Ashtanga and Injuries. About Teacher Responsibility

Learn how to safely self-assist in padmasana and avoid typical ashtanga injuries in the knees

Ashtanga and Yoga Injuries

Ashtanga Mysore Style is the safest Hatha Yoga method

The “Mysore Style” teaching paradigm is by far the safest way to teach Hatha Yoga (led classes are impersonal, ineffective and dangerous). Traditional Ashtanga teachers can become extremely experienced from working with thousands of individual practitioners. In my case more than ten thousand in 20 years. Working 1:1 with each of the students allowed me to learn from the things we have in common as well as what makes us different. Knowing some of my students for many years, I saw the results of my teaching over time and had to keep refining my technique so much that it has nothing to do with what I was taught to be “correct teaching” 20 years ago. Guess how much experience I obtained over the years for dozens of typical causes of injuries in Yoga practice! As a student you must expect that your teachers are getting better and better, rather than more and more stubborn and rigid.

Anyhow almost all I know about injuries I learnt from trying to help out injured students who came from less responsible teachers. They were hundreds. The sad part of the story is: The solutions are almost always obvious and simple. All you need it common sense, empathy and experience.

Why do people get injured in Ashtanga?

The answer is very simple: Practitioners get injured only when their teachers don’t do their job. There are teachers who don’t know what they do (poor education or too little experience). And then there are evil teachers (yes, they exist). But injuries can not be attributed to the Ashtanga method or to the student. Injuries indicate that the teaching was incorrect. 

It is possible to learn traditional Ashtanga on a deep level without getting injured from teachers who know what they are doing. They might be rare but they certainly exist (for example Richard Freeman and Mary Taylor, Chuck Miller) and of course I wanted to learn from them.

Too many victims of poor teaching learnt to blame themselves rather than their teacher. This is an indication of an abusive student-teacher relationship! If you have pain in or after the practice or got injured, you must tell your teachers. This is the only thing that you owe your teachers. They must (learn to) help you out of trouble within a matter of days or weeks. If they are unable or even unwilling to take responsibility and learn from their mistakes (very common!): Leave them at once. You don’t owe anyone respect for empty promises. They are not even teachers if they neglect their duty. 

The “meaning” of pain and injuries in Ashtanga

Let’s put it up front: No injury has any benefit, ever. Injuries are nothing but the proof of a mistake, that we did NOT practice Yoga yet. Yoga is the method of transforming our habits BEFORE we get injured. It’s the method of overcoming the root causes of all suffering, physically and mentally. This is obvious.

There is not doubt that Yoga teachers must not cause harm to anyone and that includes our students. As teachers, it’s our responsibility if students get injured because they trusted us. Therefore we must know the patterns which lead to injuries. We must know how to read “discomforts” as clear warning signs that an injuries is arriving which must be avoided. We must be able to convince our students to learn listening to their inner guru and to change harmful patterns before they become an injury. It may not be an easy task. The ego striving for achievement is very powerful, even in Yoga practice. Also, injuries often times build up slowly and practitioners don’t even notice that for most of the time on the other side. But seeing this and helping to avoid future injuries is exactly what true Yoga teachers do. Rather than looking away and blaming the student when it happens.

The orthodox abuse of the terms Ashtanga “lineage” and “tradition”

Since I started with Ashtanga around 2000, too many Ashtangies around me bought into the legend that pain is unavoidable. Pain even is supposed to have some mystical benefits in the long run (the “opening” bullshit). Common sense and my internal “bullshit sensors” taught me the exact opposite. Actual pain is one of the most important built-in teachers that we have. But pain has no meaning other than calling for (immediate!) change and a call for teachers to take responsibility. We have made a mistake that should better be avoided in the future. It’s shocking how many practitioners have been taught to ignore or accept pain. It’ shocking how teachers delegate their own responsibility to “the tradition”. Pain arises only from incorrect practice and it must not be confused with a specific intensity that can arise from a transformational practice. 

Many regular Ashtanga practitioners arrive at Ashtanga Yoga Berlin with all sorts of injuries or at least “discomforts” from the practice (knees, back etc.). Some also suffer from mental injuries from exploitative teacher personalities, but that is a different story. Injuries are not because of “shit happens”. They are result of a massive and often systematic lack of responsibility. This is especially a problem of the so-called “orthodox” Ashtanga, because a fundamental misinterpretation of tradition allows teachers to delegate all individual responsibility to an anonymous “lineage” no matter how obviously they fail. The results are either good (then the teacher is happily taking responsibility) or it’s the student’s fault (you always find flaws in serving an orthodox system properly enough).

I have heard ridiculous justifications for injuries. This is shameful. Whenever a student gets injured, it’s the fault of the teacher. Can I as teacher prevent all injuries? Of course not. But it’s our duty to prevent the avoidable ones and these are 99% of all common injuries in Yoga.

The role of injuries – misunderstood

The reason for writing this article is that I recently read a book on Yoga injuries which gave me lots of grey hair. The teacher is avery nice person and a respected teacher. But his mindset shows exactly all the patterns of irresponsibility that explain the high level of injuries in Ashtanga. Hereby I sum up some of these generic misconceptions:

“Ashtanga injuries take long to heal” – NO!

