Reminder: Ashtanga’s experts on injury and pain

Given all the discussion since Friday about pain and injury, I’m going to take the scoundrel’s route and re-post some links we put up last winter.

That post was in reaction to a similar topic. It’s a little pull-together of some of Ashtanga’s luminaries on the topic du weekend: pain. The impetus then, much as this time around, was David Garrigues. That time is was one of his videos in this post, about how injury is inevitable in Ashtanga.

Here’s the sampling of teachers:

David Swenson:

When we are confronted with bodily pain it is not only that we feel the sensation and discomfort in our body but it is the resultant inability to do what we once could where the deeper pain and frustration resides. Ashtanga Yoga wielded in the hands of an adept teacher should be accessible to anyone. Ultimately the yoga has not changed since I first came in contact with it but maybe I have changed. I find the same to be true for most practitioners that are still involved with the practice after many, many years. There is a point where we must each look within and find what this practice means to us and how we can best utilize it as a tool in our life.

(More Swenson here, too.)

Richard Freeman:

If this doesn’t feel good, or doesn’t help, there is no virtue in pushing through the pain and further irritating or tearing the cartilage of the inner edge of the meniscus. Work carefully and slowly and find someone who knows the mechanics of the knee joint—who also understands the benefits of yoga—to consult with for this situation. Pushing through joint pain can further damage a joint and upset the pranas of the body.

And again:

Working carefully and intelligently with injury is an important part of any yoga practice. Yoga should make the body healthier rather than harming it. Though one has to be intelligent rather than fanatical and mechanical. Having a good teacher to give guidance and feedback, and listening carefully to the internal cues that your body is giving you is very important.

Eddie Stern:

One reason that injury can occur in yoga is due to overzealousness, or even just plain enthusiasm, on the part of the student – I have of course experienced this myself – it is a natural response for a particular type of person when it comes to any activity that has physicality associated with it – no matter what a teacher may caution. Of course, injuries can happen anytime we do physical activity, whether or not we are taking risks.

Tim Miller:

Eventually it became obvious that I would need the root canal. Last Friday night, the night of the lunar eclipse, the pain was so intense that I barely slept all night. I went outside at 4am to check on the moon. At about 4:45am a shadow began to creep across the moon. For the next hour and a half I watched the moon slowly being eclipsed by the shadow of the earth while meditating on the nature of pain. As the sky began to brighten with the rising sun the effect was much less dramatic so I went inside. My wife, Carol, freshly awake, asked me what time I had gotten up. When I told her 4am she looked at me as if I was crazy, “4am on your day off—why?” I told her about my tooth and she said, “Honey, I’d really like to be sympathetic, but if you took Lena’s advice you wouldn’t have to go through this.” What I wanted was sympathy, of course, not a lecture on the Law of Karma.

Guy Donahaye:

The purpose of yoga is to overcome unnecessary pain – physical and psychological pain – and to become indifferent to it as it arises. Yoga is a means by which we learn to navigate our life and our bodies differently – so that we stop doing that which causes us to suffer. Whether these are mental patterns or physical symptoms – only we have the power to change them. Thankfully yoga provides us with many tools to achieve this.

Kate O’Donnell:

Sweating it out in a full conference at the shala yesterday.  300 people heat it up pretty quick.  But it worth it to hear Sharath say: If there is no fear, there is no fun.  Of course, that’s why those of us who are drawn to this practice go through all the craziness of waking up at odd hours and doing physical work that pushes us to the brink.  Its fun!  It’s a rush! It builds Prana!

And finally, David Garrigues, bringing it all back home:

The essential ingredient is a love of ashtanga and in maintaining a steady devotion and trying to do the practice as accurately as your given circumstances allow. Inversions don’t necessarily have to contribute to your scoliosis, but I would advise you to eliminate them until you are able to receive instruction from a highly qualified teacher. There are many aspects of the practice besides inversions to develop and enjoy at this time. Hopefully sometime sooner than later you’ll be in position to get some hands on help with the challenges you are facing. But in the meantime you can try experimenting with the suggestions I’ve made and let me know how it’s going.

One last small note is that there will always be someone to tell you that you can’t do ……….. the list of possible things or activities or dreams is endless and so is the list of people who will tell you can’t do that something.

The latest on this topic, on chances you missed it, is right here: Why Ashtanga will never be popular.

Posted by Steve

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Two Ashtangis write about their practice and their teachers.

4 thoughts on “Reminder: Ashtanga’s experts on injury and pain”

  1. When I was in lamaze class years back, the teacher talked to us about pain during labor and delivery – that pain is very subjective. It is different for each person and should be respected as such. I tend to believe this is true for pain or injury.

