Why Ashtanga won’t ever be “popular”

Steve and I have become fans of Philadelphia teacher David Garrigues without ever taking his class. Sure, we have friends who are students of his. Also, we watch his videos, read his blog. But I’m a fan because he speaks openly about a topic that is near and dear to me: Pain.

His latest email newsletter (sign up here, if you haven’t) has this highlighted statement in it, and I’d like to throw my support behind it:

Forgive me but I don’t care about your pain, small or large, because it is infinitely tiny and nothing at all compared to the possibilities for healing that are right in front of you.  

It seems Mr. Garrigues is a little tired of pain complaints. Seems this is the Number One thing Ashtanga teachers have to learn to deal with; David quotes some Guruji scenarios I’m familiar with from Tim Miller’s teaching, where the answer is always, “You take it you practice.”

Image from David's newsletter, and no doubt on the shala wall.
Image from David’s newsletter, no doubt on the shala wall.

Tim, it should be noted has a very particular way of dealing with it. He listens, and as he listens you can tell he’s deciding if he needs to be concerned, and when he’s made his decision, he has a very particular eyebrows-lifted-uh-huh-nod that basically means “you take it you practice” and carries on with the adjustment.

I was very lucky to have this lesson early on–the “you take it you practice” lesson–from teachers who treated pain as part of the process. Otherwise, I certainly would’ve quit.

If I had landed in any other yoga class, I certainly would’ve heard, “If it hurts, then back off.” Everything hurt. I would’ve backed off, and right out of the room. So I learned from my teachers Shayna, Diana, and Tim that if I were to be freed from the constant pain of the disintegrating disks in my back, I would have to ignore it as part of the process, in order to get stronger. As Tim puts it, “Sometimes you have to use a thorn to remove a thorn.”

It wasn’t long before I stopped reacting to pain, even if it was just for the short duration of my daily practice.

That was not easy. Which brings me to another bold (literally) statement in David’s newsletter:

 If you expect success in yoga to come at a small price tag:

QUIT NOW

I didn’t quit. But there were many, many practices that I swore aloud, I’m not doing this anymore. Steve can back me up: I would come home from practice, sit on the floor, and cry.

So I guess the point of this post is to back David up with a true story of finding, as he puts it, “light, wealth, and beauty” in what once appeared to be a “dark, desolate cave.”

It is the great blessing of the practice that once the body is stronger, pain appears in the context of strength rather than weakness. This frees the mind, even in pain, to see beyond the pain—to the larger purposes of the practice, to the other seven limbs, and to gain a greater quality of life.

It  requires dedication, application, discipline, and also (and I think this is key) humor. This is a pretty rare stew of qualities, and it’s why I think Ashtanga won’t ever be a popular form of yoga, why it will always be a quirky little corner of the many forms we have today.  If it stays true to the way Guruji taught.

There is no doubt, Ashtanga will change your life. Not many people want their lives to change. Even the pain. Sometimes, we worship our pain, and it becomes an old friend. I have family and friends in that place, have seen them situate their identities as people who suffer life rather than live it, and I’m grateful to Ashtanga, to the practice, for granting me the clarity of mind to make wiser distinctions.

Posted by Bobbie

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Two Ashtangis write about their practice and their teachers.

62 thoughts on “Why Ashtanga won’t ever be “popular””

  1. There is a massive difference between healthy and unhealthy pain. I love DG but think his little rant here is poorly thought out and requires some heavy reflection and editing.

    Disliking a pose because it hurts is one thing. Ignoring a repetitive stress or acute injury is another entirely.

    1. I agree, I think we need to leave the bad ass, just deal with it, Protestant work ethic behind when we come to the practice

  2. My issue with articles like this is that it can be interpreted in crazy ways and thrown out of proportion. “Pain” is a loaded word in the yoga community just like “God” and “Jesus”. You throw it in the mix and emotions just flare up. Just like people advise against having discussions about religion and politics with total strangers at dinner parties, I almost think the same about pain and yoga. This article can be interpreted so many different ways. “Ignore pain” “Don’t react to pain” Ashtanga makes you cry”, “Ashtanga causes pain”. “Tim Miller ignores pain”, “Tim Miller assists people and tells them to ignore the pain”.

