Are Ashtanga and ahimsa incompatible?

Pain and injury are reoccurring themes here.

I’ll let you guess why.

We’ve found both to be simply part of the path of the Ashtanga practice. As with nearly any activity one undertakes, good comes and bad comes, too.


We continue to take the bad with the good.

As the countdown to the Confluence kicks into high gear, I’ve been thinking about last year’s gathering and guessing how this year’s may go. One of my many lasting impressions from 2012 was the focus on Ashtanga as one ages. This time, the discussion sounds like it will be a bit broader during a session titled, “The Jungle Physicians.” It promises the “opportunity for students to ask questions of the teachers regarding the application of asana as a healing modality.”

That’s the same asana that keeps hurting us — and, I bet, you.

So what gives?

In my experience now with quite a few Ashtanga teachers, there seems to be two pretty distinct camps. On one side are those who shun pain and hurt. David Williams might be the most vocal proponent of this, in my experience. Pretty much nothing should hurt was the message I took from him.

On the other are those who suggest that injury is inevitable. We wrote about this topic most recently after David Garrigues talked about Guruji’s relationship to injury. Those posts are here and here. David quotes Guruji in response to injuries: “New body is making.” He quotes him as being enthusiastic about it.

We’ve all heard or read stories about Guruji’s strong adjustments, as well as the ones he received from his own teacher. (Remember, a documentary is coming!) “Sometimes walk funny six months,” I’ve heard people say, imitating Guruji. That doesn’t happen without some pain.

But does that mean we have to put Guruji in the camp that assumes pain and injury to be inevitable? If we do, does that mean there’s some inherent value to pain and injury? (At the least, that there’s some lesson to be learned from it?)

This then brings us to the first of the yamas: ahimsa. Take your pick on a best translation: nonviolence, non-harming, peacefulness. Both to others and — here’s the key — to yourself. The rest of the yamas grow from this seed.

And here’s where I’m stumbling. Is this a contradiction? Is there something fundamentally at odds between Ashtanga and ahimsa? (Keep in mind, I’m talking about Ashtanga as the yoga Guruji taught, not the broader Patanjali yoga. You know the old confusion.)

One answer, perhaps the easiest, is: Ashtanga continues to be refined. I’m OK with this. I want my “healing modalities” to continue to advance — yes, through “research.” Perhaps students of Guruji’s have learned new lessons — lessons perhaps especially relevant to Westerners — that suggest there’s a path without injury, or with the least injury possible. (More practically, there are also all those lawyers to worry about.)

Another, perhaps related, is that Westerners just aren’t ready, in this life, for the full monty Ashtanga. We’ve got to take Ashtanga-lite, for the most part. And that’s good enough.

There’s also a matter of perspective. What’s injury? Is it inherently a bad thing? It would seem like it, but what if Bobbie’s back had never caused her pain and thus she’d had no reason to come to Ashtanga? Which way would have been the path of ahimsa? (Well, she would have done less harm to me by not pulling me in, too!)

Or: What’s being injured? Our bodies, right? But are our bodies what we are working on through yoga? If they aren’t, then are we really being injured or hurt?

And we could continue down the rabbit hole, I suppose. Instead, I want to try to draw this back to the grosser levels.

Can we practice Ashtanga without experiencing what we generally call pain and injury? Is that a realistic goal? What might we miss if we hold back, just enough, to avoid that hamstring pull, that ACL snap, that fall out of Pincha Mayurasana?

Are Ashtanga and ahimsa incompatible? Can we hope to heal ourselves without first hurting?

Posted by Steve

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Two Ashtangis write about their practice and their teachers.

21 thoughts on “Are Ashtanga and ahimsa incompatible?”

  1. hmmm … it seems to me that ahimsa refers to our conduct. so certainly if the manner in which we practice inflicts pain, ahimsa is not honored – thus we must change our behavior or be more discerning in the way we approach. but that doesn’t have anything to do with the practice, it has to do with us.

    inflicting pain is different than experiencing pain, of course. the latter more of a symptom of imbalance already present and being brought into consciousness as we attempt to grow or change. the practice itself is transformational by nature, so yeah – that process kind of hurts sometimes. think to any time of great change in life and i bet the journey through provided a decent share of bumps and bruises on the way. seriously – anyone ever raise children? becoming a mom is one of the very best things i’ve ever done and has made me a better person for sure – but to say it hasn’t been painful at times is the understatement of the year.

    truth is, this practice is far more forgiving and compassionate than we give credit. and i’ve healed my body, my spirit, my heart on my mat, in my practice many many many more times than i’ve ever managed to hurt. 🙂

    1. Hey Peg.

      At the risk of sounding like a yoga blogger, I agree with everything you write! 🙂

      It’s probably why I am wondering about being able to be pain free in the yoga practice — what’s that mean when someone (a teacher, I guess) says “make sure you don’t hurt yourself?” Are we narrowly judging that to mean don’t tear your hamstring? Bobbie’s torn hers more than I’ve torn mine, and she’s gotten more flexibility in the end. Who’s harmed more by my more careful (and chicken) approach?