    When I hurt my shoulder during yoga, I continued to practice but with modifications for several month. As a result, it helped my shoulder to recover. My physical therapist (trained in the west) gave me that same diagnosis as my Ashtanga teacher – you don’t need to stop practicing and in fact is better to practice.

  2. Here’s another important source of knowledge on yoga, injury and pain:

    David Williams has been saying for at least a decade that: “If it hurts, you’re doin’ it wrong” … “too many people are hurting themselves and hurting others. Yoga practice can be (and should be) pleasant from the beginning to the end. What is important is the mulabandha and deep breathing. With daily practice, it is inevitable that one will become more flexible.” —
    And this is what he finds to be the most important thing to first tell his students. If there is himsa in your practice, instead of ahimsa, you are not really practicing yoga.
    If you go to his website (, you can read the student letter and all of the articles explaining this in depth. In a response on the message board (topic: “How hard to try to do the asanas?” August 18, 2004) he replies that there should not even be a lot of soreness in the muscles from practicing:
    “If you are feeling ‘quite sore’ in the morning, then you probably are ‘pushing it too hard’.
    Personally, I think daily practice for the rest of one’s life is more beneficial than sporatic practice interrupted by pain that makes practice impossible or undesirable.
    I suggest that you try practicing in a way that is pleasant and leaves you feeling good for the rest of the day and looking forward to the next day’s practice. Yoga practice is to increase one’s prana, whether it is Ashtanga Yoga or any other form. Nothing decreases prana more than pain. Hurting yourself more will not make you hurt less. From my observation of myself and thousands of others over more than 30 years, if one practices in a way that causes soreness, the soreness doesn’t pass; the enthusiasm to practice Yoga passes. As Guruji once told me many years ago, ‘Yoga can cure anything except problems caused by improper Yoga practice’.”

    Some other quotes by David Williams:
    “One millimeter past a stretch is tearing.”
    “You cannot heal pain by adding more pain.”
    “Yoga will cure everything except injuries caused by improper yoga practice!”
    “Do not tug.”
    “In India, the words yoga and meditation are synonyms.”
    “What is most important is what is invisible [moola bandha, deep breathing, and mental focus].”
    “Yoga is a path to self realization and liberation … it is meditation in motion.”
    “Pay attention, be aware, be present in life.”

    David Swenson and Richard Freeman also have the opinion that your asana practice should be as pleasant as possible, so that you enjoy it and want to keep practicing for the rest of your life. Maty Ezraty, whom I’ve had the pleasure of practicing with once for a couple of weeks, is very adamant about this as well. In fact, I believe that most (if not all) of the senior teachers and students will tell you the same thing. Pain and injury should normally not be a part of your practice, but then of course, unfortunately, we have these crazy personalities with a goal-oriented, or competitive, mind-set, I guess some even with masochistic tendencies, who come to the practice of Ashtanga; a very common phenomenon, that actually is not part of the method. Proverbs 11:17 also advices against self-torture: “A man who is kind benefits himself, but a cruel man hurts himself.” I think there may sometimes be narcissism/masochism (unhealthy self-preoccupation/ego and low self-esteem) as a root cause of the excessive pushing and injuring of oneself.

    Now, if you already have injuries and suffer from pain because of that, this is a somewhat different story, and that article in Yoga Journal, from 2002, “Gilgoff’s Grace”, is a good example. How do you practice with already sustained injuries that don’t improve or heal by resting? How do you practice through inevitable pain? Basically the same way, but with a lot more care, help, and intelligence. If pain is ignored, it will become habitual, eventually chronic, and much harder to get rid of, and a lot of people learn to manage and live with different levels, and layers, of pain; one pain is often masked by another. In physiotherapy and rehabilitation it is well know that you may have to practice with pain (and often also with drugs); this will have to be done with patience, knowledge, great care & abundant love. If you practice in a way that makes your injury(-ies) more severe, that is not helpful. More pain and injury will block more prana, drain energy, and make concentration and meditation virtually impossible or very hard. That is the opposite of the purpose with asana practice.

    Let there be awareness, wake up and practice with empathy for yourself and others.

    1. I have to admit, I have a lot of difficulty relating to or finding much of value in what David Williams says. I don’t have much experience around him, but when I did take a class from him he said numerous things that so completely didn’t apply to me that if he were the only voice I had, there would be no point in my practicing asana.

      In particular, he said that two years of practice would get you as flexible as you’d ever be. I’d been practicing two years by then, and as stiff as I am, that would mean stopping. I can’t imagine even Guruji’s being able to look me in the eye and say to keep practicing if there was going to be no more progress — and I do mean physically — from there. The inside and outside just are so far apart in some fundamental ways.

      I left feeling like he didn’t have enough experience with people who weren’t as gifted with limberness as he is. This is just my experience, but I felt like he was talking to a fairly narrow band of practitioners. Or at least not the band I’m in.


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