Injury, Equanimity, & Compassion

Emma Hudelson interviews  Kino McGregor

Kino MacGregor needs no introduction here, so I won’t even bother. If you’re reading Ashtanga Dispatch, you probably know and love Kino, whether you take her workshops, read her books, practice next to her in Mysore, follow her on Instagram, or tune into her Periscope-posted daily practice.

I think she’s a gifted teacher, even though I try to avoid Instagram and I don’t understand teaching via social media. MacGregor teaches the authentic Ashtanga method, and she does it from the heart. She’s an expert on the practice that I love, so I take what she says very seriously.

Needless to say, I was saddened when I heard about her hip injury last June. It’s never fun to be injured, but I imagine it would be especially challenging if your livelihood depends on teaching yoga. I first heard of her injury via an article by Matthew Remski, a writer, self-published yoga author, and (self-described) yoga therapist.

I wasn’t a fan of Remski’s article, even though it brings up some important conversations about practice and injury, and I decided to write about it. However, I was sheepish about standing up to someone who holds such a large plot of real estate in the world of yoga blogging, someone who appeared to, as I said “know his shit,” so I was careful to establish Remski as the expert, with me as the non-expert.

Long story short, my post generated a lot of controversy about yoga and injury. You should read it and decide for yourself. But one thing it didn’t do was include the voice of the woman who sparked the article in the first place. So when Kino MacGregor came to Indianapolis for her annual workshop at CITYOGA, my home studio, I asked her for an interview.

After leading a kick-assedly difficult Led Primary, a muscle-burning backbend workshop, and an autograph session with dozens of starstruck yogis, MacGregor and sat down with me in the CITYOGA office to chat. Always generous, she shared her grapes, a bottle of Kombucha, and a whole lot of wisdom.

 

Kino inversion workshop CITYOGA

Kino at CITYOGA

Emma Hudelson: Do you feel like the Mathew Remski interview covered all sides of your injury? What was your experience of the interview and the following article?

Kino MacGregor  The main takeaway that most people got from that article was that I had injured my hip because of my practice … and that seems to be the way that Matthew wrote it … What, in fact, actually happened was a really unlucky circumstance.

Honestly, practice was probably the thing that made me be able to bounce back from the injury. All the factors that were at play that day were not mentioned in the article.

I had done my own practice hours before. The studio had a hot class immediately prior to my class. I taught a room of about 100 from noon to 2:00, then we had a break, then we did a strength workshop. The afternoon sun started streaming in the window, so the room was hot. Really, really hot. We got to Bakasana at the end and I was helping everyone jump back from Bakasana, and I went to help a woman who was new to the practice … and when she went to jump back, instead of jumping back she jumped forward and threw her whole body into me. There was an impact. It was an impact injury. This woman had actually jumped off of her hands, so her entire body weight jammed into me, and I just picked her up and threw her back as best I could, because if I hadn’t, we would have both gone over.

Both of my femurs jammed into the sockets and my right femur spun out, which made my hamstring click on to bring it back in. There were a lot of factors: it was late in the day, I don’t normally teach at that time, it was unbelievably hot. And I didn’t know the student, but I wanted to help her, and that’s my fault. Those are more factors than my practice. It wasn’t like my hips had been extraordinarily stretched or anything. In fact, the two days before the injury, I’d done primary series. Primary usually makes my hips a little tighter. My physical therapist thought that the heat was a huge factor in my injury.

What I’m most saddened by is the fact that my presentation wasn’t included in the article. My own story, the factors that I thought had contributed to that injury, weren’t included. Instead [Remski] asked me a lot of questions about oversplits. I was confused by the relationship that he saw between the two. The oversplit is unrelated to the area that was injured … It doesn’t make sense that that would have contributed to my injury, but everyone is going to draw their own conclusions.

EH: It sounds like part of your story was disregarded.

