"Between Effort and Surrender is where Strength Resides"
• Ashtanga Yoga Therapy
Over the years I have heard some disparaging stories about Ashtanga yoga because of the intensity of the practice and the many stories of injuries. Part of the problem is that people with gifted bodies become teachers very quickly, not necessarily acquiring the intrinsic knowledge that is essential in a truly qualified teacher. It is easy to miss the forest for the trees as the body becomes impressively developed. Physically gifted neophytes are often more vulnerable to the ego running the program, whereas older, more experienced teachers have been humbled by time and practice. From my point of view, the present teachings taking over the international Ashtanga scene, do not have the same inquiring curiosity that is the basis of any evolving system.
Early on, K.P. Jois was a yoga therapist in a most radical method. He would apply his therapy individually. I feel the greatest loss has occurred due to the popularity of the system. While the larger classes needed to be changed in order to facilitate the increasing number of students, the intuitive modifications that were Guru Ji's therapeutic gift have been to a large degree lost. I have witnessed him break loose adhesions; open the sternum with thunderous sounds that make chiropractic seem like Reiki. He could assess anatomical anomalies and modify the emphasis of an asana or vinyasa to specifically address the individual. And he did this with love, even when he was yelling "bad man". There was always compassion and usually a trace of humor in his voice.
Because of the differing body-types, attitudes and pre-existing conditions within the student population, it is difficult to have a system or teacher that can flawlessly address everyone’s needs.
I would like to share the orthopedic, nutritional and spiritual aspects of yoga therapy that I have noticed and applied in my practice. A practice fraught with many of the above-mentioned challenges.
Students at the greatest risk of perpetuating these problems are those with the most aggressive practice, those that are goal-oriented, wanting to complete the various Ashtanga series, not fully understanding the dangers of doing this too quickly. Granted, the series of asanas are beautiful and thrilling, but the ‘go for it’, ‘no fear’, ‘just do it’ personalities are at the greatest risk. When this type of student is matched with the same type of teacher, the relationship becomes more dangerous still.
In yoga classes, physically gifted students are naturally rewarded quickly as their bodies develop and adapt much faster than others. The danger here is that the student's deeper understanding of the practice may not develop at the same rate. A teacher that knows when to cool the passionate student is doing them a great service. A neophyte practitioner of this type could easily seem to many as advanced enough to teach, in fact, so impressive, that what they teach might not even be questioned. This is not much of a danger to teachers of yoga systems that are basic, but with the advanced, accelerated nature of Ashtanga, it is the difference in the responsibility of pushing a baby stroller and landing a passenger jet.
Having been a neophyte, accomplished in all the advanced series, having mistakenly confused what my body could do, for what my ego identified as being an advanced yogi, has brought me to where I am today. I write this after 42 years of practicing yoga, 33 of those Ashtanga. I have come to understand that there is the possibility of substantial psychological and physical peril in the practice of yoga.
Yoga is therapeutic in nature. The continuous breathing is in itself a major benefit to the body/mind. Patabhi Jois would constantly remind us "free breathing, you." The idea was a continuous breath with no corners in it, which is very difficult while practicing advanced strength postures.
My friend, Kathy Cooper, a veteran Ashtangi, always emphasized a soft practice. She supported me in softening, as I helped her to see where she needed to build strength rather than rely on her flexibility.
Another aspect of yoga therapy is the subtle, neurological and glandular connections that are made during the asana. Guruji would recommend a certain posture to stimulate the pancreas or detox the liver.
My emphasis is on the physical therapeutic aspects of the practice. It seems that any complete healing system also takes into account the mind’s effect on the body, and the psycho/spiritual components. I will also address this aspect of yoga as best I can.
Brain balancing is not mentioned in Ashtanga yoga. I remember Gary Kraftsow, one of the most advanced Viniyoga teachers, speaking out about Ashtangis not having coordinated their right and left hemispheres of the brain. This is an emphasis in Viniyoga. I took an honest look at what he was talking about and later studied Educational Kinesiology and Brain Gym. I was a good subject, as I had never crawled as a child. I was born blind by California standards, so I sat until I learned to walk, skipping the neurological organizing effect of crawling. In my thirties, cross-crawl exercises became part of my practice. It seems that the eye problems and the brain hemisphere imbalance contributed to very poor balance while standing. Guru Ji always called me ‘dancing man’ in class. A handstand was much easier for me than standing on one foot. In my therapeutic practice, I check for this imbalance. Even if a person is not born with this problem, it often arises out of mental exhaustion. I find it most common in individuals that were involved in huge amounts of research, studying for tests or who have done a lot of drugs. The problem is generally easy to address with simple exercise and nutrition. I have added a simple, short routine to my practice to address this.
