Existential questions

Why do you try to touch your feet to your heels in a backbend, my orthopoedic surgeon asked me.

Why do you need to push your thoracic spine into a bend when its natural form is kyphotic (curved out, not arched in)?

Why indeed?

I was asking him what I should do about my Stage I osteo-arthritic wrists, when they hurt in full wheel. His answer: don’t do it when it hurts. Joints experience degeneration over time, he explained. Do you want to exacerbate it?

Hmmmm. Well, I explained, most of my teachers offer suggestions for me to deepen my backbend to get the weight off my wrists.

That was when he pulled out the big ammo: WHY?


Why do I do this?

I do yoga to stay fit. Period. I wanted to do all of Primary without help. Check. I wanted to do the beginning of Second in order to get my backbends back after years of Primary-related neglect. Check. The rest? Hell if I know.

I explained to him that the teachers pull students into poses they can’t quite do on their own. I explained that the teachers get us deeper than we otherwise might. I told him of suggestions by teacher-level cybershala students to “take the leg behind the head and PULL DOWN WITH ALL YOUR MIGHT”.



Sure, some yogis are doing the crazy poses well into their 60’s and beyond. But they may well be the exception, and not the rule.

Maybe at age 43, with signs of impending arthritis in my joints and a very real limitation in my backbending ability in the form of scarring and skin-tightness due to my double mastectomy, I should just ENJOY where I am in the practice and stop striving to improve?

Maybe it is time to just say no to any form of being muscled into any pose? Like, just saying no to having my fingers pulled to my toes in Kapotasana? Because there is this other possibility that I don’t seem to have ever considered, and that is that over time, some poses get easier and call for a deepening (example: paschimotanasana), but that deepening could happen naturally, as opposed to the result of a teacher yanking limbs, however artfully. That deepening could be discovered by the student finding her own hands reaching her own toes.

I am shocked by my receptivity to being essentially called a fool for buying into this manhandling in the name of “going deeper”. Maybe it made sense some years ago when I was getting started, when my goal was clear: finish Primary because it is supposedly therapeutic as a gestalt, and indeed I believe it has been. But now, what IS my agenda? I don’t have one really other than “get my feet to my toes in Kapo”?

But WHY? Kapo is not necessary for “yoga chikitsa” (yoga therapy – putting the body right). Kapo is just, well, it would be an ego boost for me. But that is flawed thinking.

As for Legs Behind Head poses, those will come or not if my body reaches for them. I no longer will cajole them into existence. If getting deeper in Eka Pada Sirsasana suddenly calls for me to have my leg lying softly across the backs of my shoulders, then I’ll know. But until then…WHY? Why push it?

I KNEW this was happening. First I gave up Torah. Then “God”. Now Ashtanga.

I want yoga to enhance my life, not to take over my life.

So there you have it. Today, I took my innaugural five-mile run down the main road between Bedford and Greenwich, in the drizzling rain, and it was lovely. No worries about my hips or hammies going tight, which is ludicrous because:

WHY? Why would it matter? Would I lose my job with Cirque du Soleil? Oh. Wait. I don’t bend for a living. And I don’t want to live to bend. I just want to bend, and live and age gracefully, not fighting aging as an enemy.

Later tonight, I’ll watch some boob tube and do some stretches to stay supple. Reasonable goal.



15 Responses to Existential questions

  1. Anonymous says:

    I know the supplements I am taking keep arthritis at bay and keep me bendy at age 52:) Maybe there's a place for you to look and you will be doing Ashtanga when you are 80!

    MSM very important, greens of some kind also very important and also some kind of EFAs.

    Just how I handle things so when I am asked by my doctor too why I put my leg behind my head or backbend, etc…
    why? because I can and I like it and it feels good :)And my favorite thing to say is…we are only as young as our spines are flexible!

  2. hyla says:

    …why give up torah?

    …no shuls/ hebrew schools in westchester?

  3. Yoga Chickie says:

    i take those supps and do the greens…asparagus, arugula, artichke, avocado (why all a?). but the wrists feel it and the fingers have nodules.

    i don't have any urge to argue the point with my doc, and i would feel very stupid telling a skelatal specialist that spine flexibility equals health – would be like me telling my husband about real estate finance.

    i think that all says something about my own inclination to no longer buy into the party lines…

  4. Yoga Chickie says:

    Hyla – not at all! My elder son is getting bar mitzvahed in 2010. We are members of a reform temple here.

