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APP Responds to “Why I Stopped Practicing Ashtanga Yoga”

I wasn’t going to respond to this article, “Why I Stopped Practicing Ashtanga“. However, it just kept being presented to me. People wanted to know my opinion. Also, It kept popping up on the internet. I started the Ashtanga Picture Project for 3 main reasons.

To educate

To build community

To present diverse images of ashtangis

So this would fall in education so I will address it. Here we go.

Ashtanga Yoga is a relationship outside of your relationship. It has become my conviction that anyone who practices Ashtanga religiously, and by that I mean six days a week, all year, every year, is missing something vital in their personal life. These people – and I know I was one of them for a long time – are looking for something they will not find on their Manduka mats. Ever.

First of all, how is spending 1 hour and 30 minutes, 6 days a week on yoga bad?  There are 24 hours in a day. The average American spends 5 hours a day watching TV. I am married with a child. Trust me. My husband wants me to have my personal time so he can have his.

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Most Americans spend 40 hours a week working a job that they hate or tolerate that does nothing for them spiritually or physically. Taking 1 hr and  30 minutes to feed your mind, body and soul is noble and wise.

As far as looking for something on the mat, the author is right. Ashtangis are looking for something. I don’t’ know what the author was looking for and It is unfortunate that they didn’t find it, however, I found what I was looking for which was the doorway to conscious awareness. Looking for something is okay. It is the attachment to the act of finding or not finding it that causes the problem.  It is the inability to enjoy the journey while looking that is the problem.

When we turn the key to the ignition of our car, we are expecting our car to crank. That is normal. Yoga adds one more element that others don’t look for which is non attachment. So if the car does not crank, the yogi accepts it immediately and calls the tow truck. People who do not understand the concept of non attachment get mad, curse, call all their friends and complain and then call the tow truck.

 

Exercising on more than four days a week is unhealthy

First of all, yoga is not exercise in the normal sense of the word. If you approach it from this stand point, you are setting yourself up for problems. The human body is made to move. We have hunter gatherer bodies. We are not supposed to sit in a chair or lay in a bed. We are not built to watch TV all day or pitter around on computers.  We are supposed to hunt and scavenge for our food. We are supposed to walk to our destinations. We are born with a huge range of motion that we lose because we don’t use it. We are supposed to move. We are not supposed to be sedentary. We are made to move 7 days a week. If a hunter gatherer did not move daily, they would not find food, shelter, warmth and they would die.

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The study, sited in the article,does not mention what “exercise” the participants were doing so I cannot even go there.

 Every health professional, coach and personal trainer on the face of the earth would agree.

Here in lies the problem. I can bet good money that these “health professionals” and trainers are talking about exercises like running on treadmills, lifting weights, running for long periods of time etc.  They are talking about the average gym workout that goes to extreme lengths to bring about aesthetic changes to the external body.

That is not what yoga is about. Yoga is about internal changes. The external changes are just side effects. Ashtanga is not about breaking down the body. The Ashtanga method, when taught properly, is very slow. The student goes to Mysore class, and practices for approximately 15- 20 minutes and then leaves. They do 3 sun As, the last 3 seated postures, rest and then go home. They do this until they build up stamina and everything looks safe and strong and then they are given a few more sun salutes.

When you go to the gym, the trainer is going to break you down from the get go because they want you to see external muscle gain or weight loss. A skilled Ashtanga teacher only gives you want you can handle and trusts that the internal gain is happening.  The evidence of the internal assimilation of the poses is witnessed in the yogis life and their ability to do the poses while breathing calmly. When you go to the gym, people are grunting, breathing fast and struggling. Ashtanga is not meant to be this way. If the student is grunting or breathing fast, the skilled teacher tells them to focus on their breath and find calm or makes them stop their practice altogether and go home.

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The reality is that, if an ashtangi is over taxing their body, it is because they have been given more poses than they were ready for. This is why it is important to have a good teacher. A good teacher knows how to give just enough to challenge and bring about the internal change but not so much that the person cannot sustain it. This is also why Sharath stresses having only one teacher. If you have one teacher, they are with you from day one and can monitor you ensuring that you are adding slowly, slowly. Anytime I have gotten more poses than I could handle, it was because I was jumping from teacher to teacher or I was practicing with a well intentioned but not so great teacher.

 No wonder Ashtangis look skinny and tired and hurt themselves all the time.

