Embracing Body Friendly Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga…a potentially controversial concept.
Ashtanga Yoga is the eight-limbed path of conscious living and spiritual practice that guides one towards Self-Knowledge, liberation and cessation of personal suffering. It is presented in the Yoga Sutras which was compiled around 200 BCE by the great sage Patanjali.
Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga, however, is a traditional style of hatha yoga popularised by Sri K. Pattabhi Jois of Mysore, India (1915-2009). S.K. Pattabhi Jois was a student of Krishnamacharya who brought yoga to the west in the last century, as was Iyengar and Desikachar.
This style of yoga was originally practised by young boys and men in a very disciplined environment.
Most of us certainly haven’t had the privilege and good luck to have started a yoga practice in early childhood.
My personal experience has shown me that here in the west, many of us do not have the bodies of young Indian men! Unlike our Indian counterparts, we have not been brought up sitting on the floor, and most of us certainly haven’t had the privilege and good luck to have started a yoga practice in early childhood.
I personally have found Ashtanga Vinyasa potentially problematic as it certainly has not served me to force my body into postures that I clearly am not structured to achieve safely. I came to the practice in my 30’s, and 18 years of practice has led to knee, hip, sacro-iliac, lower back, shoulder, wrist and neck problems at some time or another, some of them ongoing.
It is a commonly held notion of many injured yogis that they must have somehow caused they’re own problems through faulty practice techniques. I have even heard teachers say to just ignore pain and keep practicing, completely ignoring the fact that pain is the body’s way of warning us that something isn’t right!
It has not served me to force my body into postures that I clearly am not structured to achieve safely.
Many of us have come to yoga later in life, and many have a lifestyle which finds them sitting for prolonged periods of time slumped in chairs and car seats. Herein lies the dilemma. Should a student be excluded from practicing a more disciplined approach to asana because of the body’s limitations? Should potential students be either turned away (which happens) because they are ‘not advanced enough’, or included but encouraged to practice in a prescribed way which is potentially injurious? Should we be forcing ourselves into, or aspiring to, the shapes we see in pictures, books, charts, teachers and fellow students, risking permanent injury, pain and a sense of failure?
Should we be forcing ourselves into the shapes we see in pictures, books, charts, teachers and fellow students?
Another potential hazard I see arising with this practice is that it often attacts those who are particularly ‘flexible’. Joint hypermobility in my opinion (and I’m not alone) is a disadvantage rather than an advantage. In fact, those who are less flexible are going to have a more stable practice as long as they are properly instructed. Those with really stretchy joints are at risk of injury if strength and stability are not cultivated as a priority. Here, ego can play a role in leading to injury as we come to class to show off our latest achievement only to find ourselves in the orthopaedic surgeon’s waiting room 30 years down the track.
Yoga is available to every one of us. Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga included.
Those with really stretchy joints are at risk of injury if strength and stability are not cultivated as a priority. Here, ego can play a role in leading to injury as we come to class to show off our latest achievement only to find ourselves in the orthopaedic surgeon’s waiting room 30 years down the track.
There is always a gentle class available for those who have limitations, but what if a student would like to practise a more disciplined style? Should they be able to?
As Lakota John (https://www.fourwindswellness.org/aboutlakotajohn) states, we have to leave behind the ‘square’ thinking which dominates the psyche here in the west. Those 4 sharp corners just aren’t found in nature. What if we could actually access this style of yoga in such a way that suits our individual situation? What if we shaped a traditional discipline to suit everyone while retaining respect for lineage? Can we blend the scientific knowledge of anatomy and physiology, particularly variations of it from person to person, with the more spiritual basis of yoga practice? Can we tailor yoga to the physical needs of the west, and have it provide the emotional, mental, and spiritual transformation for which it is known? My answer is a resounding yes. If we think outside the square that is. Respected long time Ashtanga teacher Gergor Maehle states "The most important thing I understood is that it is not that the students are there for the yoga but that the yoga is there for the students. That means that if the practice does not serve the current needs of the student it must be adapted until it does. This is a maxim that was pointed out by Shri T Krishnamacharya but is lost in much of today’s competitive Ashtanga culture.”(Maehle, 2014)
...it is not that the students are there for the yoga but that the yoga is there for the students...
Just as importantly, can we achieve this in such a way that we maintain respect for the origins of this practice? Well, I think we can, although I am sure many would disagree. This is where controversy will pop up. This has traditionally been an exceptionally strict discipline and those who have been taught by S.K.Pattabhi Jois are vehement about keeping it strictly as it was taught to them in Mysore. After all, they spent many years being told they couldn’t progress until they had achieved certain levels of attainment. Why should all the newcomers to the discipline get it easy?
When I visited India, I found Ashtanga being practised in a Shala where there were local villagers practising…men and women, different ages, different ability levels, some in saris (no lulu lemon here, no instagram posts, no facebook followers, and no impressive postures in front of a sunset backdrop) and no-one felt the need to dive into an extreme back bend from standing, or stand on their head, or pop their legs behind their head… and the teacher didn’t seem to mind. Have we been duped?
I wish to make it clear that I am not saying that everyone who practises advances asana is going to injure themselves! As I said, some bodies are cut out for it nicely. It is simply a matter of anatomical reality mixed with self-discipline.
Can we tailor yoga to the physical needs of the west, and have it provide the emotional, mental, and spiritual transformation for which it is known?
At the end of the day, the nitty-gritty of the yoga practice is ‘yogas citta vrtti nirodah’, as stated at the beginning of Patanjali’s yoga sutras… ‘Yoga is the stilling of the changing states of the mind’, leading to a final state of Samadhi (meditative absorption) which frankly can be experienced by many gazing at the milkyway away from the city on a clear night.
If this can be achieved without the need for a hip replacement in your 50’s, or a ruined meniscus, then let’s go for it!
Maleny Mountain Yoga offers one on one/ small group (max4) classes for dedicated yogis with some prior yoga experience. Please email firstname.lastname@example.org or private message on our facebook site for enquiries. https://www.facebook.com/malenyoga/
Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga Asana Class for Beginning Students
This is a one on one/small group class (max 4 students) where we explore and learn the primary Ashtanga sequence.
This style of yoga is a very physical practice at first glance. It requires some physical fitness and some prior yoga experience, but mainly a high level of self-discipline and dedication to the practice whatever level you are at.
In this class, we spend an hour learning the sequence and optimising the postures to suit the different abilities and body types of the students to maximise safety and minimise the potential for injury. There is chanting of the opening and closing mantras and pranayama practice.
The student is expected to practice at home at least 4 days a week not including the class. The practice will be easy enough for the student to be able to realistically pursue. This is essential for progress. The student is able to keep in touch with the teacher for guidance.
Committing the sequence to memory is necessary for successful practice and can only be done through self-discipline and dedication. If you learn to play an instrument and never practise at home, progress will be painfully slow. The body and mind are instruments, so practise is essential.
As we progress, we gradually learn the entire sequence (or as far as the student wishes to go), gradually building on the foundations of our practice.
The aim of this class is to:
prepare the student for a personal home/independent practice
develop self-awareness and self-discipline
teach the student how to practice safely in a way that is compatible with their strengths and limitations.
The physical practice brings many benefits which the student may become aware of in time. Consistent practice and commitment bring rewards. Students will be invited to attend Ashtanga yoga philosophy talks and workshops with different teachers from time to time.
6am-7.15am Friday. $75 for a block of 4 classes or $20 per class.
Duration: 75 mins including relaxation.
Further reading on the web: