Updated: Jun 26, 2019
Ahimsa is the first foundational block laid out by the ancient codifier of yoga, Patanjali, when he (or she) compiled the Yoga Sutras some thousand years ago. Ahimsa, meaning non-violence, is the first of the Yamas; the yamas being the ethical codes by which to live in our community. The yamas themselves are the first limb of Patanjali’s Astanga yoga system, meaning that Non-Violence is the beginning point for everything on this lifelong journey through yoga.
If nonviolence is the foundational block upon which the whole yoga journey is meant to be built, then it brings us to question the many incidents of himsa, or violence, within the yoga world that are increasingly being brought to the surface. Within the modern Ashtanga world as well as many other schools of yoga, students who at one point never felt able to express themselves to the world are finally coming forward with incidents of sexual abuse, injury, manipulation, and submission from their teachers and gurus. Many of us, including myself, have been shocked by some of these accounts. But, these powerful and important stories have also become opportunities for many of us to reflect on our own ways of practicing, teaching and experiencing yoga.
Anyone who has ever dabbled with the Yoga Sutras knows that Patanjali actually has very little to say about the practice of asana, or postures. The three of 196 sutras dedicated to asana describe it as something along the lines of posture being comfortable, steady and effortless. To most practitioners this sounds so unattainable and unlike their experience of asana that perhaps its no wonder that asana has taken centre stage in our modern yoga world, becoming something to strive and compete for, very often with discomfort, unsteadiness, and with intense effort.
Despite how asana tends to be practiced these days, my teachers have always reminded me that we do asana for three reasons. One: so the body is comfortable to sit for long periods of time in pranayama and meditation practice. Two: to keep the physical body (annamaya kosha) healthy and free of dis-ease so that we may minimise the obstacles to yoga caused by the physical body (illness, injury, etc). And three: so that we may enjoy longevity in order to be of service on earth for a longer period of time. Asana, the third limb of Patanjali’s eight limbed system, was always implied to me as being one wheel on the vehicle that takes you further along the path of spiritual practice. Asana was never the end in and of itself.
My intention here is not to explain why asana has taken the pedestal in the ways it has (though I have my opinions) but instead to share my own experience of what I now can see as violence in the modern yoga world and how asana can thus become the vehicle for violence instead of spiritual growth.
I came to the Ashtanga Vinyasa system of yoga when I was 20. By the time I was 24 it had become the focal point of my life. I was naturally very flexible, but by slowly working diligently with myself and some very good teachers (Gregor Maehle’s Ashtanga Yoga Primary Series book gave me all the keys to an anatomically safe asana practice) I was able to stabilise what was once a very bendy and weak body. In fact I felt like yoga had healed many of my mobility related issues.
Fast forward some years later… after some intensive traditional Mysore style training I was descending from a mountain in the Himalayas. Upon entering the village I slipped on a wet flagstone, fell on my pelvis, and experienced shooting pain in my back. I finished my studies in India and returned to the west, continuing to practice with my teacher there. Then one morning I was doing my practice and my teacher came from behind to adjust me in Eka Pada Sirsasana, which is the first leg-behind-head posture of Intermediate Series. This is a posture I had never had trouble with and had practiced comfortably for years, but is a traditional posture to adjust people in. I allowed for the deep adjustment to take place, though I didn't necessarily need it, and as I was taking my third breath I felt a shooting pain coming out of my right hip. These are the events that began my underworld journey through my own yoga practice, which lasted for years, and allowed me to reflect on the yoga system I was diligently practicing.
So what had happened? An MRI showed a slipped disc in my lumbar spine. Three orthopaedic surgeons analysed the image, all confused, and all telling me that this sort of injury only happens in healthy, young, active bodies when people are playing high impact sports or are lifting more than their body weight incorrectly. “Pushing and pulling more than the weight of the body” and “rugby or American football”, were the sentences I kept hearing. Now I was confused, as this type of weight lifting and bearing was not a part of my yoga practice. Additionally, my sacrum bone had been dislocated, an injury which I was also repeatedly told (read: mansplained) is virtually impossible and only happens when there is a high impact trauma to the body, such as a car crash. I was stumped. What was wrong with my body? I had practiced for a long time. I was aware of my body. I was strong. Or was I? Another MRI showed that now I also had a tear in the labral cartilage of my right hip socket. The surgeon looked at me and said, “Oh that’s too bad, you’ll probably now need that hip replaced one day.” What!? Yoga was supposed to be good for me! And here I was breaking down before my own eyes after years of a soundless and injury-less practice. What was going on?