    I totally understand what the author is saying. I have had some transformative experiences regarding discomfort in my practice. However, I am hesitant to give my students advice on pain as transformation because it is so loaded and it would be just my luck that I am talking to the one person who takes it way to far. It is almost impossible to write an article like this without things being thrown out of context. It just makes people more afraid of Ashtanga. Does not help the community at all.

  3. Pain is something I don’t deal with very well. If there is pain, then I think I am doing a pose with improper alignment or I went too far too soon.

    I have been practicing yoga now for a while, not Ashtanga yoga, but yoga. My meniscus is torn in my knee, a skiing injury some 15 years ago. Sometimes I bind in padmasana, sometimes I don’t. You have to listen to the body. Going for it every day doesn’t work with my body. This may be different for others. I think you need to do/experiment what to do to minimize the pain. Yes there is discomfort caused by not being open and there is pain from pushing through that “not being open enough”. The breath can be your guide to the edge. Proper alignment is imperative. Sometimes with proper alignment you don’t “get into the pose” – maybe you aren’t supposed to be there that day. If disks rub on each other nerve pain will start. If there is a relaxation of muscles surrounding the disks with an opening, then maybe no pain. The latter is what I am going for in my practice. Glenn Black had surgery after years of advanced backbending practice. David G is still young – not in his 60’s. The jury is still out… These things relate as to doing forward bends with an extended spine or a flexed spine. Perhaps if we look at the posture of our teachers, and see if that is how we will like to look at their age. Dharma Mittra is one of the oldest ones I know in the US – 74. His alignment isn’t the best but can still walk up stairs and do some pretty amazing things and has good posture. Food for thought.

  4. The interesting thing about pain pathways is that they become habitual, patterned. In fact, the body may even signal pain long after healing— the gift of this practice is that it clears samskaras, burns through them, so that we find freedom from pain. DG is so spot-on!

  5. I agree with Vanilla Gorilla about pain. Too many yoga teachers act like pain is all in your head, that you’re imagining it, that it doesn’t exist, that it’s really an “opening”, or that you’re refusing to learn due to your fear of pain or injury. Yoga teachers have been heard to say that falling is what teaches you to lose your fear of falling.

    I call bs on all of this, especially for older practitioners. I’m a veteran ashtanga practitioner but I also have arthritis, osteoporosis, and an artificial hip. Concern about pain and further injury is nothing imaginary, and I become intensely irritated with (usually, young) yoga teachers who pretend otherwise.

    1. Thank you Susan, I am a older practitioner also. I got into yoga 8 years ago due to inability to move as I have a herniated disc between L4 and L5 this injury is also is the culprit causing my sciatica.

      I think the key is to be able to separate and identify types of pains and injury.
      –Injuries are serious and need to be taken seriously ALL the time.
      — Sharp Pain is a indicator something is not right and should be taken seriously and avoided at all times.
      –Crunching in areas such as the lower back may not be a pain, but I feel that crunching in spinal areas allows us to realize we are doing something wrong and to gently come out and try again to avoid this.
      –Joint pain again pushing joints to far is very dangerous – when we injure joints, they take a long time to heal.
      –Muscle burn and sore muscles yes it hurts but it means we are working something, this is a good pain – as long as we keep the burn and don’t go so deep that we create sharp pain. Muscles when pulled or strained can heal relatively fast.

      The key is knowing your own body. and knowing your limits. Also to remember limits change, as your practice grows so do your limits. People who have been practicing for a while should strive to remember how hard simple things were when we started.

