a pain in the asana

this is not my spine

Okay, so one of the biggest changes in my life in recent months: I’ve stopped practicing asana.

I have a chronic and persistent back condition. After a few years of intermittent back pain, three years ago I was diagnosed with degerative disc disease (the disc between my L5 and sacrum had degenerated and the vertebrae had started to fuse together). I’ve managed it with chiropractic treatments, strengthening exercises and a constant practice of awareness. And I continued to persist with my asana practice. After all, it was my practice, and it was essential to my physical, emotional and spiritual well-being.

Despite my efforts, my back periodically went “out” (I still don’t really know what that means) and I couldn’t pinpoint it to a specific activity. It just seemed to happen. But a couple of months ago, I did a twist wrong and my back went out. O.U.T. I was in acute pain for two weeks and it took multiple chiro visits and intensive therapy to get myself back to normal. This was the first time that I had seen a direct connection between my practice and my pain, and it freaked me out.

Then my chiropractor gave me the ultimate prescription: no asana (well, she said “no yoga,” but you know, whatever).  Since my practice inspires my teaching, I cut back on my teaching as well, only offering one super gentle community class and working with a few private students. On my own, I admit that I cheat sometimes and get a little crazy with Tadasana (Mountain Pose). I also haven’t abandoned Savasana, and anything that involves piles of blankets, blocks and bolsters.

But in the past few months, I’ve been in a place of inquiry: What is my practice? What does asana mean to me? What is yoga?

I’m still figuring it out, and I’ll be using this blog space to explore these questions. Asana has served me well over the years. It helped me cope with stress as a university student, homesickness while living overseas, quarter century crisis depression – and in the past five years, since I committed to a regular Anusara practice, I’ve become stronger and more flexible than I ever imagined. I’ve stood on my hands, dropped into backbends, balanced on my forearms.

Asana was also the first body practice that I’ve been able to commit to. I spent the first twenty years of my life disconnected from my body – as a sedentary child and teenager, I had to learn how to move my body and asana was my tool. There are definitely things I miss about regular asana classes: the ritualized space, community, friends. After a couple of months with no practice, I’m noticing changes in my body. I can’t stretch my legs as far, I’m less bendy, I feel a little less grounded. Most importantly, I’m not in pain.

I have to admit, I kind of like the idea of being a yoga blogger who doesn’t practice asana. I like the idea of being a voice for the yoga of service and engaged living, and to use this blog as a way to put forward an expansive view of what yoga can be. I’m not anti-asana, I still think that it’s awesome and powerful, and it’s an amazing entry point to all the other benefits of yoga. But my body has spoken (shrieked, actually) and it has said: no asana.

Now all of my practice is “off the mat.” Even though I actually get on my mat every morning, but what I do there is barely yoga. There are a few asana-type things, with a little physio, a little pilates, a little breathwork. I still use this space on the mat to create a contemplative space, set an intention and practice awareness. I’m hoping that it’s a temporary break-up and that asana and I can get back together one of these days. We’ll have to see what happens.

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right speech & the right teacher

  1. So sorry to hear about your pain, but I’m also so thankful that you’re sharing this powerful journey. It’s always amazing to me what happens when we really down-deep listen to what our bodies are saying.

    • I’m sorry to hear about your back issues, we can forget when we have a healthy body what it feels like not to be able to do the things we want. I remember having so much trouble in shoulder stand, and one beautiful round yogi said to me “sometimes it’s harder to NOT to do it”. In our society we focus so much on results we sometimes miss the journey. No matter what you think it is, or what it isn’t at the moment, just like you so eloquently put it, it’s all yoga baby.

  2. I was recently discussing Elizabeth Gilbert with a friend and I noted the fact that Gilbert, having made millions from a book about how yoga and meditation changed her life, no longer practices either. To which my friend replied:

    “You don’t owe anything to yoga. And yoga doesn’t owe you anything. It’s there when you need it, but if you don’t need it, then it’s okay to put it aside.”

    I was knocked over by the truth of it.

    Your experience is no less valid because you no longer practice asana (yoga, whatever!) on a regular basis. If anything, you know firsthand how powerful a tool it can be. And if you ever decide to go back to it (or if your body wants to), it will be there waiting for you.

    A regular asana practice does not a yogi make.

