Photo by Valerie Owhadi
Before we talk about injuries, we should understand more about the sensation that we call "pain". Pain is not the same as injury. There is minor discomfort, acute pain, chronic pain, and then injury. These are not the same. Its a safe bet that everyone experiences minor discomfort during their daily life and perhaps more so while learning yoga asanas. That should not be a deterrent to your practice. If you experience discomfort, then that is the indication that your body is not in balance. Something has to be done to establish and maintain that balance in order to get rid of the discomfort, and that is a process that takes time. It will not go away immediately. Until it does, we must endure it and continue working hard. There is simply no alternative. You could dull the pain with drugs, but that will not solve the problem. It will only make you less aware of it.
Chronic pain is sometimes intense, but is not same as injury. Chronic pain is also the result of an imbalance in the body, but it is one that has persisted for a long time. This makes it difficult to change, but it is still possible. It will require even more perseverance and hard work. It will also require a degree of trust to keep doing the asana that reminds you of your problem, by causing you discomfort, with the understanding that the practice will eventually solve the problem, provided that you are consistent in your practice. In this case there are ways to minimize the discomfort that an experienced teacher should be able to provide you.
Acute pain is a sharp pain that occurs immediately in response to some change occurring in the body. Again, this does not necessarily mean an injury has occurred. Also, injury does not always come with acute pain. The two sometimes occur together, but not always. Sometimes during a pose, there may occur a shift in the tissues that causes acute pain that goes away shortly. Or a stretch may cause an intense and uncomfortable sensation. We should learn about our body to understand what is happening so that we know the difference between pain and injury. Injury can also occur slowly over time as a result of neglecting the priority of creating balance in the body. A disc herniation is an example of this. Though you may only become aware of the problem in a moment of acute pain, the injury has been developing gradually over a long period of time as a result of inadequate support for your spine during your daily movements. Little by little the disc is stressed, slowly altering its shape, until one day its shape is so distorted that it fails during a simple movement that would normally not cause you any problem. This is one injury that can be prevented by regular yoga practice.
The potential for bodily transformation through the practice of Ashtanga Yoga is huge. It is incomparable to anything else. Because it is so powerful, we have to be careful, respectful, and use it responsibly. If we do, then we will be blessed with good health throughout our life, even into our old age.
Below are 5 common reasons for injury associated with the practice of Ashtanga Yoga.
1. Attending a Led Primary Series class as a beginner.
Unfortunately, many studios and teachers in the U.S. seem to think that learning Ashtanga Yoga begins with a Led Primary Series class, where all the students are expected to keep up with the pace that is set by the teacher, and thus often we find that studios will have only this kind of Ashtanga class. Often studios will allow beginners into their led primary class because it helps their profits which is their bottom line. If this is your introduction to the practice, you will have very little chance of keeping up and will definitely be putting a lot of unwanted and unnecessary stress on your body. I'm not saying that you will definitely get injured, but there is a high probablility. There is a lot of detailed knowledge, along with an ability to apply that knowledge effectively, which is a skill gained through practice, that a beginner will not have, and is essential to have in order to be able to go through the whole primary sequence and finish on time without any problems. Unless you are especially talented, young, strong, and have significant prior yoga experience, it is unlikely that you would do well in that situation.
If you are a beginner, you should attend a Mysore style class that is taught by a competent teacher. In that format each student gets individual attention and works at their own pace. No one is expectied to try and keep up with anyone. The student is, or should be, given the instruction they need in order to develop a foundation that is required to be able to practice the Ashtanga asana series effectively. In a led class, there is no time for instruction. The students all do what they can, but there is very little time for explaining or trouble shooting, because that would interrupt the flow for everyone else. As a result of this dilemma, many off-shoot styles and "ashtanga based" classes with varying levels of difficulty have come into being that follow the model of having an instructor standing at the front and speaking to everyone at the same time. This is ok if you already know what you are doing and simply want to practice in a group setting. There are several reasons why this is a good idea. But it is not for beginners, and if your studio invites beginners to attend an Ashtanga Led Primary Series class, that is a red flag to be aware of.
2. Trying to mimic another practitioner when you are a beginner.
To be more specific on some of the dangers of attending a led primary class as a beginner, it is highly likely that you will try to mimic another practitioner and make a mistake that may result in some serious soreness for you. If you see someone doing a pose, be aware that there is more happening in their body than is readily observable by the eyes of a beginner. There are important internal techniques which make the pose therapeutic, without which it becomes traumatic. Your practice should be about figuring out whats going on in your body, not about trying to keep up with someone else. That is a common cause of injury in yoga class and is highly preventable by remembering to focus on YOUR practice, not "the practice".
