so never a void to fill, just the leaping as innocent activity. Still other long, long moments when it is as if you rest in an absolute Love that embraces all of us. And always has. And always will.

Not big openings. Just little ones. Ordinary openings, you eventually realize, and you stop telling your teacher about them. But even a fraction of one of those moments would suffice to remove every trace of the notion that “you” live a life somehow “owes” you something. And so ordinary are these moments that you realize that others around you are having them all the time. And the gratitude that arises from that realization: what will you do with it?

Ashtangis talk a lot–and write and blog and vlog a lot–about postures: how to get into them, when is one going to “be given” the next one, etc., etc. Some might say that that this is because the practice is crudely physical. But I am beginning to think that we talk so much about asana and about physical openings because our inner openings are like an injury or wound–something we don’t want to touch directly.

But just as with an injured hamstring the best therapy is not to cease practice entirely but rather to practice “around” the injured area, so perhaps with regard to openings we should, instead of maintaining complete silence, look for ways to talk around the experience–as artists and poets have learned to do, I think. Not to brag–our little openings are, after all, quite ordinary and are not really “accomplishments” at all–but simply as a matter of mutual encouragement and reminder.

7 thoughts on “Opening as Injury

    1. homerhanumat

      You know, I saw that that picture (I too follow Kino on Instagram) and was thinking the same thing. Maybe it’s a sign of how LITTLE character-development I have been through that I would gladly trade further for character-development-through-injury for an injury-free life of low character! 🙂

      1. k8macdo

        I suppose I feel that way too… It’s not fun sustaining an injury, but once it’s happened… where do you go with it? At least if it becomes a life-lesson, something helpful has come of it. If not… well… it’s just a pain in the butt!

  1. Susan Sullivan

    I’m also glad that there is no longer as much talk about injury as an “opening.” I believe one reason for that is that there is a whole generation of aging ashtangis out there, like me, who have faced injury as a reality. Pain in the joints or ligaments is nothing to dismiss lightly. The senior western teachers, like Tim Miller, all tell students to be gentle with themselves as they age.

    1. homerhanumat

      Yup, now there are too many witnesses. And most of them aren’t stupid like me, (practicing alone and giving himself all those postures). They worked slowly and carefully under the guidance of sensible teachers and still got hurt.

      But I have friends who do a lot of bicycling on our wonderful country roads. A lovely activity to be sure, and one cannot help joining them from time, but every so often one of my friends gets hits by a car. Eventually someone will be killed. Even if it were only a matter of exercise, I’d rather work through Yoga Butt than try to work through being run over.

  2. babycrow

    Thanks Homer. Of course I read this with interest! Your take on injury is really interesting, and clearly you’ve dealt with more, and longer, than I have. You’ll have noticed that I’ve been working hard on the character building aspects of my injury. I simply feel that’s the best way of making some good come out of what has been a pretty trying experience. I would be pushing it if I said it was worth it the pain, fear, and confusion — but truly I have learned more about yoga and about myself in the last few months than I would have otherwise. My yoga is much uglier to look at, but it’s a more honest practice because of it. And yes (because of that?) I’m starting to experience ‘openings’ in my practice now in a way that I couldn’t have expected. That said I hope my (and your) hamstring works itself out soon…


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