  3. Wow, Roseanne. That’s a lot to process. I’m so glad that you returned to blogging so that you can keep up with your practice in that modality! I didn’t know that you did Anusara (would like to hear more about that) and certainly didn’t know that you have serious back issues. I am really sorry to hear that and hope they resolve or at least become more manageable quickly.

    Not to push the asana thing, as I know that there’s many other ways to practice, but can’t help but wondering if you have consider working one-on-one with a yoga therapist?

  4. Wow…what a transformation…no asana, life is strange. Yoga is so vast n this is an opportunity to explore other aspects of yoga, karma yoga, meditation, bhakti yoga, i love how you express and share your journey n am sorry you are in pain. On a separate note, i have found great relief from my back pain and emotional pain through feldenkrais movement classes, it is an amazing practice, you cyan have personal or my teacher offers group classes. Opens me up on a very different level. Stay blesssed.

  5. I think what you are doing when you get on the mat is still yoga. As long as there’s breath synchronising with movement and that you’re doing so consciously, then that IS yoga as much as any arm balance or super-fancy pose.

    Have you read anything by Mark Whitewell? He likes to say that there’s a form of yoga for everyone, no matter what. In a training I did with him, he brought a lady into class who lives with severe pain and back problems, and a part of our training was observing how he found a gentle yoga practice that she could do and that made her feel better for doing it.

    But anyway, I’m so sorry for your back pain. That doesn’t sound like much fun! We all tend to think that as long as we keep doing our practice, then our injuries will improve but its very grounding to hear how the opposite can be true as well.

    Take care!

  6. So sorry to hear about your back condition. I recently had some minor strain to my back (painful but nothing a good massage therapist couldn’t put me on the path to recovery from) and found I’ve had to adjust my practice, as well as my attitude toward my practice.To have to actually give up the asana practice I can hardly imagine–though, certainly it creates a fascinating new inquiry (to use language I learned at Kripalu) to venture into being a yogi, and yoga blogger, without it. I wish you the best for your journey.

  7. hey everyone, thanks for the comments and support! the pain is managed and under control right now. i just have to stay active and aware!

    @adriana: “A regular asana practice does not a yogi make.” true true true! and now my question is: what does a yogi make? or, rather, what makes a yogi? 😉 what does it mean to identify as a yogi, and what is my practice…?

    @carol: yep, part of the reason i’ve returned to blogging was to connect, be part of a community and expand my practice. i’ve been missing these things since i don’t attend regular asana classes. i’m going to look into working with a yoga therapist at some point… in the meantime, i’m just taking space and exploring other modalities. and swimming!

    @ntathu: i’m intrigued by feldenkrais and would like to take classes. soon, i hope!

  8. I’m interested to read all about your future in yoga without the asana as for many, the focus tends to be the other way around.

    Sorry about your back, however. Must be extremely challenging for anyone who lives with chronic pain, particularly back pain.

  9. thank you rosie, for opening this space of when yoga gets really real!

    when i moved to jerusalem 2 years ago, i thought for sure that i would continue my yoga practice, especially after working at ascent magazine (with you!) and having yoga present in my life in so many ways. and i thought for sure that i would even find others in this Holy City to practice with. a sangha, a space, a teacher. even other forms of spiritual practice. but that has not been the case. it has not been my journey. i have had to completely redefine my yoga ~ and it has led me to the same question, “so then what is my yoga practice?”

    it didn’t take me long to realize that my practice was to let go, re-frame and re-contract my relationship with my own body, with my heart, my identity and with what i had understood yoga was for me.

    my yoga practice here, in jerusalem, has been the rigorous commitment to understanding my own heart. this has been through being a practice of relationship – my relationship with my partner, yitzhak, which is the reason i traveled here in the first place. the whole re-location to this part of the world and re-configuring my identity into being one who is in a deep partnership has turned my insides out and my outsides in. it has peeled my skin off, shown me more of who i am, and dared me to look at what i dared not look at or meet within myself ~ that even through my Hidden Language Hatha practice i managed not to meet.

    in other words, if yoga is to practice union, to become more whole, to let go of what i no longer need to keep evolving, serving, living ~ then my practice has been the practice of breaking my heart open. the practice of love. and all the letting go and surrendering that this entails.

    and now, 2 years later, i find myself on the mat. gently, in my home, i am finding my way back to a different yoga relationship with my body and soul, and with the divine. and i find myself sharing my practice with others, spontaneously, generously, humbly, and together we open our hearts wide open – ever so gently, into the yoga of friendship, of listening, of being present with our whole selves.

