WAWADIA update #6 /// “I Was Addicted to Practice”: A Senior Teacher Changes Her Path

WAWADIA update #6 /// “I Was Addicted to Practice”: A Senior Teacher Changes Her Path

My colleague Diane Bruni opened the first What Are We Actually Doing in Asana? event on 5/29 with a personal story of injury, confusion, recovery, and innovation.

Diane taught the very first ashtanga class in Toronto over twenty years ago, and has been a fixture of the yoga scene here ever since. I first walked into her now-famous now-ex-studio in 2005.  I saw her name outside, on a rain-soaked poster, next to a class called “Ashtanga Level 2”. I unrolled a borrowed mat in a packed and steamy room.

I was struck not only by her creative intensity, but by the way in which the entire two-and-a-half hours was an immersive ritual of pulsing breath. Nothing was static, no movement was overly-defined. Nobody seemed to know what was coming next, and yet it all seemed to make primal sense. I don’t think I ever heard her use the words “pose” or “posture.” Every instruction pointed towards values  like “grace, fluidity, circularity and resilience,” as she recently told Priya Thomas.

Quivering in a pool of blissful/shocked sweat in the dressing room afterwards, I said to a guy covered in mantra tattoos, “So is this ashtanga yoga? I thought that there was a fixed way of doing things.” The guy snapped out his wet towel, folded it neatly, and smiled. “That’s Diane. She knows the ashtanga sequences like no one else. She’s studied with the masters. But now she’s doing her own thing. She knows that yoga means change.”

Nearly five years later, Diane’s creativity — and her love for the ashtanga method — would be severely challenged by a catastrophic injury. Sports medicine doctors eventually told her that ripping four muscles clear off her hip bone while doing a simple wide-angled forward fold had resulted from tissue distention patterns, overuse, and dysfunctional glutes. These were all direct results of the practice to which she had committed fifteen years of her life, and in which she’d become a renowned expert.

In the clip below she tells story of how her hip injury was also primed by the advice she’d received from her colleagues about how to take care of the severe knee pain that had been waking her up at night. Advanced practitioners had told her that the pain was “normal”, not to be worried about, “part of the change that was taking place.” She was told “You have to break your knees” in order to get into the more advanced postures. Still, she was told, she could mitigate her knee pain with hip openers. That’s what we do.

We can’t say that Diane’s story is a common one. The number of asana practitioners who sustain her former level of intensity (2-3 hours per day, six days per week of advanced postural practice for over a decade) is probably a statistical minority. We shouldn’t worry about masses of people rushing out to imitate her. But two things stand out to me.

First: Diane wasn’t just practicing “addictively”, as she says, in order to self-regulate. Her professional attainments and authority as a teacher depended upon that commitment, and upon her students seeing it in action. So regardless of whether her students practiced as hard as her (and many, including her daughter Kathryn, did), the rigour of Diane’s practice was a community ideal. She was in the paradoxical position of performing an intensity that inspired others, including me, while it damaged her tissues. Not only did nobody see the pain that she herself was ignoring, the movements that were causing that pain were actually interpreted by others as beautiful or pleasurable, or both.

I remember seeing her practice in a corner of the crowded room, radiating concentration. I thought “She must feel so integrated, so fluid. She’s become a master of her breath, her movement, and her space. She doesn’t seem to have any of this mental anguish that is my constant companion. This must be the bliss that comes from intense embodied discipline.” I’m sure she did feel integrated in moments, maybe even for days at a stretch. But parts of her were also falling apart, and no one who was watching could tell the difference. The entire allure of the studio depended upon the invisibility of her pain.

(There’s another essay in here about the hidden damage — environmental and sociopolitical — that supports other fantasies, like the necessity for a perfect tomato in February, or the belief that fish stocks are plentiful enough to fill our buffets, or that $120 yoga pants are made by people who have enough to eat. I’ll leave that for the book.)

Secondly: when we hear that Diane was told by her colleagues that her knees must be broken to accommodate the presumably healing qualities of advanced postures, we are certainly hearing something absurd on one level. But this advice is really only one logical outcome of any process that rationalizes pain in favour of a spiritual ideal — and this is not at all uncommon in yoga culture. As I detailed just a little in my own presentation from 5/29, practitioners will often psychologize tissue pain, blame it on their own impurities or karmic failings, or, in Brad Ramsay’s case, frame it in terms of a necessary divine sacrifice.

I don’t think it’s overly wacky to note that the knee has psychic significance in subtler realms of yoga discourse. In the medical maps of Vedic astrology, the knee is governed by the tenth house: the 30° section of sky through which the sun passes at solar noon. This position is called the “house of karma”, and is also said to confer data regarding a person’s visible career: how they present themselves to the economy of the world. The knee, therefore, is seen as a joint of mundane pursuits.

Universally, kneeling communicates surrender, while in subtle yoga, “breaking the knee” would be a sign of becoming useless to the world. The injury is humiliating to the ambitious person, but if a yogi inflicts a knee injury on herself, it could be seen as a conscious act of renunciation. It’s unlikely that the American teachers who tried to help Diane appreciate her knee pain are aware of this obscure connection. But I’m pretty sure their Indian teachers would have been. It makes me wonder how many other vestigial bits of esoteric strangeness echo through our frameworks for pain, and not just or even primarily Indian bits.

There’s one more thing. You’ll hear Diane describe how every asana teacher she’d had, beginning with her first Iyengar teacher, had insisted that she “soften the glutes” in every single pose that would naturally seem to require gluteal support.  This, she and many others now feel, leads directly to compromised lumbar and hip safety.

Diane freely admits: “I don’t know where this instruction came from.” I’m clueless too, but I must have heard it a thousand times from many different teachers (I was closest to several disaffected Iyengar-types). It’s possible that it’s just an incomplete instructional meme that made its way out of Pune or Mysore in the early 1980s and then spread like a virus amongst teachers like me who wanted to have a bunch of things counterintuitive (i.e., pseudo-smart) to say. Perhaps it was only the first half of an instruction that was meant to allow for femoral grounding through slight internal rotation in spinal extension. If that’s a desirable movement, then judicious engagement of the gluteals should follow to add support. But I never heard that part of the instruction, and had to figure it out on my own, after a lot of lower back pain.

But I think there’s something more to it than just a repeated distortion rattling through a ragtag network of globalizing teachings. I remember one teacher saying that the larger muscle groups of the legs were “stupid” in their “grossness” and that proper asana practice was meant to find and utilize subtler mechanisms. I remember another teacher strutting around the class, mocking a “tight-butted gym monkey”, whose gluteal tone was broadcast through his pinched facial expression. This was why, he explained, Mula Bandha Was Actually A Very Refined Practice. One had to locate impossibly deep pelvic musculature in an Energetic — NOT a muscular! — Action, which would Sublimate the Downward Outpouring of Life-Force, but without gripping the buttocks! (Or the perineal floor. One teacher repeated ad nauseam that mula bandha was Not. Like. Kegels! He seemed to sneer when he said the word “Kaaaay-guls”, as though degrading its obviously carnal purpose.) It was all very complex, and it had a moral tinge about it that I bought into, even though I’d been attracted to asana for its seeming absence of moralizing.

Similarly, I remember categorical statements being made about the belly: that it should always be soft, that abdominal gripping was a primary cause of wasted prana, that our goal was to return to baby-breathing, and that people who did more than navasana to tone the abdomen were “flexing their egos”. I was told to look for a “strength that was not based on striving”. In this way, not only bodily movements were psychologized, but particular muscle groups, which makes me wonder if this is a natural tendency we have, which lies at the root of all ancient physiognomy.

The message seemed to be: you don’t want a strong ass, and you don’t want a strong belly. It’s interesting that these are also considered to be sites of sexuality and selfhood, respectively. So what kind of body were we being asked to craft? What is this desexualized and “egoless” strength we were being asked to develop? How does it intersect with other overtones of renunciation? What does it mean to disengage from the most powerful heart of our musculature? I’m sure a bunch of folks have insights on this, and I hope you comment below.

Here’s the clip of Diane, followed by a summary for your convenience.

Summary:

  • Diane describes her practice as religious and addictive: she had to practice 2-3 hours per day, six days per week.
  • “I had to keep practicing because I thought I’d fall apart without it.”
  • Neglecting all other exercise, she began to experience something common for practitioners at her level: knee pain. She ignored it.
  • “Ashtanga teachers around me said ‘You have to break your knees’ in order to get into those postures.” 
  • After a year of increasing pain, she decides to get an ultrasound, which reveals a cyst in her knee joint. The orthopaedic surgeon suggests that the cyst has emerged in response to friction, and advises that she stops practicing.
  • “My livelihood depended on it. My studio was based on it.”
  • She asked her mentors in the lineage what she should do to recover from the knee pain. She was told that she should work on hip openers. She took the advice, and concentrated for over a year on pigeon pose and the like, applying long holds. Her knee pain subsided and she became very flexible in the hips.
  • One Sunday morning, she prepared to teach by meditating in several seated, cross-legged poses for about an hour. She even noted the openness and comfort of sitting that way, compared to the pain she’d previously felt in sitting.
  • She stood up to begin teaching the class and folded forward in an innocuous wide-angled stance, and felt and heard four sharp pops from her right ilium and ischium as four separate muscle attachments tore away from her bones. She slid to the floor and taught the class verbally, without demonstrating.
  • “Nobody knew.”
  • She took a cab home and made a medical appointment. She thought the doctor couldn’t understand what had happened, because he was asking what she had done to provoke the injury. She assumed that he was thinking she’d been doing extreme movements, but then realized that the hour of passive stretching in cross-legged seated postures was what he was looking for.
  • “The analogy he gave me was that if you take a piece of meat and hang it from a hook, after ten minutes, it’s going to be elongated by a certain percentage of its total length. After twenty minutes, even moreso, and so on. Until eventually, all it takes is a small amount of added strain, and it will break and fall. It rips right off, because it’s gradually becoming weaker under the force of gravity.”
  • Rehabilitation was very painful, because she had to question everything. Among other things, she recognized that she’d trained her gluteal muscles to be completely dysfunctional, according to the instruction of every asana instructor she had ever had.
  • “What happens when your glutes become dysfunctional is that your hip flexors become overworked. That’s happening for a lot of people right now.”
  • It took Diane several years to gain enough security and confidence to speak openly about this flaw in the instruction and her teaching. Part of this confidence was gained through talking with numerous movement experts, physiotherapists, chiropractors, sports medicine people, and practitioners recovering from injury, who all confirmed that gluteal dysfunction is a pervasive and harmful pattern in asana practice.
  • In the first few years, colleagues thought that her new insights were crazy.
  • “My immediate community was not interested in the revelation I’d had.”
  • From here, Diane’s path of continued innovation accelerated, as she realized that she had to overhaul her methods and teaching, and break through layers of confusion and silence.
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80 Comments

  1. Allise Rhode

    Whoah.
    — One of your best posts mremski !! —-

    I often think about something my Physical Therapist told me.
    In 10 seconds, most of the stretch is in.
    TEN SECONDS. FOLKS. 10 seconds.
    —– It’s in, in TeN.

    I’ve posted on my FB page an article on Hysteria.
    —- I welcome your perusal, Read it ALL.

    The lexicon of rhetoric is born in hysteria.
    Hysteria is how we try to CONVINCE ourselves.

    However, what we need to be doing? EXPLAINING.
    No more persuasion or coercion (rhetoric).

