Last September I tore some ligaments in my lumbar spine while gardening. I lifted a bag of mulch laterally from a squatting position, and immediately felt I had been stabbed in the back. Walking, sleeping, standing up straight, and getting out of a chair were all extremely painful, and yoga was out of the question—I could not even sit on the floor. Although an injury of this type is clearly structural, when it comes to healing, a variety of approaches can be helpful, such as rest, physical therapy if necessary, sometimes medication (I didn’t use any), massage, oils, and mental imagery. When we look to Yoga and Ayurveda, pain in the body is said to be caused by internal air, called vata, becoming trapped in the muscles, tendons, ligaments, or joints. Two qualities of vata are dryness and coldness, and therefore it follows that by warming the blood through deep and steady breathing, and then directing that warmed, lubricated tissue to the muscles and joints through particular postures, vata can be encouraged to become warm and relinquish its cold and dry hold. So, for example, when yoga is done with vinyasas, heat is created in the body, and the blood is warmed, and circulates freely as the capillaries open.

When our breathing in yoga practice is free and resonant, we also can become more aware of how we use our bodies, and that will help us to understand how to work with pain when it finds us. Pain, or injuries, usually occur in that split second when we are not paying attention. However, injuries can also occur even when we are paying attention! One way or the other, a little bit (or sometimes a lot) of suffering in life is bound to arise. Bringing our attention to breathing is the best way to start working with pain, and the sensations of pain that we experience. Breathing can also help us with our perception of pain, which is a whole other, but very important, topic. The lengthening of the breath with a focus on the exhale also activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for monitoring inflammation and tissue repair. Ten to fifteen minutes of simple equal breathing of five or six seconds on the inhale and exhale, or a slight extension of the exhale, will help to activate the parasympathetic nervous system and relax the muscle tissues. The parasympathetic is responsible for overseeing growth, restoration and repair.

A recent study on Bikram yoga tested whether or not external heat was a factor in improving the function of the endothelial cells, the inner lining of our blood vessels, which create a one-celled-thick wall that lines all of our blood vessels. Among their many functions are to maintain and regulate the permeability of the blood vessel walls (for example, the brain-blood barrier) and to help regulate blood flow. They support homeostasis of the vascular functions, and help regulate inflammatory processes. The inflammatory process control comes in part from the endothelial cells releasing nitric oxide that leads to relaxed vascular tone and low levels of oxidative stress. Nitric oxide, which does many things in our cells, and has a host of beneficial effects including fighting bacteria and reducing inflammation, is also created through nasal breathing, but not by breathing through the mouth. The study showed that the 26 postures of Bikram Yoga improved endothelial function equally, whether the room was heated or not (but only in middle-aged and elderly populations; young adults were unaffected). From this, we can possibly infer two thing:

  1. Bikram and hot yoga studios could save a lot on heating bills, and,
  2. Pattabhi Jois’s assertion that the internal heat created through yoga could improve blood circulation appears to be correct (though we do not know if it is the internal heat that is created, or simply the effect of breathing, moving, and holding static poses).

Regardless of study results, it is well known that movement, breathing, internal heat, and blood flow all can contribute to healing. Blood will repair torn tissues, which is why the first 10%-33% of the meniscus can repair itself, because it receives blood supply. The other parts do not, so deeper tears can be problematic (but not necessarily impossible to fix) with yoga.

It was very slow going to begin healing my injury. It was only after about two weeks that I could start moving a little, and did only some simple, lying down back stretches. After about six weeks, I was able to do some very modified Sun Salutations. I made the videos below at about the six week period. They show the entirety of the practice I was doing at that time. Video 1 is an example of some of the lying down positions that I did at week number two.

Video 1: Lying down strengthening and releasing poses for the lower back and hips.

Video 2: My modified Sun Salutations. Bending forward was not possible.

Video 3: “Standing poses” —the quotation marks will make sense when you see the video! These specifically seemed to help strengthen my quads and gluteus muscles, and supported my lower back so I could stand comfortably while teaching.

