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

This article is about the miracle of injuries in Yoga and especially why they are so common in Ashtanga, which could be the safest of all Hatha yoga methods. But read all the way through to understand that injuries are a severe and avoidable problem of asana practice.
But even worse is when we understand that this practice has never even been Yoga in the first place.

Why should “Mysore Style” be known to be the safest asana teaching approach?

As opposed to the commercialized (western) led class teaching paradigm, the original Mysore Style method (1:1 teaching in small groups) provides an ideal environment for working in great detail with individual practitioners. But that opportunity is sadly missed as many (or even most?) Mysore teachers simply apply the exact same set of gross “adjustments” in order to – often forcefully – “correct the student”. This rude copy-paste-teaching style is not only very limited, but can be even more harmful than led classes.

You can only fathom the potential of Mysore Style when you meet one of those extremely rare Ashtanga teachers who never stopped learning. You understand there is not one “correct” adjustment, but rather hundreds of subtle assists, little tricks or images that help each and every student overcome obstacles in the practice. The benefit of this approach is only limited by my knowledge and experience as a teacher. Imagine the amount of experience that can arise from teaching and studying closely thousands of students, their commonalities, differences and the effects of  the various approaches to teach the seemingly exact same thing. 

As beginning teachers we cannot possible have this experience and I am glad to have overcome thousands of misconceptions over the years. I wonder why we still find so much stubbornness, rigidity and even violence in Ashtanga teachers. This is maybe the main cause of all injuries, frustration and failure in Yoga that we see.
In my retreats I am trying to provide a shortcut through the jungle of possibilities and try to helping you to avoid the many common traps on that path. Not surprisingly, the more sophisticated answers can significantly differ from what we have been told in the beginning. 

Why do people get injured in Ashtanga?

The answer is very simple: Practitioners get injured only when their teachers don’t do their job properly. Physical fitness and knowing certain sequences of postures, Sanskrit numbers and names, and when to grab a toe or look at your navel is by far not sufficient for Yoga teaching. Injuries and all sorts of even worse problems indicate an extremely limited understanding of Yoga and teaching.

The “meaning” of pain and injuries in Ashtanga

You may have been heard that injuries are inevitable, depend on the moon cycle of to have some obscure benefits. Nothing of that is true. Injuries are just the proof of avoidable mistakes (unless one has an accident). 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. 

It’s crucial for teachers to be able to to read their students’ practice and understand “discomforts” as warning signs of approaching injuries. We must teach practitioners to learn listening to their inner voice 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 notice or ignore signs for weeks or months. 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 “lineage” and “tradition”

Since I started with Ashtanga around 2000, too many Ashtangies keep getting injured. Too many buy into legend that pain is unavoidable. Yet significant numbers of injuries only arise with poor teachers, no matter how famous they may be. Pain is calling for (immediate!) change. It shows that we are making a mistake that should better be avoided in the future. It’s shocking how many practitioners have been taught to ignore or accept pain. But the systematic patterns of injuries we see cannot possibly belong to a lineage or “a tradition”. 

Many regular Ashtanga practitioners arrive at Ashtanga Yoga Berlin with typical patterns 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 don’t arise because of “shit happens”. They are the result of an 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 individual responsibility to an anonymous “lineage”. Whatever is declared to be orthodox or done as “xyz said” cannot be incorrect, no matter how harmful it turns out to be. In such toxic environments the results are either not harming yet (then the teacher happily takes the praise). Otherwise it’s bad luck or even the student’s fault. Why would the teacher take responsibility in such a system?

I have heard ridiculous justifications for injuries. This is shameful. Whenever a student gets injured, it’s the fault of the teacher. Can any 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 a nice person and 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 his often copied misconceptions:

“Ashtanga injuries take long to heal” – NO!

First of all, he states that “injuries often take years to heal”. I feel very sad for his personal experience and for his students who apparently not helped to avoid that path of suffering (otherwise he could see his mistake). But the opposite is correct: As soon as the cause of an injury is removed, the body heals, usually within days. It’s a built in principle in each and everyone of us. But injuries don’t even arise if you learn how to avoid the many tiny technical pitfalls in an effective methodological practice based on repetition. Teachers must understand and be able to teach the subtleties that make all the difference.