Yes, their are unhealthy tired and hurt ashtangis. There are also skinny tired and hurt bankers, lawyers, teachers, soldiers, mothers, presidents etc.There are skinny unhealthy  and tired people in every segment of the population. It is not an Ashtanga thing.  Just go look at the portfolio for this site. There are people with all body types. I can’t speak for all of them, but the ones I know personally are happy and full of energy. I know I am.

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Part of being human is risking getting hurt emotionally or physically. No one is getting out of this life alive. We can go out with a well used body that has experienced life to the fullness and played with an unlimited potential or we can exist cautiously without every having really lived. Either way, we are all going to die.

There is no wisdom in practicing through injuries

No wisdom at all. When you are injured, you need to rest, and probably anti-inflammatories. Surely you can stretch your legs while dealing with a wrist injury, but you should definitely not put any weight on your hands. Again, any health professional would agree. You only have one right knee, one left shoulder, one set of lower back vertebrae. There is a reason why doctors suggest you should rest. There is also mass intelligence. If Ashtanga really had all the answers, everyone on the face of the earth would be doing it. Guaranteed. You are the only expert on your condition, and if something hurts, you are telling yourself to hold off.

This statement is totally not true. When you have a major injury, doctors put you in physical therapy. It is a well known fact that if you do not work your muscles they will not heal properly and they will atrophy. When I had surgery on my wrist,  once my stitches came out,the doctor urged me to start putting weight on it so that I didn’t lose full range of motion. He stated that it would hurt but I had to do it. When I hurt my piriformis, my doctor stressed that I needed to keep moving. He said my yoga practice was fine but to modify it.

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When you are injured, yoga is physical therapy. This is why it is important to have a good teacher. They will know how to do this. The video below shows an Ashtanga teacher expertly modifying a students practice.

Ashtangarexia is alive and happening. Now, I don’t know about you guys, but after a certain point in my practice, I could check off all of these indicators. I had lower back problems, the pressure to maintain my daily practice caused distress, but I wasn’t able to stop, either, because I was too afraid of taking a day off and losing all the ‘progress’ I had made. The fact that my practice had turned me a into an ascetic hermit without a real social life wasn’t even something I worried about at the time. With hindsight, however, some of what you say and do as an Ashtangi really is a bit cuckoo. I mean, let’s not kid ourselves: You can’t balance your chakras by chanting mantras in a language you don’t speak. Eating garlic when you’re healthy doesn’t make you a bad person. Be kind to yourself. Don’t fall into the rabbit hole of Ashtanga obsession, only to never be seen again.

 

Yep, the author was obsessed in an unhealthy way…but that is not Ashtanga’s fault that was the author’s fault. Ashtanga does not call for obsession. It calls for dedication with a healthy dose of non attachment to results.  Because the author missed the part on non attachment, they developed low back problems and became a hermit. The video below does a great job of talking against taking Ashtanga on like a dogma or religion. In this video, Kino talks about vegetarianism but it can be applied to many other aspects of the Ashtanga lifestyle. She explains that the changes you make in your lifestyle should come because you feel called to do them not because of pressure.

 

If you know you have an issue Yoga cannot solve, seek helpBoth you and your teacher need to admit that while Supta Kurmasana might release day-to-day stress, it’s not at all an adequate treatment for PTSD.

 

Definitely, if you feel yoga is not the answer, seek other solutions. However, it is interesting that the author brings up PTSD because there have been many studies stating the benefits of yoga to PTSD sufferers. Look it up on Google. It seems that the author is only talking about physical yoga. Ashanga has 7 other limbs besides asana. It is the combination of these other limbs with the asana that bring about the mental healing.

This is a line my husband came up with, and he is so right. These days, it seems, what you have to do to get recognized as a teacher is go to Mysore often enough (read: pay enough money), and someone will bestow upon you the reward in form of authorization. This is irrespective, of course, of your level of experience or teaching skills. On average, if I’m not mistaken, authorization will be granted after four or five trips of several months each, at a monthly cost of €400 or so. There are so many students going through the shala these days, that Sharath himself can’t keep track anymore. I have heard of people who were offered authorization twice. Not for free, of course, the authorization itself comes at a price. Later, there’s the added cost of certification, and psssst, it’sexpensive. While I understand that everyone needs to make money, a hierarchical fee scheme seems pretty… unyogic.

I don’t know where this idea of asking for money for your services is bad. Should Sharath just kill himself teaching for free? This man gets up at 2AM in the morning to practice and teaches from like 4:30AM to like 12PM or 1 PM. Should he do that for free? Should he and his family beg on the street?