    However, when we began studying the Torah a bit to keep up with Bri's studies, I found myself somewhat horrified by the snuff-fest that is the Torah, and gradually I became equally horrified by the notion of a God who would create and then destroy his creations over and over. I found my self trying to construct a form of religion for myself that could accept God as non-benevolent force, but what I found instead was that everything was pointing to there being no God at all…

    That's it in a nutshell. I am still supporting Brian's being bar mitzvahed because it is up to him to make his own decision about religion and god. No one ever demanded that I believe one way or another, and I certainly wouldnt want to do that to my sons. So, basically, I am merely asking them questions that help them question what they are told to believe. And they give amazingly thoughtful answers. Not the answers I would give. But intelligent answers just the same. I say keeping the communication open will allow them to choose to believe whatever helps get them through the day.

  5. C.K. says:

    For the past month my friend Bindi and I have been doing our "old lady" practice every Monday morning, in which we fumble our way through primary half primary or intermediate without stressing our bodies. There's a way to do it without making things worse, and it's wonderful.

  6. Kaivalya says:

    Funny, I recently commented elsewhere that the one thing that could draw me into a yoga shala (I do home practice) would be the sense of community. But the thing that keeps me away? The fear of being muscled into a pose my body isn't ready for and getting hurt. Over the years, my body has very naturally 'found' poses and when it happens it's magical and very rewarding. And it feels absolutely right.

    I think each practitioner has a different answer to the 'why?' question. But I'm frankly amazed that a medical doctor would split hairs over the Astanga thing or question it overall. On the whole, Astangis are slim, strong and healthy, with better diets than most. Yoga is often recommended to arthritis sufferers in order to maintain/increase mobility. And weight bearing exercise prevents osteoporosis.

    All of this to say, as long as you're honouring the limitations of your body, whatever they happen to be, carry on!

  7. DebPC says:

    You say you do yoga to be fit. But isn't fitness honoring your body, its type– which comes with both strenghts and limitations. Yes, some people are bendy forever. I ran a 10 mile race last weekend in which a 70 year old lady beat me– and hundreds of other people– handily. Perhaps more salient to this conversation is the fact that she also beat everyone else in her age group by about 20 minutes.

    Ego in yoga. I can do handstand, forearm stand, headstand, crow, side crow etc. But I can't do a split and I dont think I ever will be able to, yet I watched a guy the other day who can't do half the stuff I can straddle his legs completely out to the side and plop his chest down on the ground. Me, never. And that's okay. But that's me. I also never had the ambition to do all of primary or anything else ashtanga goal oriented. So maybe I can't relate.

    And as for you giving up Torah, I find that very sad. I read your explanation to Hyla but I still feel sad. The Torah is a bunch of stories, just like the Ramayana (you want violence!)Somehow not accepting a higher power seems to deny beauty in the world. Do flowers just bloom because they can? I don't know. Enough of my blabbering.

  8. hyla says:

    mazel tov on upcoming bar mitzvah…

    i know traditional judaism is quite patriarchal…

    been struggling with that myself forever, as have my daughters…

    but let's not throw out the baby with the bathwater…

  9. Yoga Chickie says:

    kaivalya – i think my doc was addressing my seeming need to take things to the extreme. i dont think he was dissing yoga at all…just the way that i have been approaching it. no one can deny that yogis, and ashtangi's in particular, are a fit group as a whole. but the linear structure of ashtanga has led some – like me – to aggressively go for poses, get muscled and yanked into them, for the sake of being given the "right" to practice the next pose. seeing as i am no longer withholding poses from myself, it makes zero sense for me to aggressively go for any pose now…and i kind of love that!

    deb – ego, yes sometimes, just like the achievement of running a 26.2 mile race. i think it's fine to let the ego drive us toward achievement as long as we dont get self-destructive…and we all know when we're doing that and what that means for each of us.

    as for judaism, i 100 percent still identify with being jewish. and i ADORE some of the stories in the torah, just as much as i adore some greek and roman mythology and the ramayana. passover will always be a cherished holiday for me. and i am proud of my heritage and my ancestors.

    but the torah, like greek and roman mythology and the ramayana, strikes me not as truth, but as an explanation for the unexplainable, made up by powerless but creative humankind. and more importantly, i don't like the implication inherent in the torah, that god kills those of whom he doesn't approve.

    that would mean that the jews are to blame for the holocaust. that would mean that i was to blame for getting cancer, that my uncle was to blame for dying of cancer.

    i don't wish to blame god or the victims of tragedy. i prefer to see such things as random occurences.

