The Puzzle of Pain
As an anatomy teacher and neuromuscular therapist – David Keil has spent most of his career working with people in pain and helping them find a way out. And as the person who literally wrote the book on Yoga Anatomy, it makes sense that yoga students in particular – often dealing with an injury or some other physical issue – look to David for answers.
At the same time, answers are something David seldom gives.
Instead, he’d rather hand the power back to students – encouraging them to do their own research and experimentation From sit bone to shoulder pain, David encourages students to explore in their own bodies :
- Figure out what position makes it feel better relative to what body position makes it feel worse. So you know.
- Give yourself permission to change the way you’re practicing so you can get closer to that position where it doesn’t hurt. Until you understand more, figure out more.
- Once things calm down, start exploring even further and widdling things down
Look for David’s 3-D animated kinesiology course for anyone who wants to learn their muscles, functional movement, and how the asanas fit together. Visit 3dmusclelab.com
The Ashtanga Dispatch Podcast is edited and hosted by Peg Mulqueen along with Meghan Powell. Music by Marc Pilley.
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The Body as a Laboratory
I’ve always thought of my body as a laboratory. Definitely. And especially through the yoga practice. I mean, I couldn’t have written a book without having explored my body like it’s a laboratory.
I was willing to take a risk. Willing to try the opposite of what I was doing. And it almost makes sense to bend your knee when you have sit bone pain, and sometimes that is the appropriate thing to do, that can be true.
There’s a certain amount of avoidance of it because then it feels like if it’s hurting, then it’s wrong. But pain in the body is really – it’s like a cautionary flag going up in the body saying, “Uh, hello! Pay attention to me!”
Pain not a yellow flag that says, “Hello, ignore me. Hello, avoid me.” It’s a cautionary flag to pay attention. It’s attracting your attention to it. So do that.
That doesn’t mean dive in a hundred thousand percent. It doesn’t mean avoidance. And, as I was saying, explore it. What happens if you rotate your leg? Like I literally, I dare say – I make it up on the fly with somebody because I don’t know what’s going to work. I just look at what they’re doing and I do something different. Does it change it? Then I ask the question, Why does it change it? What’s it changing?
A diagnosis is an educated guess. A more and more refined educated guess. Some things are easy. Oh, I’ve seen that before.
Being ok with the not knowing. That’s part of it as well. It lets things bounce around and ‘let’s see’ and ‘I don’t know’ and – that’s how it feels like to me, anyway.
I’m super organized … but when it comes to injuries and these kinds of conversations around this stuff, I have to hold it in my brain in a way so it doesn’t get codified, classified and formula-ed very quickly otherwise I’m going to miss the solution.
The Problem of Pain
It’s like everyone thinks if you can find the perfect alignment than you’ll never have pain or nothing will ever go wrong. That is such a lie.
Our ideas of alignment that we give as a rule in the classroom is a great starting place. There’s nothing wrong with it unless it doesn’t work for you, in your body, Or you still end up with pain. And sometimes. It’s not because the alignment is wrong or bad or that alignment cue is wrong or bad, it’s you putting your body in a place relative to the body posture problems you came in with and then the two working against each other create friction and you end up in pain.
Is it the fault of the yoga? Or is it the fault of the body pattern? Or is it just nobody’s fault and it’s just what’s showing up.
It sucks when there’s pain. Sometimes when you show people that possibility. – and why I encourage people to explore it differently, and maybe even the opposite of what you think it’s supposed to be. Because if you find that little piece of how it feels better or where it feels better – it all of a sudden points out the possibility that maybe I won’t have to live with this pain for the rest of my life.
Just that slight turn and switch, sometimes that alone is enough fo it start unwinding. Where the pain just starts falling away. A lot of it comes down to giving someone something to hold on to. That one thing that opens it up a little and gives it some space.
The world isn’t ending. My life isn’t over. You’re not being dramatic, it feels that way.
The Intention of a Yoga Practice
We idealize the practice. Right? Because it’s so transformative and we feel such positive effects from it – especially when we start, we hit that curve, that steep learning curve, and the change and benefits are amplified. And it’s just like BOOM, it’s in our face. So we think, “Wow. This is totally transformative.”
Which is true. It’s not false. But we idealize it in some way that it’s going to maintain that level of WOWness, in a sense. And then we think, because we idealize it, it can just fix everything and do everything for us. But it can’t.
(The practice) can become another pattern like all the other patterns. And we can hide behind it just the same way we hide behind all kinds of other stuff in our lives.
To be fair to the practice, it has a particular intention and it’s cultivating certain qualities … I think a lot of the health benefits that come from yoga practice, I think they were always – originally, I think – were really seen as side benefits. They weren’t the primary focus.
Most of the benefits that we really get from it go back to the nervous system. And then that nervous system relationship back to how it effects our mind and our experience, through the nervous system, of the world.
In the beginnings of yoga, it was really about controlling the mind. Controlling the mind to calm it down. Why? To recognize one’s true nature. And so, as you do these practices and focus on your breath – and challenge it at the same time you’re doing a posture, let’s say – as you cultivate these things, then those benefits reveal themselves quite naturally. That’s what everybody’s high on. That’s what everybody loves about the practice.
Now, it also depends on your focus and your intention while you’re doing the practice. You know, that matters. If you treat it like an exercise then it will be more like an exercise. If you treat it more like a contemplative practice, then it will be more like a contemplative practice. But that’s true of anything you do.
If you go for a bike ride to go for a bike ride, then that’s what you do. If you do it as a contemplative practice, you’ll have a contemplative bike ride. I mean, this isn’t tricky stuff. What you bring to it, changes it.
Doing vs. Being
It’s doing versus being. Are you going to do the practice or are you going to be the practice. In the early stages of practice, of course you’re going to ‘do’ it – “Oh, I have to turn my foot this way” – this is how you ‘do this pose,’ you do this and then you do this and then you do this … NOW I’m doing the pose. It’s just a switch that happens at some point.
It happens whenever it happens for you, but at some point you realize that the doing isn’t the important part.
The doing is never ending, any way. You can always fix it, you can always get better, look better, feel better. And it’s like … And? Or do more. Do more postures, do more advanced postures, but a lot of the benefit isn’t from doing more of them or fixing them more … of course, the refinement matters. And doing is super important in the beginning because you have to figure it out so you can embody it and then BE it. And so it’s like the difference between doing triangle and being a triangle.
That’s what you’ve given up, the desire to make it some ’thing’ and instead, just let it be whatever it is.
Teaching: Allowing the Process
I look at it from a teaching point of view – how do I allow the student to go through their process?
One aspect of it is definitely recognize your bias or your desire to fix something. And that assumption that there is something actually wrong there. You know, maybe it’s ok how it is, for now. It’s like, when I change something in somebody’s practice, I try to give it some context or relativeness. It’s like, “Oh, what you’ve been doing has been working so far, but maybe this will take you to the next step, so try it this way.”
The technique you’re using for the posture or whatever it is, should change as your body changes.
So as a teacher, you have to see (students) for where they are. Not judge it, not try to leap frog stuff, just let them have their process.