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Also, the point of going to mysore is not to become a teacher. It is to practice yoga! I absolutely understand why Sharath insists on being the only one who makes teachers because he wants you to be more interested in practicing then in teaching.

As far as going to Mysore is concerned, that is how you traditionally learn yoga and Ashtanga is still fairly traditional. You go to your teacher and you learn. He happens to live in Mysore. You can also go to Tim Miller in Encinitas. You can go to Gretchen Suarez in Miami. You can go to David Robson in Canada etc.    Sharath does not insist on people coming to Mysore. He just says you need to pick a teacher and stick with them. Your focus should be on practicing not teaching. Anyway,there are plenty of people who are not authorized and are teaching Ashtanga. If your point is really to help others, you will do it with or without a paper from Sharath.

 The tradition isn’t evolving, it’s arbitrary

Not true.If you are interested in the evolution of Ashtanga from Krishnamacharya to modern day, follow Grimmley’s blog. He has manuscripts, videos, interviews and personal observations that all show how everything has evolved.  You could spend months just reading his blog and trying to follow the rabbit hole.  That is just how much this practice has evolved.

 

 If you are serious about your Yoga, you will not brag about what pose you’re on, how many trips to Mysore you have taken in the past, how many you will be taking in the future, or how many people came to take your class on any given day. 

This all all ego. It is  very unfortunate that the author is in contact with people like this. I cut people like this out of my life. Ashtanga speaks against aggrandizement and the ego.

 

Teaching Yoga isn’t a profession – it’s a side job

According to Google Dictionary, a profession is a paid occupation. So if you get a check for doing it, it is a profession. The amount of money you get paid is something else. And what does this have to do with the author not practicing Ashtanga? Is this really the crux of the authors problem? The real reason for this article? The author feels that they can’t make tons of money teaching Ashtanga so they get disenchanted with the practice? I don’t know. I am just saying, why is this paragraph here? What does it have to do with PRACTICING Ashanga unless the authors ultimate goal was to really be a teacher?

 

 What do you think about the original article? Why did Yoga Dork choose to repost it? That is an interesting question too. Why do think the author gave up Ashtanga?

Shanna Small has been practicing Ashtanga Yoga and studying the Yoga Sutras since 2001. She has studied in Mysore with Sharath Jois and is the Director of AYS Charlotte, a school for traditional Ashtanga in Charlotte NC. She has written for Yoga International and the Ashtanga Dispatch. Go here for more information on AYS Charlotte. For information on workshops, please e-mail shanna@ashtangayogaproject.com.

22 Comments

  • gina

    Thank you for taking the time to write this response. The original article left a bad taste in my mouth. I found it interesting how it seemed that the author had an all-or-nothing approach to the practice. Rather than modify the yoga to suit her lifestyle, she abandoned it altogether. Look at people like David Swenson, David Williams, Mark Darby, Chuck Miller, Tim Miller, Nancy Gilgoff etc. They have sustained regular practice for years because they have taken the time to really explore the yoga, even if that means they made a few adjustments here and there to make it work. You can’t look at it like a rigid, black & white, all-or-nothing regiment that you torture yourself to conform to. You have to look at it as a powerful tool for healing and self-discovery that is full of possibilities and secret treasures.

  • Nadine

    “No wonder Ashtangis look skinny and tired and hurt themselves all the time.”

    yeah..she needs to come and hang out with me.

    Look skinny? only my shoe strings hunee..
    Tired? yeah..but not from ashtanga..from swimming.
    Hurt? i hurt myself doing Baptiste, Budokon, and Muay Thai. i’m good with everything else..

  • Jason

    i think you ended up having the same impression than i did. i say, big ambition and a teacher wich didn´t know how to deal with it. But yeah, if she took a Teacher Training, then whe wanted to teach, and with her understanding of ashtanga yoga, probably it didn´t work and now she hates the whole thing. This happens all the time, those Teacher trainings make “teachers” like cookies….. and that also explain how sarcastic (or jealous) she talks about people who to to Mysore. Anyway, it´s really sad that some people end up having this experience out of such a deep and transfortational practice……but obviously, like everything, you can use yoga to help yourself or to hurt yourself.

  • Susan Tanner

    Ashtanga yoga is a rock. You can use it as a foundation for your life or you can beat your brains out with it. A good teacher can help you figure out how it works but even the best teacher can’t direct the student who isn’t ready to see. Better to “stop ashtanga” than to destroy yourself misusing it.

