I was recently asked if Ashtanga Yoga is dangerous. My immediate response was a vehement “of course not!”
And then I thought about it a little more.
I realized that my initial reaction was a conditioned response rather than a considered answer. It was knee jerk reaction rooted in defense of a practice that I love and have devoted my life to. If I had been asked this same question 15 years ago, I would have had the same response and then gone on to explain that safety is all in the way the practice is approached.
Today, after years of practice and teaching, my views have softened. My experience of practice has changed. I’ve weathered injuries and I’ve witnessed injuries. This has changed both my approach to teaching and my view on whether Ashtanga is dangerous, meaning precarious, perilous, or risky. Ashtanga yoga certainly involves the chance of injury or harm unless dealt with carefully.
Over the years I have had the occasional student accidentally drop into a led class with me and abruptly leave once they realized it was an Ashtanga class. Rushing out of the room, they would say something about how Ashtanga yoga is dangerous or they got hurt last time they were in an Ashtanga class.
I’ve had students complain of pain, I’ve talked to co-practitioners about experiences with injury. I’ve heard words like opening, sensation, pain, stories of injuries and surgeries.
Now when I think about whether or not Ashtanga Yoga is dangerous, my answer is longwinded and has a lot of qualifiers.
There are plenty of people who will never be able to do postures like supta kurmasana or garbha pindasana in this lifetime — and these are postures that are taught to us very early in the Ashtanga sequence. Even Primary contains undeniably demanding postures. However, an inability to do these postures does not mean that someone can’t practice Ashtanga or progress through the series and these postures do not inherently make Ashtanga dangerous.
Ashtanga yoga isn’t and shouldn’t be a comfortable practice. We practice to become comfortable with being uncomfortable. Through practice we first gain an understanding of the discomfort in our bodies progressing to understanding emotions in our subtle bodies.
Ashtanga is undoubtedly an edgy practice. Practicing with ambition or frustration you’ll end up on the wrong side of the edge. With practice, though, you might find that right on this hairy edge is where subtlety is developed.
So yes, there is inherent risk practicing Ashtanga and this risk might be considered dangerous by some. However, by removing all the parts poses of Ashtanga that can be dangerous we would also remove the aspects of practice that add value. The practice teaches us patience, vulnerability, impermanence , illustrating our limitations and humanity. Practice teaches us to quiet our minds and to become better in tune with our emotional state. Its very design requires us to bring body and mind into sync.
Challenging poses intensify our presence by the very notion that they include inherent risk of injury if not done with cultivating patience and awareness. We spend so much of our lives not noticing what’s going on around us. Not noticing how we feel or our breath, let alone what is happening in our field of consicousness. Challenging poses wake us up in a way that helps us to get into our bodies and out of our heads.
So, can Ashtanga be dangerous? Yes, but injury is avoidable. The key is to practice with great attention. And this attention leads to a greater understanding of who you are.
After several years of careful, dedicated practice most students find themselves evolving. Devoted Ashtangis frequently talk about changing thought patterns, new views of themselves and their lives, greater clarity about their values and truths and interactions with the world. These remarkable lessons are driven by Ashtanga’s demanding nature, and the edgy practice remains for those seeking its lessons.
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