      On another front: What about teachers who hurt students (accidentally or, perhaps, not quite as accidentally)? How is or isn’t ahimsa served that way? Are they seeing the bigger picture? Or am I back in Stockholm/Mysore Syndrome land?


      1. omgosh! i think i’m sort of lucky? i haven’t had a teacher hurt me really. i mean, i guess i may have at some point – but never intentionally. and if i did, i wouldn’t go back. but again, not ashtanga – just a crappy teacher.

        any time something has hurt – really hurt – my teachers say: don’t do it. then help me explore ways to grow safely. discomfort however, doesn’t seem to phase them! haha! 🙂

  2. “Ahimsa
    Ahimsa means not causing injury to anyone, including animals, in any form, at any time, or for any reason in word, thought, or deed. If an injury has Vedic sanction, it does not constitute ahimsa. Two animals hostile to each other will forget their hostility in the vicinity of those who practice ahimsa.” ~ Yoga Mala

    Maybe it has to do with the other Yamas and the senses like Tapas more than Ahimsa. I wouldn’t think we are intentionally injuring ourselves or someone else but maybe we are doing things beyond ourselves with the wrong intention?

    That being said “for any reason” does not let you off the hook and say it was an accident if you injure someone when you are correcting a posture or pushing them further. I would say there are a few things at play here. This is starting to sound like a question for a Vedic Scholar.

  3. This is an interesting take on Ahimsa

    Here’s a good explanation from Jivamukti Yoga

    We have come into this world to bring peace unto all beings.
    To achieve this goal it is necessary to adopt peaceful ways
    of harmless living and non-interference in all our endeavors.
    Swami Nirmalananda

    Ahimsa is a Sanskrit term meaning non-violence.

    Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras advises that future suffering should be avoided. He gives the method of ahimsa: don’t cause the suffering of any other being. The benefit is that you will be free from suffering. Most of us mistakenly think that to refrain from harming another only brings benefit to that other. Patanjali offers a different take on the potential result that comes from the practice of non-violence:

    ahimsa pratisthayam tat sannidhau vaira tyagah II:35
    For the one who is firmly established in non-violence all hostility ceases in the presence of that one.

    The opposite of ahimsa is himsa, which means harm or violence. There are three classes of himsa, or ways to cause harm:

    1. Physical, by hurting someone’s physical body.
    2. Vocal, by speaking against others, hurting their feelings.
    3. Mental, by thinking against others Yoga philosophy teaches us that physical harming is only one way to harm, and it may not do the most serious harm.

    “Vocal injury is more serious than physical, and mental injury is most serious. By physical injury one can destroy only physical forms. By vocal injury one can destroy both physical and mental forms. By mental injury one can destroy even the form of spirit.” -Shri Brahmananda Sarasvati, The Textbook of Yoga Psychology

    Mental violence – hatred caused by prejudice – is a major source of violence in the world, and it is at the root of vocal and physical violence. Mental violence can become so ingrained in daily life that it is difficult to recognize. Advertising agencies are routinely employed to perpetuate prejudice in the form of speciesism, encouraging us to condone horrendous acts of physical violence perpetrated upon animals, and to consider these acts normal.

    Mental violence in the form of propaganda rises to its height during wartime, when a country will invest much money and effort in an attempt to break down the morale of the opponent and confuse the minds of its own citizens.

    In order not to harm others it is helpful to develop compassion. Through compassion you begin to see yourself in others. This helps you refrain from causing harm to them. The practice of compassion trains the mind to see past outer differences of form. You begin to catch glimpses of the inner essence of other beings, which is happiness. Happiness is the inner essence of all beings, not just human beings. Every single being desires happiness.

    “If you seek enlightenment, or even if you seek happiness, go to the cause. Nothing exists without a cause. The root cause of happiness is compassion.” -H.H. Dalai Lama

    In Patanjali’s ashtanga yoga system, ahimsa is classified as the first yama, or restraint. It is a recommendation for how you should restrain your behavior toward others. It is important to acknowledge that ahimsa here refers to your behavior toward others, not toward yourself. The second limb of the ashtanga system, niyama, consists of observances. These are recommendations concerning your actions toward your own body and mind. Patanjali very clearly classifies ahimsa as a yama and not as a niyama.