    Speaking against aggression must find reality and voice reality.
    Not pie in the sky (‘salvation’ from our outraged/outrageous complaints).

    Let’s get real.

    • Culture is real. The Internet is real. Messages are real. “People” are often not real. Critics are often full of shit. Only an expert can craft posts that garner attention. Only an expert.

  2. Matthew Remski, you’ve written a brilliant, heartbreaking, and simultaneously reassuring piece. Diane was the teacher who told me when I first began teaching, “Don’t teach what you can’t do.” The pressure to keep up my practice for my students sometimes made me enjoy yoga less; a paradox in a path of the heart and what I considered my true calling. This post answers more of my questions. Interestingly, in Kripalu yoga (the method in which I received my teacher training), student teachers are told to guide students to engage the gluteal muscles particularly in backbends. This methodological contradiction plagued me for many years, particularly when I became involved in the Anusara practice. Thank you for the work you’re doing.

  3. Sahara

    I have been in the Ashtanga world for more than 20 years. I have never heard a teacher say you have to break you knees. In fact the opposite. Usually take your time you dont want to break you knees. That is insanity and ego and pure foolishness.
    in addition the cause of her serious injury was the long holds and they are very much not part of the ashtanga practice. These are the kinds of things that happen when one mistakenly thinks asana is the goal.

    • The long hold on that morning was a tipping point. Prior to, Diane had been practicing fluid vinyasa to build flexibility in her hips in order to reduce knee pain. She received this instruction from senior teachers in the lineage.

      I don’t understand your last statement. Isn’t it more likely that such injuries occur when biomechanics education is lacking?

      • richard koman

        I understand it. He means, the Iyengar emphasis on staying in poses a long time, as opposed to the Astanga emphasis on vinyasa. Achieving a certain “in the photo” state of asana is not the goal, moving through the practice in dedicated vinyasa is.

        • Long holds do not rip muscles off the tendons on their own…Listen to her account again. There was a massive over-stretching through the flow practice to begin with in combination with an atrophy of the glutes.

    • john pizzolato

      Thank you… i thought i was the only one with this sentiment! Im trying to figure out what the objective is here!?

  4. I’m interested in communicating with Diane. Can you facilitate this?

  5. Wow….brave….and amazing.

  6. The Practice and Addiction is an interesting topic, and one that I’ve been wanting to address, especially with regards to my own experience of breaking free from the Ashtanga Vinyasa Sequence.

    Regarding the need to be discerning about where our ‘knowledge’ is coming from, and in reply to a common student question about Padmasana, I wrote three short pieces which encourages us to be ever mindful of the Buddha’s Kalama Sutta. Don’t believe something, he says, just because seems established as true through repeated hearing, tradition, rumour, scripture, surmise, axiom, personal bias, anothers reputation or because you heard it from your teacher. From your own enquiry, he says, find the truth.

    Best regards,
    Angie

    http://www.fangoandmoksha.com/blog/putting-your-best-foot.html
    http://www.fangoandmoksha.com/blog/blind-faith-and-cynicism.html

  7. Sidsel

    Two things are on my mind after reading this.

    First thing: It is an important question why there is such an unspoken pressure to practice intensely and move ahead (in the Ashtanga world – at least when you travel around the world to practice with senior teachers). I’ve heard stories about advanced students taking pain killers during their stay with a senior teacher in India, the excuse being that yoga is their life – being teachers themselves – so they need to go “deep” while being with this teacher. Furthermore the people often assisting this teacher are often people doing the advanced poses, regardless of how many years they’ve been practicing. As in Diane’s case: Why is it necessary as a teacher – or as a student – to become more and more advanced and more and more flexible? The obvious answer is that as a teacher you need to know what you teach others; as a student it is desirable to move ahead (so you can become a teacher?). But I am not talking about that – I mean WHY? Why are most of us going through periods of time where we don’t respect the body’s signals? Why are we trying to create more and more intensity?
    A teacher of mine often said that the interesting question is: what happens when we back off? What happens in the mind and what happens in the body? Then love and compassion arise; then tenderness, acceptance and the capability to be with whatever is there arise. And is this not what we are trying to PUSH – even force – our minds and bodies to become? It is such an irony!

    The second thing on my mind is the thing with the glutes. I suffered from lower back problems for many years, not being able to do a proper back bend until I realized how to relax my glutes! Then I could start working with the different muscles in my back bends… But maybe now is the time to experiment with working them again?

  8. After 10 years of Iyengar practice, which helped me recover from hip issues, I learning the Ashtanga practice. It was a literal “breath of air” into my practice. I enjoyed the strength and focus that I learned. I did have to back off from it in a few years and develop on a slower mindful alignment based flow practice for myself. Hopefully we, yoga teachers can pass on a wiser physical practice to the next generation of yogis.

  9. what an iterating and enlightening conversation. so multidimensional! thank you. I have had knee surgery, and low back sacroiliac issues, have been practicing many different kinds of yoga. Pilates saved me. I now incorporate pilates moves and principals into my yoga classes.

  10. Matthew, thanks for engaging and for doing this work. Its a much needed debate. Here is some more thoughts on this: I know you say that feeling is subjective. But that’s just a fact we have to deal with as teachers.My experience is that it is not that difficult to teach students to feel the difference between pain leading towards injury and a safe muscular challenge. It has to do with learning how to feel the difference between muscle and joint sensations, often felt as a difference between sharp, local, strong sensations and softer, more distributed and pleasurable sensations. Yes, you can’t just ask people to feel. You have to show them the difference between hard and soft by giving them options and asking them to feel the joints involved and the difference between strong sensations and more subtle ones. Giving them enquiries into feeling smaller and more subtle differences little by little. This goes on forever as a somatic self enquiry. (ask any perfume producer how they train a new “nose”: by subjecting it to distinguish smaller and smaller diffrences between scents that initially smelled more or less the same). Subjective yes, but not impossible. I do this with beginners every day. When I teach people like the young Diane, however, it involves asking them to go “cold turkey” from strong sensations and extreme postures for a few months to re-sensitize their joints. Yes, cartilage is not sensitive but everything around it is! And they will call out long before we get to where Diane went provided we don’t bully our students into ignoring pain. You´d have to talk to Godfrey Devereux to get a full account of the teaching methodology (DYTM) based on step-by-step sensitization. It has been out there for years and we are many teachers in Europe using it every day without creating injuries like that. It´s not rocket science. A 4-year old would never do what Diane did to her body without a grown up standing over them and forcing them to comply with an external ideal. It is the being forced or cohered to ignore the obvious pain that gets us into trouble, just like in dianes story she had knee pain long before things went crazy. My point is that insensitivity has to be LEARNED. Diane had years of hard-core practice to “learn to” enjoy the “opening” she felt before tearing her muscle off the bone. Asking people to feel “their edge” is not enough. You have to have a structured method for sensitizing the joints. I´m sure I am not the only kind of yoga teacher who does that.

    • I agree for the most part that common sense in movement instruction is helpful, and that incremental sensitization is fundamental to excellent asana instruction. It sounds like you’re doing an amazing job.

      What I’m finding is that the subjectivity of pain goes farther than one’s inability to gauge it in another person. It can also be ambivalent within oneself. There are many people who come to the mat with very complex relationships with pain, combined with issues of self-trust. One subject reported that the intense practice he was engaged in “might” be hurting him, but “then again, my body might be lying to me.”

      So while I agree that insensitivity is learned, we’re not just talking about how people learn it from bullying asana teachers, but from entire lifespans of being shut down, not listened to, or forced to dissociate. Not to mention that very old substitutions of pain for virtue can be very hard to see, much less break.

      • If I can add to this thread – Bixi’s comments about European teachers working with Godfrey Devereux’s teaching method caught my eye.

        I’ve been teaching for 5 years now in a Drug Rehabilitation Community for young men. Their yoga classes – twice a week for an hour and a half – are more or less compulsory. Usually between 19 and 40 years old, their drug addictions are more often than not complicated by borderline (and not) psychiatric issues. So on top of the illegal drug situation, they can be taking all kinds of pharmaceutical cocktails. What we’re talking about here are significant issues regarding the (ab)use of the Body as a site of self-expression and major issues of de-sensitazation.

        When I began teaching, I was practicing A.V. But within that context, it would have been impossible. The fluidity of Vinyasa is essential – they don’t have long enough concentration spans for a static hatha practice. And so is the repeititon for re-establishing neural pathways. So, I broke it down, and the flow moves gently. It can take more than half hour to arrive at Tadasana from Balasana, so by the time they are doing Surya Namaskara A, they don’t even realise it. I teach the same way in my own studio.

        After a workshop with Godfrey Devereux a few years ago, I commented to him that what he was teaching I’d been doing quite naturally. ‘As it should be,’ he replied. ‘If you’re following the integrity of the body, the movements will be natural’. His book ‘Dynamic Yoga’ was a great help to me as I moved away from AV because of health reasons – (that’s another story – not injury – but inflammation from an auto-immunity problem. Changing hormonal levels? Oh, yes.)

        Within the context of the Community, there has never been a yoga-related injury, despite the particular issues that the men are dealing with. Their injuries are almost without exception related to playing soccer, where they are running around with no body-breath-mind awareness. And I do believe I can say the same for my own studio: it’s not huge, we communicate.

        Because of my experience as a teacher, and as attendee at workshops such as Godfrey’s, I must say I do ask myself every now and again .- as you are – What is going on with contemporary yoga in America?

        Godfrey Devereux is worth hearing with regards to the awakening of somatic intelligence and the integrity of the body, beyond cultural conditioning, wishful thinking and esoteric texts. He’s intelligent and weird and has his issues, but you take what is valuable and leave the rest. I can pass a recorded talks through Dropbox if you’re interested – Neuromuscular Recalibration you might find interesting.

        Love your work, thankyou,
        Angie

  11. Pilar

    Anyone who has practiced Ashtanga yoga traditionally knows that at no time will any student be practicing for 3 hours at a time. The Ashtanga Primary Series referred to by Diane takes no longer than 90 minutes for a regular practitioner. Beyond the Primary Series,one’s practice may take around 2 hours for a short period of time as one develops the second part of the series.

    Further, anyone who has practiced yoga as a student in Downward Dog’s so called Mysore program knows that students are allowed to practice whatever poses they wish, in whatever sequence they wish, at whatever pace they wish – unlike traditional Ashtanga practice where a student moves to more advanced poses only under the strict guidance of their teacher and only according to their personal ability. Downward Dog’s ‘ashtanga’ yoga program should be labelled for what it is — Vinyasa yoga.

    To refer to this style of yoga as Ashtanga yoga and suggest that it is generally causing serious injuries is grossly misleading and inaccurate. It is when students practice outside of the guidelines that injuries occur.

    • Thanks for the input, Pilar. From what I have gathered there seems to be a range of interpretations of the method, in part due to its transformation over the last forty years. I hope other practitioners can speak to this here.

      But it also sounds like you are saying that when students practice the method within the guidelines you describe, they will not be injured. Have you seen any exceptions to this rule?

      • I have not had the time to follow your entire WAWADIA inquiry in depth, Matthew. However, I have scanned some parts of it and today was able to read this particular post and its comments in detail. I’ll offer my perspective here:

        I stand in the statistical minority that you mentioned of practitioners who sustain a 2-3 hour, 6 day per week practice of advanced Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga over an extended period of time (11 years). I believe this gives me some context to comment here from a place of lived experience, rather than conjecture.