How am I now, you ask? First of all, thank you for asking. Second of all, I’m quite a lot better. Ligaments take six months to a year to heal, so all things being equal, I am on track. Modified practices were necessary, and a couple of visits to my Yoga + Science colleague Marshall Hagins, who is a physical therapist, were very helpful. I hope the videos are helpful to any of you who experience severe back pain, or have students that you are trying to help.
Thank you Professor Alexandra Seidenstein for fact checking this article.

Notes on Wakefulness

13 February 2018, The Malibu Hindu Temple

Bodhidharma – meaning “one who awakens” – was a 5th century Prince turned monk who traveled from East India to China, bringing with him Buddhism and tea. In stories he is cast as a little grumpy and incredibly devout, wandering about as the first patriarch of China. In one particularly tall tale Bodhidharma is said to have been deep in meditative practice, some time into a nine-year stint of wall-staring when he realized he had nodded off. Furious at his weakness he tore at his eyes, scratching and tearing until he ripped his eyelids off completely, flinging them to the ground in frustration.

✢ ✢ ✢

Robert Irwin works with light, “Open your eyes in the morning, the world is totally formed. You haven’t done anything other than be. It’s all around you.”

He continues in an infinite play of empty mirrors, “The whole idea is being able to recognize it, and pay attention to it, articulate it.”

“Beauty is all around you,” he says.

✢ ✢ ✢

Miraculously, where Bodhidharma’s eyelids fell, tea plants sprouted. Bodhidharma plucked the leaves of the plant and began to chew. His mind became clear, focused, bright – awake! Reinvigorated he returned to his meditation.

The ṛṣis, sometimes called the “Vedic seers,” were once asked: “‘In what are you experts?’ They responded, ‘in the sensation of being alive. We are wakeful – or, if you like, we vegetate.’ Vajra, the lightning flower, the ultimate weapon of the gods, is connected with vegeo, to be wakeful, vigilant…the lightning is the lightning flash of wakefulness. ‘Vegetation’ and ‘wakefulness’ share the same root.” And as the ṛṣis saw it, the secret of existence was in just three actions: waking, breathing and sleeping. And, Roberto Calasso continues, they were dazzled by one revelation: the elementary fact of being conscious.

The God of Consciousness and Creation; of Death, Time and Destruction; Lord of the vegetable world and of Yoga – Śiva – is said to be always awake; always aware, forever conscious, he keeps his third eye eternally open; he is the light that endures in the darkness, present even when the world ceases to exist.

On Maha Śivaratri – the Great Night of Śiva – devotees demonstrate their dedication to Lord Śiva by staying awake the whole night long, chanting, dancing and praying, maintaining that defining anatomical characteristic of wakefulness – an erect spine, or Mount Meru. In disrupting our patterns (unconscious awareness; sleep) we make space to recognize what is not mechanistic, unconscious being. Now. Now we can bypass our automatic patterns, control our habits, and gain insight.

✢ ✢ ✢

Vegetal and wakeful; conscious and animated; animal and vegetable. Even spoons and stones are conscious some physicists say. Panpsychism.

An all-pervading wakefulness available to plants, humans, seers and gods is described in the Śiva Sūtra (verse 11) as a samadhi-like awareness – turīya – : tritayabhoktā vīreśaḥ : The one who enjoys in the oneness of awareness of all the three states – waking, dreaming and deep sleep – becomes the master of all organic energies. Patañjali tells us – : svapna-nidrā jñāna-ālambanam vā : Knowledge in dream and sleep can awaken you to the truth.

✢ ✢ ✢

The quest for meaning, for wakefulness and truth, has perennially piqued human curiosity; it is a part of our makeup, steeped in our blood and bones, in the songs of the plants, and planets, myths and imaginings. It is not just a rallying mandate in the turmoil of our times – it is a lineage of inquiry, a tool for transformation: stay awake.

ॐ नमः शिवाय // Om Namah Śivāya!

Śivaratri at the Malibu Hindu Temple, 2018 | Photo by Roberto Maiocchi

Groundhog Day: Darkness & Dawn

In the 1993 film Groundhog Day, Bill Murray plays a crotchety weatherman, Phil, ceaselessly reliving February 2nd over and over again, waking day after day to find that he must once again report on Punxsutawney Phil, the prophetic groundhog. According to lore, if Punxsutawney spots his shadow upon emerging from his burrow we’d better bundle up for six more weeks of winter. If, on the other hand, Phil’s shadow is nowhere to be found then it’s said spring is around the bend.

