The Practice is Neutral?
There is a lot of defensiveness in the Ashtanga community regarding the intensity of the practice. Many people have asserted that Ashtanga is too physically demanding, its teachers too aggressive, and that injuries are the inevitable result. Ashtangis counter by saying the practice itself is neutral (a common phrase in our community). This is meant to convey that the practitioner causes his or her own injuries by misusing the practice in some way. It means that if the practitioner were moving more mindfully, perhaps more focused on the breath, bandhas, and gaze, that they could avoid injury, or at the very least minimize the risk. We are very reluctant to point the finger at the postures or the method of teaching. We blame, first and foremost, the student. While the student is ultimately the only one who can control what he or she does on the mat, those injuries didn't happen in a vacuum. There is plenty to be said about the role of the teacher and the culture within the community.
Let’s be clear that the Ashtanga practice, as performed by the book with little to no modification, is pretty brutal. There is a lot of jumping, lifting, twisting, and bending in fairly extreme ways. Even in the Primary Series, you’ll find elements that ask a lot of our modern, rigid, weak bodies. Person after person in the Mysore room is nursing some sort of yoga related injury. Are we being honest when we say “the practice is neutral”? Does that tell the full story? I think that’s akin to the “guns don't kill, people do” argument. Maybe that argument makes sense to you, but for me, there is a reason people keep guns in their nightstands instead of other potentially lethal weapons - it’s because guns kill most efficiently. So, maybe the gun is neutral, but when we want to kill someone quickly and assuredly, we reach for one. We thereby acknowledge its unique power to cause harm. Saying “guns don’t kill, people do” doesn't tell the full story and is a minimization of the danger they pose.
Same with this incredibly intense practice. It does pose a significant risk of injury. To say otherwise is to distort the reality of people’s experience with the practice. Perhaps in fantasy land everyone is always careful and inwardly focused and not chasing asanas, but in the real world, the vast majority of people approach this practice with an achievement mindset, pushing themselves through physical challenge in a way that leaves them vulnerable to injury.
To remedy this, I think we have to start with how we teach the practice. I have no idea how Sharath and company teach in Mysore. I cannot, and will not, speak to that. My incredibly limited time with The Boss was spent with him guiding a week’s worth of Led Primaries, which hardly provides evidence of his one-on-one teaching style. From what I did see, he was very hands off and didn't push students who were modifying. I appreciated that very much. However, something I can speak on is my experience working with Ashtanga teachers here in the States. I’ve worked with numerous authorized and certified teachers that, in my humble opinion, push people too hard, too fast, and too often.
What is my opinion worth? Perhaps very little. I am well aware that my seven years of practice is small potatoes in the grand scheme of things. Maybe you’re reading this and thinking, “Where does this chick get off having an opinion about how this practice is taught by authorized teachers? Who does she think she is?” Well, to answer that question, I don't think I'm anyone with particular authority, but I am someone who has been injured in the Mysore room by overzealous adjustment. I’m someone who has felt the pressure to keep pushing myself even though I know I’m exhausted and therefore vulnerable to injury. I'm someone who has trusted teachers whose advice proved harmful. I’m someone who has fallen victim to the sometimes ruthless, no pain, no gain culture of Ashtanga Yoga.
I don’t mean to place blame solely on teachers. I know that those who aggressively push their students are doing so because they think it’s best. And, of course, some pushing is necessary for students to grow, but how much is too much? I believe it is common in our community for teachers to overdo it. Basically, Ashtanga yoga teachers, you have no chill, and you too quickly blame the student.
We can write off a student's injuries as their own folly. “Too much ego,” we say. “They overdid it.” Those are valid points. But just maybe, they are also imprudent. And incomplete. If a student under our guidance suffers an injury, should we not take a moment to reflect on what we could have done differently to better help them navigate the incredibly complex work of applying "right effort" during the asana practice? Isn’t it unfair to assume a student can do that on their own without frequent reminders from the teacher, especially at first? This is a very physically demanding practice. It is a potent weapon. That's why it works so well. But like all potent weapons, it should not be handed off to those who don't yet truly "get it". When we expect inexperienced students to understand how to use their bodies safely during an intense physical practice in an environment that rewards them based on outward performance, we are being downright reckless.
Maybe, as teachers, we could change our language to direct our students’ focus to the inward experience. I think we too often get caught up in the physical achievement of our students and lose sight of where progress really matters. What if we praised our students on their compassion and mindfulness as often as we congratulated them when they achieve an asana? What if we more enthusiastically encouraged modification when a posture felt off? What if we took a less is more approach to physical adjustments? What if we stopped treating advanced practitioners like the cool kids club, leading students to chase asanas that they aren't ready for? I think there are million little tweaks we could make to create a safer, healthier environment for Ashtanga yoga practitioners.
So, yes, it is factually true that the practice itself is neutral. The postures don’t exist until a person brings them to life. But, that statement doesn't tell the whole story, does it? There is a lot more at play than just clumsy or greedy students. We have a culture problem in our community--one that pushes people to their limit before they even understand what that means. I am just now finding mine after years of practice! I feel that only recently am I mentally and physically ready for the practice I have. I should have taken it more slowly, and I have a slew of injuries to prove it. Is that entirely my fault, or is there some blame to go around among the culture which encouraged me to push myself so forcefully? I think we can do better.
I believe in the power of the Ashtanga yoga. I intend to keep practicing and teaching this method with gusto. I think when practiced--and taught--responsibly, Ashtanga yoga can and will transform your mind, body, and soul. But, I am questioning the need to be so damn pushy about it. Bodies (and minds!) constantly sore and healing from overuse will not enjoy the full benefits of the practice. Bodies rife with injuries will not have longevity. Don't we want to be practicing until our final days? I know I do. What’s the rush? Why the pressure? We have many lifetimes to make this journey.
Let’s chill the f*** out.