      Every single person on this earth is unique, we need to realize this and honor it. The 20 year old and the 70 year old practitioner will not start out at the same point, but with time and patience they may end up at the same point. Enjoy the journey – think of the lesson we learn from the tortoise and the hare it is not how fast you start but that you keep putting one foot in front of the other and finish. I know we strive to make points but this quote bothered me “If you expect success in yoga to come at a small price tag: QUIT NOW” First off what is “success in yoga?” For me when I could barely walk; success was leaving 1 hour and 15 minutes before class started so I could hobble the 10 blocks to the studio and make it on time. Most people can make that walk in 15 minutes – in 2005 I couldn’t. Did pain exist yes; Did I sometimes crumple over in pain and cry yes; did I keep going yes.

      I think discouraging people from coming to their mat is always wrong – no matter what point you are trying to make. As i grew up in a very judgmental Christian town in the South – I get most irritated when the yoga community starts talking like the Judgmental fringe of the Christian community. Funny go back to that quote and replace “success in yoga” with “salvation” and you have a good start to a Hell Fire and Brimstone religious rant.

      1. very well said 🙂 especially these two points…
        —> “If you expect success in yoga to come at a small price tag: QUIT NOW” First off what is “success in yoga?”
        —> “I think discouraging people from coming to their mat is always wrong – no matter what point you are trying to make.”

  6. Emily, so true. That awareness–that this can happen–is what I’m grateful for. And awareness of the difference between what Tim calls “integrating versus dis-integrating pain.” For me, this was the very first lesson of Ashtanga. I had to learn it more than once: multiple torn hamstrings, torn meniscus in both knees (only a partial one left in one of them), strains, sprains, etc. All of these pains have led to a kind of equilibrium after thirteen years of practice. They brought wisdom.

    I think one of the things that confuses the issue is the differences in abilities among students. I’m not really talking about pain that is “discomfort in a pose.” The pain I feel in the practice is fairly continuous, and used to be much worse: It was at the beginning very painful to reach up in “ekam”–I couldn’t touch my hands together. Now, I walk without a cane, without pain.

    That’s the kind of riches David is talking about in that dark, dirty cave.

    -Bobbie

  7. Obviously written by a person of privilege. Pay for pain. Explain that to my mother who had to experience pain everyday scrubbing floors just to survive.

  8. As an devoted ashtangi with rheumatoid arthritis and some crazy complications from it, like cysts in my spine that press on my nerve roots, I can attest to feeling pain! Ashtanga has helped me get my RA into remission which I am thankful for everyday. Somedays I am in severe pain, it is an extreme discomfort and part of my practice is disengaging from it. I have also gotten injured on the mat of my own doing and in a few over zealous adjustments. With each I certainly can’t say I’m happy about experiencing the pain, but in learning about myself, in figuring out how to continue and better yet knowing I want to continue practicing, I am grateful for learning to be compassionate instead of fearful. Thoughtful and patient, instead of wrapped in negativity and resistance. Sure there are days my back is really bad, but movement helps more than hurts, as long as it is done properly. Going back to primary, and modifying to prevent injury doesn’t mean there won’t be some level of pain. Allowing someone to push you into getting a torn hamstring, is not the pain David was referring to, but as we are each unique and come to this with our different strengths and weaknesses, at some point there will be pain along the way. It’s what we do with these confrontations of pain that can bring about the type of transformation that David and Bobbie touched upon.

  9. pain is just a sensation. yes, it’s all just in your head. therefore, it’s perfectly fine, in many instances beneficial, to practice through the pain. nevertheless, life has hopefully taught us that the stimuli that cause pain typically result from injury of one sort or other. common sense would dictate to find out what that injury might be and, if warranted, do something about it, other than moaning and wailing. if pain is telling me that i have just overextended a ligament, and the next level of pain will likely indicate it has now actually snapped, then it is not very smart of me to go deeper that day just to check out if that’s really what’s going to happen. as far as transformation of the body goes this practice works with repeated low grade injury and time. practicing through the pain is part of the deal, it means working towards the edge of serious injury, but not beyond it. hence tim’s, david’s, guruji’s attitude towards it. of course, sometimes one is bound to go over the edge, and that’s fine most of the times. it’s yoga after all, not base jumping.