    I celebrate the beauty of the earth every single day and see it as a miracle, every flower in my garden, every time one of my kids says something like, "i like my pillow because it smells like my head". but i can't thank god for those things because then i would have to blame god for the bad things. so, i have simply taken god out of the equation.

    i hope you're not offended, although i sense that you might be. it is a very personal decision for me, based on personal experience and revelations of my own. my parents don;t agree with me, nor does my husband. that's fine by me. we all have the right to our beliefs. and basically, it's all about whatever gets you through your day…

  10. Anonymous says:

    I ask myself questions like this all the time. Guess for me, it always comes back to what Dave Swenson says–I do the practice because on days I do it, my day seems to go better.

    That said, I think I get in trouble when the part of me that does Ashtanga for a simple reason like that tends to battle with the part of me that wants to be able to do poses–that part of me that wants to be able to do kapotasana at age 44. The part of me that gets pleasure out of the idea that I can do a pose that most people at 44 can't even dream of. ARGH.

    I sure wish I were better than that–and a part of me is. But that part is probably always with most of us. It's biology I think.


  11. DebPC says:

    No, not at all offended. Intrigued, perhaps.

  12. Eco Yogini says:

    Yoga Chickie;
    I found you through Elephant Beans today- what an intriguing post 🙂

    I started out gung ho for Ashtanga, then realized that it would be a practice in failure. My body is not bendy- and never will be. After two years of practice I was able to touch my toes… yoga postures were designed for young, male pre-pubescent bodies. And if there is anything I've learned being a woman in North America- there is no 'ideal' body type and I am done 'listening' to what others tell me is 'ideal'.
    Why? I practice yoga because it feels good, helps me ground and connect with my spiritual self- Goddessian.
    re: 'giving up' god, from your explanations it doesn't sound like this is a 'sad' or disappointing aspect of you life, just a change. So perhaps you didn't 'give him up' but 'changed. as we all do as we grow and experience.
    it takes great courage and personal conviction to go in a different direction than your family and friends: It awes me to read your explanations and sense Grace, wisdom and a strong sense of Self. I am still struggling with admitting to family that no- I am no longer 'catholic-christian' but 'pagan-Goddessian'.

    Thank you for your beautiful inspiration 🙂

    Many Blessings on your journey- sounds like you are on the right track!

  13. hyla says:

    …the torah need not be taken literally…it can be understood on many different levels, especially through its commentaries…

    i believe it was einstein who said
    'g-d is not malicious, just subtle"

    (or something to that effect)

  14. Anonymous says:

    Eco yogini is an actual insane person due to the guitar growing out of her torso.

  15. Anonymous says:

    I am 55.  Practicing ashtanga for 1 year.  No arthritis, but grappling with an injury right now–probably exacerbated by a teacher. Before injury I could really do a lot–not everything in primary but a whole lot. And I like doing everything I can.  Things no longer look like linear progressions to me and I'm not interested in having poses withheld.

    Some teachers guide, and I don't want guidance that turns into serious pushing.  I practice at home a lot, but I love practicing in a room of friends.

    Yes, when I practice my day goes better.  But also, when I lose the practice for even a couple of days, I am less honest with myself, less creative, less optimistic., and less constructive in my relationships.  I don't know why.  But there you go.  Most of my contemporaries don't look or (I imagine) feel like me, and my yoga helps keep some health issues at bay.

    My jewishness is more about my community now than about truth, or revelation.  It's about derech eretz–doing the right thing, in a community of people (friends) who are practicing their yoga of mutual respect, decency, ethical behavior and kindness.  OK, sometimes they fall down, or can't reach their toes, but they're trying.  I like practicing with them.

    The patriarchs saw through a lens of violence.  But their visionis gave rise to a system of laws that in most ways convey respect for humanity and human dignity, respect for learning, love and family. I fail a lot.  I'm anti-fundamentalist, as I've mentioned in an email to you.  But I like practicing.  Seems like you do too.OK, as our bodies age, the yoga will teach us new lessons about our limits.  What a pleasure to be able to learn about them while savoring our abilities.  Nice blend.  Enjoy your sons. A bar mitzvah can be a moment of tremendous sweetness as they hover between childhood and adulthood. (Make an audio recording of those precious unchanged voices.) And it's wonderful to have a good reason to gather family together to share happiness.  The warmth stays with you. Hopefully, it stays with the young men too.Traveling yogini

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