Is Traditional Intense Daily Ashtanga Practice Healthy For The Body?

In a traditional Ashtanga practice, yogis push their physical limits every day without adjusting for their body's needs.

In a two-year study at three different Ashtanga yoga schools in India and Indonesia, I found that practitioners rigidly attached to dogma (certain words or prescriptions) got injured more, had more severe injuries, and took twice as long to heal as practitioners who made allowances and adjustments for their body on any given day.

Attitudes towards injuries and healing also severely impacted how fast the yogis' bodies healed.

Rethinking Dedication And Diligence In An Ashtanga Practice Through Examination Of Injury And Recovery In Advanced Practitioners Over The Course Of A Two Year Span

Discipline, Practice, Dedication, Diligence, and Reverence. What do these things mean as we build a practice? How do we build a dedicated practice which continues to evolve and live?

I believe that many Ashtanga practitioners, in their dedication to their system and their guru, fall into the trap of literal translation and terrible diligence. In this way, practice becomes punishing over time to the body, while the will forces adherence to a strict set of literally translated ideas.

In this article, I will make an argument for the principals of practicing asana in Ashtanga, with reverence to the founder of this beautiful system, and offer a different translation of what it may mean to have a dedicated, diligent practice from the lens of 20 years of bodywork and 40 years of training in athletics.

We will review canonical concepts which guide practitioners, we will explore Ashtanga as a physical practice and its implications on the physical body as an entry into a fuller practice.

We will examine the emotional body as well, and its impact on the physical body, and we will examine how terrible diligence to literal translation can lead to a schism between the emotive and physical body, ultimately creating space for injury and frustration to occur.

Through presenting evidence gathered over two years of study in Mysore, India, Koh Samui, Thailand, and in the United States, which included bodywork, injury rehabilitation, and healing of the emotive body on a group of advanced-level practitioners in both intensive and non-intensive environments, I hope to show that a deep, dedicated practice is one which is compassionate to the body, is intensely tuned in to the bodies place of benefit in each asana and in every breath, and one which allows the practitioners to be fluid and full of grace for the place that the practitioner is in at every moment, while continually re-evaluating the practitioner’s Place of Benefit.

I will use references from physiology, exercise science, and therapeutic body work to support these concepts. I fully embrace that asana is one of eight limbs, that it is more than a physical practice, and that the definition of yoga is the selling of the changing states of the mind.

I begin with the implications of intense practice on the physical body, because this is the fundamental place from which asana itself begins. We must not move on to the subtle body and further elements of practice until we understand how to invest the body with diligence and care into the physical aspect of Ashtanga, which is the physical aspect of asana, momentarily separated from all other practices in order to focus on the implications of an intense physical practice on the practice of Ashtanga as a whole.

Let me begin in a non-traditional way:

Sri K. Pattabhi Jois was first a bodyworker.(*1) He was hired to go into hospitals all over India and work on people with his hands, physically opening palsied patients up by putting his hands on their bodies.

As a bodyworker myself, I believe there is a deep, historical, necessary tie between Ashtanga Yoga and bodywork. The physical Ashtanga practice, the asana, is in itself a kind of bodywork. Each asana challenges the body in a different way, and the body discovers physical challenges, from the subtle to the gross as it enters the postures, deepens, breathes.

Mechanical adjustments done to practitioners by teachers and assistants are another form of bodywork, the teacher placing their hands on your body and encouraging unwinding, opening, breath and space.

There is a lot of discussion about the value, worth, and even permission to receive bodywork as a Mysore practitioner. It is often mentioned and re-quoted that Sharath (the grandson of Ashtanga founder Sri K. Pattabhi Jois and the current holder of the lineage) says “No massage. The practice gives you all you need.”

I respect the historical perspective of Sharath. I also think it is very important to consider what “Massage” may mean from the Indian perspective, in the time of Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, and in the current time.

Ayurvedic massage is a very different thing from modern bodywork, which actually mirrors the type of work that Paatabi Jois was doing in his early years.