Ashtanga yoga Therapy is the natural conclusion that I have come to, having had the hands of the master on me for hours at a time; having picked his brain one on one, month after month; having studied alternative therapies; and having the Grace of the Divine Mother, of creation itself, guide me further. I will also give credit to pain and sickness, as they are the great motivators to the innovative practitioner.
This method of healing moderate to severe injury, is not for the faint of heart, or those who look at the glass as half empty. I once read of a famous herbalist who burned off part of his hand, the thenar area of his palm and thumb. When he went to the doctors they said they could fix it with a skin graft and it would look normal, but that he wouldn't be able to use his thumb. I can hear his thoughts: 'Oh yeah, that's an option, not’ For him this was unacceptable, he went home and kept the tissue alive, moist and clean using herbs and raw, high-enzyme honey. He grew the tissue, skin, muscle, tendon, blood, bone and ligament back! He retained complete use of his hand.
I know many people with back injuries that have had surgery and have lost the ability to do many activities, while often still being in pain. We all have the right to choose our own method of healing and should all be informed participants on that journey. The complete blueprint is in our DNA. All the information and instructions, with help from raw materials, and the maintenance of a healthy, balanced internal environment, allows us to heal most injuries and disease. As the medical books say, first do no harm.
Radical methods might never be mainstream but will always exist because of the warrior in some of us. Doctors grow body parts with electric stimulation; inject saline and testosterone into ligaments to stimulate re-growth and break healed bones to realign them. Individuals fast on water to regenerate the body, utilize DMSO to prevent death due to brain swelling; deep aggressive body work to break up fascial adhesions; long-needle orthopedic acupuncture with five and six inch needles; plus many more systems that are of this class of healing. Ashtanga Yoga Therapy falls into this category.
I have met many good, sincere and inspired Ashtanga teachers, who could benefit from AYT to become great teachers/therapists. Not everyone is motivated in this direction. There are those who are satisfied with the status quo, K.P. Jois was not one of them. The beauty of life is that we all have something to contribute, and we all resonate with different forms, modalities and protocols.
Use it or lose it, no pain no gain, we have all heard people say one or both of these sayings. When we start becoming stiff, losing our range of motion or mobility, we can get an electric wheel chair and chalk it up to ‘old age’ or we can do something about it. Many people blame Ashtanga yoga for their injuries and leave the practice without looking at the entire picture.
Thomas Hannah, one of the great body therapists once said, “When you are young you go over and under fences, when you get ‘old’ you go around.” One day I was asked by a student why I do asana practice. My reply was “because I like it, and so that I can put my pants on by myself when I am eighty.” In all practicality, we need some kind of exercise to keep the body healthy, and many of us are psychologically and emotionally more balanced when we move our energy through some kind of physical exercise.
The challenge: Physical systems are known to be spiritually dangerous, as it is easy to think you are your body, especially when it is so seemingly strong and powerful. We will all find out one day that, while the body is a great tool in the 3D, it will not last. The true ‘goal’ of yoga is God, pure consciousness, That which is eternal and will accompany us to the next realm of existence. A very humorous yogi friend of mine, David Swenson said, “When it is your time to die, you are not going to bargain your way out of it by telling Yama (the God of death) that you can clear your jumpback”.
I have mentioned before that Paramahansa Yogananda said that asana practice was to help you get your body comfortable enough, so that it would not distract you in meditation. I will mention here that intense yoga practice can provide us with mystical experiences and allow us glimpses into pure consciousness. This is a natural part of the yoga path that can be a trap if the ego identifies too much with those experiences.
I have a personal relationship with God in both the Hindu and Christian lineages. I recognize that this is not for everyone. We are all drawn to different types and levels of yoga, some to the physical practice alone and that is perfect for them. The most important effect of yoga, to me, is its’ potential to awaken the true self and give a deeper perspective to the questions, Who am I and why am I here?’. It is not important what you think God looks like or what his/her name is, but that you know in your heart that there is only one true source and that omnipresent, omnipotent essence can and does manifest in infinite ways. It is a matter of preference and samskaras (past life agreements).
