I just watched this video that Kino posted, in which she answers a student's question about practicing with a chronic injury in yoga. In the course of answering the student's question, Kino uses the question as a jumping-off point to talk about the deeper aspects and purpose of Ashtanga yoga practice.
On a purely physical level, it is an undeniable fact that the practice of Ashtanga yoga is a very intensely demanding activity. Like any physical activity, the possibility of injury arises if you are doing it on a regular basis (say, six days a week). Ideally, if you are blessed with a Perfect Ashtanga Body that has not been corrupted by the demands of everyday living (sitting in chairs, driving cars, sitting in front of computers, being in agitated and anxious states of mind while sitting in chairs, driving cars, sitting in front of computers, which makes the muscles of the body even more tight and thus more injury-prone) and have perfect awareness in every minute of every practice, you should be able to complete primary series all the way up to sixth series within a year without incurring any injuries. Alas, this is not true of most of us; actually, I don't know a single Ashtangi who fits the above description--not even Kino. As you can see from the video, she actually had to work with a chronic back injury for three to four years.
So unless you happen to be one of those rare people with perfect Ashtanga bodies who practice all the time with perfect awareness (if this is you, please email me right away: I want to meet you! ;-)), you will almost invariably suffer some kind of injury (chronic or otherwise) in the course of your Ashtanga career. I'm not saying this to scare anybody or to give anybody license to "crank" their bodies recklessly into postures that they are not ready for. I'm just saying... well, actually, Kino says this better in the video: If you walk up and down stairs everyday, you will invariably trip and fall at some point in your illustrious stair-walking career. The thing is to pick yourself up and learn to walk with greater awareness while modifying whatever needs to be modified to allow your injury to heal. The same thing goes with Ashtanga practice. In fact, the incidence of injury in Ashtanga is made even more likely by the fact that Ashtanga practice (especially primary series) has this way of highlighting every single imbalance in your body and throwing it in your face. I think Richard Freeman said somewhere that doing the primary series is kind of like running through your body inch by inch with a fine-toothed comb.
Damn! I just read through everything I have written so far in this post, and realized that somebody who is new to Ashtanga and who has stumbled upon this post "cold" from the nether regions of google-search-land would be wondering: If Ashtanga is so dangerous, as all those detractors out there say, why bother to practice it? Well, let's look at it this way. If, as Freeman says, doing this practice is like running through your body with a fine-toothed comb, this means that it is not the fault of the practice when you discover imbalances in your body in the course of the practice; imbalances that you would probably rather prefer not to have known about. It is not the fault of the practice, because the imbalances were already there; the practice merely alerted you to them: As some wise guy once said, "Do not shoot the messenger."
The question, then, is what to do when you encounter such imbalances. Ideally, if we are always practicing with perfect awareness, we will be able to sense the imbalances every single time they appear, and do the appropriate things (modify the posture, experiment with different ways of entering and exiting the posture, etc.) to address the imbalance without injuring ourselves. But again, alas, most of us (including yours truly) do not have such perfect awareness all or even most of the time. Which means that we will only know about the existence of the imbalance when it has already manifested as an injury. Which means that we will have to deal with the imbalance on the level of an injury, and modify our practice accordingly while allowing the injury to heal. Of course, one could also quit practicing altogether and go do something else, but if one does this, then whatever imbalance it is that caused the injury will linger and cause possibly more pain and injury in the future (yeah, you may not find this to be very palatable advice, but what else do you expect to hear from an Ashtanga Fundamentalist? :-)).
What is the best way to go about working with injury? In his recent answer to Erica's question about practicing with injury, Richard Freeman says that
"Working carefully and intelligently with injury is an important part of any yoga practice. Yoga should make the body healthier rather than harming it. Though one has to be intelligent rather than fanatical and mechanical."
But how do we cultivate a practice that is "intelligent rather than fanatical and mechanical"? I think a very important thing to do is to learn to listen to the body and understand what is causing the imbalance. Acquiring more detailed anatomical knowledge of that part of the body will probably help. But from my own experience, I have come to feel that injury-healing in Ashtanga is almost always more than a purely physical process. In the course of working with an injury, we will usually discover certain lifestyle habits or ways of seeing the world which inevitably translate into our attitudes towards our practice on the mat. Which means that ultimately, healing from injury involves more than modifying postures; it also involves modifying our attitudes towards things and adopting more productive and healthy mind/body habits. I believe this is what Kino was alluding to when she speaks of seeing injury as your body "asking for a vibrational shift or transformation." In the course of undertaking this shift, we will find ourselves shifting from a goal-oriented view of the practice (and maybe, of life itself) to a healing-oriented practice.
Actually, something else just occurred to me: From reading everything I just wrote above, I get the sense that this whole post has been rather theoretical so far. With injury healing and practicing with injury, it is always best to hear from the real-life experiences of real practitioners. If nothing else, reading these experiences can serve as a source of hope and encouragement to others on the path of practice.
With this in mind, I am going to do something I have never done on this blog before: I would like to solicit guest posts about the process of practicing with injuries and healing from them from any of you readers out there who would be interested in sharing your healing experiences with others, and in this way, providing a source of spiritual and psychological support for everybody along the path. If you are interested in guest-posting on this blog about this topic, please email me at the email address on the top-right-hand corner of this blog. I can't guarantee that you will become famous or attain the lofty heights of Ashtanga Yoga Rockstardom by posting on this blog, but it is definitely very good karma, and you will gain the eternal gratitude of many, including yours truly. So yeah, think about it.