There’s no saying ‘No’ in Ashtanga — or is there?

The spring Vanity Fair article on Ashtanga seems to have come and go — as things like that usually do. They feel so incredibly important, or damaging, or altering in the moment, but then as they recede … they recede, they fade. (This is, of course, most true in politics.)

Perhaps just because I’m somewhat sensitive to it, one of the memes from the piece that’s had some legs is a quote from Tim Miller. (If you already know which one I’m talking about, that proves my point.)


It’s when he described Ashtanga as “the yoga of no.”

From my knowledge of Tim, I am pretty sure he said this with a healthy dose of irony, which may not have come through in print. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t think of it as the yoga of no, but he just means — I think — that Ashtanga’s path to whatever goal it is we each seek takes us in a direction that shows us our limitations, clues us into what we can’t do, what’s beyond the possible… even as we eventually redefine the meaning of what’s possible.

It’s not your touchy-feeley, open yourself to the Goddess, big circle of hugs type yoga.

It’s the yoga of no.

Part of the irony of Tim’s statement is that Ashtanga demands such a great amount of surrender and trust needed in one’s teacher — and for me, that translates to not saying “no” when the teacher pushes you beyond your (cliche alert!) comfort zone.

I was painfully reminded of this during Sunday’s practice. In Prasarita C, after telling one of the assistants that I need “more torture,”Jörgen Christiansson adjusted me so strongly — saying, more than once, “relax your shoulders” — that I thought I was going to have to cry uncle, tell him no mas.

I thought I finally was going to have to tell him that was enough.

This is a bit of a big deal for me because I endeavor never to say “No.” Part of the practice for me — the inner practice part — is practicing surrender, practicing letting someone else have control. (We’ve talked about surrender before.)

And so I try to let those moments at the edge happen, try to breath, knowing it isn’t going to last too long. (Jörgen did suggest I stay in Supta Kurmasana for two hours during this same practice, so sometimes the moments last longer than others.)

Probably the more truthful way of putting this is: I pride myself on never saying “No”; while my stiffness seems such a limitation to the practice, at least I can feel like I’m willing to get pushed further than most. Perhaps it’s punishment for being so stiff.

This pain I felt, and the realization of the pride I take in toughing through it, has left me wondering this: Is it really best that we never reach the moment of having to say, “Stop.” Or do we need to get pushed into a position that forces us to give up? Are we no longer surrendering if we have to say, “No more,” or does that signal that we may only be scratching the surface of surrender?

The only answer I have to these questions awaits on the mat, at the next practice, and the one after that, and onward.

Posted by Steve

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Two Ashtangis write about their practice and their teachers.

12 thoughts on “There’s no saying ‘No’ in Ashtanga — or is there?”

  1. Hi

    I’d say the answer to your questions is yes….and no! Sorry!!
    What I mean is, if one says no, then you could easily jump to the conclusion that they have stopped surrendering. And indeed, it may well be true in most situations. However, its your practice, your body, your mind, and if you feel you can’t go any further, then you are ultimately the best judge. If you keep toughing it out because you think you must (and many students have gotten injured by their teachers adjustments) then that may indicate other issues like over willingness to conform or lack of discernment etc, not to talk of failing to practice ahimsa to yourself……afterall the teacher is only your guide to enlightenment, you have to get there on your own in the end and when you’re ready. In a way, I believe its a fine line and also what the practice of yoga teaches us. If I say stop, have I failed to surrender? If I don’t say stop and get injured (and then say oh I knew I couldn’t go further), is it because we were resisting surrender? If I don’t say no and get injured (and accept this), is it showing too much pride/ego ( I am an ashtangi, so I must)
    Also, from a purely physical point of view, may I point out that stiff people tend to have quite strong connective tissue and stable joints and so are able to be pushed without danger of injury (so yes, its your punishment!!) while naturally flexy types tend to be more easily injured especially prior to building up strength……y’know, the type that seems to get into postures without the need for adjustment, then on closer inspection you find that they are out of alignment, then the slightest adjustment and pop…….shoulder dislocated!!!!