    Nonetheless, some contemporary yoga teachers interpret ahimsa more as an observance than as a restraint – as a directive not to harm yourself. “Don’t hurt yourself, don’t be so aggressive in your asana practice, be kind to your body,” they say, or “Don’t restrict your diet with an extreme practice like vegetarianism; it might harm you.”

    Not harming yourself is a result of the practice, not a directive. If you limit your practice of ahimsa to being kind to yourself, you may experience temporary happiness but you will deny yourself the ultimate benefit of the practice, which is Yoga, everlasting happiness. Everlasting happiness is achieved by kindness, by being considerate of others first. Live to benefit others and all will benefit.

    “Who will be the happiest person? The one who brings happiness to others.” -Swami Satchidananda

    The universal teachings of ahimsa apply to all situations, whether we are living in peaceful times or war times. Violence is never a valid solution for any problem and should never be condoned.

    – Sharon Gannon

      1. After reading Krishnamacharya’s Yoga Makaranda and Salutaion To The Teacher and The Eternal One, Guruji’s Yoga Mala my conclusion is that these men were totally devoted to G-d with all their hearts and sould, every ounce of their existence. I have never met either but the way they wrote the strength of their faith in Yoga and their Hindu Religion is obvious. As a person from a completely different culture and faith I am lost in the true nature of Yoga. My ego mind will never grasp the concepts in the same way a Hindu from India will. The concepts in the Vedas, Gita, Upanishads, Mahabharata etc. inform me but i’m sure much is lost in translation, my socialization etc. It doesn’t mean I can’t grasp basic truths but I would think one would have to go to the source and study for a very long time to truly understand more deeply than just our emotions being stirred by a concept. When I think of the poverty both Krishnamacharya and Guruji lived with, the iron will strength and devotion it took to undertake the learning of yoga (which I think was supported by their Brahman status, religious training and deep belief in God) it’s no wonder I don’t really understand this path more deeply than I do. As Guruji says, “take practice and all is coming.” or as Jeff Lichty (my yoga teacher) said to me once when I asked him how you get into a certain pose he said, “just do it.” It all comes down to a running shoe.

  4. For many of us, the practice itself causes a lot of pain 🙂 Yet, a different, worse kind of pain would result in not doing it. Medicine is often unpleasant. Definitely not ice cream, to quote a great teacher. But not harmful, at least not in the end. Maybe the crux is the intention with which we practice. Are we lashing ourselves for our perceived weakensses, or humbly pushing ourselves to reach past our limitations? If we are being really brave and reaching into the unknown, an injury could result….otherwise what makes it challenging? The injury itself is a good teacher, taking us back to baby steps and the simple appreciation of breath and movement. If it were safe it wouldn’t be awesome.

    1. Intention seems a great focus, thanks. I probably tried to obscurely reference the physician who has to do harm to heal, right? The intent is right — that’s not ahimsa. (I am sure there is a strand of argument here.)

      Still, though, there seems to be a clear divided between those who think practicing yoga shouldn’t cause harm to the body and those who realize it will. Is there a right or wrong here?


      1. I agree that in a perfect world we would know exactly how much to push ourselves each day to avoid injury….but in a perfect world we wouldn’t need yoga. Skateboarders and surfers understand that falling down and hurting yourself is part of the learning process and is part and parcel with the sport.

        I would think it is impossible to avoid pain if you exploring your edge consistently. Some body types have more pain and react to the practice differently than others. Some conditions mean pretty constant muscle and fascia tightness and pain…..but that doesn’t mean we need to avoid yoga.

        We can do our best to avoid injury, and try to keep our intent on growth and healing, however we have to get used to the fact that we’re going to screw up a lot and do it wrong. Our mind will wander and we’ll get sloppy and lazy or impatient. The next day we are more gentle and compassionate. And so it goes.

  5. I applaud the way you have illustrated “The Big Debate” of Asana Yoga, especially the more vigorous forms, like Ashtanga. I love how your heart & mind are open to the possibility that Bobbie’s pain was a blessing in disguise, bringing you both to the magical practice.

