September 5, 2014

What Knee Pain Taught Me about My Ashtanga Practice.


In early August my knees were aching.

They had been since April of this year—about three months into a regular Mysore-style Ashtanga practice, two or three times a week. (I also do a regular home practice of vinyasa, prana-led asana (slow and steady), meditation and pranayama.)

Some facts:

1. I’ve been able to do Half Lotus for some years now, including Standing Bound Half Lotus (without the forward fold).

2. I have never had any prior knee issues or pain. Although my grandmother (maternal side) and mother have both had knee reconstructions.

In April, when this knee pain kicked in (ironically directly after a Yin practice with long holds in Half Pigeon), my inclination was to regard it as ‘just part of the process’.

I was also concerned that poor alignment in any of the Half Lotus postures could be aggravating my knee. I started paying even more attention to how I was folding my knee, the alignment of my hip and how I was folding forward.

My teacher, Peter Sanson, was also often reminded me to stop wrenching myself into place—which surprised me. I didn’t think I was doing that at all, but still, he would tell me;

Gently, Gently.

During my Ashtanga practice, there wasn’t any pain as such, it was just that my body didn’t seem to want to take the same shapes anymore. I went from binding with ease and folding forward into Standing Bound Half Lotus to not being able to bind, then to not being able to fold forward and finally to not being able to even bring my knee into Half Lotus.

The posture completely slipped away from me. What was I doing wrong?

Usually I can sit in Half Lotus for 30 minute plus meditations but found I couldn’t even sit cross-legged and had to prop myself up for any kind of seated meditation.

Peter had left for seven weeks right about the time I realised I needed to talk to him about what was going on.

In his absence, struggling more and more with stiffness, I asked one of his assistant teachers about my knee pain. The answer?

“That happens sometimes.”

At the time, I took that as a good enough answer – I attributed my knee pain experience to blocked prana and kept working as mindfully as I could.

Yet it still niggled at me. I was worried – I love my knees and I didn’t trust the process enough to just keeping working through pain. Plus I was closely following Matthew Remski’s project What Are We Actually Doing in Asana and this was making me question everything about my asana practice deeply. Especially any pain that was arising.

Finally, I discovered something that stopped the pain in it’s tracks. I didn’t do any Ashtanga for about two or so weeks as I was away in Bali on retreat in June. While I was still practicing yoga, there weren’t all the half-bound Lotus movements and my knees felt almost back to normal.

Almost – but not. While I could sit cross-legged for meditation again, sitting in half Lotus wasn’t an option anymore.

Taking a break from Ashtanga felt good but I also missed the practice and the teaching. Peter usually corrected my alignment in Standing Bound Half Lotus – shifting the placement of my hip. It felt much better when he did that, but for whatever reason, I could never grasp the felt sensation of where he was putting me.

That he made this adjustment suggested my knee pain was coming from bad alignment.

In July, I moved down to Wellington and started Mysore at Te Aro Ashtanga with Mike Berghan. Again, I had a two week break from Ashtanga in the move, which helped my knees. Starting back in, I hit the wall at Standing Bound Half Lotus. It had become my nemesis as I attempted to find a way to safely work with the posture without skipping it entirely.

Back when I was getting the bind and folding forward I was feeling all kinds of releases through my hip, lumber and thoracic spine. It felt like medicine for my body and I was revelling in it.

Now I couldn’t even approach it. This was difficult—I wanted to be where I had been in the pose and yet knew I must accept where I was.

During my first session with Mike he sat with me on Seated Bound Half Lotus and gently showed me how to roll on to the outside of my hip. I finally realised what I’d been doing wrong with the alignment of my hip through all the Lotus postures.

I’d been missing the scoop down and under and toward the other leg of the hip, which results in bringing the bent knee toward the other leg, rather than out on a 45 degree angle.

This care and attention from Mike helped enormously. Now I knew how to work with the hip better. Likely that movement wasn’t even available to me six months ago because of the extraordinary tightness of my lumber spine and pelvis.

Unfortunately, after four Ashtanga session in two weeks, my knees were again stiff.

Not painful as such—but stiff.

I felt like crying in Standing Half Bound Lotus because I couldn’t even figure out how to approach it. Even all the hip tucking in the world and gentleness with my ankle and knee didn’t change the fact that it felt like I was going to break my knees by bringing my foot anywhere near my groin.

And I didn’t want to break my knees

I wasn’t interested in pushing through the pain, or getting to some fabled place that could take years.

I’m on the mat to love myself and my body as it is.

So I gave up. I flexed my ankle so I could be sure that the knee was as protected as possible, and allowed that ankle to sit down just above my knee. Forget heel to groin.

This made binding impossible and the hip tuck almost impossible too. But my knee felt safe. From this position, it was impossible for me to fold forward and get my hands on the ground, so I didn’t. I tiled forward, engaging my core and rested my hands lightly on my thighs for some support.

Seated Half Bound Lotus has been slightly easier over the past few months. Sure, I was binding and folding forward with ease, and now I don’t, but I could still get into my knee the Lotus at least. But this had gone too.

Maybe it was because my head was full of thoughts about my knees – I was worried. Why? I’ll say it again:

I don’t trust the process. I don’t trust what we’re actually doing in asana because I’ve read of too may injuries even in experienced practitioners who are mindful in their approach.