  10. Hey Roseanne,
    First, glad to see you back 🙂
    Second, sorry about the back pain, I had no idea!
    Third: although we know that yoga goes beyond asana, yoga here revolves mainly around them. It will be interesting to read about your exploration of yoga without asana.

    Take care of yourself!

  11. of the 196 yoga sutras of patanjali, only 3 times does he mention asana…you’ve a lot to keep you practicing!
    may you be well!

  12. Roseanne,

    I think you identify yourself as a yogi because yoga is the template you work from. You know yoga because you’ve studied and practiced yoga and you continue to study and practice. Because you have experienced the presence that comes from absorption on the body both from asana and from pain, you can speak of mindfulness.

    About 15 years ago I went to a rheumatologist for joint pain, which runs in my family. He told me I was “ligamentous” which meant my ligaments were loose and said that yoga was the worst thing I could do. I was teaching about 20 classes a week, the work was strong and inspired by dance and I was moving quite a bit as I used my body and music to create form. Anyway, I ignored him but worked toward more strength and less flexibility until one day I was in pain from that as well and had lost much mobility. So I went back to powerful and deep active stretching again, felt better and then found different pain.

    Now I find the mindful aspect of being totally absorbed in the body most interesting when I use my knowledge of anatomy and this body and these pains to figure out new ways to sit, stand, etc. I also do at least one yoga pose in the morning, not as a routine but because it feels good and tree being my favorite, it encompasses so much of the yoga practice that I feel it can be done in that one pose. Any pose that gives you joy, that brings you into your body is good and for some, it’s enough.

    I still teach, still practice, still hurt quite often, express myself in writing that may not be directly about yoga but comes from a yogi’s experience and heart and so I think of it as yoga writing when I send it to Elephant or put it on bitchinyoga. Like the title of this blog, “it’s all yoga, baby”, (when you’re coming from that place). And that’s why!

  13. thanks for sharing. i think you still do asanas, in a different way. try different ones and you will find the ones that will “fit” you. the search is worth the journey. I am having the same issues, can still practice the “general asanas.” but it scared me a bit to read yr story. yoga saved me from being in pain all the time and your article now makes me think what i would do if i couldn’t practice anymore. Ostheopathy actually put me back in the yoga track 10yrs ago. The chiropracter was not addressing the origin, but just fixing me up for a couple of weeks. you must get tons of advise, so sorry for this extra one. although acceptance is one of the most difficult but most rewarding behaviours, acceptance without change is leaving you empty. good luck.

  14. sorry about your back pain, R…I have also lived with chronic back pain for a few years, which I attribute to a variety of things (not yoga tho!) My pain was excrutiating where the only thing I could do was roll out of bed onto the floor, crawl to a wall, and help myself up to stand up. My back pain was not alleviated via an asana practice but via meditation, but that’s a whole ‘nother story.

    so you are right, yoga is definitely NOT all about the asana. the Indian yogis I have met in India do little asana, but mostly pranayama and meditation.

    however, stopping or cutting back on asana because of an injury is vastly different from someone saying that they don’t “need” to practice asana because they sit and watch their breath for a few minutes a day or read yoga philosophy books. if all you did was sit in a meditative posture, did pranayama, and meditated, THAT’S a yoga practice — as well as living the yamas and niyamas, i.e., taking it off the mat.

    while I echo was svasti says about Mark Whitwell says about asana, asana DOES have a purpose in the grand scheme of yoga.

  15. oooh, more great comments! again, thanks for the support y’all!

    @valerie: don’t let my experience scare you! it sounds like you’ve figured out what works for you. while yoga doesn’t help my pain, if it’s helping yours then consider yourself lucky! i also saw osteopaths, but it wasn’t until i found my chiropractor (and got x-rays) that i was able to understand the source of my pain. different people need different practices and modalities, and luckily there is something for everyone.

    @linda-sama: i hear what you’re saying about the purpose of asana, and people who say they don’t “need” asana. i also can’t stand the argument that asana isn’t spiritual or isn’t “real” yoga.

  16. What is your practice? What does asana mean to you? What is yoga? Great questions, Roseanne! And ones that need to be asked by everyone! I think the personal crisis you are going through expresses the collective crisis that yoga is in and so it is wonderful that you are sharing it.

    There is something missing in contemporary yoga. I am certain of this. We feel it, whether through physical pain in our bodies or through a spiritual longing that no number of classes can satisfy.