  10. Feeling a kinship for those replies voicing concern over pushing the pain limit, for the post does seem to leave out a vital “limb” here: what of Brahmacharya-balance and moderation? “If in doubt whether to observe Ahimsa or Satya, always go with Ahimsa”. – from The Secret Power of Yoga.

    1. yes, ahimsa. cause no harm. injury means harm most of the time, pain means harm sometimes, but pain during practice more often not. sthiram sukham asanam. if you run out of sukham stop.

  11. I understand the frustration teachers experience when their students are constantly complaining about pain – especially when they imply that it is the fault of the practice. I do not understand, however, how a teacher, a yoga teacher, could express this frustration so openly. I believe it is the teacher’s duty to keep guiding the student through – and helping that student see and believe how beneficial the practice is, even if it is frequent. As a student, I want to feel that I can express my feelings of pain and frustration to my teacher without feeling like her or she doesn’t “care” or that I am annoying him or her. As a teacher, I want my students to feel comfortable telling me anything. I believe that Guruji’s nonchalance towards pain was an effort to show us that it is not something to dwell on and that focus should be shifted to practice. I have never seen him quoted saying he didnt “care” about our pain.

  12. Pez, I salute you. There was a wonderful moment in my last teacher training with Tim Miller, when Tim–just in conversation with us, casually–said that the point of Ashtanga really is to teach us how to deal with pain and difficulty on many levels. We learn to deal with pain on a physical level, on an emotional level. We learn to deal with difficulty the same way. We practice by choice, and face the difficulty of the practice by choice, and practice how to handle both these things, so that when life throws us pain and difficulty with no choice, we are practiced in dealing with them, and will know what to do.

    This, I believe, is the point David is trying to make: That pain is not the point of focus. It’s how you react or don’t react to it. It’s not to ignore it, but to pass or see through it, and not let the practice be defined by it.

    I also think it’s important not to oversimplify what he’s arguing for by calling it “yoga.” I believe he’s speaking about the Ashtanga Yoga Vinyasa System–the entire practice, and its experienced and wise teachers. No teacher ever told me not to care about or to ignore my pain. Or not to care about or to ignore difficulty. “Do the pose,” Tim says, “Don’t let the pose do you.” Linda makes this point quite well.

    And as for privilege: Yes. I am. My mother worked hard also–a bus driver–and had the same condition, and spent weeks in bed, unable to walk or work, and we were poor. I’m aware and grateful for the privilege that has given me Ashtanga, and I don’t intend to waste it as a result.

    om

    Bobbie

  13. I think this post is unhelpful, both for new students and for a lot of people dealing with pain, but that might be because of my interpretation or more accurately how I think most people perceive it, which obviously is very different from how some long time practitioners of Ashtanga read it.
    And I think it is quite simply wrong about it’s main statement. I would say that Ashtanga is very popular, and that normally you should not feel high levels of pain (indicating injury) from practicing this yoga; otherwise both statistics and quite a few smart people must be false and delusional.
    Polls indicate that Ashtanga is the second or third most popular form/style of yoga practiced in the west, where up to a third of students are rather fresh beginners.
    As mentioned earlier, a teacher who does not care about pain expressed or manifested in a student, raises questions about ahimsa and what that teacher communicates to the student.

