In Ashtanga, injury is inevitable

Every new video that David Garrigues posts just makes us bigger (virtual) fans of his.

He’s had one up for a few days, and we’ve been remiss in not getting to everyone’s attention earlier. Here it is:

This one hits home for us because of the focus on pain and injury. Bobbie and I were talking yesterday (while sitting on the beach, because it was beautiful in Los Angeles) about our own relationship to both, and the fact that we have come to accept injury and pain as inevitable.

As David notes at about the 1:30 mark, there is a karmic factor to pain and injury. (Last night, I was reading the part in the Ramayana when Ram, Sita and Laksmana leave for the forest, and there is much discussion of karma.) And then he drops the biggie, which I’ll paraphrase: You can’t have a long, intense relationship with Ashtanga without some kind of injury.

That’s a pretty dramatic statement. But if you think about it, and you think about the other Ashtangis you know, is it true?

From our experience, both our own and people we know, yes. Knee injuries. Shoulder injuries. A torn this and a snapped that. “It just happens,” David says.

I guess the counter to this is from another David, David Williams. He suggests (from our experience with him, which isn’t exhaustive) that there shouldn’t be any pain, and that once injury happens, something is lost.

I don’t want to question Williams, but given our very different experience from his, I wonder two things:

  • It seems like he was almost a genetic freak when it came to being flexible and capable of doing asanas; the stories I’ve heard make it sound like Guruji tried to find new poses to challenge him when he first arrived there. But as DG notes in the above video, most of us have some genetic factor that leads to injury.
  • I wonder about the difference of experience with Ashtanga from those, like Williams, who encountered Guruji at the beginning of the West’s arrival and those who spent more time in Mysore later. Does something in that difference inform this and other alternatives in approach to the practice? I don’t know.

Now, beyond that, I certainly can see where someone might respond negatively to DG’s — and many other Ashtangis’ — relationship and attitude toward injury, which as DG says about the 2-minute mark, leads one to new truths and new discoveries. That might just seem like a crazy Stockholm, er, Mysore, Syndrome. “New body is making,” really? Someone should write a book about how yoga can hurt you, if that’s the case. (Wait, what? Really?)

Well, in our experience, yes, “new body is making.” As we continue to process our Yatra to India, I think one could look at the trip, the intense visits to temples, the long days of travel, the challenges to belief and thinking, as having given us injury — emotional and intellectual — that we are recovering from, slowly but surely. “New body is making,” indeed. Both of the gross and subtle varieties.

Posted by Steve

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Two Ashtangis write about their practice and their teachers.

25 thoughts on “In Ashtanga, injury is inevitable”

  1. I’m no expert here, but I’ve always found David William’s instruction a bit disingenuous. It clearly does not accord with Guruji’s teachings on many accounts and it doesn’t even seem to fall in line with common sense when it comes to any kind of growth.

    I mean, seriously, who has grown in any significant way without pain all the way back to and including growing pains as a child? As Guruji said, “Pain is real.” What is to be gained by pretending that it doesn’t exist, or worse yet, that it somehow or other shouldn’t exist in our lives?

  2. Bobbie here. Agreeing with Thad. I still think about David Williams saying, “Once you’ve had knee surgery, it’s over. You’ll never be the same again.” “Disingenuous” is a good word for that. While it’s partially true, my practice was really just beginning after the first surgery I had (shoulder), and it certainly isn’t over now, post knee surgery. I so resonated with what David G. has to say in this video. “New body” indeed. It seems to me, each time I’m injured, new body.

    I think there’s such a wide variety of experiences when it comes to Ashtanga, it’s good that experienced teachers make room for that in their teaching. What’s easy for me is hard for others, and vice versa. Injuries (and the subsequent recoveries) help me define new areas of growth.