    Eight years ago, my response to severe and unrelenting pain in my lumber spine and sacrum (with “moderate” degeneration between L4 &5) was to stop practicing as well. I realized then that what I had been doing and teaching was destructive.

    It was with Mark Whitwell’s help that I learned how to really practice, connecting to the healing force of life and letting it move me. I was out of pain in a couple of weeks and into a revolution that continues to unfold. What motivates me to practice, or doesn’t, and how I understand what I’m doing changes…as I gain some clarity, lose it, grow older, love better…more and more though, I feel that what I am doing is a totally tangible and practical way to let love be something that I am rather than something I want.

    I wish you well, Roseanne! And look forward to reading more.

  17. haha, there is definitely a mark whitwell subtext throughout this comment thread! i’ve actually never had the pleasure of studying with him. i’ve edited his writing, talked to him at conferences and read his books, but have never even taken a class with him. clearly, i should!

  18. The double whammy of you and Carol all in one week, will finally get this lazy asana off the couch and back on the key board. I love the new angle–so appropriate for direction we seem headed in our discussions and so appropriate to you. Yoga of service and engaged living! Awesome!

  19. yayyyyy brenda! 🙂

  20. thanks so much for writing this, roseanne! having gone through almost the exact same scenario myself in this past year, it’s so great to be inspired by the shift in perspective that you’ve described and your commitment to continually defining what yoga means to YOU!

    whereas i have often defaulted to a more cynical and pessimistic view through my own experience of injury, you bring so much hope and compassion for yourself! and that’s just awesome!!

  21. There are types of yoga that don’t use asana, or even physical effort. I learned a personal family style from my comparative religion professor that he only called “men’s yoga” that is primarily designed to build strength and stamina for physical labor, and loosens the muscles and connective tissue through heat.

    You might also try scholar’s style Chi Kung, but probably can’t tell a good from a bad teacher, and there are way more bad teachers out there than good. There are non-competitive, non-sparring, non contact Kung Fu programs that you will like. If you can find a Hung Gar teacher, ask him (possibly her, these days) to show you Goun Gee Kuen; it is probably the most common strengthening/healing program. It would be worth your while to pay for private lessons, but you could also try trading your breathing knowledge with him. That would probably be very worth while to him. Some other Five Families styles will also teach it. If you are in an area where you can find a teacher, explain your needs, or have him read your blog.

    You could also ask a good Chinese martial arts instructor for a recommendation for a really good Tai Chi teacher, and learn Tai Chi’s Chi Kung. Do not bother with anyone who wants to teach only the form and “will show you the secrets later;” he doesn’t really know them. There are even more bad Tai Chi teachers who sincerely think they know what they are doing. Don’t bother with Korean or Japanese martial arts, maybe an Okinawan over the age of 50 who is still practicing. I think there is a school in Montreal that does Indonesian Silat, or at least hosts my teacher occasionally, you might start there. There is a great body of healing that goes with Kung Fu, but few that know any of it. You will almost certainly want to do private lessons, as this is way out of the mainstream. Look around for a Traditional Chinese Medicine practitioner, he/she will probably be able to send you to a good teacher.

    I have been practising and teaching martial arts and yoga since 1968, and owned a chain of martial art schools for 25 years, and am also a Recreation Therapist. You can google some of these terms to start. There is a great deal of bs and chest thumping in martial arts, but there are some amazing things to learn about healing. Good luck. Back problems usually resolve themselves within a few months.

  22. this is such a great post roseanne! i am so amazed at how *surprising* it seems to be for so many yogis to find out about your back pain. for me this kind of story is more common than we might think. i have had my own similar story with physical pain and practicing/not practicing asana, as well as a serious back issue that changed the course of my life.

    i think what the really beautiful part is, is that this injury for me was a life shift, a gift that turned the course of my life in such a huge way, where i began to learn about my body and know myself more initmately than i had up until that point. my entire relationship with my body and how i move shifted. i can see that this is happening for you too and i hope it just continues and continues because the empowerment that comes with knowing yourself really really well from physical pain, even chronic pain. this whole process is big time yoga, to me in the truest sense.

    thanks so much!

  23. what I find hilariously ironic is that you have been asked to stop practicing unsubstantiated bullshit by a practitioner of equally unsubstantiated bullshit. at this rate, the folks working to promote evidence-based medicine won’t have any debunking left to do.

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