“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 most importantly pay to) “the tradition” in form their teacher (him). He even makes his students buy books justifying his ignorance. The exact opposite is correct: Teachers must continuously prove, that they and the “tradition” deserve trust and don’t injure students. Teachers are serving students with the help of a traditional method, not any other way around. Teachers are responsible for continuously refining and improving our understanding of the teachings, not for repeating the nonsense that we got wrong as beginners again and again. Teachers are responsible for every injury in class, may it come from adjustments (yes, I keep hearing heart-breaking stories about that) or slowly over time. Every single avoidable injury is one too much.

The author also wrote that his own teacher (a self-acclaimed “highest guru”) let him live with severe pain from the Ashtanga practice (what?!?) . Why the hell would you call someone even a teacher not helping when you need help? Well, sadly I have heard the same story again and again in the so-called “orthodox Ashtanga” scene.

Bad teachers find excuses. Good teachers take responsibility. 

Rather than taking responsibility as a teacher, the author systematically blames students for their injuries (it’s always the “ego”). 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 and because we should learn something from them”. 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 shameful.

Yes, there are many “eager” Ashtanga beginners who believe Yoga practice is about achieving poses and series’. I suffered from the same problem in the first one or too years but we see a lot of practitioners who did not get the idiocy of this after decades of practice. I wonder what Yoga teachers are good for  – if not for waking up nut case beginners like us?  Giving support in realizing and overcoming harmful mental processes turns sports into Yoga. 

If any of my students starts experiencing pain or even unusual discomfort, I must find out where it comes from. If there is a slight chance that it’s caused by neglecting my duty in attentiveness or knowledge, I must improve my skills. But no matter where a problem comes from, it’s my duty to help the student with all my knowledge.

“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 how can teachers look away as students keep hurting 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 and met a number of nearly crippled ones, just because they were unable to listen to their pain.

Yoga is constructed to be difficult!

Unfolding the meaning of of Yoga practice and eradicating all incorrect ideas about it is one of the main responsibility that we have as teachers. Understanding the true aims of Yoga, the pitfalls of the various practice techniques, the various levels and causes of problems arising and what can be learnt from them is what qualifies us as Yoga teachers. We must understand that Yoga teachers are absolute beginners by yogic standards for decades rather than years, no matter how much students prematurely project their desire on having found a true guru on anyone who pretends to be a teacher.

Practice means solving riddles in constructed situations. The Ashtanga system deliberately puts practitioners and teachers into trouble, otherwise it would not be a transformational path. This allows us to understand problematic habitual patterns in ourselves, our students and humans in general. Patterns of movement, breath and mind indicate incorrect ways of evaluating the nature of reality. Overcoming physical patterns can help us overcome the underlying mental patterns which are the root cause of true suffering. 

What needs to be changed?

Injuries, the apparent focus on empty physical achievements, and the promotion of a selfish lifestyle are the proof of a complete misunderstanding of Yoga altogether.  We have not even started the journey of Yoga without the firm decision to practice and teach for the well-being of others.

We must begin with the decision to overcome a very human yet destructive inclination towards selfishness which has poisoned even Yoga today.

Yoga begins with the firm decision of no longer violating the great yogic vow (Yoga Sutra!) of becoming non-harming (ahimsa), truthful (satya), not-stealing (asteya), moving-within-creation (brahmacarya) and “not-grabbing-around” (a-pari-graha). Without that, there cannot be Yoga.

Yoga can only be seen in the actual effects it has on our personality. No matter what we do: It was Yoga practice only, when inward-orientation, a connectedness with and great care of all beings grow within us naturally, month by month.

Let’s re-establish the wonderfully elegant method of Ashtanga as a healthy, ever-fresh process, in which narcissism, selfishness, ignorance and greed have no place!

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? 

Have you also been told that Yoga is what we do on rubber mats – and everything else is at a theory at best?