KM: Absolutely. He used a few things out of context, too. At the end he asked me if I’d ever made any mistakes. I said, “I’ve made a ton of mistakes.” I’m a human being. And he used that as evidence that I had done something wrong. What I was honestly thinking when he asked that question was more like mistakes I’ve made in my relationship with my husband, mistakes I’ve made in life, mistakes I’ve made as a teacher, sure, but I thought less about mistakes I’ve made in my own practice.

EH: So you got injured working with a student that you were unfamiliar with. How do you deal with that on a day-to-day basis, considering that’s what you do?

KM: I evaluate students based on their physicality, their psycho-emotional presence—how they inhabit the space, how they show up in the room, how they respond to questions—physically I’m evaluating if a student is older or younger, more strong or more flexible, older or younger, what are the qualities of their joints, is there brittleness, do they have solidity, are they suffering? Do they seem stoic or emotional? Is there a lot of social presence or are they egocentric? How people unroll their mats says a lot about them.

And I’m relying on intuition. Without veering on the side of being self-important or claiming some special relationship…I try to tune in, take a moment, and ask God if I’m supposed to be helping that person…I’m asking who needs the help and how can I give them that help.

EH: How else do you protect yourself as a teacher?

KM: As a teacher, you have to be very conscious of what your own limitations are and take your ego out of it. Are you trying to prove something to yourself? Are you trying to prove something to them? Maybe the student actually shouldn’t do the movement. Maybe they should go only a little deeper, or maybe you should just advise them to breathe deeper, rather than giving an assist … To prevent injury upon yourself, always check your own alignment, your own posture, and watch whatever repetitive movements you do when teaching and make sure that you evenly distribute them along both sides of the body.

Image by Meghan Powell

Image by Meghan Powell

EH: One of the things that I enjoy about your presence as a teacher is that you encourage questioning of pain. Do you receive pushback from the yoga community for this approach? I’ve heard people saying that there should be no hurting in yoga, ever.

KM: I’ve met people that have this idea that their practice should always feel good, that it should feel yummy. And I come from a different school of thought…if we look at Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, there is a dynamic between sukha and dukha, between pleasure and pain. This dynamic is a human principle, you experience it not only in your yoga practice but in every moment of life.

When we experience pain we run away. When we experience pleasure we get attached to it. There’s a duality between these two points that is at the heart of the even greater suffering, what we’re actually trying to move away from: the suffering of conditioned existence, of samsara.

The yoga teaching is the opposite of that. It’s equanimity. To walk the space between pleasure and pain. The only way to walk the space between pleasure and pain is to not cultivate attachment to pleasure and aversion to pain. The idea that we should avoid all pain is antithetical to the philosophy as presented by Patanjali. So we have to ask ourselves where we’re getting the philosophy from. If you don’t know where the philosophy is coming from, then question it. If it’s your own idea, question it. I hash through thousands of ideas a day that are not great for me. Everything from “I should hit the snooze button,” to “Let’s watch another movie.”

If we’re looking at yoga’s core philosophy, then we have to look at it historically and traditionally. This is Patanjali’s sutra. I didn’t invent this idea. It’s the traditional yoga philosophy about how to maintain equanimity.

We must remain equanimous. The instruction isn’t to injure yourself, but to ask where the pain is coming from…to remain scientific about it. In the equanimous mind, you are able to take right action. You are able to see. The next step is, ok, maybe I need to re-apply my technique, or maybe I need to back off. Or if it’s that I don’t actually have any pain even though I think I’m in pain, then I’ll take five more breaths.

The flip side of that is pleasure. So when you experience a really pleasurable, yummy practice where everything is awesome, the equanimous mind does not get attached to that.

One day it is sunny and beautiful. The next day it’s rainy, and if you’re miserable when it’s rainy and ecstatic when its sunny, then you’ll be at the whims of this ever-changing world around us. And our body is part of that ever-changing world. The freedom that is presented in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras is the freedom that is transcendent from pleasure and pain. We cannot, according to Patanjali, define the success of our practice by the experience of pleasure and the experience of pain. We must find the transcendent piece.