The next three years became a slow trudge through yoga hell, if there is such a thing. A year into daily pain, moving a heavy object triggered my injury all over again. I fell flat on my back and couldn’t get up. Let's just say I never knew the body could experience so much pain. I couldn’t walk for two weeks, I often passed out from pain, and I could barely breathe from the pain. I spent two weeks in bed, my entire system in shock, feeling betrayed by my body, feeling betrayed by yoga, feeling betrayed by life.
It took me two years from there to heal. Two years to slowly piece myself back together, to regain strength and control, to heal the nervous system which was entirely traumatised and shocked, to trust myself and my body again, to trust life again, to deal with the post traumatic stress that had embedded itself into all corners of my life and deeply haunted me, and to disassociate my yoga practice from fear. Where and how had my practice become violent enough to disable me? This was the question that I set out to answer. And now, encouraged by others in the yoga world speaking up about similar things, I am finally certain enough to share some pieces of the puzzle I discovered.
As a yoga teacher I generally see two kinds of bodies: the body that is stiffer but stronger, and the body that is more mobile (or hypermobile) but less stable. Of course this is not a rule, but everyone comes to yoga with imbalances to work through and these two types are often at the root of anyone’s imbalance. The stiffer practitioner typically has more strength and stability than the flexible practitioner, thus they need to work on developing their openness and flexibility. The more mobile practitioner is more open due to excess laxity in connective tissues and can more easily access the deeper postures and parts of the body, yet they typically lack much of the stabilising strength that supports these complex dynamic postures and thus are required to work on developing their strength.
The most common body type I see, however, is the former: the stiffer but more stable body. And perhaps this is why most yoga taught these days emphasises “going deeper”, being more flexible, and getting into contortionist postures (aside from the handstand fanaticism). This approach to teaching asana, however, only serves to exasperate practitioners’ pre-existing imbalances and the blind spots in how yoga asana is taught. Flexibility and strength are the two sides of the same asana coin and thus in asana practice we must work to with our natural tendency (either strength or flexibility) to create and maintain a balance between the two. We must use asana as a tool to equalise natural imbalance in our bodies. Teachers often try to fit a student into a mould of a practice, rather than moulding the practice around the uniqueness of the individual student. Which leads me to the problem of adjustments.
I have been taught many kinds of adjustments, but most of them are for pushing people deeper into postures, not helping them to develop strength and stability within a posture. Many practitioners are obsessed with flexibility, pushing themselves deeper into extreme backbends and extreme hip rotations. Flexibility is important in yoga and it is important for the health of our joints, but, flexibility is only as valuable as the strength of our connective tissue that can support us in our end range of motion, and if it cannot be supported flexibility is an obstacle just as stiff hips are. What does this mean? It means that flexibility is useless if we don’t have the strength to support it.
Anyone who practices the Ashtanga Vinyasa system of yoga knows that any extreme flexibility posture is coupled with the activation of certain groups of muscles that are supporting the joints at their end range of motion. Sometimes we call this “active stretching”, which is a technique of stretching that makes the Ashtanga vinyasa method so effective. We know this because we have to first learn to come up from Laghu Vajrasana before embarking on Kapotasana, along with many other little rules that are in place within the Series for a reason. The Ashtanga Vinyasa system of yoga is indeed very intelligent in its design. But, its rigid structure is better to serve as a tool and a vessel for the uninhibited exploration of the self, not as a limiting cage. As practitioners the system needs to eventually become our own, not us eventually belonging to the system.
Yoga adjustments are magical in the sense that when administered from a skilled and intuitive hand, they can support a student in feeling into and be supported in a posture they are working on. But, where do helpful adjustments become harmful? Where does compassionate touch become violent?