The primary idea and purpose of Ayurvedic massage, just as all other Ayurvedic treatment protocols, are *to help break and remove the toxins within the gross and subtle bodies*.(*2) Hot oil, matched to the client’s dosha is applied for one hour with a series of specific strokes to the body meant to affect the subtle release of toxins.

Ayurvedic massage, therefore, is not meant to address physical structures specifically, assessing dysfunction and applying specific therapeutic techniques meant to encourage healing of a specific part of the body, whereas many other massage and bodywork techniques are designed to do just that.

Guruji enjoyed and employed many types of physical assistance, in fact the mechanical adjustments used in the Mysore room are remarkably similar to Thai Massage (or bodywork). His daughter Saraswathi remarked to me in 2014 that her father loved Chinese bodywork, the liniments, salves, cupping, and bodywork done by those practitioners, and used them herself for a variety of ailments.

I mention this because we as a community of practitioners can become very attached to the supposed dogma of our system, without room for modern interpretation. There is often a very literal translation, and then a rigid adherence to that translation, which can lead to injury, pain, disillusionment, and a separateness from community. No massage, massage not necessary, comes to mean no touching or therapeutic assistance of any kind at all, erroneously.

Guruji famously stated, over and over again: “Practice, Practice, Practice and all is coming.” This then *must* mean “Practice as hard as you can all the time every day and you will get the next thing, be it a posture from your teacher, freedom from chatter in your mind, or even Samadhi.” A seemingly literal translation, if you define Practice in this way.

And so we practice. With sincerity, dedication, and purpose. We muster our will and master our fatigue. We roll out of bed at 3 am and sit on the pavement in front of the shala. We take notes from our teachers and practice them diligently no matter what. Some of these things are compassionate to the body and support a growing practice, some may not be.

Some may be on one day, and again not on the next day. Only the practitioner themselves can know. Only the practitioner is inside of the body, listening.

If we make the mistake of leaving ourselves, our bodies, both emotional and physical out of the equation, but instead listen to a prescriptive system and then apply it blindly, we are not in union with that system. We are forcing a system onto a body.

Suddenly, there can be an unhealthy internal sense that only the rigid are “doing it right.” And that to be better we must do more. We observe others whose practice we admire, we examine their daily practices, we emulate them. We may accidentally put these types of practitioners on a pedestal, wishing that we had the discipline to behave in this way, believing that if we can only push ourselves harder, we might have a practice like theirs.

We will be leaner, stronger, floatier, cleaner in mind, body and spirit, more free. We try harder.

Now we are in the realm of ego, where concepts of sub conscious self-importance lead to a self-referential cycle in which we may begin to believe that because we are following the letter of the law, we are correct, and therefore have worth.

Suddenly, through dedication to our practice, we have lost the Yoga.

What if “Practice, Practice, Practice and all is coming.” means something more evolved? What if it means take all that ability you have to muster discipline and dedication, and use it to tune carefully into the body, the subtleties of the way the body is communicating? To come into union with the system of Ashtanga in a compassionate way, bringing the body to the system, with curiosity free from judgement.

What if through that practice, we cultivated compassion for the body as it changes?

The body is organic. It does not gain strength, flexibility or health in a straight line. Our minds like to try to make order out of organic systems, believing that we can somehow tame or understand these systems by placing each one in linear order.

Nothing organic grows in a straight line. Try to predict where a tree branch will grow. Even if you tie it to a stake, the branch will grow in a non-linear fashion, more on one day, less on another, curving to face the sun as it travels through the sky.

Your practice is a system applied to many organic structures, your subtle body, your physical body, your emotional body. Why would you assume that your practice will grow in a measurable, linear manner, when organic structures do not behave in a linear fashion?

Part of my background is as a professional athlete, first in figure skating, and then in skiing. When working the physical body to improve its adaptability to any physical exercise, there are certain practices that are beneficial to the body. This is the science of your physiology. This is real, this is true. These sciences apply to the physical practice of asana.

