Yoga as an Holistic Practice
Updated: Oct 23, 2020
It was the week before Christmas 2016, when I sprained my ankle. I rolled my foot walking along Guernsey's wonderful cliffs a couple of weeks ago. So, it wasn’t 'yoga' that done my poor ankle in, as so many have been quick to ask. Yoga is helping me in the healing process, however. While lamenting my sudden lack of freedom, it occurred to me that I could write something about yoga from the perspective of one suffering a sprained ankle.
Thinking differently about a sprained ankle
Our Western culture, with all its amazing things and opportunities, tends to view the body as a machine. In this sense, a sprained ankle is merely a mechanical failure in a useful joint of the body. Rest, ice, compression and elevating the joint are all recommended; maybe some physical therapy too. But, as I was reminded by my painful experience, this methodology just doesn't seem enough. My ankle was not the only thing impacted by my ill-fated stroll along green cliffs sandwiched between blue skies and aquamarine seas.
Yoga thinking, which draws much from a number of ancient Indian traditions including the Upaniṣads (which contain some of Yoga's central philosophical concepts), and Āyurveda (India's traditional holistic healing system) as well as from modern medical science, emphasizes a 'whole-body' approach to understanding and responding to injury. The ‘whole-body’ view goes beyond bone and muscle. The ‘whole-body’ can be viewed as the manifestation of body, Life’s energy, mind, personality and joyous emotions.
Miss-identification with pain is part of the problem
When we are in pain, we naturally tend to identify strongly with the pain. Patañjali tells us that this is a mistake in perception [avidyā]: we are not really our pain [YS II.5]. This is a counter intuitive thought and takes a bit of work to understand. We can observe our pain from one of two worlds: The first is from the point of view of our ordinary self and the second is from the point of view of our pure consciousness. It is only when we enter this second world that we experience pain in a non-painful way. I’d like to say that that was how it was with my sprained ankle and me, but for 85% of the time this was not the case. I was firmly rooted in experiencing pain as something that was happening to me, in the same way as getting caught in a wintry shower was happening to me.
It’s interesting watching pain because we can discover that pain is not actually experienced as a constant thing; pain is not like a tube of Pringles where each crisp is homogeneous with the one before and after it. Pain is much more like a dreadful nightclub playing awful music. Sometimes we are outside the club and at other times we are right there on the dance floor with the worst music playing at truly excruciating volumes, and with no apparent way to escape. That’s when we believe that we are our pain.
Looking for what can be done
I spent quite a bit of time resting, with my foot elevated, or else limping from room to room. It wasn’t long before other parts of my body started to complain as they took up the work that my ankle would have done had it not been injured. While standing yogāsana-s (yoga postures) were out of the question, lying yogāsana-s really helped to look after the rest of me and gave me a chance to move gently my ankles.
My mind became agitated by the pain and the frustrations of not being able to do the things I was expecting to do. Relationships were tested as family, friends and work-colleagues adjusted to my reduced capacity to do stuff. This wasn’t imaginary man-flu. ‘Please believe me when I say that I am not making this stuff up for an easy life”, I started to beg when the initial sympathies began to fade. At times I felt a little blue too, and not able to focus well on what possibilities my situation offered me. This feeling is called duḥkha. It’s a key concept in Indian thinking and central to the study and practice of yoga.
Prāṇāyāma, done with a healing bhāvana (visualisation), went quite a long way to countering these symptoms of duḥkha in various aspects of my being. Svātmārāma pointed out (probably in the 14th century) the important link between mind and breath: ‘when the breath is agitated the mind will become unsteady; but when the breath is steady so too will be the mind’ [HYP II.2].
The long-term view
The process of settling the breath and the mind is not a quick one. In fact, the whole yoga project is not a quick fix. In a world augmented with computing technology, software, ‘apps’ etc, where impatience is cultivated at the expense of our true well being and where our attention is continuously being distracted by ephemeral and unimportant matters, I note there are no ‘apps’ to deliver speedy well being in the areas that really matter: clear and steady thinking, peace and joy.
The body wants to heal itself
The body has a huge capacity for self-healing. To help ourselves heal we could work from an understanding that what happens in certain parts of the body has implications for the rest of the body, the breath, mind, character and our ability to feel joy. This five-fold model of human existence comes from the Taittirīya Upaniṣad. In my case, my sprained ankle was the obvious cause affecting all aspects of my being and so I was able to do something about it and not just on a mechanical level. Thank goodness I had paid attention during my three-year Yoga teacher-training course. At least I can now make a great song and dance out of my sprained ankle – for educational purposes, of course. For some conditions, for example, chronic depression, it is much harder to find a single root cause and they are far more problematic than a simple ankle injury: is the person depressed because they are fat (to take an overly simplistic illustration, while not worrying about politically correct language) or is he fat because he his depressed?
It can take a while to work out the complex web that gives rise to a diminished sense of well being. Here, one should take heed of Western medical science (it is generally good stuff, even though it can seem sometimes that it is too focused on the bio-mechanics of our existence) and apply yoga technology to work in harmony with appropriate healing strategies. I went for an X-ray to ensure that there were no hidden fractures. Interestingly, the radiologist told me that an X-ray would make a diagnosis clearer for my doctor. I began to think about avidyā, the exact opposite of clear perception and thinking and how pervasive it is in our lives. Thank goodness for X-rays and the clarity they bring.
Yoga is not a recipe for less suffering
TKV Desikachar, with his usual insight and wisdom, once wrote that “Yoga is not a recipe for less suffering, though it can offer us help in changing our attitude so that we have less avidyā and therefore greater freedom from duḥkha”. One definition of Yoga is duḥkha-saṁyoga-viyogam, which means something like 'Yoga is the process of unlinking ourselves from painful situations and linking ourselves to more beneficial ones' [BG VI.23]. For me, that means thinking holistically and taking account of short-, medium- and long-term stages of our recovery.
My sprained ankle upset the ‘balance’ that was my ordinary life and revealed that, in truth, we probably all have sort of ‘sprain’, whether located in the body, mind, character or elsewhere, whether we know it or not, that causes us to limp through life. Yoga can be a way to harmonious living, so long as one practises regularly and over a long period of time.
BG = The Bhagavad Gītā
Heart of Yoga, by TKV Desikachar, p.97
HYP = Haṭha Yoga Pradīpikā
YS = Yoga Sūtras