Actually, from my experience, adjustments can go from helpful to insane very quickly. Let’s run through some examples. I have seen teachers stand on their students knees in badha konasana. I have seen teachers put their entire body weight on students’ backs while they are in any forward bend. I have seen teachers stand on their students’ pelvis while they are in urdva danurasana, or wheel pose. I have even seen teachers stand on their students’ pelvis while they are deeply into kapotasana. I have seen teachers stand on their students’ backs while they are pretzeled into supta kurmasana. I have seen teachers push their students into doing drop backs, the extremely dynamic backbend that arrives at the end of the series, and watching them fall back like timber even though their bodies can hardly bend forward in paschimotanasana. And then of course when they come into pachimotananasa after attempting drop backs the teacher sits on their spine. I have seen teachers twist their students into marichayasana c and d so deeply that they look like an owl. I have seen teachers take student’s legs and force them around their heads putting huge pressure on the neck, lumbar spine and sacroiliac joints, despite the students barely being able to hold themselves up. I have seen teachers lift their students in danurasana and swing them back and forth like a pendulum (actually one of my teachers had the abdominal scar tissue from a C-section torn open during this adjustment). I have seen all these things many many times. I have learned these adjustments as tools for what to do to my students. And, in fact, most of these have been done to my body, every day, for years.
As I sat for weeks unable to walk, this was a picture I slowly began to piece together. I thought back through my years of practice and noticed that the years I practiced regularly alone (I was living in Nicaragua with no real access to teachers), my body was thriving through yoga. I then noticed that the years afterwards when I worked regularly with teachers is when my body had begun to give out. I am deeply grateful to my physiotherapist and osteopath for helping me to understand that my injury likely came from my mobile body being over manipulated in ways that were pushing me further out of balance, not because my body had betrayed me, and for helping me to understand that I needed to be stronger, not bendier, to bring myself back into balance. As my physio said to me, “it’s like you’re an overstretched rubber band now”.
Somehow, my teachers were never able to give me similar guidance. So many times teachers, some I had worked with for years, had seen my already flexible body and thought “aha! She’s flexible! She can go deeper!” It was never, “hold yourself here for longer”, or, “activate this”, or “lift yourself” or “stabilise”. There was the occasional “you should work more on your strength”, but little beyond that. In fact, until I had reached the last segment of Intermediate Series, strength was never encouraged. It was always, go deeper. Go deeper. Go deeper.
This is not meant to discredit or blame the amazing humans I have worked with and have felt honoured to call my teachers, but instead this speaks to the ways the systems of yoga has been transmitted and distorted. And unfortunately in some cases it speaks to the ways teachers can lose their awareness when given so much power by their students.
I agree that adjustments can be helpful, but not in the one size adjustment fits all way. The surfer with stiff shoulders may need a push into their twist, but the hyper mobile dancer does not need to be wrung out 180 degrees. Yoga, as I have understood it, is about unwinding our tendencies to bring us back into balance, not digging us deepering into the ruts of our patterns. The strong man who presses up into handstands between every posture though can’t touch his toes is an example of this. The bendy woman who is obsessed with grabbing her ankles in a backbend but can’t complete her jump-backs and jump-throughs is an example of this. These are extreme and generalised examples, but examples all the same. This is where as a teachers we need to invoke our viveka, or, our power of discernment, to see that what is medicine for one student may be poison to the next.
We have also been mis-fed information regarding the experience of pain during practice. When a student is uncomfortable and decides to speak up, often the teacher instructs them to “move into the pain” instead of stepping back, reassuring them that “pain is our teacher.” Yes, pain is a powerful teacher, but it is not always necessary for learning. From a very basic medical perspective, pain is the body signalling us that something is wrong or potentially wrong. We are effectively being told not to listen to ourselves and the body’s intelligence and that the teacher is more intelligent than the inherent intelligence of our own bodies.
Which brings me to the other manifestation of violence in the modern yoga world: trust. Though I wish that my yoga teachers had looked at my body, had seen a hyper mobile woman that should have been made more stable not more flexible, and had taught me differently; in truth I have no one to blame here but myself because I was the one who chose to trust teachers before trusting myself. Rather than holding my own power, I offered it to someone else. Rather than holding my own responsibility (ability to respond) towards myself and my intuition, I gave it away to someone else.
How does this happen so often in yoga? Yoga is an ancient practice with the traditional way of learning being an apprentice learning directly from a master who passes down their knowledge through a chainlink lineage. This is called parampara. Traditional yoga scriptures and culture emphasise the importance of surrender, of devotion, and of finding your guru. This begs the question, however, in a world with millions of yoga students and a handful of masters (if any at all), is there still the same place for the ancient tradition of parampara in our modern world? How can a yoga teacher know each of their students so well that the student has the reason to trust the teacher so unquestioningly with their body, mind, and soul? And thus, why should the student so blindly hand themselves over to a teacher? In a world where it takes people only 200 hours to become a yoga teacher, how can we restructure our modern systems of yoga in a way that is safe and nonviolent?