  6. Funny you should write about this… I wrote about something very similar after causing injury to myself in Mysore last year. ( That being said, there is a difference between pain an injury. Physical pain can be a signal that injury either is about to occur or has already occurred. A wise friend of mine once told me “everything in life is either a blessing or a lesson”, I believe pain we feel before we do real damage is a blessing, injury is the lesson. They both have the ability to be amazing teachers.

    1. I really like your positive approach to pain & injury. It goes for all types: physical, mental, emotional, & spiritual. Namaste’

  7. I do agree that intent is the key word here. What is the intent of our practice? Is it to injure ourselves or to heal ourselves? In delusion, we may think that continuing to hurt ourselves with the asana practice will “heal,” but, we’ll eventually discover that that’s a silly and harmful way to approach the practice. (And, I do believe that method is what makes many students give up and do a practice that’s less “difficult.”)

    Yet, there IS sometimes intense discomfort required to evolve and heal.* Practice can be mild, moderate or intense, Patanjali says, and also that intense practice brings about change more quickly. I can attest to this from my own experience. BUT. It’s when we get into the realm of intense practice that we begin to walk the razor’s edge of intention and ego, and one misstep, or a daily small misstep over several months or even years – can lead to injury.

    As I’ve said here before in past comments on this issue, I think that, more than students of other Yoga lineages, the student of Ashtanga (because of its intense nature) needs to discover and listen distinctly to their inner “voice” of the True Self as a guide. I’ve found that voice is very wise, very kind and also, brutally honest (as in, “That’s enough for today, you will hurt yourself” and “You can try this one more time – come on now.”) Either that, or study with a very good teacher who can be that voice for you.

    And, if you get hurt, and you may**, then you can use the practice to heal yourself. Ayurveda helps, too – I wrote a long post last year about dealing with injury through these methods, the link’s here –

    *(Look at Physical Therapy – it’s sometimes is not “comfortable” and can even be quite painful – I know this from seeing older family members go through PT after surgery. The movements required to bring full motion back to the affected tissues, to making them soft and pliable and bring healing, are not always pain-free.)

    **Case in point, I fell skiing yesterday and almost broke my collarbone. No Supta Kurmasana for a while for me. Lots of sesame oil, though.

  8. Ooooh…… many voices at work in my mind on this one!
    The first voice says (and this tends to be my immediate reaction/opinion)…….some of those postures-even the simplest, will cause pain. How much pain depends on the state of your body/mind. The pain is a message. What you do with that depends on how your mind, intelligence, ego, spirit…..are interacting at that point in your existence. You may be stiff and recognize that the pain will not last beyond the second sun salutation so you continue. You may be impatient to get the new posture which you were so close to yesterday. You may be injured, but believe you can push through the pain. Maybe your teacher told you pain is good, so you just put up with it because you respect your teacher more that what your body is telling you. Maybe you are frightened by the pain, so you are cautious or even stop completely. Or perhaps past experience has taught you that experiencing pain now means a greater long term pain will be reduced, so you use the pain like medicine. All these and more could happen whatever activity you are doing……yoga just happens to put it into focus. So the pain and what you do with it are not inherent or even inevitable in Ashtanga as such; its more about the practitioner and their consciousness and their needs at that point. Do they need to progress, or learn to respect their body, or learn patience, etc?
    The next voice says……..when a teacher is very vocal about something, that sets alarm bells ringing in me! So I ask why does a teacher really get pro pain or anti pain? Has their experience taught them that there is no progress without pain……or that pain is a hindrance to enlightenment. Or is there something else going on like…….I got this far and boy did I feel pain, so you must too if you wanna be like me…….or maybe you’re not doing it right! Maybe their guru said pain is good, so they have taken that on. Or perhaps they are just so talented that they managed to get through the series without any pain. On the other hand, perhaps a serious injury scarred them so much that they wish to prevent others from the same experience.
    Injury, on the other hand, is more of a lesson than a message. I’ve probably said this before, but I feel even though we can sometimes heal better than before the injury, do we really have to? Was it maybe because we could not hear the messages that the initial pain sent us. Or are we just complacent. What I mean is in the 21st century western world, we can have knee and shoulder surgery, then be back in the shala within weeks, whereas in another place/time, it could be game over! Maybe in the next life, you’d come back as a talented teacher, but totally totally anti pain! Now there’s a thought!!!

  9. wait a sec… since when did pain equal harm? The Gita points out that pain and pleasure are just part of the deal. Harm is a different schtick… and really, when i use the notion of “harm” as a filter, pain doesn’t really have that much to do with it.

    1. harm is a notion that forces you to be very present with what is happening, and ultimately eschews codification…. forces you to see your true nature – that it is non harming.

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