Yoga isn’t only asana, and asana isn’t only physical. HOWEVER, before we can move well and truly into the subtle, we must move over the threshold of the physical. The body is moving, the asana practice is demanding. Moving through it from the mind, by passing the body itself and moving from will causes injury to the vessel which, through asana, we are trying to prepare for further, higher teachings.

Imagine your body changing over time is like a squid swimming through the water. The squid jets forward quickly, streamlining. In order to prepare to propel again, the squid opens it’s skirt, creating drag in the water, slowing the animal down, in some cases, it can even momentarily reverse direction. Suddenly, with a mighty contraction, the squid squirts forward again.

If the squid had the capacity for frustration, and was addicted to the idea that forward movement should be continuous in direction, speed, intensity and trajectory, he might become very agitated and frustrated with how he existed in the world. He might try to change his natural and effective movement pattern, forcing something on his body which ultimately may produce a very negative effect, but which in the short term seemed to be working well.

After several years of observing yogis struggle through their ability to be connected and committed to their practice in a way that could be sustainably beneficial over time, I have found one common thread: We practice from a place of obligation rather than a place of compassion. We believe that obligation and dedication will produce compassion, in one beautiful epiphanous moment, and that at that point, our practice will have achieved some sort of ultimate expression of worth or conclusion.

When I was working in Mysore, I offered bodywork out of my apartment. People in Mysore, even if they have a dedicated practice at home, tend to get injured at a much higher rate, similar to students who enter into a one or two month intensive, suddenly they are motivated to practice to their maximum, six days a week, and find their bodies exhausted and injured.

Here are some of the important principals that people are following, which dictate their practice at home, yes, but especially in Mysore itself, or in any intensive, immersive environment:

Practice six days a week.

Practice, practice, practice and all is coming.

1% Theory, 99% Practice

“If you have devotion to the practice, that is what is making you go and learn. Without that devotion, you can not learn.”

People hear Practice, devote yourself to the practice, practice.

I believe that people mistake the idea “Practice with devotion and discipline.” to “Work your body as hard as you can each time you come to the mat, in every asana.”

I believe this is a grievous misunderstanding of the beautiful healing practice of Yoga Chikitsa (Yoga Therapy).

While I was offering bodywork in Mysore, I was also assisting in the shala of Saraswathi Jois. I watched hundreds of people move through their practice every day, and I had four or five people come and visit me every afternoon for bodywork after practice.

What I found was a lot of good hearted, sincere people who sometimes were hurting themselves with the love they have for their practice. The difference between the types, frequencies and intensities of injuries during an intensive experience (Mysore or month-long immersion) and “regular” practice (6 days a week in a Mysore program or at home, or fewer days a week) was dramatic.

If yoga is meant to be the Stilling of the Changing States of the Mind, and one path towards this stillness is the practice of asana, it follows that asana should be done in a way that is sustainable over time, over lifetimes, a practice that both heals and cures the body, as well as making it resilient to time and disease, so it can age well and gracefully, becoming a receptacle for quiet thought.

Mindful practice therefore should not include the mindless practice of pushing the body constantly to its edge, and then over it.

Ego dictates a practice like that, and honestly, most practices, no matter how evolved we like to think of ourselves. No matter how sincere, devoted, passionate, and true we are to the practice, no matter how deep our faith is in the healing and guiding principals of our practice, Ego is present, the insidious counselor to the king, secretly whispering stories which promote its own agenda.

In helping yogis tame their practice in order to increase its longevity, I recorded hundreds of cases of exhaustion and injury, as well as tracking the recoveries of twenty six different yogis over the course of three months.

Here is what I found:

Intensives and practice in Mysore, India seemed to produce symptoms which mirrored symptoms of high end endurance athletes who habitually over trained and did not rest enough. Recovery phase is an important part of training, and one that is not considered as fully as asana itself. (*3)

The following physical issues presented commonly, and appeared with more frequency in advanced practitioners who demonstrated a high level of devotion and discipline in their practice:

-Fatigue and a corresponding inability to recover fully.