    The main problem I have with DG’s newsletter is not what I believe is the intention behind it; that we should apply ourselves wholeheartedly, and that this practice is intense and demanding, but also very rewarding — so, have some faith in the practice. However, DG fails here, in my opinion, to write intelligently and with compassion about pain — that bothers me a little. It is as if he is complaining about students who complain about their petty pains, and he seems to only want the really good students (Yoga Sutras 1:19-1:22), who easily can attain an advanced level of practice.
    There is a common misconception about yoga (especially Ashtanga); that if you are not young & bendy (and strong), then don’t bother! This newsletter takes it a step further and implies that you shouldn’t come to your yoga teacher (at least not to David Garrigues) with your pains and injuries. Just shut up, be grateful, and practice. I recognize this as old school, and the way of Pattabhi Jois and T. Krishnamacharya. Don’t complain, a good student does as he (or she) is told …
    Yes, I think we should demand a lot from students of yoga, but actually even more from our teachers. Pain that can be evaded by knowledge, attention, careful examination, and deep investigation, does not have to be part of our karma — and we should never ignore pain (Y.S. 2:16): “Suffering that has yet to manifest is to be avoided.”

  14. Upon further reflection I nominate DG’s rant for second place most ridiculous ‘senior teacher’ piece behind Angela Jamison’s arrogant non-reply on handstands.

  15. “When I am hurting I have pain, when you are hurting, you’re just complaining.” Yes, its a joke but there is some real truth to it. Just ponder the deep implications of this complicated definition of pain provided by the International Society for the Study of Pain: Pain is an unpleasant sensory and emotional experience associated with actual or potential tissue damage, or described in terms of such damage.

  16. Interesting thread. I, too, didn’t take to DG’s public rant very well. I read it and thought “if I go to this man as a student there is a high likelihood he will hurt me” mainly because of the lack of empathy he expresses. Perhaps not true in person, but I’m even more inclined to not risk finding out.

    I was taught by a teacher who never, ever pushed hard. He vowed to not hurt his students. He valued the vinyasa and the meditative aspects more than the gymnastics. He also told us that don’t be fooled, Guruji hurt people sometimes. No one is perfect.

    Now that I’m nearing 50, I have no interest in getting injured for an asana pose. It takes too darn long to heal. My current teacher also is very skilled at adjustments and doesn’t hurt people. She’s in the No Paining camp. The only camp for me!

  17. I thought that Ashtanga Yoga is informed by the teachings of Patanjali, who originally outlined the eightfold path. Yet Patanjali clearly states in book two that asana,posture is ‘Stirra Sukham Asanam’ i.e. steady and comfortable. Comfortable, means free of pain.
    I think this is a fairly authorative guideline that I’m inclined to trust a bit more than Tim Miller or whoever this other dude is.
    Om Shanti
    James UK

    1. What precisely in this sutra is referred to as “asana” is debatable, and so is the translation of “sukham” as “comfortable”. “At ease” may be closer to the mark. Now, could you please elaborate a bit more how you worked out that “at ease”, or “comfortable” means “without pain”? 

      In application to modern day asana practice, “sthira sukham asanam” is often interpreted as the instruction to balance effort with relaxation. I myself, an entishly stiff person, often run the danger to err on the side of effort, so that, one day perhaps, I might be able to enter and be in the pose with ease. For example, at one time, I was incapable of kurmasana. Just getting to enjoy relative ease in kurmasana and supta kurmasana took months of effort – and some pain along the way. In fact, the trick is to relax, find sukham, in the presence of pain, that is to do exactly the opposite of what body is telling itself to do, which is combat the pain by tightening up against it. My point is: to be at ease in the face of pain is perfectly compatible with the sutra. A teacher friend in the Iyengar tradition puts it this way: when you’re in the pose think about what needs to work and what can relax; work only the parts that need to work, and relax the parts that do not have to work.

      I find it remarkable that David Garrigues is getting such a beating here when it is rather obvious that he addresses specifically those pains that  are the sine qua non of the practice. Or, more accurately, the complaining about it. The student who is entitled to the next pose, the next series, samadhi, you name it, by way of immaculate conception or gentle osmosis, and if possible instantly. Evidently, there are quite a number of us out there with this phenotype. It would explain the edgy note in that newsletter. Not wanting to spend energy on a mismatched student shouldn’t be called lack of empathy.