  3. I’ve had somewhat of a different experience. I played a lot of contact sports in my youth and once had my shoulder dislocated. I have found Ashtanga realigning and strengthening. I started the practice older, in my 40’s so i find it does take me longer to warm up, some times until the end of the standing series of postures. When I do have an ache or pain I compensate for it. Some days I don’t do jump backs I just walk back and forth while taking my Vinyasa. I’m competitive by nature and I sometimes have internal struggles between my ego and body during my practice. I want to do more and want to push but I am reminded that I’m doing this for my physical and mental health. I don’t need to be in 3rd series I haven’t completed the first and from what i’ve read it could take years to never to even achieve some of the first series of poses. But how do you feel meditating later in the day is my barometer. The whole idea for me is to stay within my limits and slowly change as my body adapts to the practice. It’s the ego that often injures us. Most of us wouldn’t dream of injuring ourselves by self mutilation, eating food we know hurts us, taking drugs that hurt us etc. but it’s amazing how so many people go too far, knowingly they are in no mans land, not ready and they get injured. The reality is i’ve met people that have injured themselves in the gym, on the ski slopes, playing tennis, at the swimming pool, falling of a curb, etc. etc. Krishnamacharya did asanas well into his 80’s while Guruji quit at 53 I read somewhere after a bike accident. It almost never enters the conversation but isn’t the goal (should there be one) to get closer to God?

  4. Hi Brad. It’s Steve, this time. Firstly, I hope that we manage to get the “closer to God” as part of the conversation fairly often; I think we do. [“Everywhere looking, only God seeing” was too long for our quote from Guruji, so we went with the coffee one. 🙂 ]

    Secondly, as for the injury thing, I guess my response to you is that inherent in Ashtanga’s path closer to God is a certain level (one might say “extreme”) of physical challenge. Other yoga or meditation techniques are probably easier on the body. My sense is those who stick with Ashtanga — stay on the Ashtanga path, so to speak — are those who respond to these challenges. I’ve written along these lines a few times; probably a search on this site for “tapasya” would pull those up.

    It’s definitely one of Ashtanga’s trickier aspects, I think.

  5. The reality is, that, if you move your body at all, you are going to get hurt. Injury is a part of living and breathing. Even if you don’t move, you will hurt yourself because the body atrophies. No one is making it out of this existence alive. We are all going to die and suffer an “injury” even it is in the form of our heart stopping from living a long life . The more intricate the movements, the higher the chance of injury. The statement really should be, “in living, injury is inevitable.”

  6. Thank you for this post! I have personally, at least for now, abandoned the particular path of the Ashtanga style practitioner. But I’m still interested. I like to read about it still and hear about what my yoga friends are doing and how their own relationships with Ashtanga are going.

    I’ve never practiced with DW but I also agree with Thaddeu’s statements, that to deny pain or injury doesn’t help anyone.

    I have reblogged. Hope you don’t mind.

  7. Great subject/post.

    I think the longer you do Ashtanga the more you realize the difference between sensations that are going to lead to an injury and sensations that can be worked with intelligently. Discomfort is definitely part of the practice but i’m not sure how much sharp pain should be a part of it. For me that’s a sign that i’ve gone too far (i’ve learned this the hard way). But saying that, we do dance at our limits and sometimes we topple and go over the edge. It is bound to happen but hopefully with time we get better at avoiding that cliff.

    1. I think you nailed in on the head Scott. As I’ve told many people who practice, “There is good pain and there is bad pain. You are the only one who knows the difference and inevitably, at some point, you will guess wrong.” But, this pretty much sums up life in general…it’s definitely how I learned to ride a bike.

    2. Agreed. There are injuries and there are injuries. They are part of the process of transformation that is the purpose of this practice. With a little luck and intelligence you recover and become stronger and smarter, otherwise it’s a hard path that will probably be abandoned.

  8. Just to my my few couple of thoughts………….
    Sure; you are bound to experience something when you have a practice that challenges your limits like Ashtanga, some will call it discomfort and some will call it pain. Injury, though, is really a sign something has gone wrong. Not saying it can’t be a good teacher, but sometimes I think we almost wear it as a badge of pride! I’m thinking perhaps this can be as much an ego trap as denying injury and pain exists! Also, we are perhaps too blase about injuries in our 21st century Western world. Its worth considering that back when Guruji was young, if you injured your knees or shoulders, it could indeed be all over……….you wouldn’t be able to just go and get it mended by a ‘routine’ surgery cos then it plain didn’t exist! Where would your 3rd series asana practice be then?