        Briefly, my technical history of asana practice is: 5 years of daily Iyengar yoga practice from ages 23 – 28. This was followed by 11 years of daily (6 days per week) Ashtanga Vinyasa practice (2 – 3 hours per day), along with 30 – 60 minutes of Pranayama daily and 30 – 120 minutes of Vipassana Meditation daily.

        I am now 39 and have maintained the frequency of these practices for the past 11 years, and have no intention nor reason to consider changing this at present. I also earn my livelihood through teaching Ashtanga yoga and Pranayama.

        The only times I have disrupted the continuity of these practices is during periods of intensive travel (several times per year – I might miss a couple days of asana practice) and the occasional times (approximately once per year) that I take an extended multi-day backpacking hike in the wilderness, where the conditions will usually not permit a traditional Ashtanga practice (but sometimes they do!).

        When my schedule becomes very hectic, or when I find my nervous system destabilized by excessive travel or major life changes, I will drop the pranayama practice for a period of up to several weeks until a new routine and stability in my life is established. However, my asana practice always resumes the moment I have a flat and dry place to unroll my mat.

        I learned the 3rd and 4th series of the Ashtanga system from a very compassionate and gentle senior teacher over the past 8 winters (3 – 5 months of intensive practice with him each winter). This past winter we completed the 4th series together. During the remaining 7 – 9 months of the year, I primarily practice alone, preferably in a small cozy room, around 3:30 – 5:30 am, before I teach.

        My current standard practice follows the traditional Ashtanga prescription:

        Sundays – Intermediate (2nd series) – approximately 1.5 hours total
        Mondays – Advanced A (3rd series) – approximately 2 hours total
        Tues, Wed, Thurs – Advanced B (4th series) – approximately 2.25 hours total.
        Fridays – Primary series (approximately 1.5 hours total)

        These time estimates do not include a 20 minute routine of gentle supine asanas which I usually do before starting the Ashtanga practice, nor do they include a 15 – 30 minute Savasana that I take after my Ashtanga practice (I consider about 20 minutes Savasana to be the comfortable minimum time for my body and nerves to fully integrate the practice).

        I can confidently state that after 11 years of this level and frequency of practice, that I have not experienced any serious injuries. At the moment I am completely pain free.

        I have gone through dramatic transformations on many levels, including structurally. As a tall skinny guy, I always had a strong lordosis, rounded shoulders and sunken chest. Ashtanga has permanently changed the structure of my body, so that I now stand and sit in a much healthier and more stable relationship with gravity.

        Those natural tendencies to imbalance in my body will never be completely eradicated, of course – but my current body structure is also permanently altered from the one that I had before I started yoga. I now naturally stand a full 2 inches taller than I did when I was in my early 20’s, due to the reduction of my lordosis, and increased lift in the sternum and space in the rib cage. Of course, this has innumerable physical and mental benefits.

        One major theme in my personal practice (and my teaching) is the midline of the body and its connection with the field of gravity. For me, each and every posture in the system is designed to bring us deeper into the relationship of our body’s midline with the field of gravity. I borrow heavily from the ideas of Rolfers in this.

        I attended several workshop with Richard Freeman (though he is not my main teacher) and enjoyed his referral to the Ashtanga practice as “do it yourself Rolfing”. This really hit home for me. This is what my practice is all about.

        If one surrenders to the traditional Ashtanga system, with its prescriptions for sequencing for an extended period of time, and **do not mix it with other forms of yoga**, then one can truly experience the restructuring of this very intelligently designed system. The system rebuilds and restructures the body from the ground up. Primary series works the foundation, Intermediate gets into the upper regions and the Advanced series integrate the two at deeper and deeper levels.

        There is an immense intelligence to this system, and the longer I practice it for, the humbler I feel in the face of whoever it was that designed this sequence of asanas to restructure the human body over a period of many years.

        Did I experience pain and discomfort in this process? Of course I did. Just as lying on a Rolfing table can often involve intense discomfort, so can “do it yourself Rofling”.

        There were times when such deep structural changes were taking place in my body and the deepest layers of tissues were moving around in ways that was very uncomfortable. Without fail, this discomfort would manifest outside of my asana practice – while the practice was being more deeply integrated by my body and nervous system. In most instances of this these times, I would still be able to do my “full and usual practice” – however they way I practiced would change. That is, I would do the same asanas, in the same order, as prescribed – but I would intuitively know to back off from the intensity of them when necessary. Doing some of the postures to 50 percent of my usual capacity for depth, for example. Going up to “the edge” of where my body would understand that I was giving it healthy and gentle encouragement to continue in a particular direction, and yet at the same time respecting my bodies need for space and less intensity to integrate the changes that this direction was asking for.

        It is a very fine line. It took me some years to learn that line. As I understood that line better, the periods of “necessary discomfort” (as an advanced Rolfer friend of mine terms it) became more familiar and intelligently manageable. .

        In reading this brief and incomplete description of Diane’s experience several things stand out to me, some of which “Pilar” pointed out in his/her comment:

        1) She was teaching and practicing modified sequencing that is not a part of the traditional Ashtanga method. It sounds like this involved many advanced postures and was being done for some length of time before her disastrous injury. Added to this non-traditional sequencing were the sessions of sustained stretches and long holds which are also not a part of the Ashtanga system.

        2) She felt a pressure (which can only be self generated) to use her practice as a performance to inspire others

        Both of these, and especially number 1) are completely against the traditional Ashtanga system. And my experience is that both 1) and 2) are recipes for inevitable disaster when mixed in with traditional Ashtanga practice – especially when one is in the very serious and powerful realm of intensive daily practice of advanced postures.

        The Ashtanga system needs to be given GREAT respect. It is the job of the Ashtanga teacher to ensure that students give it the respect it needs. If you respect it, it will give you all the benefits in the world. If you abuse it, it will tear your body to shreds. Literally.

        I can’t speak for all the Ashtanga teachers out there. Surely, many of them are not teaching, nor practicing themselves, the proper respect necessary for this system to be healthy or healing. Any teacher that says “you have to break your knees” is surely misguided and not giving that respect. I’ve never heard an Ashtanga teacher say anything like this, and I would immediately run away if I did hear a teacher say this.

        A good Ashtanga teacher will recognize what is healthy and necessary discomfort, and also what is unhealthy and unnecessary discomfort. They will encourage their students to respond accordingly. Regardless of the classification of the discomfort – it always should involve a backing off, and a deepening of the awareness and sensitivity.

        Patience and non-striving and non-performance should be reminded again and again. A good teacher will always do this. A good practitioner will learn how to apply this for themselves, and hopefully teach it when they become a teacher themselves.

        The point is – The Ashtanga system is healthy, healing, strengthening and empowering when applied correctly. Are most teachers applying it correctly? I doubt it. But, that is not the fault of the system. It is the most powerful form of yoga on this planet. It can open, heal, align and strengthen with it’s power, or it can maim and destroy. It all depends on how it is applied, with what amount of respect and wisdom. But – the system itself is inherently good for those who know how to use it and will not cause injury unless it is abused.

        This is not a judgement towards anyone who has misused the Ashtanga system. We are all human and all get caught in the trappings of our own minds and images. The trick is to learn from our own mistakes, and to learn how we have to change ourselves – not to blame the system.

        • Thank you for taking the time to do this Iain — you contribute so much here, and generously. I regret that the selection bias of calling out for stories of injuries tends to emphasize the potential poison rather than the medicine of a powerful practice. I’d like to interview you directly if you’re interested, but I’m wondering if you could clarify a few things here.

          Previous commenter Pilar implied that a 2-3 hour practice is uncharacteristic and perhaps unhealthful. Is this a common divergence of opinion?

          One technical question about long holds. Diane was really describing sitting in meditation for an hour, making small shifts in cross-legged poses. I know that many A.V. practitioners are also practicing meditation. Is siddhasana for an hour (for example) a “long hold”?

          You reference the method with words and phrases like “system” and “traditional” and “inherently good”, that make it sound like its vocabulary and sequencing have had a long and tested history. My understanding is that the method has undergone many structural changes over the past forty years. Could these changes be a factor in the wide variability of practitioners’ experience of the method — from your benign story to stories of deep injury? In other words, do you feel you have received some ideal iteration of it, or at least a version that has happened to work for you?

          Do you think your uninjured and now pain-free experience makes you an outlier? Reading through Guruji (edited by Stern), your experience would seem rare.

          Combining these two questions, I wonder: how much of the experience you describe might be attributable not to a system that others interpret and practice differently, but to your own natural skills and gifts in movement?

          • Thanks for the reply and follow up questions, Matthew.

            I’d be happy to have a direct interview with you. I’m sure it will be very interesting and thought provoking for me.

            To address what you have asked above:

            MR: “Previous commenter Pilar implied that a 2-3 hour practice is uncharacteristic and perhaps unhealthful. Is this a common divergence of opinion?”

            My response: Like most things, I think the appropriate length of practice for maximum benefit has to be taken on a case by case basis. In general, those practicing Ashtanga as it is taught by Sharath in Mysore today will not have a practice of over 2 hours. The series is done very quickly in Mysore, and most practitioners who are trained directly by Sharath practice quickly. Primary or Intermediate series are finished, including Savasana, in under 90 minutes. When a new series is learned and one can be practicing up to 1.5 series in one session, it can go on a little longer. In the standard Ashtanga method, new postures of a new series are added to the practice of the previous series, until a certain point in the new series is reached. At that point, the two series are split into two separate practices, to be done on different days. In recent years, Sharath has actually reduced the number of postures that need to be completed in the new series before the series are separated into separate practices. He stated that it was to make the practice shorter so people could get on with their day.

            This contrasts strongly with reports from the first students of SKPJ who have spoken about doing 3 entire series in one session which would take 4 hours to complete.

            Why has Sharath changed things? I am guessing for two reasons. One is that he is “processing” hundreds of students per day, every day. SKPJ in the early years might have had less than 5 students per morning. Sharath therefore has an obvious reason for getting students to have a shorter practice. Reason number two is that Sharath is a family man with small children and a very demanding job. He likely has recognized that doing a shorter practice is more conducive to a functional family and work life, which he emphasizes that most people should be engaged in. When SKPJ was teaching a few students he was semi retired and knew that those students were in India to get the deepest and most powerful experience out of yoga that they could, and they had nothing else to do in their day. He knew the Ashtanga method could give them that, and he was willing to give it to them.

            So, I think Sharath today and SKPJ in the early days had very different situations and therefore very different goals in teaching the practice, and hence very different prescriptions for length of practice. Is one more correct than the other? No, I don’t think so. Again, case by case. One person may have very little responsibility in terms of family and job and be truly ready for the strongest physical experience possible. This experience might show them what they need to be shown at that time in their life. Nonetheless, I don’t think this would be healthy or sustainable beyond a short term experience.

            For other people, with a family, a busy job, life, etc. – doing a shorter and more basic practice will be much more beneficial and healthy. Sharath seems to have adapted this approach out of necessity and from the place of his own experience.

            Personally, I have had times where I did two full series in one session on a daily basis for several months. These times built strength and a new level of awareness. When I did them, I was not teaching and had space in my life to process the intensity of what came up. I would not find this sustainable or healthy for me on a long term basis (for more than a few months), but for a few brief periods, it was good.

            Now I do the standard of one full series each day. However, I DO practice this more slowly than the average Mysore trained practitioner. My primary emphasis and focus in practice is on the inner movement of the breath inside. In my understanding, ujjayi breathing is most effective when done more slowly. So, when I take the standard 5 breaths in a posture, it tends to keep me in the posture for longer than someone who is breathing more quickly.