-Adrenals weak, fatigued, overloaded.

-A lack of elasticity in fascia, (caused commonly by overwork, lack of quality rest, and dehydration), leading to chronic trigger points and soreness that did not seem to heal easily.

-Issues with rotator cuff muscles, most notably subscapularis, infraspinatus and teres minor.

-Chronic trigger points in rhomboids, pectorals, and serrates anterior.

-Issues with biceps tendon, anterior deltoid, and joint mobility in the gleno/humeral junction as well as instability in the acromial/clavicular joint.

-Deep fatigue and pain in the hips, most notably in Glute Medius and TFL.

-Aching which did not diminish in the sacrum, upon further exploration this could easily be attributed to overworked ligaments in the internal surface of the pelvis, demonstrated by dysfunction in the S/I joint, which was resistant to manual manipulation and could completely halt a practice, and exhausted, trigger point filled deep lateral rotators.

-Injuries to hamstrings were common, but not as common as the above issues. Hamstring issues were on par with issues in the sterno/clavicular junction.

-Most injuries to hamstring occurred after fatigue had set in and practice was not adjusted, and were commonly compounded by lack of rest and continued practice.

Intensives and practice in Mysore, India seemed to produce the following emotive body issues commonly, more commonly in advanced practitioners who demonstrated a high level of devotion and discipline in their practice:

Exhaustion

Frustration

Isolation

Self Judgement

Slow healing

Fear

Sadness

Anxiety

Chronic fatigue

Chronic pain

Deep wells of tears

Injury was indeed a gift to many of these practitioners. Of the injured, there were two camps. One hundred percent of injured practitioners needed continued support and guidance to stay in a “Healing trajectory”.

A healing trajectory means that the body has all of the energies and resources available to it focused well on the site of dysfunction and is moving forward in a positive way to heal the structure.

The healing trajectory works in exactly the same manner as the regular practice in a healthy practitioner, that is, it is the process of the organic physical and emotive body changing, and so moves like a squid swimming in the water.

An injured yogi who has trouble staying on the healing trajectory, or even entering it, often had the following emotional conditions, which must be addressed FIRST before any “progress” can be made back to a balanced and functional system.

Anger towards the injury itself

Frustration at the self for becoming injured

Anger at a teacher or assistant for “injuring them”

A belief that a perfect, unharmed body is the only state from which the yoga practice can grow. (This is a misidentification of the practice; focusing on the physical progression deeper and deeper into posture, an un-squid like concept.)

A desire to not be injured.

Frustration or anger and the pace at which the body is healing.

A desire for it “just to be okay again”.

A discomfort with embracing the body wherever it is.

A mistaken concept that accepting injury means complacency.

Yogis who entered the healing trajectory and stayed there healed on average TWICE as fast with similar injuries than their frustrated, angry companions.

Even practitioners who, in a state of good or great heath exhibited an equinemical state of being, that is, who were patient, full of grace, compassion and peace, when injured could fall into either camp, the injury interrupting the linear trajectory they imagined they were on.

It is in this way that an injury can be a major blessing. Mostly because it offers an opportunity for a practitioner to either surrender to the lessons of the injury, or to face the fact that they are not healing well or thoroughly for a reason.

It is in this place that a practice can evolve. I was amazed and honored to watch it time and time again on my table in Mysore.

Yogis, “accomplished,” well practiced yogis with years of experience would lie down on my table and fall apart, full of tears, disillusionment, frustration, anger, and those who allowed that process to feel real, to expose all of the ego which we all bring to life, to lay bare, and ultimately to surrender, and finally to ask the body, “What do you need in order to heal?” came through a deep, incredible metamorphosis right in front of me.

It was not easy. It was painful, it was real, it was the human struggle distilled into the polarity of desire and surrender, complacency and discipline. It was a re-education of the thoroughly educated by their own higher self. It was tremendous to watch.