  • EMS

    Thank you for your balanced and well thought out response. I have been practicing Ashtanga for a year and a few months but cannot afford to go to Mysore style classes. I wanted to advance my practice beyond what the standard one size fits all class has done so I started following the full primary series via John Scott’s recording. I’ve been feeling consistently tired and discouraged and started to think that I’m either not cut out for it or there is something wrong with the system. I’m still making my mind up and your ideas and views are interesting (my teacher has recently trained for Rocket yoga which I don’t like but continue to turn up once a week because I love her as a person and feel a great sense of loyalty towards her). I hope one day to fall in love with yoga again.

  • Nina Menkes

    Thanks for responding to that article. All your points are spot on. One thing really made me laugh, all those “skinny ashtangis”-hahaha: i wish. I practice 5-6 days a week and I ain’t skinny.
    I’ve had quite a few injuries (not from the practice) and ashtanga and great teachers helped me heal from them.
    Ashtanga has helped me open my heart to people, animals and the world. I feel so lucky and blessed to have this practice in my life. I guess everyone is on their own path, but I admit I feel kinda-sorta sorry for people who dont have this gift in their daily life. Namaste.

  • Jessie

    I can see how with the wrong teacher you could have these types of experiences with ashtanga. I was lucky enough that my first experience with it was with a great teacher. Unfortunately I moved and my instructor in my new town was not so good unfortunately. I actually stopped my practice because like someone said ” Better to “stop ashtanga” than to destroy yourself misusing it.” Its been a big struggle loosing my practice. I would like to get back into it. Do any of you have any suggestions for good teachers? I am looking to move.

  • Carmen

    Thanks for taking the time to reply to the article.
    Ashtanga will make you confront with the darkest parts of your soul. You need to be aware of them and have a lot of faith in yourself and in the system before any real transformation can happen.
    Some people project on the yoga all their emotional baggage and blame the system for injuries and burnout, missing its beauty and its power.
    There are no quick fixes, and black or white approaches are somehow delusional. That is something the author may consider to work on, either with yoga or with any other discipline.

  • Kathy

    Thank you for your thoughtful response and perspective. I’ve been practicing yoga for many years and ashtanga for just a couple. I do think everyone has a right to share their feelings even if they are contrary to ours.

  • Norma

    Thank you for responding to this article. I read it just yesterday, while searching for ashtanga blogs online, and i could´t believe what i was reading! I began practicing hatha yoga about 8 years ago and did it for about 5 years…until i got pregnant and suffered a back injury… Two months ago i began practicing Ashtanga. I love it!! I love the discipline, i am trying to practice it 6 days a week, i feel so much better, it has helped me A LOT with my back pains, and i look forward to my practice (i go to a yoga studio where i can practice MySore two days a week) and i also practice at home. In these two months i have already noticed changes in my practice, and i feel stronger and just better overall.
    I completely agree with everything you write, and i personally believe the author gave up Ashtanga because she could not accept the discipline that comes with it. One and a half hours a day is not going to keep you away from going out and having a social life. I have two small children, and i find my time to practice at least 4 times a week!
    Namaste.

  • Em

    I don’t practice Ashtanga myself, however, as a dedicated practitioner of yoga, I feel that you’ve hit the nail on the head on several key issues. You’ve succeeded in reminding this person the importance of the attitude and sincerity we bring every morning to the floor in which we practice. Well answered.

  • Francesca

    Very nice article, I like your response, in the end this yoga is just a tool, like a hammer really : it can be used to kill people or destroy things or it can be used to build something useful. It depends what we decide doing with it!

    • Shanna Small

      People hurt themselves all the time unintentionally. Most people are not thinking “let me go out and hurt myself” when they get hurt. The first major injury, that I had in yoga, I was doing a pose that I do every single day. I felt nothing until I did feel something. LOL. There were 0 warning signs.

    • Shanna Small

      Easy. The body is extremely complex and does not always signal when something is wrong. This is not me saying it. Science proves that something can be wrong with you and there is no pain. A pose that is done every day with no problem, may not be right for today but yet the body does not tell you before you do it. My first injury was in a pose I do every single day and there were no warning signs at all. I did the pose and then I felt pain, in that order.

  • Tomia

    I felt compelled to reply to the writer of the article to which you responded also. I am so passionate about yoga that it was saddening to hear someone had that experience, to which would have been nice to see that awareness push them to seek the true meaning of yoga, rather than give in to the ego, and a state of fear. Yoga is ‘tool’ in my self care tool kit, and my life line. A place to ground, be aware, and shift.
    Thank you for standing up for those of us who love this practise, and responding in love, and from a place of light.

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