            I consider this very healthy. Slower breathing usually means fuller and more relaxed breathing, and also translates to more parasympathetic nervous system response, even while in the midst of an intense flowing practice. This also creates more sensitivity and awareness and I feel therefore much less likelihood of making any movement that would cause excessive strain or injury. It also makes the practice more pleasant!

            So, in the case of a practice being longer simply because the breathing is slower, I would say it is healthy! If the practice was longer because more and more postures were being practiced – but the breath was still short and forceful – then I would say this is unhealthy, energetically depleting, stress causing, and greatly increases the risk of strain and injury.

            MR: “One technical question about long holds. Diane was really describing sitting in meditation for an hour, making small shifts in cross-legged poses. I know that many A.V. practitioners are also practicing meditation. Is siddhasana for an hour (for example) a “long hold”?”

            My response: Great question! My interpretation (and again, I can really only speak for myself on most of these questions) would be to define “long hold” in a way that is potentially injurious and not compatible with an Ashtanga practice as a posture that actively lengthens a muscle or group of muscles for an extended period of time in a way that is challenging to the body – and does not have the support and protection of bandha. For example: In a simple forward bend, one can relax the body and simply “hang in the posture”. When this is done for a long or short hold it will likely cause strain and pain in the hamstrings. I think the longer the hold, the more strain, pain, and eventual likelihood of tear or injury. If one does the same forward bend with the knees microbent and the hamstrings somewhat engaged, then I would define this as a form of bandha and is likely to result in a healthy and well integrated lengthening of the hamstrings over time. A longer hold of this type of action would not be harmful in a mechanical sense – but if done excessively would still cause fatigue which could then lead to other problems, including eventual injury.

            When it comes to a meditation posture such as Siddhasana – I think it would depend entirely on the practitioner’s comfortable range of motion. If Siddhasana challenged the hips, knees, etc of the practitioner then I think it would be injurious in the ways I described above if done for long periods of time regularly.

            I also have extensive experience in intensive meditation. My understanding of meditation has always been to **choose the most comfortable posture possible** so that it can be held for longer periods of time with minimal strain. If the posture chosen does not challenge the range of motion of the body, then I would say it would not be classified as a “long hold” in a sense that it could be injurious.

            I do use Siddhasana for meditation myself. In meditation retreats I have sat in Siddhasana for up to two hours at a time without any change in posture. I never experienced any strain (aside from eventual tiring of the upper back muscles) and no pain or problems from this as my range of motion is not challenged by it. If I did feel any issues arising in the hips, knees, etc. – I would choose a different meditation posture that I could stay in for longer periods of time without strain.

            So essentially, an appropriate meditation posture should be easy for the body, which should be a product of a long term asana practice – but the meditation posture itself should not be held as a way to further open the body, otherwise it would be a potentially injurious long hold, in my opinion.

            MR: “You reference the method with words and phrases like “system” and “traditional” and “inherently good”, that make it sound like its vocabulary and sequencing have had a long and tested history. My understanding is that the method has undergone many structural changes over the past forty years. Could these changes be a factor in the wide variability of practitioners’ experience of the method — from your benign story to stories of deep injury? In other words, do you feel you have received some ideal iteration of it, or at least a version that has happened to work for you?”

            My response: I feel that if a practice is going to be healthy and supportive to a person’s personal growth and self evolution over a long period of time, then it is absolutely essential for that person to make the practice their own. If one is simply doing what they have been told without any deeper personal analysis as to whether it is in synch with their individual needs, then it is not their own practice, and likely to eventually cause problems.

            A person that makes a practice their own will make tweaks and modifications to make it suit their needs and this should be an ongoing evolutionary process.

            I’m not sure that the external appearance of the Ashtanga method has changed so much over 40 years. Some of the reports of the very first students of SKPJ did describe many differences in the sequences of asanas practiced.

            Aside from those few reports, the structure of primary and intermediate series does not seem to have changed much at all during the past 40 years. Just a few minor changes of vinyasa and posture which I don’t feel would make much difference in the overall effects of the practice. The advanced series did change more than primary or intermediate over the years, but I think because so few people practice the advanced series, it is not so relevant to the current question.

            When I use the terms like “system” and “tradition” I am referring to this: There is a method to the Ashtanga practice. The postures in are meant to be learned **one at a time**, **gradually**, **in a particular order**, **and practiced in this same way each day**. One should also integrate the form of a particular posture into their body’s structure comfortably, before learning the next posture in the series. The postures should be practiced with vinyasa in co-ordination with the movements of ujjayi breath.

            Whether there have been minor changes in the vinyasa and sequence of the postures is less important than the aspects of the method that I have just noted.

            It all comes back to the idea of “do it yourself Rolfing”. Doing the same postures, in the same order every day gives inputs to the body to change in a particular intelligent direction. As the body changes and integrates this direction into it’s long-term structure, then new and more challenging postures can be learned to stimulate the body to change and evolve further. This is a long term process of change and integration of change into the stability of the self. There are no short cuts. It takes time for the structure of the body to change and to be integrated into a stable self. Deep things have to move and reorganize themselves inside. The body has an inherent intelligence of its own. If you give it the same inputs every day, the body will understand (whether your mind does or not), and if you are patient and non-forceful, the body will adapt and change in its own time, when it is ready. No need to break your knees. Just be patient!

            Now, here is the problem. You do this for some time, months or years perhaps and then you get bored, or confused or impatient or something. You start mixing things up. You try new creative sequences that are different. Perhaps because you feel your hips need to open more. Instead of patiently waiting for the body to move and adapt the standard sequence you have been practicing for several years and the hips to open, you try to force it to open in a different way by changing the sequence. Your body gets very confused when this happens. The body was working in a particular direction all along, but now you are giving it mixed signals. You are unaware of a much deeper structural process happening inside. Now that process is disrupted. Not just disrupted, but it can go haywire.

            The longer and more intense your practice is, the more advanced the postures that are involved, the more depleted and tired you are, the more you are teaching (and demonstrating) – the more severe the case will be of the inner process going haywire. In cases of all of the above, the results can be disastrous. The deeper tissues that have been moving in a consistent direction for years now just get knotted and bunched up, everything seizes up, and often there is a tear, break, pop or whatever.

            That’s how I see it. Mine is only one perspective, however. So, when I speak of the “method” and “the tradition” I speak more to the way the process is executed, rather than the particularities of the sequence themselves.

            I do feel that this is my own interpretation of the method. I don’t feel the method has changed over time, but that personal interpretations of it have varied extensively.

            MR: “Do you think your uninjured and now pain-free experience makes you an outlier? Reading through Guruji (edited by Stern), your experience would seem rare.”

            My response: I think many people become impatient and hurt themselves. Or their teacher gets impatient and encourages them to hurt themselves. I think it is impossible to get through the advanced series and the deep structural changes this brings about without periods of pain and discomfort – as I have experienced myself. However, it is reasonable to assume that it is very possible to do this without **injury** as defined by a localized and diagnoseable tear or damage to a particular tissue or structure. I do know other practitioners who have done this.

            I also know of many who damaged their knees or lower back (two of the most common). Mostly due to impatience, on their own part, or the part of their teacher. Not waiting for the postures in their current repertoire to be fully integrated, and striving for that next posture which they are really not ready for.

            I think better understanding of the system as I have defined it is required. Again, it is a powerful system, and it is here to teach us patience and humility. If we are ready to learn this, there will be no problem! The lack of understanding of many teachers of the system is a big part of this problem.

            There is no hurry! Most human beings should never do more than Intermediate series. And most human beings should take 5 – 10 years or more of daily practice to learn even that much. If it is done this way, there will be fewer problems and more reports of benefits.

            Unfortunately, I would say that you are right Matthew, that I am part of a minority in that I have not been injured in my journey through this system. I strive to educate people more on how to do this and make myself less of a minority, and I truly feel that the system does not need to be changed for this to happen, just that it needs to be better understood and respected.

            MR: “Combining these two questions, I wonder: how much of the experience you describe might be attributable not to a system that others interpret and practice differently, but to your own natural skills and gifts in movement?”

            My response: Great question. I don’t consider myself particularly gifted in movement. I have had as many challenges and issues as most people do to work through. Having a strong vatta element to my constitution, there was a lot of wonkiness and lack of spatial orientation to work out. Of course, the steadfastness and clarity of my pitta aspects are what saw me through all that. When I started yoga I could barely touch the floor in a forward bend. I could backbend easily, but in a way that would have eventually ruptured lumbar discs if I had not taught myself and been shown better ways to bend backwards and access my very tight upper body and shoulders. Even after some years of Iyengar yoga, balancing in a handstand seemed completely unattainable in this life. Step by step it all happened. Lots and lots of work. The Ashtanga method certainly was the right way for me to do this.

            There is no doubt that the Ashtanga method suits my constitution. I do believe I have accessed the best that the method has to offer and avoided most of the potential pitfalls.

            I guess I feel that the main factor in my “success” with this is that I have always had an innate and intuitive ability to choose what is right for me and reject what is wrong for me, on all levels. Though I respect authority and tradition deeply, authority also means absolutely nothing to me unless it makes sense at an intuitive and cellular level of felt experience. My ability to choose well and reject well is probably the only real “gift” that seems to be innate. This is what I refer to when I say “making the practice your own”

            The problem I see in most people, whether in Ashtanga or anything else, is that they either accept what they are told unquestioningly, or the opposite, they rebel and reject everything. There is a middle path where the essence of the wisdom of tradition can be accessed and grasped and integrated, while the poisons of authoritarian misinterpretation of tradition can be seen and rejected.

            Being truly in touch with one’s true self is the only way to access this middle path. One’s true self will be able to accept, tweak, and fully integrate a healthy practice, whether Ashtanga or any other system.

            I feel that Joel Kramer and Diana Alstad hit the nail right on the head in “The Guru Papers” and “The Passionate Mind Revisited”. They describe this much better than I ever could.

            Thanks Matthew, you have brought out the verbose rambler in me!

          • Following up re: changes in the AY system: I just came across this report from Nancy Gilgoff: http://www.ashtangamaui.com/article_1.html. Between 1973 and 1980, the practice she was given changed radically, it seems.

          • Iain, as an Ashtanga practitioner for the past 17 years, I can concur with so much of what you say here. When done wisely and without grasping to get “more”, in my experience, the Ashtanga practice as it has been traditionally taught is healing and life sustaining.

            While I have never studied any of the Advanced series, I currently practice Primary and Second alternately 6 days a week (with appropriate days -moons and menses- off. I also teach a small Mysore community 6 days a week, so I use my body vigorously (but, wisely) most days. I am 48 years old and currently am experiencing no pain in my practice, although for many years I had pain in various parts from structural imbalance (stemming from scoliosis, which has much improved through the “Rolfing” of the series) and from injuries sustained from activities outside of the practice. I have never been severely injured doing Ashtanga.

            However, about 10 years into my practice, I suddenly was unable to do even a basic Suryanamaskar because of severe back and pelvic pain that (unbeknownst to me) was caused by an IUD. At the time, I thought it was due to moving heavy furniture. (If you are interested in that story, this link give details http://www.florenceyoga.com/blog/why-you-should-remove-an-iud-if-you-have-one-in-ladies) I stopped doing the practice for over a year, as I thought it was worsening my pain, but realized I actually experienced *more* pain in my back when I avoided doing movement.