This was the yogi embracing the healing trajectory, and yogis who were able to do that embodied the following principals, strategies, or exhibited the following qualities:

Willingness

Vulnerability

Admission of human qualities

Honoring their human selves

Curiosity about the emotive state connected to the “being injured”

A willingness to direct all energy toward the concept of rebalancing the body through healing dysfunction, those who did this well worked not only on the physical issue but on a deeper level through the emotive body as well.

Surrender.

letting go of “I wish”.

Repeating the process of surrender to the new body where it is, daily, maybe many times daily.

Saying thank you to the body wherever it is.

Surrender and listening to what the practice can teach from a different perspective. Sometimes many times a day.

Yogis who came through some significant injuries on the healing trajectory reported back that their practice had evolved in a way which was “freeing” “unlimited” “So much more than I knew it could be.” and so on.

Yogis who could not embrace the healing trajectory tended to connect to blame and fear, and embody those emotions within the injury itself. We were able to repeatedly access those emotions in 80% of sessions in which the yogi was not embracing the healing trajectory. In other words, they were stuck.

After two years researching Ashtanga practitioners all over the world, I have some observations to offer on how to build a practice that is at once healthy, continues to evolve, and produces fewer injuries over time.

**Practice six days a week if you can. Morning practice is indeed the most beneficial. Rest, eat and drink to support your practice.**.

Practice to your place of benefit in each posture in each practice every day, and no further.

What is your Place of Benefit? Remember the squid? Where is the squid in it’s stroke? Because you put your head on the floor yesterday does NOT mean you can today. When a healthy body opens, it responds by healing and tightening for a day or two. Breathe. Pay attention. Ask, listen for the response. Maybe you have two “big” days in a row. Maybe you have a “stiff” practice the next day. IT DOES NOT MATTER. Practice TO YOUR PLACE OF BENEFIT. Which means try the right way. Not the hardest.

Be willing to listen to both the emotive and physical body in practice. Constantly, with every breath, pay attention to your body.

In general, it is not beneficial to engage in two or three practices a week which are full of fire and very strong. The body needs to heal and rest. Six days a week at your maximum is not sustainable and has been shown to increase risk of injury due to fatigue and overtraining.

It will take between 4 and 12 days for you to begin to feel the effects of overtraining. If you continue to overtrain past those 12 days and into months, you will be shortening the life of your practice materially.

Practitioners who overtrain can begin to practice from an addictive perspective, which can easily be mistaken for discipline and hard work. Practitioners who fall into this cycle eventually either burn out or injure themselves, and some of them find themselves crying on my table.

Rebuilding the spirit, the emotive resiliency, and allowing that to infuse the body with compassion and emotional nutrition is a difficult, long process. It is much, much harder to do than the exhausting process of a practice formed through the initial overzealous misunderstanding of what it means to have a dedicated practice in the first place.

What is an appropriate way to periodize a practice that you do every day? Scale the intensity by paying attention to the bodies place of benefit.

Take out and modify vinyasa as needed on a recovery day. Take some out in the beginning so you have some in the middle or at the end. Maybe one or two days a week don’t do them between each side, until you are strong enough to do them effortlessly.

And EVEN THEN, after you have been practicing six days a week for five years, pay attention to YOUR PLACE OF BENEFIT and be willing to modify or remove these powerful, repetitive elements of practice which can, if you insist on doing them because they must be done (ego) from a non-beneficial place, can cause long term catastrophic damage to your shoulders and your practice.

“How do I know if I am trying as hard as I should be? What if I am just using it as an excuse to not work hard?” I have been asked this question many, many times. This might be your yoga. This might be the intention, the question you are practicing toward for a little while.

Complacency is different than compassion. To practice in this way, you must have discipline. A true, deep sense of discipline, which requires awareness at every moment. If you have a strong sense of discipline, where you ask yourself to move RIGHT to your place of benefit in every single aspect of every posture, you will be cultivating compassion for yourself in your practice.