Despite all these disconnects between learning yoga in ancient India and learning yoga now, as students we are still encouraged to surrender to our teachers and to deliver our individual agency to our gurus. This is how sexual abuse, injury, and manipulation occurs in the yoga world: because we are somehow made to believe that the teacher knows better than us. We actually disempower ourselves because, in truth, we hand our power over to someone else the moment we “surrender” to the guru, to the pain, to the practice, instead of surrendering to our own instinct and intuition. A teacher once said to me that the injury begins the first time we misalign the body. But the injury, abuse or manipulation also begins the moment we willingly give our power away to someone who supposedly knows us better than we know ourselves.
So what now? For me this experience and disillusionment was difficult to process and move through. In terms of my yoga practice I had gone from completed Intermediate Series to unable to walk in a second. For years I felt I could not even enter a Mysore room because my practice was so incomplete. I felt like I no longer belonged in the world that had been my home for so many years.
Despite the fear and exile, somehow I ultimately used Ashtanga yoga to heal. This meant moving slowly at my own pace, mixing up the sequences (hence my reluctance to enter a Mysore room), and discovering that some postures from the end of Intermediate Series were more healing and beneficial for a body like mine than the postures of Primary Series (which for months continuously destabilised my pelvis). For years my asana practice was an eclectic mix of asanas, depending on how I felt in my body that day. I also had the opportunity to shift my practice to less asana and more pranayama, meditation and exploration of other mystical traditions.
It has been a long, winding and bumpy road to where I am today. I am grateful for teachers like Michelle Ryan in Northampton, MA who encouraged me to feel my body, to reconnect to my body’s innate intelligence, and allowed me to do my disjointed practice in her otherwise orderly Mysore room. I am also grateful for teachers like Gregor Maehle who when I told him I was almost back to my Intermediate Series practice except I’m still terrified of Dwi Pada Sirsasana told me to skip it because it would put too much pressure my body in that stage of healing. Skip a posture in the series!? Any Ashtangi knows this it is rare to hear a teacher recommend this approach. I was also encouraged by David Garrigues, who described the so called “seventh series” of Ashtanga as having enough self knowledge and experience to piece together your own series, which was exactly what I was discovering how to do. I am enlightened and inspired by the teachers who validated my own intuition and process and who taught me that I am my own best teacher. That I am my own guru. That I can indeed hold my own power.
Like any wound or anything that causes us pain, this experience for me was a road back home. This journey returned me to a place of compassion and understanding. It was also the catalyst that allowed me to completely reclaim my own power as a practitioner and as a teacher to encourage students to hold their own power.
I learned how to firm my boundaries and how to say “no”. I still usually ask that I not be adjusted when I enter the Mysore room. As a student I am still working to heal and re-stabilise my connective tissues after all the over stretching I allowed it to endure over the years. I have completely changed my perspective and my approach to asana and adjustments. As a teacher I no longer push or heavily adjust my students. Instead I encourage them to discover their own bodies from the inside out and gently support them to activate or go a little further into a posture if it is appropriate, if it is kind.
This experience also led me to ask myself how I can better practice ahimsa. How to invite more compassion and non-violence into my own practice, my teaching, and into life as a human being. It is relatively easy to choose to be vegan, to be a nice person, or to not hurt others, etc.; but the part where I see people struggle is how to act with compassion and nonviolence towards ourselves.
I have witnessed many yogis push themselves in asana practice until they injure themselves or burn out (there is bizarre irony when we think about yoga causing people to burn out). These people yank and force themselves into postures that they have not yet organically arrived at or have allowed the time and space to evolve into. For what? We have all had moments of this craze, but I must say there is something very humbling about not being able to bend forward for a year to remind you what this yoga stuff is really about.
Perhaps it sounds cliched, but through all of this I remembered that yoga is simply a practice of love (or union, as the translation from Sanskrit always reminds us). Yoga is the evolution of our capacity for compassion and understanding, for ourselves and for the world.
Now before I practice or before I teach, I remind myself or the people in the room that the building block for this yoga practice is ahimsa, nonviolence. It is the practice of nonviolence that creates the infinite space for the cultivation of compassion. From the foundation of nonviolence this practice becomes a path of love, of nurturing, and of service, for ourselves and for all other beings.
These days when I arrive at the mat to practice I pause and ask myself, why are you here today? Are you practicing from a space of ahimsa? Are you nourishing yourself? Are you loving yourself in this moment? And this is how yoga falls into place.