            So, I went back to basics and started from scratch. While the IUD was still in place, I used the practice to regain strength and help heal my body. I rigorously following the tenets of *not* going beyond a posture if I was unable to do it without going into spasms in my low back. Following the traditional method, I regained strength and decreased pain, and was able to work through a pain-free Primary series in about a year or so. It took more years of patient practice, after the removal of the IUD, to regain my former abilities in asana. My asana practice is now vitally different: I am not only a more seasoned, wiser practitioner, who experiences no pain, but also, I no longer strive to “get” more from asana, being immensely grateful for what I now can do – as it is more than enough. I practice what feels best for me daily, taking a day off (and an oil bath) on Saturdays – again, following the tradition. The oil bath I find to be essential, especially as I age, and I highly recommend it, along with other Ayurvedic daily regimens such as daily abhyanga (self massage) to help maintain the health of my body.

            Long story short, the Ashtanga practice can be healing or it can be harmful. Much depends on one’s approach, and even one’s teacher – both of which ideally should be sensible, wise and compassionate.

          • Michelle, thanks for sharing your story.

            I appreciate hearing a story that validates my perspective on how the Ashtanga practice can be healing and strengthening, by using what I have termed as “the correct method” and “respecting the system”. The tenants you listed, especially that of *not going beyond a particular posture in the series until you can do it without discomfort* just need to be followed strictly. That is all, and the system will then work and heal people instead of injure people. This teaches patience and humility as a bonus!

            I have coached several practitioners through the method of “starting over from scratch” just as you described, after injuries they sustained. In all these cases, I gave the same prescription you stated, which was to not go further in the series until what they were doing could be completed without discomfort.

            I’ve had to start over from scratch (or close to it) myself several times and followed the same tenants. It works.

            Even after a long plane journey, I do the same thing. After landing, having not practiced for a few days, my 6 ft 3 body cramped into economy seats without sleep for hours on end, stuffed into taxis, changing diet, climate, and other things……I always start with primary series. If it feels good, I do intermediate the next day, if not, I do primary again. If intermediate feels good, I do third the next day, if not, I stay with intermediate for as many days as necessary, etc, etc. This works.

            And I agree completely on the oil bath and abhyanga. Interestingly, I have been living in Bali for the past two months and it is the only place I’ve lived in the last 10 years where I have not felt the need for oil bath, mainly due to the climate. Even in India, where it is a much drier heat, I find oil bath to be absolutely essential and very beneficial to the body’s integration of the practice. When I lived in Whitehorse, Yukon for 10 years, I could not even imagine living without my daily oil bath! Sometimes people in India would ask me how I could maintain such flexibility while living in a such a cold and dry climate for most of the year. My reply usually involved singing the praises of the oil bath.

            As I age, I feel more and more drawn to make sure I live in climates with some humidity. I think this is quite a big factor in the health and vitality of the body tissues, especially for those with an intensive asana practice.

            While being able to practice effectively in any climate is a sign of real integration and mastery in my opinion – I also feel that for long term health, whenever possible, practice should be done in a room with a good level of warmth and humidity. This is certainly a factor in injury prevention, and injury rehabilitation.

        • “If you respect it, it will give you all the benefits in the world. If you abuse it, it will tear your body to shreds. Literally.”

          “The point is – The Ashtanga system is healthy, healing, strengthening and empowering when applied correctly. Are most teachers applying it correctly? I doubt it. But, that is not the fault of the system. It is the most powerful form of yoga on this planet. It can open, heal, align and strengthen with it’s power, or it can maim and destroy. It all depends on how it is applied, with what amount of respect and wisdom. But – the system itself is inherently good for those who know how to use it and will not cause injury unless it is abused.”

          Iain sounds like an amazing practitioner and an excellent teacher. But what frustrates me about the world of Ashtanga Vinyasa is the degree of blanket-statement fundamentalism. Comments such as those above would be softened by adding ‘for some of the people, some of the time.’

          I imagine there are countless examples of people who have practiced AV with total respect and wisdom, with no ‘abuse’ of it whatsoever, only to find that the practice is simply not what their unique disposition and biological composition requires.

          I think it’s easy for men in their physical prime to sing the praises of AV. I loved it, it was good for me through my thirties. When the hormonal changes of the forties set in, bringing with them a whole new ball game of health issues, AV was quite simply too much. Did the health issues arise because I wasn’t practicing with enough respect and wisdom to glean those healing aspects of the practice? I don’t think so. That’s magical thinking.

          ‘The most powerful form of yoga on the planet?’ Maybe that depends on what Siddhi you are after.

          • You made some excellent points, Angela.

            I was not implying that that the Ashtanga practice is the best or the only practice for everyone. As you said, it really depends on what Siddhi – or results – one is after.

            However I do feel the Ashtanga practice CAN be adapted to suit anyone, if they want to practice it. It can be gentle, meditative and soothing, if done with that intention.

            I ran an Ashtanga school in Whitehorse, YT for 9 years. Most of my students were far from the typical Ashtanga stereotype. I taught the practice to people from all walks of life. No one knew what Ashtanga was when I moved there, so I had a beautiful clean slate to work with in 90 percent of my students. Several female students started with me who were in their 50’s, 60’s and the oldest was 68. All of them loved it and stayed on as regular practitioners. Whenever issues came up, I modified, adapted, advised and revised. Above all I showed them how to use the practice to open their breath and move their body in a particular way. No expectations for external form, just internal process. These people could breath deeply and move slowly through 1/2 primary series and come out feeling healthy. One woman in her 50’s had never done yoga and had a serious knee problem when she started. After a year she was doing 1/2 primary with some modifications and her knee was 80 percent better than when she started. One woman in her 50’s had never done yoga and was doing all of primary and 1/3 of intermediate after two years. I had rarely seen such grace and focus in the movements of anyone, of any gender, at any age.

            Anyhow, if these people had been forced to do a stereotypical Ashtanga practice at a stereotypical Ashtanga school, none of them would have lasted more than a week or two and may have been injured in that time. I showed them how to do the practice in a way that respected themselves and where they were at, and ultimately to me that means respecting the system. I did not need to change anything about the sequence – just modify some of the challenging hip rotations for those with knee problems, and allow them to practice slowly and in a gentle way with awareness and sensitivity.

            I will reiterate that my belief is that anyone can do Ashtanga if they want to and are willing to listen to themselves with sensitivity, and receive health and healing from it. It does not have to be the hardcore practice that many people assume.

            However, there are many other forms of wonderful movement practice out there and equally healthy and healing for many people. We’ll all find what we need if we are open to it.

        • Sidsel

          It seems that you are blessed with a body/mind that works well with the ashtanga system – something very beautiful. What I would like to state here is that it is simply not possible for everyone to use the ashtanga method in this way. I have been practicing for ten years now and I am “only” halfway through intermediate – simply because my body/mind is different. I was practicing 2 1/2 hours a day, six times a week, meditating one hour a day, doing pranayama once a day, which turned out to be too intense for me. There were no injuries, but it was not healthy for me. I had to implement days of restorative yoga; days of just sitting on the mat, breathing. Maybe this isn’t “following the ashtanga system”, but this has been my way to keep on practicing through quite a few years now. I feel very grateful for the ashtanga system; it has changed my life. It is my love. But being able to practice the way you do is simply not possible… And to me, this does not make me a “bad” ahstanga yogi (my words, not yours.).

          • Sidsel, in no way was I implying that practicing with the intensity that I do is the correct method!

            If fact, what you just described sounds to me like exactly what I encourage and advise to many students in your situation. We all need to find a healthy level of intensity that suits us and stimulates us to evolve and to heal. This will change as life’s circumstances change.

            The fact that you did not suffer any injuries suggests to me that you have practiced correctly. Backing off when necessary, respecting your limits, which ultimately means respecting the power of the system. Congratulations. I wish more people had this wisdom.

  12. Kc dietz

    Thanks Diane for sharing your story and matthew for posting. It helps for people to know, as one commenter shared, that the personal inquiry is the most important. Listen to your body…it’s not dumb…and we aren’t all built the same! Charismatic teachers are powerful and watching an experienced yoga teacher can set some up to desire more than they are ready for…sure we have to push the envelope to advance…but skillfully. So hard to do. Things take time and we have to be willing to give up the goal if it isn’t working. As an ex elite athlete (rowing) and long time yoga student I have experienced this conversation in my body, of doing too much, believing the no pain, no gain mentality and needing to find/relearn the aspects of motion that were ideal for me…takes time and practice and oh so many mistakes! Helps to be supported by masters like Diane as they reveal their truth, thx again.

  13. John

    What has been described sofar seems to be a misunderstanding of the word “yoga”: to be balanced, to teach the body a stable, relaxed form in order to facilitate meditation. Treating yoga as a form of physical exercise is as crazy as organizing it into a corporate form of capitalism. How long does it take a body to learn to relax yet remain attentive and stable? Certainly not years.

  14. Susanne Lahusen

    I came to practising and teaching in the early 90’s when strong adjustments and encouragement to go into end of range of motion were the norm. Adjustments included having teachers lying on top of students in paschimottanasana and standing on my legs in baddha konasana even though my legs were already on the floor. Having very open hips, I ‘ did well’ , but soon encountered SI joint and knee instability and pain. Osteopathic treatment and gluteal stretches made things worse.
    Now, 20 years later, I practice and teach a vinyasa flow class with an emphasis on shtira, lots of going in and out of warrior 3’s and mobilising rather than stretching. I avoid going to classes with themes such as hip opening, and say no to some adjustments. I also complement my yoga practice with other stabilising activities.
    I feel a lot better and much stronger and more stable than I used to feel 20 years ago. My hip joints are as open as ever, but there is no need to go there just because I can.

  15. Cindi Schickert

    I just spent a weekend with Greg Tebb who has trained with and assisted Manju Jois for years. I do not do Ashtanga on a regular basis so I was a bit concerned about how this weekend workshop would go. His whole emphasis was finding what works for your body. When we discussed my back issues, he told me there is the therapeutic version of a pose and the “yoga pose” itself. He told me to continue doing warriors etc in the therapeutic way (the way I had been doing them ~ hands apart, very little arch to my back). When other instructors asked about foot placement etc., he would always stress that there is a standard, but that if your body needs it a different way to be safe and helpful, do it that way. I can’t even imagine the words “You have to break your knees” coming out of his mouth.

    He demonstrated some of the advanced postures for us and when he finished I asked how long he practices each day; he told me 1 hour. Greg went on to explain that he used to do the primary series one day, the secondary series the next day and the advanced series the 3rd day; Manju noticed that he seemed exhausted and told him to pick postures from each series and create his practice from those. He said he mixes things up to keep himself in shape to teach all levels, yet not exhaust/injure his own body. I’m not sure where the attitude of pounding your body comes from. My weekend with Greg gave me a new perspective and a new admiration for the practice of Ashtanga. Pain in a body, at any time, is the body’s way of saying “back off”…if we decide to ignore those warnings, something, at some point, will give out.

    • This has been my experience with advanced level Ashtanga teachers too.

  16. I want to express my gratitude to Matthew for providing a forum where people can begin share with others their personal experiences. When I injured myself my immediate community was unaware of what happened to me. I spoke openly about it, but at the time I did not understand all the implications of my injury. It took me years to fully understand what had happened to me. i remember talking to one of my teachers who I have tremendous amount of respect for, he said that maybe my muscles tore because i sat for too long and was not focused enough on moola bandha.
    I struggled with that statement for years. Yoga teachers have a way of inadvertently blaming their students for their injuries. Yoga students are often left to feel like the injury they experienced was the result of ego, not breathing correctly, not doing moola bandha, not following the sequence.