REST. If you are in Mysore or an intensive, you are likely to be working harder than you usually do. We are motivated by our community and the presence of our venerable teachers. This is a wonderful thing. Try not to let it make you insane. It can come from ego. It can come from collective energy. Just know that it is there, be aware, and be willing to bring up the rest of your practice in balance with the intensity of your asana. What supports intensity in asana? Rest, recovery, nutrition, hydration… and yes, supportive bodywork. Take naps.

RECOGNIZE that you must become aware of the physical body like an athlete in training. This means SLEEPING. More than usual. 8, 10, 12 hours of sleep per night. (*4) This means not doing second class, extra stretching, this may mean not taking every opportunity to go to Chamundi hill, cooking class, painting class… although these things are good for the spirit, you must choose. If you are practicing in a vigorous, committed way, recognize that you are pushing your body, and therefore you must SUPPORT your body, set it up for success.

This may also mean taking several very light days or days off depending on where your body is. This may mean receiving bodywork, drinking tea with friends, whatever it is that you need to do to fill yourself, to recharge your physical and emotional body.

EAT WELL, make sure you have PLENTY of good fats in your diet, and a LOT of water with electrolytes. Add epsom salts to your soaking water, eat bananas (fill your body with essential nutrients for muscles and fascia that are experiencing heavy, intense, and repetitive loads).

MODIFY your practice. Even in front of your teacher.

BE BRAVE. If your teacher comes and says “Do this.” and you know that you are in a place where that might be detrimental to you, it is YOUR RESPONSIBILITY to say no. Heaven forbid we should ever say no when a teacher comes over offering to adjust us, right?

They are not in your body. YOU ARE.

There is a difference between GOOD PAIN and BAD PAIN. Sometimes, we need to be pushed to understand that INTENSITY sometimes mirrors BAD PAIN. An evolving practice can have a lot of intensity in it. If you want to be sure that you are not in the land of complacency but in the land of discipline and growth, you must tune in in a way that accepts you may sometimes go past your place of benefit.

If you have been practicing finding that edge, balancing on it, and not falling off of it, it is LESS LIKELY that you will become injured as your practice grows and you embrace intensity. As you embrace intensity, make sure you do not become attached to the sensation, and follow it down into the hole of over-training, or over-stretching.

If you do become injured, turn your face, your energy, your love, your curiosity and your compassion towards that injury immediately and embrace the healing trajectory.

DO NOT TEST the injury as soon as it feels better, this leads to a cycle of attachment to “being better”. Yogis who embrace the healing trajectory have patience to wait, to allow the “feeling better” time to come, and to grow. Cultivate patience. Maybe years of it. Allow the body to heal. Assist it by loving it through the process.

PERIODIZE INTENSITY in your practice. Put your ego in the closet and pay attention to what is good for your practice and body in the long term. Try to do three intense days a week, and not more than that. (*3) Use the alternate three days to work on breath, cleaning specific asana, focus, or whatever else ASIDE from advancing the physical practice needs shoring up.

ASK for help. Seek out bodywork. Care for yourself.

And above all, “Practice, practice, practice, and all is coming.” But first, define what it means to practice well.

****

1. Sri K. Pattabhi Jois as a Bodyworker (citation needed).

2. “The Purpose of Ayurvedic Massage”

AncientsBest.co.nz - Ayurveda and Yoga in Marlborough, New Zealand and Singapore

3. The effects of periodization in training for endurance sports: “Strength Training for Endurance Athletes:Theory to Practice” April 2015; Strength and Conditioning Journal | www.nsca-scj.com

Caleb D. Bazyler, MA, Heather A. Abbott, M.Ed, Christopher R. Bellon, MA, Christopher B. Taber, MS, and Michael H. Stone, PhD

Department of Exercise and Sport Science, East Tennessee State University, Johnson City, Tennessee

4. The effects of rest in training for endurance sports:

“Recovery in Training: The Essential Ingredient”

Jonathan N. Mike, M.S. and Len Kravitz, Ph.D.

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