First of all, he wrote “injuries often take years to heal”. That may be his personal experience. I am very sad for him. But this is not my experience and I am pretty sure not the experience of my students. It is a plain incorrect and harmful idea. It just shows that something went wrong. The truth is: Injuries heal within days as soon as the cause of the injury is removed. Practically all “slow motion” injuries are a logical consequence of sometimes tiny technical flaws in the practice. It’s that simple for almost all injuries in my experience. 

“The student must serve the tradition and the teaching is always right” – NO!

Second, the author keeps seriously telling the reader (his students) how much they (the students) should blindly trust and serve “the tradition” in form their teacher (him). Well, this is absolutely unacceptable as long as in the name of his lack of knowledge about tradition so many practitioners got and still get hurt (physically and more often mentally). The exact opposite is correct: Teachers must continuously prove, that they and the “tradition” deserve trust. As teachers we are serving our students with the help of a traditional method, not the other way around. We are responsible for continuously refining and improving our understanding of the teachings, not for repeating the nonsense that we understood as beginners again and again. We are responsible for common sense, too. We are really responsible for every injury in class, may it come from an adjustment (way too often!) or slowly over time. Why? Simply because there are teachers who show it’s possible.

The author also wrote that his own teacher let him practice for four years (what?!?) with severe pain (could hardly walk or so). Why the hell would you call someone even a teacher (or even worse: literally a “highest guru”) not helping when you need help? Well, sadly this again seems to be very common in so-called “orthodox Ashtanga”. There are Ashtanga teachers who are very keen on stopping their students when an injury prevents them from doing a certain pose. But rather than helping them with the injury, they leave them alone with the problem (even if an adjustment caused the injury in the first place) and punish them on top with ridiculous rules. I have met only one or two teachers how saw future problems arising from my instability that all others misinterpreted as an “advanced practice”. They managed to earn my trust with intelligence and experience so I would eventually start working hard on my weak spots rather than abusing them for more fake “achievements”. They simply insisted on better quality and never sold incompetence as a Yogic teaching principle!

Bad teachers find excuses. Good teachers take responsibility. 

Rather than taking responsibility in any part of the book, the author systematically blames his practitioners actions and their psyche or “ego” for injuries. Blaming students is very common in Ashtanga as far as I have heard.  The author even abuses out-of-context quotes from the scriptures and lots of flowery words to say: “Injuries appear because they are unavoidable in life anyhow and because the student’s ego”. But even extremely humble and careful people suffer from injuries that their teachers cause and/or ignore. He also argues in various ways that getting injured helps on the spiritual path. What a ridiculous nonsense. I have yet to find a Yoga injury that does not arise from mistakes in the practice. Blaming the student is unworthy.

Yes, there are many “eager” Ashtanga practitioners who believe Yoga practice is about achieving poses and series’. I suffered from the same problem. Some are stuck in that toxic pattern and probably get injured more often (and still put their smiling face on social media as if showing off poses in pain was not totally foolish!). But what are Yoga teachers good for  – if not for waking up nut cases like us? Anyhow – I learnt how to overcome this problem so it’s my responsibility to help others, too.

“The student is responsible for injuries” – NO!

Understanding the creepy nature of our ego is key for the stages on the true Yogic path beyond asana. But who is served by looking away when students hurt themselves? Is this an acceptable teaching approach? Hello!?! If injures helped our spiritual growth, the planet would be full of enlightened ashtangies. I have not seen one. But I have heard about lots of nearly crippled ones, unable to listen to their pain. I pray that they can eventually open up to meeting teachers who help them rather than praising the words of a dangerous cult. 

Why problems _must_ arise in Yoga

Deciphering the real goals of Yoga practice and eradicating all incorrect ideas about it is the main responsibility that we have as teachers. Understanding the nature of Yoga, the pitfalls of the practice, the various levels and causes of problems arising and what can be learnt from them is what qualifies us as Yoga teachers. 

The Ashtanga system deliberately puts practitioners and teachers into trouble, otherwise it would not be a transformational path. We are solving riddles in constructed situations. By this we can understand problematic habitual patterns in ourselves and our students, incorrect ways of evaluating the nature of reality. Overcoming physical patterns of ignorance can help us overcome the underlying mental patterns which is the root cause of true suffering. But is that promise widely fulfilled?

Well, we clearly see unhealthy “ego” structures in many “advanced” asana practitioners showing off their “achievements” in public. Also the sheer number of injuries shows that Ashtanga is fundamentally misunderstood and dysfunctional.

So: When problems arise we should not run away. But we must not ignore them either. We simply solve them. That is the nature of intelligence, the middle path.

How is your experience with Ashtanga injuries and your teacher’s responses?

We really need more discussion: Do you have injuries? How long? Do or did you tell your teachers? If not, why? Should you not expect them to help you? I also hope that no one in some future will ever again have to suffer from forceful adjustments which are incorrect by definition. How is your experience?