    I am very interested in the relationship between mysore teacher and student. I am aware of many instances of injuries that occurred during an assist from a teacher. Even in these instances when it’s obvious that the assist caused the injury the teacher will still try to distance themselves from taking responsibility and infer that the student did something wrong, ie not breathe properly or do moola bandha. Can you imagine going for a massage and the therapist tears some ligaments and tries to place the blame on the recipient? I’m surprised that there are not more law suits. I believe this in part due to the relationship that mysore teachers have their students. One where the student becomes attached to the guidance and begins to believe that without the teachers approval they will never advance and reach their goals, whatever those goals are.

    The mysore program at Downward Dog was more open than others because we witnessed that the rate of injury was less if we gave students some lee way in determining what poses were appropriate, based on many factors, including body type, age and past trauma The strict ashtanga system works very well for very few. We wanted to be more inclusive and encourage more people to cultivate a self practice.

    I have over the the past 5 years looked outside the yoga world for information about the bio mechanics of functional movement and anatomy. What I’ve learned is that as yoga teachers we have a limited understanding of functional alignment. We don’t have clear understanding of healthy joint parameters, we are lining people up in postures based on linear pathways that have more to with the shape of our yoga mats than the shape of our joints!

    It has shocked me and humbled me. It has challenged me more than any posture or series of postures ever has. I have a new perspective that is informed by the the latest research on fascia and the bio mechanics of movement, in particular joint parameters. Along my journey I met a man
    who has invented a thing we’re calling the body braid. It’s made of woven elastic and resembles a spiral suit. When worn it amplifies proprioception,
    which means you’ll feel more. It provides resistance, so you have to work a little harder to move. It lifts your arches, rolls your shoulders back, supports your lumbar spine and core. It connects the right side of the body to the left side, the front to the back the back to the front the upper to the lower. people feel instantly taller, more aligned, supported and strengthened.

    I am taking the summer off from running my studio and teaching. I will be developing material to support a new style of yoga called, Body Braid Yoga.
    Classical yoga postures done while wearing the body braid. Stay tuned.

    .

  17. There is a moral to part of this story: butt muscle use during internal rotation of the femur is necessary for sustainability of the body’s integrity.When hearing the details of the injury, I couldn’t help but cringe and become quite fearful. Asana is (and always will be) not the point. The more I study tantric philosophy the more I recognize the potency of the constant practice. Constant. Therefore not asana. Or mola bandha. Or anything esoteric. Just presence. We practice asana for millions of different reasons, and hopefully the asana practice increases our ability to be spontaneously aware. Back to my beginning statement, the gluteus muscles represent the body’s emperor, our king/queen energy. As yoga philosophy continues to permeate the collective consciousness, the king/queen energy continues to be demonized. We favor the energy of the fool, the sage, the magician, seeing the queen as being a cause of suffering. And she can be, when we go too far in our pursuits to control. But a level of organized skepticism and queenly attention to systems, delegating, leading, creating, even killing is needed. And to go further down this metaphor road, the gluteus muscles create more support to open the heart and deepen the breath! With careful attention to the support from great emperor we are gifted more ability to give and receive love. So the metaphoric conclusion or poetic justice can be that we use our queen energy to support the freedom of our magician energy. I have noticed this in my life, and am facing the sober truth that I have demonized the queen energy, over romanticized the magician, and upon recognition see that I have been denying my own strength and power. Balance is key. Not that we demonize imbalance, but that we consider an alternative hypothesis for everything. Let us not do the same thing everyday. Not the same asana, not the same work out, not the same greeting to our loved ones, not the same route to work, not the same avoidance of things we can’t handle, not the same blind seeking of pleasure. Change up the patterns and our neurology will respond! Seek the beginners mind again and again.

    • Jerome Armstrong

      Amen Sarah! That was worth the price of admission in this long (and very illuminating thread of comments).

  18. I am not an Ashtanga teacher and when I have gone to even beginner Ashtanga classes, I end up with a sore wrist or something that hurts. I came to yoga because of a running injury in my late 40s (plantar fasciitis) and after a few years of practicing daily, going through yoga teacher training (such as it is – 180 contact hours and 20 hours of book work? Really?) and then teaching, I started having more injuries – left SI, origin of left bicep femoris. I thought I was going to have to stop teaching. Then I found the work of Ginny Nadler and discovered the muscles of my pelvic floor – which, to my surprise – were unfamiliar and locked. With their gradual opening and the realignment of my hips (anterior rotation and long sacrum) and body, I now feel better than I have in years. I also found Judith Lasater and restorative yoga – perhaps the polar opposite of Ashtanga? My nervous system is much happier and being a Type A, I’m now more inclined to honor my body’s genuine need for rest. I remember students asking Judith about her daily practice – when life is busy – she said she does 5 minutes of meditation/15 minutes of asana/and a 15 minute restorative pose. Perhaps this is the difference between a busy woman/mom and a young man? I was in a workshop with Tias Little and he was asked about his practice and he said he does 1 hour of meditation, 1 hour of gentle somatic movement and 1 hours of asana. My daily practice involves breathing, meditation, chanting, Yoga Nidra, study and asana – in various combinations. But this is my practice. I think world events show us that dogma in any field is deadening. And the idea that yoga isn’t an alive and evolutionary process – that it is somehow fixed and rigid seems dogmatic to me. And if a teacher recommends something the student knows in his/her heart doesn’t work in his/her body (like lifting the knees in Iyengar – does not work in my body), then it has to be modified. Most of my students are over 50 and some well over with my oldest at 89. And really – what is the real goal of yoga practice? Connecting with source and offering selfless service to others comes to mind. With all respect to serious Ashtanga practitioners, how do they have time to be present to their families, neighbors and community and perform karma yoga when they’re practicing so many hours every day? In terms of asana – for me the goal is to remain functional in my body for as long as I’m in it. My grandfather lived to be 105 and my mother is 93 so I figure I may be here a bit longer and I’d enjoy being vertical when I want to be for this journey! Take a look also at the work of Esther Gokhale and her reflections on the posture of people from less industrialized cultures who live without back pain into old age. Thanks for starting this discussion!

  19. Christine

    I feel the need to share my views on this lively discussion. I was introduced to ashtanga yoga through Downward Dog shortly after they opened their doors. I came to yoga with 20 yrs of running so I know tight hips. I was taught the series and after some time started attending their mysore. As previously noted, it was a loose approach to the ashtanga system – one could do whatever one wanted – spend as much time you wished in some poses while skipping those less desirable. I practiced this way for 10 years and always included lots of hip openers with props and using the wall. I took many ‘corrections’,adjustments and advice from the revolving door of assistants which was at times contradictory. I came to terms with the fact that full lotus wasn’t happening and I was ok with it – I would do the extra hip openers instead. My practice was over 2 hrs and I had my share of injuries. The energy in the room was a bit wild and competitive. I thought this was ashtanga.

    Four years ago I started to attend a ‘traditional’ ashtanga studio. I did so with some trepidation due to the stories I had heard about injuries and ‘being held back’. Under the guidance of a certified ashtanga instructor, following the sequence with breath and drishti I realized I was practicing ashtanga for the first time. No harmful adjustments – just help when needed. No extra work at the wall – stick to the sequence. No competitive spirit in the room, just a strong unity of energy to help carry our practice. Much to my astonishment, within a year of this style of practice, I was able to painlessly do full lotus. My practice shortened to less than 90 mins and continues to be so to this day. I leave feeling satisfied that I have done my best that day. I am not pushed or told that pain is part of the practice of breaking and rebuilding, nor have I ever heard such things from the senior ashtangis I have learned from.

    I am not sure what kind of ashtanga Diane practiced that could cause such deep and serious injuries. Blaming ashtanga, especially when practiced in such a free-style manner is not taking responsibility and looking within. Diane was one of my teachers and I learned alot from her – mostly good but some questionable. For example, when her style of teaching included 90 minutes of sun salutations I became disenchanted. Regardless of one’s strength, 90 minutes of serious upper body weight bearing is highly repetiitve, extreme and a recipe for disaster. Her stated goal was to build cardio – I suggested she take the class out for a run instead.

    As for weak glutes, a few Iyengar classes will quickly teach one to engage these muscles to support your poses versus hanging on your joints. I am left wondering if Diane has still not learned her lesson as she moves on to her new thing – the Body Braid. It seems to be an artificial support system and while it may create the sensation of being supported, will it teach one to contract the necessary muscles to support the pose. Girdles held our bellies in but they didn’t teach us to use our belly muscles. My Iyengar teacher constantly reinforced our need to build the intelligence into our bodies – makes total sense to me!

    • There is so much to this story that it’s sometimes easier to look the other way and not be involved. I have distanced myself from the yoga community in the past couple of years. During this time I have been educating myself in the bio mechanics of movement, not only studying books but also studying my body in movement off the mat. I have learned so much, after 5 years of study off the mat I am ready to teach yoga again. This time around I’ll be informed by science not dogma.
      After doing yoga for 35 years I question what possessed me to become fixated on doing postures that have nothing to do with healthy alignment or function. There was something else I was seeking, and I believed that these extreme contortions would somehow enlighten me.
      Over the years I experimented with many versions of traditional yoga postures, including doing extended sun series. I do not recall ever doing 90 minutes of straight sun series, I think the maximum amount of time was 45 minutes. From what I recall of that period in my life, my approach to teaching had more to do with wanting to find a way to build strength through movement instead of holding static postures. Holding postures for the count of 5 was so easy for me and so many of my students. We had all become so flexible. These postures done repetitively were having a destabilizing effect on my back and knees. In those days I was trying to stick to ‘yoga’ poses so doing more sun series worked for my body, I have a strong upper body and no wrist issues. So much of what I taught was based on what I practiced. I could not in good faith continue teaching a class that I wouldn’t do myself. I was lucky to have strong shoulders and wrists!
      I do not blame Ashtanga. I do not even know what Ashtanga is anymore. I just read an article by Nancy Gillgoff about how the sequence of postures have changed repeatedly by Pattabi Jois himself. So is the real Ashtanga Yoga the latest version of poses with or without the vinyasa? The point is everything is in flux including the beloved Ashtanga sequence. I found it best a long time ago to not become too attached, because depending on which teacher I spoke to they had a slightly or in some cases radically different perspective on what Ashtanga Yoga was.
      I understand the sentiments of so many people who have been healed by the ‘traditional’ practice. I too was healed, my problem was I got addicted to the practice, so when it was time to move on to other activities, I struggled, I could not let go. I was attached not only to the postures, the endorphin rush, the community, my routine and my ego. I was afraid of change. I was afraid to admit that my body was no longer able to bounce back after being in extreme postures. Aside from my catastrophic injury I was plagued my a nagging sense that something was not quite right. I began to wonder why after slouching on the couch for an hour I would stand up and my lower back would take a long moment to get into alignment. Like an old person standing up and holding onto their lower backs. It didn’t make sense at the time. Now I understand what was happening to me. I was overstretching my ligaments and connective tissues, like an old elastic band that doesn’t bounce back, the elastin in the body shares many of the same properties. It can only withstand so much stretching and then it begins to lose it’s ability to be resilient, to regain it’s original form after being distorted.
      I got an email the other day from a famous yoga teacher, a woman my age, who said she has severe lower back pain. She was a dedicated Ashtangi, has been doing the first 3 series for over 3 decades. Last year when she was teaching a back bending workshop her nagging back pain got so bad she wasn’t sure she could finnish the workshop. She pulled it together, yoga teaches know how to do that very well, and finished the workshop. Her back is now in constant pain. The diagnosis…an overstretched psoas. I encouraged her to go public with her story.
      The psoas muscle is meant to provide stability to the natural lumbar curve and help take the leg forward in walking. Doing deep backbends and lunges stretches the psoas. Once these stabilizing structures are weakened from overstretching it takes years of reconditioning to restore their resiliency.
      We are the living guinea pigs, no generation of women in the history of our species has ever practiced yoga postures as obsessively as us. Remember the Ashtanga series was developed for adolescent boys, not middle aged women. When we are young our bodies are more resilient as we age we become less resilient. We all know this. But we thought stretching would make us more resilient, and it’s true it does to a point and then the balance shifts and we need to work on other aspects to keep our aging bodies healthy.
      I predict that resiliency training is going to become better understood in the fitness industry which includes the yoga industry, a branch of the fitness industry. Resiliency training includes stretching against resistance, basic movements done efficiently, also known as functional fitness, rebounding, dynamic stretching, and doing yoga postures against resistance. This is nothing new, there is a woman who teaches a from of yoga called Yogalign. I’m excited to read her book, it sounds like there is an emerging interest in understanding how we can continue to practice yoga into the later stages of our lives without injury.
      The Body Braid is a resiliency training tool, when worn it provides resistance so that you’re working harder in every pose. It does not make it easier, but it does guide the body into a healthy alignment by assisting certain actions, but it’s the body actually doing the work to hold the alignment. The Body Braid lifts the arches of the feet, maintains the lumbar curve, supports the knee and hip joints, rolls the shoulders back, and stabilizes the shoulder blades. While the Body Braid can be worn during any activity, it is particularly helpful as a yoga prop. It creates optimal alignment, while also training the muscles to find appropriate engagement or relaxation in each pose.
      Please visit me at 80 Gladstone to try on a Body Braid.