3. Learning from a teacher who is a beginner.
It doesn't matter how long you have been practicing, or how many teacher training courses you've taken. If your practice is still at the beginner level, then you are a beginner level practitioner, taking on the role of teacher. Practitioners will definetly come to a place in their practice where they are confused or have a question about something. If your teacher is at a beginner level, then they may not have any helpful advice for you. Even worse, they may have wrong advice for you which causes you to make some mistakes that could lead to making things worse for you. It certainly is preferable to work with a teacher who has accomplished mastery of the things that they are teaching. It is quite rare unfortunately, that a teacher has mastered their craft. Practitioners should understand that many yoga instructors are in that position because they want to be, not because they belong there.
There is a difference between a teacher and an instructor. An instructor is a person who can lead a classroom full of people through a class. They pass on information that comes not from their own experience, but from someone else's. A teacher teaches from their own experience. Their knowledge was not obtained second hand. A teacher has something original to contribute to the practice of yoga. They are not merely repeating things that they have heard others say, or what they have been told to say. It has been said that teachers can take you only as far as they themselves have gone.
4. Only practicing poses that you like or are good at, while ignoring the challenging ones.
After you have been practicing for a few years, you may have begun to discover some of your unique strengths and weaknesses. Some poses are more accessible to you than others. As you practice more, poses that you excelled at will progress to the advanced level faster than the ones that are challenging for you. There will be a strong temptation to mostly practice the ones that you are best at, because it makes you feel good and you enjoy being at that high level. But you should be aware that your current ablilities are dependent on a level of balance in your body that will be lost if you do not bring the more difficult poses up to an advanced level also. People can become attached to the idea of making progress, rather than focusing on their body's needs. That is dangerous territory. They Ashtanga syllablus is designed to maintain this balance in the body. That's why it is important to master the whole thing rather than just playing around with the parts of it that you enjoy or that come more naturally for you. If you continue to ignore the challenging poses that you don't like doing, then your body will become more and more out of balance, and more and more likely to develop some kind of injury. This doesn't mean that you need to always do a whole sequence every time you practice, it means that if your sequence is not complete then you should focus on mastering the poses that are remaining until you have achieved competence in them all. Then you should maintain them in order to keep your body balanced.
5. Being impatient.
It is important to be patient in your practice. Yoga is a lifelong practice. It takes time. Sometimes it takes lots of time before you see any progress. But we should understand that staying at the same level is just as valuable as progress. We should be happy that our practice is keeping us healthy and strong, which is what really matters. You could lose that if you push too hard in an attempt to make progress. If you injure yourself, then progress will be even more difficult to achieve.
If you take some time off, be aware that you will not be able to come back to the practice and simply pick up where you left off. Sometimes experienced practitioners who have achieved an intermediate level will take time away from the practice for some reason, and then try to resume thinking that they can still do what they once did. They may then push their self too hard because they do not want to admit to their self that they have lost what they once had. Their body will take on some damage as a result of their lack of patience and humility. Or perhaps some one has been practicing a long time without making progress and they decide one day to try something that they should know better than to do, but they do it anyway because of some irrational reason. These are also sources of injury that may occur in the practice of Ashtanga. They are completely avoidable, yet people still do these things when they lose sight of what matters most.
These are the most common sources of injury that I have seen in my 27 years of practicing yoga. All of these situations that I have described here are avoidable, and the injuries are ultimately the responsibility of the practitioner. There is also the more rare situation in which the teacher gives a bad adjustment which causes the injury. That is unfortunate, but not very common. Always remember that you are in charge of your body and what you do with it. If you are not comfortable with an adjustment that your teacher is making on your body, don't hesitate to tell them so. Don't be too shy or timid to tell them not to touch you at all if you are not comfortable with them manipulating your body. It's your body, and you will be the one to have to deal with any injury that may occur. More often however, injuries result simply from having the wrong mindset in one's practicing. Respecting your limits is a powerful way to avoid injury. Also we should understand that an injury is not the end of our yoga practice. Just because you got injured doesn't mean that you are ruined or finished. You may go on to not only heal completely, but even surpass your pre-injury level. That is likely to happen actually, if you remain dedicated to your practice. If you are injured, don't despair. With proper rehabilitation, you may learn more from that injury than any teacher you had before. If you remain dedicated to your practice, injuries may come and go, but after them all you will only have become stronger and smarter as a result.
I hope this article will help you avoid making these mistakes. The practice of Ashtanga Yoga is incomparable to anything else in its potential to benefit the practitioner. It is my hope that more people will learn how to obtain these benefits for their own sake and for the sake of future generations.