    1. Thanks for the thoughtful reply. I’m pretty sure I don’t have an over willingness to conform, but the thought on ahimsa definitely resonates (although, even then, I feel it can spiral a bit out of easy definition: If I keep letting myself be pushed, and my body loosens, and I can reach the expressions of the poses more, and it deepens my practice, which is the true ahimsa?).

      Probably, like seemingly all things related to yoga (at least how I approach it as the “yoga of no”), the answers are complicated. That complication definitely is a major thing that draws me back to the mat each (most *ahem*) days. So maybe the lesson is: I need to remember there won’t ever be the easy answer (i.e. I should always surrender fully or I always should be prepared to say, “Stop.”).


  2. Isn’t it David Williams who says “If it hurts, you’re not doing it right… Yoga should be pleasurable” etc? It sounds like you might be overthinking this. If your teacher is close to ripping tendons in your shoulder and you are in pain, of course you say “please that’s enough!”

    1. Hi Andy.

      First off, I want to be very clear and on the record that Jorgen hasn’t hurt me and that I trust him. Is he close to ripping tendons? Well, maybe… but not, I think, in a “bad way.” Jorgen is VERY good at this, a very strong teacher one-on-one.

      I think that an important part of this discussion centers around the teacher-student relationship. If you don’t have that, I’m not sure what you’re able to surrender to — in the sense of pushing past limits, which is hard to do on one’s own.

      I’ve heard DW say that, too, and I guess there’s no way around saying: This is an idea I don’t agree with entirely. (Maybe it’s related to my above comment about things being complicated.) I think in this case it comes down to what or how you’d define pain. If I never was uncomfortable, even, my asana practice would not advance. (You also could search “tapasya” on this site for more on our thinking around yoga and pain.) If I am not sore, my body isn’t loosening up — but it is an acceptable level of discomfort or pain. And if it is acceptable, then… well, can you really call it “pain”?


  3. Hi Steve

    I think to me, discomfort ranges from feeling stretched past what I find easy to painful sensations where breathing becomes difficult (fear perhaps?) ideally not sharp pains, but sometimes that does happen and maybe that is the signal to back off. However, if the ‘pain’ goes once you are out of the posture (again, for me, it may last through the next vinyasa sometimes) and you are able to do something similar the next day, then maybe, it wasn’t pain (just resistance), even though you could argue it felt painful. If, on the other hand, you feel the pain throughout the subsequent day to the point of being unable to move the affected part without ‘pain’, and then at the next practice, its even more unbearable possibly affecting other postures, then I kinda think its become an injury! It can be a fine line.
    With those who practice without ‘physical’ teachers (physical because there is always some input, be it DVD, book or remembered instruction), its an even finer line. You can push into pain (and injury-not just due to lack of alignment) by yourself, but your body may just not allow you to sustain the posture (or even get there) as much as if there was someone adjusting you.
    Regarding whether or not yoga should be painful, I don’t see that there should be any should about it! For some, maybe pain helps and is necessary for progress, for others, maybe the challenge is resistance in the mind rather than body, for some, maybe emotional pain comes up. Besides, what is progress? Is it when you ‘get’ the asana you couldn’t do yesterday, or when you can finally concentrate on breath, bandha, drishti in a posture you normally do easily……..or even a mixture of both!

    1. Progress, of course, is when we all get the next pose, right? 🙂

      I think we’re definitely saying the same thing. I’m sore today, but it’s what I’d expect from the level of physical activity I engaged in. (Same for a long run or lifting weights, etc.) So I wouldn’t call this pain. On the other hand, if something had snapped and I couldn’t lift my arm as a result — that would clearly be a case of having gone too far.

      To perhaps move the idea in a different direction: Even in the case of the injured arm, is that necessarily “bad”? What lessons are there in those injuries we can’t get any other way? Are they valuable enough to outweigh the pain, etc.?