EH: What is your response to the translation of the sutra, Sthira Sukham Asanam, as: “The posture should be steady and easy,” or “steady and comfortable?” What’s you’re interpretation?

KM: So we just talked about opposites of pleasure and pain, and now we have pleasure mentioned again: sukha. So sthira: strength and steadiness. Sukha: pleasure, grace, and ease.

The steady mind and the compassionate heart is another way of describing that. So the asana is wisdom tempered with compassion. The asana is steadiness, strength, determination, exactness and precision tempered with the ease and flow of the surrendered heart. It is this balance that we’re looking for.

And we must have effort. Effort is sthira. Sukha is grace. It’s not as easily defined as “comfort.” What is the “comfort?” It’s the spiritual comfort in the asana.

We can even break that down more. What are the two opposing forces? Again we have the idea of pleasure and pain, attachment and aversion, but we also have the idea of prana and apana. We have the idea of the extroverted gaze and the introverted gaze, so that each asana itself is the perfect balance between the yin and the yang, between the extroversion and the introversion, between the energy rising up and the energy falling down, the internal spiral and the external spiral.

kino_4.11.2015_7

Image by Meghan Powell

Each asana is the balance between inhalation and exhalation, so that we contain these opposites. So that our presence and our consciousness is so large that it can contain those two opposing forces. Essentially the equanimous mind is the balance of sthira and sukha. The equanimous mind, the yogi’s mind, is so big that it can contain those two opposites without being disturbed by it. It can experience pleasure and pain, but the asana itself is a balance between the pleasure and pain.

EH: What are the consequences of going too far into the pleasure or into the pain?

KM: Well, going too far into the pleasure creates addiction to pleasure. And it creates the false idea that we’re in control. The false self. The very idea that we can orchestrate our lives so that we can eradicate all sources of suffering and only experience pleasure is a false construct of the ego. Both of these lead to dead ends of the ego.

If you follow pleasure, you generate your personality around pleasure-seeking. You’ve lost your true sense of self. You will define yourself by the experiences of pleasure, whether that’s in your practice or in the pleasure-seeking of approval. You’ll seek to define yourself by achievements. Ultimately, the things that you’ll sacrifice along the attainment of your goal will harm you.

If you define yourself by aversion from pain, you’ll spend your life running. Fear itself will be the foundation of almost every decision that you’ll make, and it will lead you toward self-directed negativity or aggression toward the outer world, both of which lead to cycles of destruction that are pretty devastating.

EH: Ashtanga has a bad rap in some corners of the world for creating and causing injury due to the repetitive nature of the practice.

KM: I think that the body is never the same every day. The idea of keeping steady about doing the same pose every day doesn’t mean you have to do it to the same degree. This is one of the reasons that I put my authentic daily practice on Periscope. I’ll do Sun Salutations and Standing Series every day, and then I may do a different series every day. Sometimes I’ll do Primary Series three days in a row. Every day it’s different. Some days it’s lazy, some days it’s really intense. It’s back and forth. Some days it’s faster, some days it’s slower. Although you do the same posture everyday, you don’t have to do it to the same level. This is an important thing to learn as a practitioner and as a student.

EH: Do you feel like there are any postures that are inherently unsafe? I’ve heard it said that we “should not teach shoulderstand or headstand anymore, because we know that those are dangerous postures. Many people get injured.” What do you think about that?

KM: I don’t know. I feel like flying in airplanes is really dangerous, but I fly in airplanes every weekend.

There’s been a lot of talk about injury in yoga, and a question could be, what is the percentage of people who get injured per the total number of people who practice yoga? Is it any higher than any other sport, or any other activity? This I don’t know. It would be something interesting to consider.

Rather than saying you should never teach any posture, I think a more compassionate way would be, what are the contraindications for this posture? Which person should not do this posture? Which type of people should I watch out for? Take that into consideration when you’re working with those students individually, and mention those when teaching.

