The Body

​Is Your Yoga Class a Stanley Milgram Experiment?

Yin-Yang Yoga by Mike Holzer

Perhaps the hardest pose—and greatest enlightenment—is to sit comfortably.

We recently received an article titled “Impatience Will Do This to You,” in which a yoga student described waiting for a class to begin:

“But instead of inviting us to begin moving our bodies, our teacher has asked us to sit in Virasana with our legs folded under us so that our heels serve as the support for our buttocks. It’s an uncomfortable pose, unlike Easy Pose where we sit cross-legged, spines erect, eyes closed, listening. This morning, though, it’s hard to listen because the new sitting posture strains my knees and ankles. … I want to move, to get out of this pose, which feels as if it’s imprisoning me, and find my way into another pose, a pain-free pose. …”

[Editor’s note: This hurts to read. Just get out of the pose.]

“The longer the teacher talks, holding us in this pose, the more impatient I become. My mind is no longer looking at the pose as an opportunity to explore a different way of sitting. The discomfort is too intense. I’m already thinking ahead, imagining the end of class when we’ll lie on our backs in Savasana. …”

Ouch! Stop telling stories. Listen to your body. GET OUT OF THE POSE!

“Impatience will do this to you. It will take you out of the moment. It will rob you of the chance to stay present. Before you know it, the moment is gone, and you’ll have missed the chance to experience it fully. …”

Are you nuts? Intense pain invites the opportunity to avoid this experience, which likely involves stretching tendons and ligaments and destabilizing joints. Continue and your pain may become chronic. Why do this to yourself?

As I wrote that I felt a twinge of guilt. I’m being judgmental—and shouldn’t pick on our contributors. As penance I decided to do something I wouldn’t normally do: to “play with pain”—and experience it fully. Unlike the yoga student, I can sit comfortably on my heels in Virasana. But “Easy Pose” isn’t easy. My ankles, knees, and hip joints don’t flex that way.

Here Goes: Easy Pose!

I’m on the floor now. Pulling my ankles across my knees… Slowly up my quads … easy … and … well … sure enough … this hurts … like … [expletive deleted].

I breathe through a few seconds of misery before I get up and pour a medicinal glass of Oregon pinot. When I return to my chair I feel a new twinge. Not guilt this time. My left knee.

[More expletives, deleted]

Old judgments flood back with a vengeance. As an Olympic oarsman, Masters World Champion, rowing coach, and coauthor of the Nike Cross-Training System—a person who has navigated the extremes of self-inflicted sensations for 40 years—I write as compassionately as I can: Do NOT do stuff like this. If pain is distracting—and building—STOP!

Then a new thought strikes and a new pain builds: In a circle of spiritual people sitting cross-legged, I am often the only one sitting on my heels in Virasana or— more likely—sprawled like a sack of potatoes. Now I wonder, how many good people are sitting in pain? Or don’t come to yoga because they think they have to? The New York Times reported a few years ago that injury rates in yoga are surprisingly—perhaps outrageously—high for what most people think of as a restorative, mindful activity created to reduce suffering. How many enthusiasts are taking part in a contorted variant of the famed Stanley Milgram experiment?

In case you’ve forgotten, in an infamous experiment at Stanford Milgram showed that most people are willing to administer a painful—even lethal—electric shock to another person because an authority figure said the shock would help the victim learn. How much agony is generated by soft-spoken teachers who inadvertently plug students into excruciating postures? How many students attempt to extract enlightenment on a path that will one day require an electric wheelchair?

And My Knee Still Hurts

One root of this crippling epidemic is semantic. We need at least as many words for the variety of disparate sensations involved in exertion and agony that we call “pain” as Eskimos have for “snow,” but we don’t have them. As a result, vastly different experiences—good, bad, and ugly—get jumbled together under the same words, and people get hurt. Here’s a brief personal synopsis of how to approach the problem.

On a “Perceived Exertion” (PE) scale from 1 to 10, I still row fairly often at 7 to 8 and occasionally at 10—while still trying to stay relaxed. At the top end of the scale, when one’s face may contort in what may appear to be terrible “pain,” the sensations are intense, but familiar, are ultimately satisfying, and help keep one as fit as an aging person can be.

On a Pain/Injury Scale of 1 to 10, I pay close attention at 2 and shut down at 3—especially if the new pain is in a joint. Before I even get to a wince, I pause the session and start poking and massaging to make the new discomfort go away. If it doesn’t, I do something else or take the day off because—caught immediately—most injury pains resolve with a night’s sleep and ibuprofen. Or rare occasions, healing takes a massage therapist, physical therapist, or gentle osteopathic realignment. While having a “high tolerance for pain” is necessary for an athlete, practicing that tolerance is a ticket to a joint replacement or worse. My goal is to find it and fix it. No wallowing allowed.

Endurance athletes also make another clear distinction that is often muddied in the spiritual world. With no risk of enlightenment, athletes deal with sensory information (pain) either as associators, who pay close attention to whatever is happening inside their bodies, or dissociators, who distract themselves with music or watching TV or creating stories. Dissociation is fine for routine exercise: I drafted my first book in my head while slogging through long training rows at Yale. But with anything new or intense, one’s attention needs to turn inward to avoid injury.

Competitive athletes become expert associators because competition—or the excitement of a new physical activity—kicks in the fight-or-flight response, an induced dissociation that enables a wounded person to ignore extreme pain in order to escape something worse, like being eaten. Unfortunately, this same dissociation allows beginners, weekend warriors, and spiritual seekers to inflict terrible damage on themselves. Dissociation can make pain tolerable until it becomes chronic.

It takes time, attention, discipline, and a good warm-up to exercise safely at a perceived exertion of 5 or 6 or 7 or 8, and especially 9 or 10, without dissociating and getting hurt. But what’s the hurry? The joy is the journey—and that means if the Pain Scale starts climbing, stop and figure out why. At the Rogue Rowing Club in Ashland, Oregon, I now race in boats with Masters rowers who first became athletes in their 50s. Much like yoga, the goal of rowing is not to learn to endure pain. The goal is to reduce suffering: to be completely alive, completely relaxed, and completely awake. (For more insights, read “The Tao of Chronic Pain”.)

In Chinese medicine, the diagnosis for my occasional rotator cuff pain translates as “50-year-old shoulder.” And a key to my “50-year-old shoulder” is my middle finger, which I can poke into the pain and fix—just as I can fix a potentially chronic pain in my hip by pulling one ankle across my knee, a homeopathic dose of “Easy Pose” that I learned from an osteopath. With these simple tools, I can still run, dance, row, roll a kayak, and skip a rock.

At best, an aging body is like a well-loved British sports car. It can still run great, but you do have to listen constantly, know your tools, and—because you will have to stop unexpectedly—keep a blanket, a bottle, a couple of glasses, and a corkscrew in the boot.