      1. From the Oxford English dictionary:

        ‘COMFORTABLE’ : adjective

        1 providing physical ease and relaxation:

        2 physically relaxed and free from constraint:

        3 not in pain or in danger:

        4 free from stress or tension:

        I think this is pretty clear.

        There doesn’t seem to be much debate about what Patanjali is referring to as ‘asana’. Asana means ‘a seat’ as a noun, or ‘to sit down’ as a verb. This is also very clear.

        Good luck with your practice. I hope it achieves the ends you desire.
        Namaste
        James

  18. I’d just like to add to my last comment so that you understand where I’m coming from.
    A few years ago I was in Mysore practising Ashtanga and a teacher there (who isn’t a member of the Jois family) gave me such a strong adjustment in Baddha Konasana that I injured the Adductor Magnus on the inside of my leg. It left me with a lot of subsequent discomfort in my leg which has never quite been the same since, even after 4 years. It set my practice back years, and I doubt if i will ever be able to do certain postures in the primary series again (postures that i used to find easy.)
    I strongly believe that any yoga teacher that disregards the pain of a student is irresponsible and reckless. Anyone that says that pain is ok and a part of the process has clearly never experienced a serious injury whilst practising.
    If you are going to a yoga class and your teacher is hurting you, or your body hurts after your practice then my advice would be STOP! . Have a break and find a way of practising or another teacher that doesn’t hurt.
    Om Shanti
    James

    1. I don’t think dissecting the sutra with help of the Oxford dictionary necessarily gets us closer to Patanjali’s meaning; however, thank you for the added context, I understand you better now.

  19. For sure Ashtanga is not for everybody and if there is pain when you doing some asana you consider with you teacher why there is pain a good teacher will have the answer, because there is different kind of pain if is an injery then for sure you have to back off, so here is where ahimsa(not violent) and satya (truthfulness) take place in the practice. I practice and teaching Ashtanga for few years now, the practice have transform me inside out, but as i say to enjoy the practice you need to be aware of the Ashtanga 8 limbs path, otherwise the practice will be really dangerous for your ego and then for your body.

  20. It might be worth reading Nobel’s post over on “Yoga in the Dragon’s Den” regarding the confusion this post has caused arising from the conflation of various types of pain — sharp pain from injury, emotional pain from transformation, discomfort from working into the stuck and tight areas of your body and your mind………….might be worth being a bit more specific when writing posts on Ashtanga yoga and “pain” to avoid the controversy and generate more productive discussion?

    1. I’m really not seeing what confusion people are having, unless they just aren’t reading clearly. Here is a quote from Bobbie’s post:

      “So I learned from my teachers Shayna, Diana, and Tim that if I were to be freed from the constant pain of the disintegrating disks in my back, I would have to ignore it as part of the process, in order to get stronger.”

      She was in constant physical pain and pushed through it and got through it by getting stronger via Ashtanga, which after all is a practice about “healing.” (That’s what the First Series is, I believe.) She couldn’t just give into the pain, which I think was the point of DG’s original thought.

      If others in the comments are bringing other meanings and perspectives on “pain,” that’s just part of the discussion, which seems to be to have been pretty constructive, for the most part.

      And I don’t get your “controversy” comment at all.

      S

  21. I draw the line between pain (from injury) and discomfort resulting from a physical/energetic blockage in an asana. I practiced daily with a torn hamstring (2nd degree) for 9 months, without pain, by modifying as necessary – essentially practising one side with a bent leg etc, always stopping at the point of pain. This resulted in progressive healing and improvement, that actually brought me to the point of fully resuming my practice without further or permanent damage to my limb. On the other hand, yes there is a lot of discomfort in Ashtanga Yoga that is necessary for breakthroughs to happen. And this requires a lot of work, that may make the practice unpopular to some. I value a lot working through discomfort, but safety for me, comes first.
    Om.
    Xenia
    PS. I love David Garrigues. 😉

  22. In the simple words of David Williams, who’s been doing Ashtanga longer than any of us:

    “If it hurts then you’re doing it wrong.”

    What more is there to say?

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