      • jeromearmstrong

        I have not used a body braid, but I applaud the concept. I have use a “posture shirt” from AlignMed, and highly recommend that product for creating a muscle and alignment tension. In fact, I am wearing one right now, while at a standing desktop. It continually reminds me (in order to be comfortable) to roll back and down the shoulders, and slightly tilt the chin… quite the yoga and mental exercise.

  20. Lili

    Thank you sooooo much for a wonderful and insightful piece. I have posted to all my students.

    Lili x

  21. Stephanie

    My osteopath just sent me this article, having seen me go through many, many yoga injuries over the years. I also currently practice at Downward Dog, so just thought I should comment here. This discussion is excellent and very thought-provoking.

    I started practicing at DD in 1999, and Diane was one of my first teachers. I was drawn to the practice because of the therapeutic effect — after practicing I felt blissful, serene, relaxed, and in love with the world. This feeling is certainly addictive! I practiced 4-5 times a week, taking led classes for many years. I eventually started practicing in the Mysore class. While DD hasn’t ever ‘enforced’ a strict adherence to the ashtanga sequences, I did stick fairly closely to the primary sequence, though I dropped a couple of poses that I felt were impossible at the time (the one I remember consistently skipping was garbha pindasana.)

    After about 6 or 7 years of regular practice, I had a debilitating SI joint injury that came on very suddenly and left me almost bed-bound. The day it happened, I hobbled home from practice, not speaking with the teacher about it, and took a several-month long break from classes. I practiced what I could at home, basically lying on the floor and simulating the standing poses while lying down. I wasn’t mentally prepared for such an injury, and because my identity had become so wrapped up in my near-daily yoga practice, I felt completely lost for a little while. I could work, but couldn’t sit in a chair for too long before I’d need to lie down. I had a hard time sleeping, because the pain would wake me up if I shifted position. This lasted a few weeks.

    I had had other injuries while practicing for those years — hamstring, knee, wrist — but these would pass and wouldn’t affect my everyday life. The SI joint one threw me from yoga for a while.

    Eventually I missed my practice and came back. This time I felt I needed some prodding to get back to it, so I investigated traditional ashtanga teachers, thinking that the enforced 6 day per week practice would help me get back to the practice I loved, and somehow prevent injury. The idea I understood about it initially was that it is a minimalistic practice — there’s no modification or preps or anything fancy. You just need to follow the sequence, not skip postures, listen to the teacher, and show up every day. The primary series, I was reminded, was ‘yoga chikitsa,’ or yoga therapy, and was meant to heal the body if practiced correctly — i.e. 6 times per week, except moon days, and by focussing on the breath, drishti, and posture.

    Eventually I found a teacher and practiced daily at a traditional studio. The studio environment was enticing, had a lovely community, was friendly and welcoming, and there was a feeling of ‘belonging,’ that in retrospect is rather cult-like. There was an immediate sense that the outside world will never understand us, and that we’re united by this common belief system of early morning practices and forgoing late night social events. We’re working towards something greater than ourselves, that will ultimately benefit the common good, and our bodies, spirits, and minds. What developed there for me was a sense that my injuries were a part of this — they were part of the subjugation of personality, of individuality, and of ego, in order to benefit my ‘higher self’ and that of others. The more I was injured, the more work was going on internally — burning of karmic imbalances or misguidances, working through physical imbalances of the body. Since primary series was therapeutic, all I needed to do was this sequence, in whatever form it took, day in day out, regardless of how it felt or how much pain I was in. There is a sense of peer-pressured faith that one has to adopt in this situation — everyone around me seems to have gotten through these tough patches just by carrying on, so I should do that too. Other students told me that when they were just about to give up, that’s when they were on the verge of a major breakthrough, and they stuck with it and that I just needed to hang in too and keep going so that I can reach the next stage of pain-free advancement in practice.

    The gist of what I eventually understood was that this traditional practice seems to have borrowed some very dangerous ideas from other religions: mainly that one needs to suffer in order to transcend suffering. There is a dogmatic belief system here where people are taught that by simply following the rules, without question, one becomes a better person, and benefits humanity. The more suffering one faces, the more faith one needs to develop, and then the more enlightened one may eventually become.

    I have already written enough here, but I just want to point out how dangerous this belief system is. It is very hard to break free of, but since returning to a non-traditional studio like Downward Dog, I’ve learned through knowledgable senior teachers how to avoid injury — believe it or not, by changing the way I practice and paying attention to my body — not by faithfully repeating the same thing day after day. This seems quite obvious now, but while immersed in this traditional ashtanga culture, it would seem absolutely blasphemous to say so. I’m grateful for the blissed-out feeling again after (most) practices, rather than the pain, frustration, and anger I felt daily while practicing in a traditional studio.

  22. Stephanie

    I forgot to mention that throughout my 2 year traditional ashtanga practice, I had many low back and upper back injuries, as well as knee, wrist, neck injuries — but the worst was that this SI joint issue returned multiple times. Many of the assists were robotically performed on everyone, so I had to shoo off the assistants when they came near (though the main teachers, of course, knew of my injuries and stayed away.) So I was basically going to a yoga studio only to eschew any sort of assistance or guidance, and to be in pain on a daily basis. I stuck with it for the 2 years for reasons mentioned above.

  23. I often feel in the minority with the philosophy and practice paths I choose. I fear we have become neurotic as an industry in the states over “correct” alignment and postures, encouraging/forcing people to do things that don’t feel right for their bodies.

    In the traditional program I studied in India, they were not hyper-concerned about alignment or the use of props. Don’t get me wrong, we were taught to provide guidance on how to enter a pose, exit a pose, hold a pose, but we would never adjust people manually. Their take: the body will naturally open and be able to do postures when it is ready.

    In any sport, the neurotic vigilant seem to overwork their bodies to the point of breaking them. In this case, I feel as if yoga is no different from hard-core climbing, running, biking. But it should be.

    I feel that at the core of this issue is that we have moved into seeing yoga as exercise and a “practice” that is physical instead of a practice that is part of an ancient tradition of personal spirituality; a journey that really has nothing to do with the alignment or practice of poses, and in which asana is only one of the eight principles of yoga.

  24. I’ve been doing yoga for years and have never heard either the “soften your glutes” instruction or “you have to break your knees.” Indeed, my first yoga instructor, of the Kripalu school, always talked about protecting the knees and avoiding poses that hurt. Which is, of course, how yoga should be taught. Perhaps this is an Ashtanga thing, and may also be a reflection of the low quality of teacher training in North America and the need for some kind of certifying body. I hate to say it, but most of the yoga teachers I have encountered are not qualified to properly instruct beginners and protect their students from injury.

  25. I am a practitioner of Resistance Flexibility, and wanted to respond from my perspective:

    Diane writes, “The analogy he gave me was that if you take a piece of meat and hang it from a hook, after ten minutes, it’s going to be elongated by a certain percentage of its total length. After twenty minutes, even moreso, and so on. Until eventually, all it takes is a small amount of added strain, and it will break and fall. It rips right off, because it’s gradually becoming weaker under the force of gravity.”

    This analogy is nonsense. When fascia accumulates in the hamstrings and glutes due to stretching without resistance, or making other unnatural movements, it causes the hamstrings and glutes to become too tight, not too loose. When fascia builds up, the hamstrings and glutes cannot elongate (or contract), which causes enormous stress and overstretching at the attachment points in the knees, hips, and lower back. As the person gains more range of motion (and often considers themselves more successful in the posture), their attachments become more and more overstretched, while the muscle tissue in their glutes and hamstrings becomes tougher and tougher, tighter and tighter, more and more dead. Resistance Flexibility training the hamstrings can confirm this, as well as mashing. The hamstrings feel hard to the touch. Resistance Flexibility training reveals that the person has less than fifty pounds of contractile strength, but several hundred pounds of resistive force. I’ve worked with a lot of yoga students and practitioners in Santa Barbara, and many don’t have perspective on how tight their hamstrings are relative to the general population, because they have a lot of range of motion and think of range of motion as flexibility.

    The solution to Diane’s problem is to Resistance Flexibility train the hamstrings to remove the excess fascia, leading to an immediate increase in contraction and strength of her hamstrings and glutes, as well as taking the burden off her knees, hips, and lower back.

    This article immediately called my attention to the hard-core yoga class I watched a few weeks ago. I was fascinated by the lack of consciousness and the ability of people to forget their physical bodies – to the extent that they really believe what they are doing is healthy. It’s the same as in ballet or gymnastics. There is a timeframe and then… “pop!” says the attachment.

    As a type associated with science and decision making (Gall Bladder), projections come to me about what will happen in the future and when, based on data that I collect. What is happening now? What’s happened in the past? I include thousands of factors in the analysis. I call this predicting the results of the experiment. Based on my experience, when a projection comes to my mind naturally, it usually, but not always, turns out to be on track- 90% odds.

    A strong projection came to me while watching the yoga class:
    After ten years of doing the class 2-3x per week, everyone in the class will have bodies that are quite wrecked. By ‘quite wrecked,’ I mean that they will have a physical problem bad enough that it bothers them all day every day. Knees. Lower backs. Shoulders. Depending on where the fascia accumulates, the problem will manifest different for each individual. Also, I thought, the top 1/1000 bodies could do the class without ever getting injured, but no one in the class had anywhere near that degree of physicality or biomechanics. No one was even in the top 1/50 bodies.