In other words – it’s bloody dark outside and we’re all in a hole. And we get one day out of the whole year to crawl out and IF there happens to be sun, it will reveal our shadows. This emergence offers a wake-up call, a break from the rut, from our habits, from the dark, dreary, damp, cold, dormant life. Hallelujah! There’s a crack and that’s how the light gets in.

But what do we do after we’ve seen our shadows?

In the film, Phil the weatherman experiences life as a time-loop, watching his self-centered mistakes and missteps happen again and again. Until he figures out that he can stop the loop by examining his ways, and, like Phil the groundhog, face his shadows.

Phil’s repetitive, unending groundhog day can be seen as every day of our lives. Years might go by without our noticing – days, seasons and cycles passing one after the other right before our eyes. Like Phil, can we break free from the time-loop by paying attention?

Contemplative practices, which are in themselves repetitive, hold the promise of this insight. We might stare at a wall day in and day out; or focus on the tip of our noses; or concentrate on the breath; or roll out a yoga mat and practice the same ashtanga yoga sequence that we did yesterday, today, and that we’ll do again tomorrow.

In the Hollywood version we get a hero and a romantic ending to the tune of Sonny & Cher’s “I Got You Babe.” In our version, we just go back to the mat. We habituate ourselves to a rhythm and method, to a sequence and breath count so that we might, through the tireless repetition, better see where we’re a little rough around the edges.

Rhythm setting, we learned from the 2017 Nobel Prize winners for medicine & physiology, is present in all multicellular life, and in fact circadian rhythms keep our lives attuned to the Earth’s diurnal cycle – we rise and set with the Sun because of our biological clocks.

So science reaffirms what perennial wisdom has always known. Groundhogs, humans, and creatures of all kinds crawl out of their holes to greet the dawn, or Uṣas, in Vedic cultures. Shining and radiant, Uṣas, who resides in the Gāyatrī Mantra brings relief from the dark, but also possibility, hope and a luminous path before daybreak.

ॐ भूर्भुवः स्वः ।
भर्गो॑ दे॒वस्य॑धीमहि ।
धियो॒ यो नः॑ प्रचो॒दया॑त् ॥
oṃ bhūr bhuvaḥ svaḥ
bhargo devasyadhīmahi
dhiyo yo naḥ prachodayāt
To that which gives birth,
please inspire our choices.
May luminous wisdom and knowledge flow like water,
And this in our hearts move us forward.
“Spontaneously, each of us has our preferences, references, frequencies; each must appreciate rhythms by referring them to oneself, one’s heart or breathing, but also to one’s hours of work, of rest, of walking and of sleep.”
—Henri Lefebvre, Rhythmanalysis: Space, Time & Everyday Life

P.S. If you’re in the LA area you can catch Groundhog Day in theatres tonight, February 2nd, at The Aero Theatre in Santa Monica and The Frida Cinema in Orange County.

How I Find Purpose

Finding, or feeling, what my purpose is something that I revisit on almost a daily basis. When I finish my morning meditation, I ask myself: Who am I? What is my purpose? What do I value in my life? How

The Raja of Heaven

Everyone who does Ashtanga Yoga has heard, at one time or another, Guruji’s famous refrain, “Take practice, all is coming”. The essential meaning behind it was that all of our questions will be answered from within when our mind gets

Life as Ritual, Ritual as Life

Photo by Robert Moses As Thanksgiving and the holiday season roll around, our minds naturally get ready for the ritual of festivals, and the joys and stresses that come along with them. The holidays make us stop for a moment,

The Importance of Lineage Part 2

Looking back from last week’s post on lineage, I realized that I have now been following Guruji’s teachings and participating in this lineage for 25 years, which is exactly half of my life. One of the most important experiences I

The Importance of Lineage

The practices of Yoga and meditation have been passed down from generation to generation for many thousands of years, and like many of the things we use in our lives, such as telephones, cars, stoves and bicycles, their form has

Is There Such a Thing As Pure Ashtanga Yoga?

This past month I did a short interview for Amrita Magazine in London. They asked me a question that I felt was an important one, because it hit upon a lot of the problems that all groups in the world