Yoga Poses Aren’t Your Problem
By Kristine Kaoverii Weber | June 2, 2023
Today I’m going to write a little bit about one of the kleshas, asmitā, often translated as “egotism.” But I think I’ll first set it up with an anecdote. When I started teaching at the Y way back when, I had a couple who came to class ready to rumble. They tied their bandanas tight, slid their mats up close, sat down and glared, daring me to kick their asana.
I tried to comply.
Back then yoga was getting increasingly harder and faster. I thought I needed to up my game and give people what they wanted in order to be seen as an “advanced” teacher. But I was never all that interested in (or honestly, very good at) kicking asana. And that couple, as well as plenty of other students who were there for the workout, didn’t last long. I was not the right teacher for their objectives.
By the mid 2000s, the fallout of strenuous repetitive asana practice was evidenced by the increasing number of injuries. Students would come to me and tell me how they’d hurt themselves from going to other classes. They would tell me that they wanted to keep doing yoga and someone had recommended my class while they were healing.
Back then teachers would rarely talk about asana injuries, there was a lot of shame and fear. Fortunately that’s changed. Many teachers are much more open and talking about their injuries and how yoga caused them. They will point to poses that wrecked their SI joint, gave them low back pain, or tore their labrum.
But, that’s not the whole story.
Saying that a specific pose caused your back, shoulder, or SI joint problem is kinda like saying your Ferrari caused you to speed, or the seafood buffet caused you to gorge yourself, or your neighbor’s heated swimming pool caused you and 50 of your closest friends to skinny dip while they were out of town.
The problem isn’t entirely external, it’s mostly asmitā.
Asmitā is the second of the five kleshas or causes of suffering outlined by Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras. As I wrote above, it’s often translated as “egotism.” And sure, there is sometimes egotism involved in performing fancy poses. But that’s not what I’m talking about here.
If you dig a little deeper, the meaning of asmitā is a little more nuanced. Asmitā is the tendency of conflating your sensory motor organs with your mind. And then conflating your mind with the witness.
Asmitā makes me believe that my mind isn’t involved in the choice of how I do poses. It causes me to link my body’s experience to something external. It makes me want to do poses the “right way.” It makes me desire to do the “full expression” or achieve Instagram perfection of the pose.
Asmitā limits inquiry. It makes me believe that the contents of my thoughts are accurate, but they usually aren’t. They typically need a lot more assessment, analysis, discernment, and openness to other ways of knowing. Like just the basic, “Why am I doing this pose?” question.
We tend to think, “This is just what yoga is. And this is just how you do that pose. And you should just do it like that if you want to be good at yoga.” And so, when we run into issues or injuries, we then conclude that it’s the pose that’s causing the injury or problem – which lets the mind off the hook.
But the problem has much more to do with the way you think about (or don’t think about) and talk to yourself about your practice. We’re not necessarily encouraged to inquire, “What is the goal? What am I striving for? What is the purpose of this practice? Why am I so driven?”
If you take (or teach) yoga asana classes regularly and you don’t bring this level of inquiry to your process, you are more likely to get injured, and if you are a teacher, you’ll probably assist your students in that process. There’s nothing wrong with striving to do harder poses, but you should also be crystal clear about why. I suggest paying attention to how asmitā shows up in your practice.
Maslow famously said, “If the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.”
Unfortunately, much yoga asana education teaches the hammer method. You hammer yourself with down dogs and chaturangas and you hammer yourself with handstands and you hammer yourself with lunges and you keep hammering away until you are a perfect chiseled yogi. In this line of thinking, the teacher’s job is simply to help you hammer harder.
When you start to feel an ache in your shoulder, hip, sacrum, or low back – the obvious conclusion is that some pose is causing the problem – oblivious to the fact that you’re the one holding a hammer.
Yoga poses have no feelings, no agenda, and no control over you. They are neutral. Your mind needs to discern which are appropriate and which are not, based on your investigation, inquiry, experience, and goals. And that process requires some work and a significant investment in time. You won’t find it in a manual.
What if you approached yoga poses with a more subtle tool? With an attitude that was perhaps something like a charcoal pencil, an emery board, a feather duster, or a soft cloth?
When you practice bringing awareness to the way your mind approaches asana practice, you can begin to more carefully select your tools – from a wide range of possibilities – that go way beyond the hammer category. “Maybe today I’ll explore a little less range of motion. Maybe today I’ll take a slightly shorter stance. Maybe today I’ll turn my foot out differently.” You can then observe the effects of that action, and begin to untangle the asmitā.
You are much more interesting than any yoga pose. And you are the greatest potential expert of your own body, and the greatest potential judge of what is useful for you in asana practice and what isn’t. How do you develop that potential? You slow down, look inside, investigate, explore, and learn about yourself. And you stop depending upon the external to make default decisions.
Asana practice provides an opportunity for us to viyoga – to separate in order to better understand the different aspects of our being. Then we can samyoga, put them back together again with more clarity, purpose, focus, and meaning. Teaching yoga is the art of guiding others in this process of inquiry.