More than anything, it’s important to create a space for students to not try [a posture] if it doesn’t feel good, and to really encourage them to take the long road and not force themselves to do it today, but to understand that this is the tool.

Let’s say there’s someone who really wants to do headstand, but they have a neck injury. And rather than saying, “You’ll never be able to do headstand,” say, “This may be a long journey for you, but this is what I’d like you to work on today.” But the average person…with average strength and average flexibility, I feel like they should try.

EH: Do you feel like injury can serve as a teacher? And if so, what does it teach?

KM: The first thing injury teaches you is humility. And that doesn’t have to come from yoga. What is injury? Injury is obstacles. This is again, the Yoga Sutras. What are the obstacles? Vyadhi is sickness, but is also injury, unhealth in the body. One of the things that immediately happens in the body is humility. You realize that you pushed yourself too hard in the moment and you learn that you must surrender. You learn to ask for help.

If you have never had an injury, and you’ve never used the practice to heal that injury … then some compassion might be lacking because you haven’t gone through it yourself.

For example, if you’ve never been in love and had your heart broken, it’s hard to get it. It’s hard to understand why someone is crying in a corner because their partner left them, but if you’ve been in love and you’ve lost, then you see the person crying and you want to give them a hug because you know how badly they’re hurting. So you have empathy and compassion. That’s one of the most important teachings, the teaching of the heart.

EH: Back to your own hip injury. First of all, I want to say that I hope you’re feeling better. Do you have any residual issues or concerns?

KM: It’s not totally better, but it’s getting better.

EH: Good. I’m glad to hear that. So what did you do to go through the healing process?

KM: The first thing I did was rest and modify. The practice that I did the next day was one of those practices where I was just checking in. And I couldn’t really forward bend at all. So I was like, okay, well I won’t do that, so I bent my knee and I really took it easy. During the class I taught that day, I just told everyone “I’ve got a little hip and hamstring thing going on, so I’m just going to bend my knee.” It wasn’t a flexibility class, so I was able to get through it. Then I went back to Miami and I saw a physical therapist and went to see a sports medicine doctor, and then I worked with an energy healer who’s really absolutely amazing. I’ve done some acupuncture, some massage therapy, and that combined with modifying my practice and giving it the space to heal has really helped.

And I prayed. I really believe that all healing comes from God. That’s something that all of these channels, whether you go to the acupuncturist, the physical therapist, or you do your practice, the healing happens because we somehow connect with God. In that space, we can have a few moments in divine grace, and then healing happens.

EH: I often see a narrative in yoga that injury is bad and not injury is good. What do you think?

KM: If you can marry the first person you ever fall in love with, then that’s a beautiful story. If you can do you practice and achieve high levels of spiritual realizations and never be injured, that’s awesome. That’s an amazing story.

Then there’s reality. You meet someone, you fall in love, they break your heart. Then you’re mad at relationships for ten years. Then you meet someone, you fall in love, you’re scared of being with them but you try it. It doesn’t mean that now you never fight. You still fight, and then you work it out. What marriage doesn’t have disagreements? What couple is always on the same page?

When [discord] happens, it’s not that we’ve done something wrong, it’s that we’re meant to learn from it. If we understand that yoga is a path to God, and we recognize the spiritual component of every moment, then when we experience pain, and we ask God to show us the wisdom in that situation, then we can become stronger.

 

emma hudelson 1Emma Faesi Hudelson is a writer, reader, and Ashtangi. She teaches first-year composition and writes creative nonfiction with a focus on culture, the arts, addiction, recovery, and yoga. She blogs at The Buddhi Blog, and you can find her work on nuvo.netFeministingElephant Journal, and Miseducated. She teaches a couple led Ashtanga classes a week, and she lives in Indianapolis with her husband and a whole slew of rescue pets. Find her on Instagram and Twitter as @thebuddhiblog.