  9. ppl who injure themselves so they can’t walk or do much after doing yoga are, for me, crazy people. of course once in a while you get injured. if you can’t control it (like accidents for ex.)then, its understandable. but if you keep pushing just to get to some asana, then it’s equal as doing drugs (i guess drugs at least feel pleasent at some time, i don’t believe injuries do) or some other masochistic thing.
    i see many people taking ashtanga like ego trip. and btw. krishnamacharya didnt only teach these series of ashtanga, but he was also adjusting yoga to every person individualy (that didnt look like ashtanga at all). i see people adjusting themselves into perfect positions more then vice versa.
    ppl forget the basic principle of yoga, which is ahimsa. how can being agressive to your body have any positive results? no pain, no gain? i hope not 😦

    greetings to all!

  10. “You can’t have a long, intense relationship with Ashtanga without some kind of injury.” Time for a serious wake up call in the yoga asana world. Sometimes yes there are injuries in life in cars or if people fall but to intentionally put your body in harms way make no sense.
    Yoga is a healing practice so why are we buying into this born again sinner mentality that we have to suffer in order to feel good? Doing poses that push your body far past anatomically neutral is the reason why people get hurt and injury is not inevitable and certainly avoidable. Just stop doing things that hurt! Pain is the body’s language saying Hello there I am not designed to do this. Are these intense asana practices some kind of body masochism or do you feel like a martyr to get injured? Does it give you value? What if you just used laughter to strengthen your abdominals and natural movements like walking, swimming, dancing and gardening to stay aligned? These intense poses are simply not necessary to be in the yoga path and have nothing to do with living with conscious awareness and aligning with source. I feel sad that so many people are trying to pull the body apart at the seams to perform poses that go against the grain of the design of the human body. After I was injured doing ashtanga yoga and was molested by Jois, I realized that I had to find an inner path and not try to force my body. In the process I birthed YogAlign. The only ‘goal’ is to attain innate naturally aligned posture and the body actually does it by itself if we get out of the way. Yoga asana needs to evolve. This post sounds insane to me and my body cries for all the other bodies that suffer and get injured by purposefully doing positions that are painful.

  11. Yes. Injuries are inevitable: sure- they are the inevitable “karma( of practice not built on a commitment to Yam and Niyam. When we disregard, violate ahimsa (in all aspects of life) we will suffer, plain and simple. The injury is a sacred gift guiding us back to the roots of the 8 limbed tree of Yoga: Yam and Niyam. As with any other tree- one without roots is a DEAD thing, decorative at best and decoration is the prerogative of Ego not Isvara. HOW MANY KNEES, SHOULDERS, STUDENTS MUST WE SACRIFICE BEFORE WE “GET IT”

  12. Ooh- one more thing… BRAVO on suggesting that Karma from PAST Lives bear responsibilty in injuring oneself- what a truly genius. Manner in which to avoid taking responsibility for the injury in THIS life. Unbelievable. Truly. Wee DESERVE the reputation for being koolaid drinking morons if we accept the woe is me victim based notion that injuries are simply inevitable. Nonsense like THAT is what gives this practice a bad name. Wow. Just WOW

  13. It seems to me that pain and injury are two distinctly separate things. Working with pain intelligently is part of the practice, but should be about learning to stop at the edge of discomfort before it turns to pain? That’s where the work’s to be done, isn’t it? And isn’t the thread that runs through any spiritual ‘practice’ to just ‘stop’? There’s sometimes not a lot of stopping seen in Ashtanga.
    Injuries will happen, and are part of the learning process, but mostly to tell us that we went awry in our approach. Also, adjustments are particular to Ashtanga, and perhaps there are too many teachers adjusting who shouldn’t be. There’ll always be room for error there. I’ve injured myself many times (thankfully nothing that required surgery) and I’ve always taken responsibility for it.
    Ashtanga will teach you to stop, and if you don’t listen the first or second time, it’ll make sure you do when the knee pops. I’ve always thought this was what Pattabhi Jois meant when he said, ‘One time telling, two times telling, third time, God telling.’

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