YOGA NEW ENGLAND ARTICLE
THE ROOTS OF INJURY PREVENTION
"The road to injury begins with fragmentation of mind-body-spirit. When the whole self is not engaged completely in the task at hand, resistance will occur."
Most injuries are the result of incorrect focus that leads to a separation of mind-body-spirit. With separation comes resistance, tension and fatigue that break down the vital integrity needed to support correct effort. On a physical level, our goal in asana practice is to engage our muscles, tendons, and breath to the point of sensation. The point of sensation can be described as the first point of contact or when we first notice physical sensation. The sensation we feel at this first point of contact promotes the union--the yoga--of mind, body and spirit. Once the union is established, there is a sense of harmony and wholeness that allows your muscles to relax and lengthen, and your energy to flow and balance.
The practice of yoga asana is a vehicle for this connection. For many of us who suffer from a daily separation between mind-body-spirit, this union is a special place. For some, it is the only time we experience the harmony of union and the deep sense of peace that follows. There is, however, and obstacle to being content and resting in this place of harmonious connection. Unlike the body, the mind is not subject to the limitations of the physical realm and it can be projected out through space and time. When the mind is projected out of the body we lose contact with and awareness of our physical self and the connection/harmony is lost.
How many times have you been engaged in an asana and suddenly realized you were thinking about something else? Perhaps you were thinking about your job, your vacation, a relationship or even your next meal and allowed yourself to become distracted. Anytime you imagine or think about something other than the task at hand you divide your focus and separation occurs.
It's easy to tell yourself to pay attention, and another thing to do it for an extended length of time, especially under stress. For some people, no matter how hard they try to stay focused their mind just keeps shifting from thought to thought. One reason for this constant shifting and annoying distraction is avoidance. Thought is our first line of defense against any physical/emotional discomfort or pain. By shifting our focus to our thoughts during our practice we avoid the feelings and physical sensations of the moment. The moment we engage our body in a challenging asana we feel a flood of energy and sensation that flows from making a full connection. With energy and sensation comes information in the form of feelings. For someone who is not used to or adept at processing so much at once it's easy to become overwhelmed by the initial torrent of sensation and feeling. A feeling we might describe as too intense to bear. This intensity is often compounded by our propensity to react to the feeling with resistance. We think to ourselves "this hurts" and "I am afraid (not willing) to go any further into this sensation". By trying to resist the feeling you actually feed the feeling by focusing your attention and energy directly on it. As the feeling grows the experience quickly becomes too intense to bear and you get overwhelmed.
When feeling overwhelmed our tendency is to try and void the feeling, either we stop the action and break the connection or attempt to move away from the feeling as a way to protect ourselves. The most common way to accomplish this during an asana is to physically move beyond the point of sensation and disengage from the full connection. However, if you move too forcefully or quickly and push beyond the point of sensation, you run the risk of disconnecting, and distorting the connection as well as physically overextending. This is what is known as muscling the asana. Too much muscular effort strains the body and overwhelms the connection. It is akin to talking on the telephone with many people on the same line. It soon becomes difficult to focus on the conversation with so much information flooding the connection and everyone begins to shout. If you are shouting and pushing too hard you are not listening. The possibility is very real that through the garbled connection between your mind, body and spirit you are progressing through overexertion, fatigue, compensation, and then injury.
Another way we try to avoid feeling overwhelmed is to shift our mind away from the feeling by thinking of something else. It's easier to retreat to the safety of thought than it is to reside in the realm of feeling, and because we are constantly thinking, this strategy is more prevalent, subtle and harder to perceive. We do it so often in fact that we don't even realize its happening.
In Tai Chi there is an expression. "Where the mind goes the spirit flows." If the mind chooses to follow an object of attention or desire, the energy and spirit will follow, leaving the body behind. When the mind moves away from the body out of desire, or the need to avoid feeling, separation occurs. This separation of mind from body is the root of disharmony, and weakens the integrity of mind-body-spirit union.
When the mind separates from the body, the body becomes fearful and tense. This physical tension creates resistance to the task at hand--the asana that you are performing. Prolonged resistance drains and weakens the body. To keep the mind and spirit intact we must make the effort to contain our mind inside our body. In Chinese medicine it is said that the mind is like a team of wild horses whose reins must be held with a firm and steady grasp, least they try to run away in all directions. When performing yoga, our initial goal is to connect with our breath and energy and to bring our mind, body, and spirit into harmony or union. A sustainable, injury-free yoga practice happens when the practitioner's mind and spirit is able to tune into and reside within the moment of engagement with the body.
The way to avoid injury is to prevent the separation that leads to disharmony. The most effective method to prevent separation is to be fully present. The simplest way to stay present and create union is by listening. Listening to the feeling of ones breath, and to the point of sensation and contact. There is great power in listening, by listening internally the mind stays anchored and connected to the body and integrity is maintained. The key is to listen to the point of sensation without judgment or reaction. The moment we judge (think) we react and in reacting we become distracted from the task at hand which is to engage and listen to our yoga-union. Listening without judgment or reaction is akin to observing without attaching. Imagine hearing a beautiful piece of music for the very first time. In listening you open yourself up to receive the energy of the experience without judgment or expectation. When one is truly listening and open there is no reaction or attachment to the moment. There is only a continuous stream of receiving the moment.
Try listening to your point of sensation as if listening to a symphony, a symphony of energy, sensation and feeling. Take heart in the understanding that when you open yourself to receive through listening, you allow yourself to be affected, and in being affected you are changed. When you allow yourself to be affected and change you grow. This is the true meaning of progress within the practice. To observe the flow of change and growth that comes from receiving and accepting the moment.