Matthew Remski: What Are We Actually Doing In Asana?

Matthew Remski discusses his WAWADIA (What Are We Actually Doing In Asana?) Project. We get into whether yoga asana was ever really intended as a physically therapeutic practice, how the more extreme examples of an austere relationship to the body are no longer practiced by have still been internalized as values in other ways, the bias towards openness (or flexibility), how any physical practice that one undertakes with passion is going to bump up against their own limitations, and that pushing this edge is not necessarily a bad thing.

He also discusses how yoga has been the most consistently transformative and grounding practice that he has been engaged in, and how the project is not only uncovering the shadows of modern postural practice, but is also looking at what some  of the smart pathways forward are, and who in the field is doing the work to illuminate that right now.

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Show notes

Matthew talks about the decade of work and inquiry that led up to this project.

This practice is marketed as therapeutic to the nth degree, but it is contradicted.

In January, conversations with his partner, set the WAWADIA project into motion. She is also a teacher of yoga asana, and had had about 6 or 7 months when she wasn't teaching due to her pregnancy with their son. It put into perspective some of the injury situations that she had been in. Sitting at the kitchen table they just looked at each other one day and said "Well what are we doing in asana?"

Matthew talks about his many self-discovery and self-regulating paths that he's followed and how asana has been the most consistently transformative and grounding practice that he has engaged in. He values it highly, and because of that he believes that the inconsistencies in training and some of the strange, almost masochistic ideals that come into play should be inquired about. He wants to shed some light on these things.

It's not entirely clear that asana has ever been intended as a physically therapeutic practice. The hatha yoga literature is pretty clear in its transcendental goals.

It has an almost sacrificial attitude toward the body to produce immediate, dramatic psychic experiences.

The extreme practices like slicing the frenulum of the tongue and inserting it in the lower sinuses- in teacher training you'll look at those, but disregard them without calling it what it is- which is a severe bodily manipulation in order to stimulate a nervous system experience that is novel.

And if you take that description and apply it to a rigorous vinyasa series that is strong, and many biomechanists would say unsafe, you can see that maybe stimulating the nervous system is actually the point of that.

We're really talking about what the meaning of the body is.

He talks about how the hatha yogis did not really interpret injuries as a necessarily bad thing. A part of that tradition is austerity. Certain forms of bodily mortification, etc are extreme examples of an austere relationship to the body. While we won't see anyone do this in the studios of San Francisco, what we're very good at doing is internalizing these same values so that we can play them out in other ways.

For example, practicing to the point of losing functionality in the rest of your day, or to the point that your eating becomes disordered, or practicing in relationship to any kind of authority that wants to tell you how to be in the world rather than helping you to explore what you are already noticing.

I mention how this translates to any physical practice that people take on with intensity.

He doesn't talk about these extreme practices in order to scare people off, but thinks the truth is that we all have ambivalent relationships to our bodies to begin with,  and the way some people deal with that is to discipline and to punish in a way that helps them to feel released.

Anybody who applies themselves with passion to physical activity, they have to negotiate the moment when the breath gets tight and the teeth clench and we want to push out that little bit more of effort and we have to square that with the rest of our lives. It's not that it's bad.

Everybody is frustrated at being human. Everybody is frustrated at being contained, at being apart from things. Those are natural dissatisfactions.

Matthew's pat response to yoga injuries for years was, "They must have been pushing themselves too hard." or, "they must not have been listening to the teacher." When really the hardest thing for him to do was to realize, "Maybe you're teaching crap and you should learn a little bit more."

The openness bias- of flexibility as the goal- is harmful not only to those who are hypermobile, but also to those who are less mobile as well. He talks about his partner, who is not built in an overly flexible way but rather is more densely knit, getting an injury in a pose that asked for more flexibility and when she described the injury to the teacher he told her it was a good type of pain, that it meant she was getting more open.

The studio culture often tells us that more open is more virtuous. And her body type was being seen as a goal of going from not hyper-flexible to hyper-flexible- that that would have been a good thing.

In his interview he has talked with those who identify as "bendy types" and they were praised for going deep into poses which weren't really hard for them. And as they were being asked to demonstrate and practicing they were injuring themselves.

Women within the hypermobile category are showing the highest rate of lumbar spine injuries.

The other thing about the openness bias is that there is this unspoken connection between joint mobility and emotional openness. Looking at back-bends, when called heart opening, it suggests that a particular thoracic movement will have a particular emotional effect.

Openness in the joints is often associated with an ability to be placid and accepting. First, are these virtues we actually want? And second, is that actually true? I don't have statistics, but I've met plenty of bendy people who are as emotionally closed as anybody else I know.

The beautiful person fallacy- the attribution of certain qualities to someone based on what they can do or how they look.

Matthew right now is playing with not having a desk- moving around from position to position. He finds he needs to keep moving in order for these ideas to strike. He does a little bit of asana and swimming each day.

Also day-by-day he is understanding that it's not enough for this project to uncover the shadows of modern postural practice, it also has to make some proposals. It's easy to be a critic, but we have to ask what are some good pathways forward.

The book has to be able to say, "Here are the things that seem to be really smart and are working right now." Matthew recommends some people to check out who he thinks are doing extraordinary work right now (see all in resources below).

Over the last 3 or 4 years a richer biomechanics discussion, and a materialist discussion of what asana actually means and what it's capable of- that discussion has slowly started to creep in to the center of yoga discourse. The tissue loving message is starting to make serious inroads.

Resources

WAWADIA introduction to the project (update #1)

For the scientization of yoga: Joseph Alter and Mark Singleton

People who Matthew feels are doing extraordinary work in the field:

Vanda Scaravelli and her book Awakening the Spine

Esther Myers

Monica Voss

Tama Soble

Maria Cristina Jimenez

Bonnie Bainbrdge Cohen

Amy Matthews

Leslie Kaminoff

Jill Miller

Paul Grilley

Jules Mitchell

Trina Altman

WAWADIA updates (#1 is above at the top of the resources):

#2: Questions, Questions, Questions!

#3: "Wild Thing" Pose: Impossible, Injurious, Poignant

#4: Emerging Psychosocial Themes in Asana-Related Injuries

#5: "First, Do No Harm" An MD on Asana-Related Injuries

#6: I Was Addicted to Practice: A Senior Teacher Changes Her Path

#7: Pain, Performance, and Politics: A Conversation with Mike Hoolboom

#8: Notes On My Hospitalization