Ashtanga Yoga and injury
...thoughts on injury, pain and healing
“Ashtanga injured me so I stopped practicing”. I have heard this often and chances are you have too. I even know people who truly believe Ashtanga Yoga is a method designed to harm people’s bodies. To what does it owe its reputation? Is there any truth to it?
Injuries can happen during Ashtanga practice in the same way they can happen during any sort of physical activity; even walking down the street and slipping can result in injury. Many injuries during practice concern the knees and occur when the student attempts lotus or leg behind the head poses while the hips are not ready for them. In this case ugly things can happen for sure, like popping knees and even torn ligaments.
Another example of injury is an overstretched hamstring (the famous "yoga butt”) which happens when practitioners focus on stretching their hamstrings to the limits during forward folds instead of targeting the sacrum area. This can cause the hamstrings to overstretch or even tear.
However, can we really say these are inherent vices of the practice? Truth is many of the above mentioned injuries happen when practitioners want to go too fast too soon or fail to find a balance between flexibility and strength/engagement work. They can all be avoided by having a skilful teacher by our sides and cultivating a loving approach towards our body, not forcing movements and poses we are not ready for just yet.
The other elephant in the room is injuries caused by adjustments. And unfortunately yes, they do happen. Those are caused by teachers who are over zealous to put the student deeper in certain poses. They do it either because they truly believe in the benefits of this approach or because they think that their worth as teachers depends on how impressive the practice of their students looks. It is sad and it should not be happening.
No one should sit on anyone’s back to adjust them. But again; is this the fault of the practice? Any tool placed in the wrong person’s hands can potentially be dangerous.
These examples of real injuries taken apart, not all discomfort or even pain experienced during practice is an injury. Let’s look at three examples:
Soreness/body transformation: During the first two years of my daily Ashtanga practice I was sore all the time. I was practicing every day, doing the exact same practice and still I was sore. My body was changing, shifting from a very sedentary and unhealthy lifestyle to a dynamic daily practice. Of course there was pain and discomfort. Was it an injury? Certainly not. The thing that differentiates Ashtanga from other styles it that if practiced daily over a long period of time it is going to transform your body. This is not an exaggeration. It literally changes everything. And there is discomfort, soreness and pain involved because we are cutting through life long patterns and this creates resistance.
Imbalanced bodies/spines: Certain things happen not because we are doing something wrong but because our bodies are not symmetrical. We are all naturally imbalanced in one way or another, having a weaker and a stronger side. Through daily Ashtanga practice these imbalances will come to light and often cause pain. A common example that I have experienced myself is the sacrum getting locked up. This can happen in the case of lumbar scoliosis forcing the pelvis to tilt on one side. It is nothing serious but can be debilitating and extremely uncomfortable. Still, the imbalance was here before, it was not caused by the practice. If at all, Ashtanga and especially Primary series through work on both sides will slowly correct and diminish these imbalances.
Muscle contraction as a reaction to the anticipation of pain: If you have experienced pain during a certain posture in the past, chances are your brain has learned to expect this to happen again. This makes muscles contract and tighten, which causes exactly the anticipated pain. Your body does not cooperate because your nervous system is in freeze mode, trying to protect you from a perceived danger. In this case the breath (and many years of practice) can make all the difference.
By slowing down and freeing the breath we can calm and train the nervous system to stop sending signals to the muscles to freeze. Thus space will be created and discomfort will diminish or even vanish.
I have heard stories of people getting injured during Ashtanga practice. I have witnessed even more people finding healing and regaining strength and a healthy lifestyle. Everything is possible, like with everything we attempt.
The question is what do you do with this tool? How do you approach the practice? Who do you trust your body with? And how much effort do you put in internalising the messages your body (and the pain) sends you?
Let’s not label things like good, bad or dangerous and let’s take the time instead to inquire further, experience things for ourselves and enhance our awareness and innate intelligence.