This post is dedicated to H.B., in gratitude.
It’s calling me again. Slipping unbidden into the stream, insidious temptation like a meth-snorting dancer ex-girlfriend texting me just as I’m leaving the bar alone at 1 A.M.: “u up?” Like I know there’s nothing but trouble there, but what chance do I have, really? Might as well just give up the game and cave. Take the palaver as read and get where we’re going.
It’s been nigh on a year. I finally tapped out when the chain of spasms running up the right side of my spine reached the size and density of a golf-ball mala, and holding my daughter in my right arm precipitated a solo of sotto-voce whimpering so shrill only dogs could hear it. Blockage in the sun channel, right? Good try, Geshe. I’d been supporting my eight-minute headstands with the pads of my index fingers, trying to catch up with the last 20-something, 140-pound Ashtangi to post a series of unsupported headstand pics on bloody Facebook.
The Ashtangi had excuses. As for me, I was staring down the barrel at my 45th birthday and rolling at 205 pounds. Irredeemable asshole, I.
Ever look at a human spine? Like, a really good, critical look at the chain of vertebrae? Even a good sketch will do, something by Amy Matthews or somebody clever like that. Here’s a somewhat pedestrian example. Down near the bottom in the lumbar region, they’re a pretty respectable chunk of collagen and calcium and whatever, a solid little puck of good solid tissue, vaguely reminiscent of an Austin Healy 3000 motor mount, but with Stegosaurus plates coming out the back. A trustworthy bit of kit, designed and built to hump horrific aggregate compressive forces on long persistence hunts across the Pleistocene savannah.
But the little scamps taper, don’t they? One of nature’s go-to themes, that: like a tree or a volcano or a wealth-demographic chart, each level is a little smaller than the one below it, until we’re up into the cervical, and we’ve got these dainty little spun-glass confections built for fine, sensitive control rather than grunt. Evolution cottoned on to which end goes down.
Evolution didn’t count on the pernicious coalescence of yogasana and Instagram.
“The king of poses”, B.K.S Iyengar told us, and even in my thoughts I contradict Himself with cowering trepidation. But then, he also fingered Sai Baba as a paragon of holy virtue, so maybe he had it in him to step on his philosophic cock now and then. And nobody in his generation or before, not Jois, not Krishnamacharya, not no-bo-dy, had access to the volume and quality of peer-reviewed, statistics-grounded scientific literature that we have available now at the cost of a few keystrokes.
And now I’m reading brains the caliber of Jules Mitchell and Jill Miller, counselling me to slow down and weigh the pros and cons before I plant Sahasrara Chakra on the rubber and jackknife up in the hope of vaguely-expressed payoffs. Horror stories of bone spurs and degenerated discs are piling up, and the voices counselling caution speak with reasoned analysis and specific, detailed reference to human anatomy, not universally recognized virtues in the world of guru-shishya parampara.
So I should play it smart, right? Who needs it? Why take unnecessary chances in the Land of Diminished Returns? Just don’t do headstand. It’s not like I run out of things to do in any given practice. There’s plenty to work on without jacking a couple of hundred pounds up on my, big, dumb, forward-jutting neck and noggin for fifty slow breaths of dare-devil wobble action. I’ll just leave it out. Right?
Yyyyyyyeah no. Me and headstand are gonna take another shot. See if we can’t make it work, you know? We’ll communicate better this time, me and headstand. We’ve got a lot of history. Pity to throw it all away. Et cetera.
I hurt myself. I hurt myself on the mat, I hurt myself in the gym. I hurt myself kicking heavybags and moving boxes and walking into cupboard doors. That’s my life, and I don’t mind it all that much. Pain is a sign you’re still alive, pain is weakness leaving the body; pick a macho shithead aphorism and I’ll endorse it. Injury is attendant on the things I do, and in the way I do things. I’ll act to manage the frequency of occurrence, but to live as I like, and to push as I must, injury is less an “if” than a “when”. I accept it.
This is not an approach I proselytize.
Any injury is traumatic for many of us, and many of us are slow to heal. Different activities have different gravities of risk for different people, and some risks are grave. Some of us suffer permanent, irreparable damage in the ostensibly healing practice of yoga. We’re all of us invested to consider any activity we undertake, to balance the risks and the rewards and make a [hopefully] informed decision to go or no go. I’m pretty robust, and I have decades of rough-and-tumble experience in general oafery to draw on when I decide what I’m willing to risk with my body. I know a tweak when I feel it, and can mitigate my losses by bailing fast and slinking home to my gel-pack and Tiger Balm.
Not everyone has that luxury. Many of us are new to physical exercise, and many of us don’t hear what our bodies say until our bodies are shrieking in agony. Many of us, even experienced operators, don’t know we’re in trouble until that trouble is very serious indeed, because pain is a lagging indicator, perhaps especially in repetitive exercise paradigms. We’re damned lucky to have the Mitchells and the Millers to flag the dangerous bits for us. I wish that all yoga teachers were as knowledgeable and as willing to give it to us straight before we throw down on ego-gratifying stunts like the King of Poses.
Which me and my ego are looking forward to revisiting.
I’ll drop you a line from emerg.
It’s coming up on a year since I wrote this, and then misplaced it in the four-drive labyrinth of the computer I’m typing on. I can report a couple of noteworthy developments: first, I spent a bunch of time in the jungle outside Rishikesh, and regularly exchanged namastes with 100 pound ladies packing what appeared to be similar weights of firewood or vegetables or whatever on their heads down jagged mountain paths. Hmmm.
Second, I haven’t hurt myself. Doing headstand. A series of more than four agreements with myself have, I think, contributed. I enumerate:
- No kicking or hopping. I enter with control or not at all.
- I tuck my chin a little to lengthen the back of my neck, engage the muscles there, and straighten the cervical curve a little. Yes, I know, it’s there for a reason. But I refer you back to my point about the spine being designed for one particular end to go up. I’m working now with the hypothesis that a straighter line of force down through those small cervical vertebrae is safer. And so far, so fucking good.
- I apply a touch of Uddiyana Bandha, both for the stability gain in activating the midsection core, and to [theoretically] straighten the lumbar curve a smidge, see point 2 above.
- I keep squeezing my elbows and upper arms in to power up my shoulders so I can take weight off my head if anything feels a little twitchy
- If I’m not sure if I’m lined up well, I say something. I’ll claim that I recite a line of
Gayatri, and none of you will ever know different. Anyways, if it sounds weird, I come out and set up again.
- I squeeze centerline with my legs, and rotate them out a little so my heels smooch. This last is to counteract my egregious anterior pelvic tilt and thus alleviate its balance-buggering effect,
- I think everything up. Shoulder blades towards tailbone, tailbone towards sky, backs of legs lengthened up, press up through the mounds of the big toes, lengthening inner legs. Up, up, up.
- I keep active wrists and forearms. Inner wrists vertical, pressing wrists, forearms and the blades of my hands down. Build from the ground up, I harangue my students ad nauseum.
- No fucking tripod. Maybe someday. Not today.
And please, if you have a story or complaint or philosophy or semi-coherent rambling on yoga injury, in or out of headstand, share it below. This issue continues to bug me.