      I definitely don’t know — so I default back to my last line in the post: “The only answer I have to these questions awaits on the mat, at the next practice, and the one after that, and onward.”


  4. For me the question is what to surrender to. When I first met my current Ashtanga teacher, I told him about the chronic injuries that limited my practice, and his response was, “Your injuries seem profound. I’m very happy for you.” And with that I knew that he was the right teacher for me.

    Until finding him, I’d worked with more traditional teachers, and my 5-day a week practice eventually had me dealing with 3 serious injuries that I could only heal by taking an entire month off (if you could imagine!) – but that turned out to be an inspiring time! It gave me the chance to practice the other seven limbs of Ashtanga with a level of attention that I hadn’t before given them, and the time taught me that a part of my yoga was to surrender to my body – tough as that was for me to accept.

    So does my now-3-day-a-week practice that errs on the gentle mean that I’m doing it wrong? It would certainly be wrong for some, yes. Or maybe Ashtanga asana practice is just entirely wrong for me; I don’t know. But Ashtanga is the only practice that feels True, so back the mat I go to find whatever comes.

    PS: Thank you for fostering this space. I look forward to your posts.

    1. Thanks for the comment (and the kind PS, it is much appreciated). We are certainly familiar with having to take time off due to injuries (Bobbie more so than I). And we’re both familiar with trying to find a practice that maximizes the benefit and minimizes the negatives.

      Your time off the mat reminds me of when I have to shorten practices — it does allow you new and different perspective, and often that really is a good tonic.

      Last thought, as I reflect more on what you wrote: Not only can I imagine, but I dream about a month’s off of practice! 🙂


  5. Bobbie here. Thought it might be time to chime in. I’ve heard David Williams say that it should never be painful. I’ve also heard Nancy Gilgoff talk about her daily agonies when she arrived with David in Mysore. David is a gifted Ashtangi, to the manor born, so to speak. Nancy, on the other hand, was weak, damaged and sick when she started. Steve has seen me come through a lot of pain with the practice–maybe this has given him his “high pain tolerance.” He is, as he often points out, gifted with stiffness (Obsidian understands what I mean–much stability). The practice is always–no exception–painful for me. However, without it, I’d be quite debilitated by now. It’s Tim who says, “Sometimes, you must remove a thorn with a thorn.” The real question, for both of us, is usually which is the thorn being removed, and which is the thorn doing the removing!

  6. I am not sure that stiffness unravels with pushing! In fact, a tight psoas may very well tighten in a half successful attempt to release it.

    A teacher of mine says, it’s not the symptom but the deep cause… Maybe stiffness is just a symptom and the cause something not yet revealed.

    Ps. A friend of mine asked how often I practice the splits. Fact is I don’t and as a result don’t go to the floor. He says he says in them for 2 hours. It’s not that important to me. Then again, pain isn’t part of something I align with.

    How much of our ego pushes us to go further to the detriment of our limitations and into places of injury.

  7. Hi Steve,

    Yes, the injured arm scenario is an interesting dimension. You’re right, it might not be a bad thing…….if you learn the lesson involved. Is it true that the injured arm can teach you lessons you couldn’t learn any other way? Maybe, maybe not. Can progress through an easy (injury free) practice teach you lessons you couldn’t learn any other way?!?
    I tend to see injuries as the harsh loud mouthed teachers that appear when you’ve been ignoring lessons from the gentle teachers for a long time. Maybe you’re working too hard and not looking enough within. So gentle teaching comes in the form of an aching arm and a headache. You still don’t stop! So the shoulder starts aching too and a bit more. You push through it! Then the next day, the pain is gone. You’re delighted and throw yourself into a strong practice……..and injure your arm!!! Shoulda paid attention before, huh? Then maybe you wouldn’t need to learn the lesson. Or maybe your teacher injures you with an adjustment instead. Will you allow that same adjustment under the same conditions again?Perhaps next time, you will ‘take action’ – a la Bhagavad Gita, instead of surrendering so easily! But then, surrender can be an action in itself when done with consciousness.

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