    This article tells me that when people develop a serious problem due to stretching without resistance, they won’t necessarily talk about it, they won’t even attribute it to their practice, but instead they will try to conceal what they are really feeling. That’s dumb. I noticed that there was no room in the class for a person to express any issue that they had going on physically. Everyone was trying to act like they didn’t have any physical problems, but everybody has a problem.

    I think this article and the class I watched are good case studies of how far people can be driven away from their instincts by wrong training and wrong information – that’s why it’s necessary for us to consider the external results, and not only consider the participant’s ‘experience.’ I appreciate Diane coming forward about her experience, and the results of her twenty-year practice, thereby providing an open door for others to walk through and do the same.

    • Thanks Nick. The analogy that Diane received from her clinician was related to the hour of static stretching before the injury. But it sounds like you’re describing a longer-term mechanism, in which “fascia accumulates in the hamstrings and glutes”. Am I getting that right?

      • No, what I am saying is that static stretching does nothing to cause an elongation of the muscle. That is why it doesn’t increase true flexibility. Static stretching only causes over stretching at the attachments. When you resist, one defining feature of Resistance Flexibility training, the muscle engages and therefore gets a stretch.

        Have you ever watched an animal like a cat stretch? Notice how they always resist the elongation.

        Come to my class sometime (in Santa Barbara) and I can show you this difference so you can experience it for yourself.

        • Thanks for the invite Nick — but I’m in Edmonton now, and live in Toronto. But I’ll look you up when I’m out there! I was wondering why you called the analogy “nonsense”. Diane’s injury occurred at the attachments, after static stretching. It sounds like you and her doctor are saying similar things.

          • Hi Matthew,

            I think it’s a bad analogy because it likens passive stretching to the constant force of gravity working on the meat, whereas what is really happening is a violent pulling on the attachments during passive stretching. On the other hand, when a person resists as is done in Resistance Flexibility training, there is no stress on the attachments at all, rather an increase in the true flexibility of the muscle tissue results.

            With regard to your previous question, yes, it takes time for fascia and scar tissue to accumulate due to unnatural movements. On the other hand, accumulation can happen very quickly due to trauma.

            Thank you for providing a space for open inquiry. Much appreciated, and I hope to meet you one day. Until then, you can find a lot of videos of how to stretch with resistance on http://www.thegeniusofflexibility.com, and for a free month to our 200 video archive you can use the coupon code ‘first free’

  26. Stretching muscles is a myth because you cannot put strain on them and cause them to change shape or length. The body will try to create more tension to protect the tendons. So stretching must be done over and over after the stretch receptors turn back on after static stretching.
    I have spent over 20 years creating YogAlign which uses resistance stretching or dynamic stretching along with other techniques that rewire the way your body is aligned quickly and painlessly at the nervous system level. Nobody has to touch their toes with their knees straight and in fact doing so can disable the gluteals and loosen the necessary tension in the ligaments of the lumbar/sacral platform. It is so sad to see people pulling on their joints and creating permanent injuries. Humans are made of curves that provide shock absorption such as the lumbar/sacral curve, back of the knee and arch of the foot.
    What makes many feel tight and uncomfortable is the fact that we have spent years of our life in a right angle chair which shortens the flexors and weakens the extensors and breathing forces. In YogAlign, we do poses that keep the curves in the spinal column and simulate good posture in real life movement. I have been photographing people before and after for years to show people what is possible. In just one or four classes, people can completely reboot their postural software and get a pain free naturally aligned structure.. Its all about finding the neutral middle path of our body as well as our mind. It does not happen by taking joints to extreme ranges of motion or engaging your body in positions that look like someone is in a cage.
    We should avoid pulling ourselves apart at the seams or ligaments as many as we are seeing in cases like Diane will wind up with loose joints and weak stabilization muscles.

  27. I want to thank you, Diane, for having the courage to share your experience. It takes a lot to be transparent about how your practice, your teachers’ instructions, and your ego misled you. Your teaching and wisdom about this experience is a gift to our community. Thank you so much for this and for sharing the wisdom that’s come from this experience.

    • i see it as my responsibility, I hope other senior teachers will come forward and be truthful about their own personal practice. It hurts my heart to see older teachers not being truthful. I hope I can help by setting an example.

  28. jeromearmstrong

    Wonderful contributions here by Diane Bruni, Michaelle, Nick, and others. This insightful thread seems like a spilling out of the dialogue much needed. This same debate has been quite heated within the Bikram world of Ghosh yoga for the past few years. Lorr’s book “Hell-Bent” seemed to spark it out into the open. The radical transformative Tony Sanchez stokes the debate. And Bikram, who has his unique set of personal problems, posted on his website that all advanced classes and trainings were now banned, in part due to injuries and the ego practice of doing extreme postures, as opposed to the therapeutic value. Quite the drama.

    As many of these hatha series are really only a couple of generations in the making, we really are applying the technique as guinea pigs, to believe that rigorous asana practice can be the ideal for the the majority of our decades, especially for women, or doing hot yoga. I too have injured myself from over-stretching, and methods like resistance flexibility or muscle tension, and the cultivation of chi grounding, led me through the valley of healing, not pushing on through. After the resolution, variety of practice became the direction.

    25 years into practicing now, I’m all about integrating methods. Vipassana meditation, tai chi and qi gong, ghosh and kundalini yoga. There is value in practicing a tradition deep enough to awaken one’s dormant truth of realizing/experiencing you are an energetic body trapped in mental duality, but once you’ve got that, it’s necessary to set out on our own unique path. Have you ever tried hot tub yoga? That is bliss.

  29. Thanks for a great post and for starting a dialogue about some important issues. For a long time I’ve been concerned about certain myths about the modern asana practice: that it is an ancient, proven practice, that there is such a thing as perfect alignment in a pose, which will keep you free from injury, and that all yoga poses are safe to do every day. I addressed this latter myth in a post on the Yoga for Healthy Aging blog called “Not All Yoga Poses Are Created Equal” http://yogaforhealthyaging.blogspot.com/2012/01/not-all-yoga-poses-are-created-equal.html?q=not+all+yoga+poses+are+created+equal

  30. All of this great discussion has led me to write a post about the difficulties for trainee teachers in knowing what education to invest in and what information to trust.

    http://www.elephantjournal.com/2014/06/will-the-real-yoga-anatomy-please-stand-up-victoria-watts/

    One of the first comments on my piece told me to “stop fussing and listen deeply”. This is something I’ve come up against a lot. Whenever I ask questions about the specifics of anatomy and alignment, I often get met with an attitude that I’m simply not “getting it”. The problem is, learning to listen to your body also involves learning the language it speaks, which isn’t always an easy task. That task becomes even harder when trying to teach others and therefore learning their body’s language / helping the individual to understand it themselves.

    I just wanted to say thank you to Matthew and also to everyone who is contributing to this discussion. It’s a wonderful resource for a trainee teacher like myself.

    • Thanks for the kind note, Victoria. Yes, some show a very strong head-in-the-stand impulse with this stuff. You’re quite right about the difficulty of “listening deeply”. I applaud you for not being satisfied with the platitude.

  31. John

    Late to the discussion. The first of these I’ve read that impressed. A couple of observations – I’ve been to plenty of classes where the emphasis was constantly on “working” the glutes – I know of one person who worked theirs so often and so much they tore their hamstring. I go to a non-yoga class regularly where most of the students are yoga teachers. The vast majority over tighten their abdominals constantly. In both cases the healthy path is in the middle – the correct muscles working to an extent – but the extremes are easier. It’s rare to find yoga teachers who can explain which muscles to engage and how much to engage them, and the instructions that clarify it for one student often confuse ten others.

    Devereaux came up in the discussion …. His books are amazing but my one workshop with him was one too many. I’ve also done a workshop with one of his most lauded students – dangerous to put it mildly. I know some one who’s shoulder the same student damaged by over adjusting. It may be these are the exception and the other comments represent the norm. I don’t know – I’m lucky enough not to have to find out.

    The opening post wondered “what kind of strength” the practitioners were seeking. When I first started tai chi I was still sparring regularly, I experienced a couple of instances of “magically” striking or pushing stronger, faster, heavier (twice my weight in one case) opponents so that they went flying with no effort on my part. It was “just” body mechanics of course, but in each case there was a mental/emotional component, the movement was spontaneous, and no amount of careful trying enabled me to repeat it. I’ve had the same in yoga – crow to handstand being an effortless matter of simply exhaling. That’s the strength I’m looking for. There’s some sort of paradox where it doesn’t come from practice or analysis or alignment but it doesn’t come without them either.

  32. Very late to the party here I know and I am also a late starter to Yoga Ashtanga vinyasa, but at 51 and with a senior teacher who gently and intelligently works with us in Mysore practice I have come to appreciate and understand the primary sequence in its entirety and flow as a wonderful example of yoga therapy. I have been in daily practise for just 5 months now, and the challenges I meet are wonderful opportunities to learn about my body, my ego and my hidden strengths.

    And from my limited understanding of the differences in the initial teachings to westerners and the teachings of today’s practice the changes made were to address many of the issues facing western practioners, namely weakness and lack of flexibility, in fact as I understand it even Savasana or taking rest was introduced to accommodate the complaints of being tired after practice. I am deeply grateful for finding the practice and every day I become more aligned and aware of the benefits of introducing my body to vinyasa, and am fully aware that any physical activity requires a diligence and respect for my body and its restrictions, perhaps this is what is missing when some people undertake Ashtanga vinyasa practise.

    My teacher studies with both Nancy and Manju and teaches us to respect our bodies, she would never press us into something we can not do, nor would she give such inane advice as the bad advice that something must “break” to open.

    This may well be the best reason for respecting the importance of lineage when selecting a teacher, and for following the practise as it is set out for us.

    Anyway, take from this what you will

    • diane bruni

      I hope you have an injury free yoga life, but please keep in mind that injuries related to over stretching happen over time, i did not have my first injury until i was 8 years into the the practice. My body loved the ashtanga practice, everything you described, I would agree with. And then little by little my body changed but i did not want to stop doing the postures that had been so beneficial. Addictions are hard to recognize in general, and especially when we keep telling ourselves that it’s a healthy addiction. I hope you don’t become addicted to your yoga practice. Then you’ll know when enough is enough and you’ll listen to your body and not to the dogma of the ‘tradition’.

      • I too hope to always be able to remain within the healthy balance of detached and engaged. As a student of Dharma it is within my daily practice to remain vigiliant and be aware of circumstance which could draw me into a position of attachment. I do very much appreciate all the wisdom so generously shared from the experiences you have lived. Before I came to yoga I had a 25 year Callanetics practice, so I had many years to learn to stretch with gentleness, strength and patience. I hope in the years to come I will continue to keep an open mind and heart and will not ever become attached to any dogma, especially any which brings harm to myself or others.

  33. Dave

    I wanted to thank Diane for having the courage to pass on what she has learned, make it available for others.
    I read through the story and attempted to read most of the comments. So many who practice Ashtanga and I didn’t see one mention of the Ashtanga Mantra? or the eight limbs. Do we not do this anymore at the start of every practice? Or chant the words and have no idea of the meaning? I remember when I first heard it I was curious so I learned. I didn’t know what it would mean but I had a idea and I was very surprised to find out that I was generally correct about the meaning. (I heard some bad things about Ashtanga before this) There are many different interpretations of the Mantra. Many of them don’t make any sense and don’t follow along with basic yoga teachings so those can be easily discarded.
    My point is many in this story weren’t practicing yoga.

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