I was afraid.

Maybe this was blocking me. Maybe this was making me stiff. Maybe. Or maybe I was applying discernment to my process.

At Seated Half Bound Lotus I made a decisions to ‘fuck the process and do whatever it took to look after my knees’. As I made that decision, I felt hot tears well up inside me. Ah…I know what these particular tears are. They’re shame.

This feeling, it’s shame.

I felt ashamed that I couldn’t do the practice, I felt ashamed that my body is not good enough – that I’m not good enough.

There was a sense that because I can’t do this, I won’t attain the Golden Fleece as such… that I won’t be loved.

I felt all of this rise and I could see into the heart of it and I allowed it to be as I continued on in the practice, slow and mindful and ever protective of my knees.

At Marichyasana B I paused and considered. This posture has been attainable for me the past six months, but I didn’t want to force my knee into it. Instead, I took the Half Lotus aspect and placed one hand on my bent knee and breathed there, allowing prana to guide my hip in small tidal motions – in and out, in and out, in and out.

I wasn’t doing Ashtanga anymore, I was back in my home practice which is prana-led. Surrendering to this organic flow of the body I made my way through Marichyasana C and toward D. Again, I started slow on the Lotus knee. Usually Mike adjusts me into this posture and I had been making good headway in releasing tension around the back of the pelvis.

That day Mike just looked at me and said:

Gently, gently.

I felt seen and understood it that moment—that is was okay to look after myself and my knees. That I wasn’t opting out, I wasn’t weak, I wasn’t shirking… I was simply caring for myself.

On my way out the door after practice Mike nodded at me:

Great practice. Really good today—you were gentle with yourself.

Maybe so, and yet I also touched the core of something in my psyche. That daythe day I decided to fuck the process and care for my kneesI shed a few tears.  Giving up and accepting myself where I wasbeing gentle and acceptingfelt like shedding a skin.

After that day, I hit the yoga room determined to care for my knees. I even brought a small towel to place rolled up under my knee joint when the leg is bent, experimenting with creating space in the joint.

On the second day of post-‘fuck the process’, Mike came over to adjust me in Marichyasana C. As he helped me move into position he said:

You’re doing all the right things to manage the pain but don’t let it distract you. Keep the focus on Mula Bandha and creating heat to burn away the tightness and emotions on the back of your pelvis.

It was an astute observation.

In a flash I saw the middle groundI saw how we can become identified and distracted by the pain we’re experiencing and let it take us away from what we’re doing on the mat. This is as unfortunate as completely ignoring the pain and breaking our bodies because we hold fixed ideas about the magic of the process.

Somewhere in the middle lies discernment.

Somewhere in the middle lies wisdom.

Somewhere in the middle lies our yoga practice.

Here we neither identify with the pain nor give our power away to the practice. We hold firm and steady but with ease, exploring our bodies through breath and movement.

It’s now been a couple of weeks since that day when I choose to let go of the postures that hurt my knees and only go as deep into them as the movements of prana allowed.

I found myself barely in postures at all and after that first emotional release of shame, I also found I didn’t care anymore about not doing the postures properly. Instead, I focused on being deeply present where I was, feeling the nuances of the bandhas, the release required in the pelvis and the hip, and the energy lines that connect my hips to my knees.

I let my body led the postures and focused on coming into every lotus knee accurately and strongflexing my foot while bring it into position before softening and lengthening through the ankle.

I had no expectations and was content to work like this for as long as it tookeven if it took years. It’s not the attainment of the posture I’m interested in but my relationship to the posture and the moment.

I was surprised when three weeks after giving up all half-lotus postures my body opened sufficiently to led me back in. My hips released and dropped down and again I easily found the bind in Seated Half-Lotus Forward Fold.

Even Standing Half-Lotus Forward Fold opened up again as I discovered I could bend forward with out any knee pain and my hip found the right alignmentno bind, but movement again. Marichyasana B and D are opening organicallyI’m not binding in either of them anymore, but I feel far more free in the hips and knees and can feel my body incrementally shifting itself toward the correct alignment.

My knees aren’t hurting anymore either.

Throughout this process my current teacher Mike Berghan has been supportive and suggestive. He kept me on the right track, finding the balance between looking after my knees while staying focused on opening the hips by keeping my awareness in the right place.

I’m fortunate to have him, and Peter, as teachers.

But most of all, I’m fortunate that I believe in my own authority enough to kick-back against the accepted norm. When the culture around me seemed to be saying:

This is normal, it’s just part of the process, trust the sequence, it will shift.

I had the courage to say;

Forget it. Even if that is true, I’m not going to push into pain. I’m going to find another pain-free way to work.

It’s not that one way is the right way. Simply that there is more than one way.

You don’t have to break your knees to progress in Ashtanga.

Progression is not the attainment of the posture. It’s the deepening of your understanding of the process. It’s your relationship to the process. It’s your state of being and presence on the mat.

Let go of the attainment. Sink into the process.

This is the yoga.

Note: I have also been getting Structural Realignment work done on my hips over the last month and I’m sure that this would have contributed to the easing of my knee pain and opening of my hips.



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Editor: Renée Picard

Image: Wiki Commons 


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