Bringing us back to the physical plane: in order to address an injury specifically, we need to know the origin of the problem. A lot of pain can be the long-term effects of unsettled emotions. I will eventually address this necessary area of healing. I believe that Candace Pert, Ph.D. coined the term psychoneuroimmunology. To understand more of this, I suggest reading one of her books, ‘The Molecules of Emotion’.
I will continue to focus mostly in the physical realm. Back pain, for instance, could be neurological, as in a subluxated vertebrae, pinching a nerve. It could be a ruptured disc that puts pressure on a nerve; a muscle can spasm and impinge a nerve; or a bone chip can float around-sometimes causing severe pain. A person can be in pain from unstable joints or decreased range of motion in one or more joints. Over-use or inactivity can cause pain and stiffness. It might be appropriate to have help in spinal twists or backbends, specifically supporting one area, while intentionally stretching another, as a person can have a hyper-mobile joint very close to one that is fixed. Another scenario could be of a muscle not working that is the prime mover of a joint that you use a lot. The synergist (secondary muscle) enlisted to assist the same movement may not be as efficient and can be the source of pain. That pain won’t go away unless you discontinue the activity or repair the prime mover and soothe the now overworked secondary muscle.
I had an Ashtangi client that was having trouble with her wrists, elbows and shoulders. She was inspired to practice, but the vinyasas were getting more painful by the day, as the joints became more inflamed. When I checked her out, it was her pancreas that was overworking. I think this falls into the category of niyama-personal discipline. It may be a stretch, but I relate to it. She needed to eat food that was less of a strain on her pancreas and increase protein and minerals. The pancreas’ lymphatics are shared by the anconeus, triceps and latissimus dorsi muscles. Once her pancreas was functioning better, it put off less metabolic waste-allowing the lymphatic nodes and vessels shared by the muscles to clear-supporting better lymphatic drainage of the muscles being used in her vigorous practice. Her arm muscles got stronger, the joints more stable and the inflammation subsided. Along with the muscle activation and lymphatic-flushing techniques, there was also an emotional component that was noticed and addressed with an energy-clearing method. I feel that addressing both her nutritional and emotional needs were significant in her subsequent healing process.
Ashtanga yoga practice increases blood and lymph circulation, oxygenation and pranic flow, which is very supportive in the healing process. A problem can arise from the repetitive movements of the practice and might need to be modified to support the healing of a particular health issue or injury. An obvious situation that exemplifies this is forward bending. Many practitioners wear out the connective tissue of the back by always hinging and hyper-extending the back during the vinyasa and asana. I have seen photos of Krishnamacharia’s students assisting him, and they rounded the back much more than would be recommended by teachers today. It is much more common for one with a flexible body to make this mistake than one with a restricted body. This problem is compounded by the notion that the more flexible a person is, the more advanced they are. A teacher with knowledge and a developed eye will be of great value in noticing the different body-types, and directing the individual towards a method that is therapeutic for the body. The old way, of learning 2nd series as soon as you knew first, and alternating them, is a sound practice, as it gives a full range of movements, not just repetitive forward bending. But this will not always be the therapeutic answer to an injury or reoccurring pain.
Another example is a physically fit student who has been practicing the primary series long enough to do the first half, to boat. S/he has beautiful form and flexibility. This person complains of back pain, not so much during practice, but during the day in work or play. You find out that the student sits at work most of the day and then practices the piano in the evenings. It occurs to me that this body is in a type of forward bend almost all day and then does more forward bends in yoga practice. Without changing the series, you can do what Guru Ji did with us old students. He added back bends and hip extensions in between boat and the finishing postures. We always called this section ‘tricks’. For someone wanting to maintain the system verbatim, this was the way to modify it. If you are not an Ashtangi, there is no conflict. Guruji told me that at one point in my practice, I might only do one asana. He further explained that “yoga is for knowing God, only one asana, one moment for this to happen.” Another time he said that as one gets older, it is important to maintain your strength. He recommended doing a practice of ten advanced poses to accomplish this. When Patabhi Jois was 64, he explained that his present practice consisted of headstand (sirshasana) and pranayama (padmasana)
I read an advertisement for a workshop given by David Williams, who is attributed with bringing K.P. Jois and his son K.P. Manju to the U.S. The name of the workshop was “Ashtanga Yoga for the Rest of your Life”. It’s a great name for a workshop given by a dedicated and inspired practitioner and teacher. How will that look for you?