Are So-Called Extreme Asanas In Ashtanga Yoga Injurious In The Long Term?

December 19, 2023
Are So-Called Extreme Asanas In Ashtanga Yoga Injurious In The Long Term?

Why do you do yoga? There are as many reasons to begin and continue a yoga practice as there are practitioners. Students might take up yoga for physical health and wellness goals, spiritual growth interests, or just out of curiosity. One reason that participants may start an Ashtanga yoga practice is to challenge themselves physically, possibly with so-called extreme asanas. There are no wrong reasons to begin or maintain a yoga practice. Each practitioner has their own unique trajectory over their lifetime of practice.

However, despite that, there’s still plenty of chatter over social media about the “right” reasons for yoga practice and the “right” way to do an Ashtanga yoga practice in particular. Because Ashtanga yoga has the potential to work with postures that can go toward the end of range of motion, lots of opinions get thrown around about what practitioners should do or not do in the practice. So, what about those poses that have the potential to move into the ends of range of motion? Are those poses inherently injurious? A magical connection to instantaneous enlightenment? Or, something else?

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What are the effects of the more extreme Ashtanga asanas in the long term?

In this article I address those questions, starting with a question I received from an Ashtanga yoga practitioner about this topic. The student’s question was this:

I was wondering to ask you about your experience both as a long-term practitioner of Ashtanga vinyasa and a teacher of Ashtanga vinyasa observing students in the long term. How do the challenges that make up [the] practice of the series and their impact on you and various people you’ve observed in the long-term fair? Lately, I’ve seen some people make comments that extreme asanas one sees in Ashtanga vinyasa and other styles should not be encouraged as [they suggest] extremes in flexibility are usually linked with something called Ehlers-Danlos syndrome which is a condition characterized by joint instability and chronic pain.

I’m no expert, but I wonder if it is too sweeping a statement to assume that anyone who naturally is quite flexible and capable of extreme asanas or those who progressively have developed their capacity to do some of these extreme asanas are then setting themselves up for a world of chronic pain and Ehlers-Danlos syndrome. No? Anyway, how have people been fairing over time in regularly practicing things like ekapada sirsasana or kapotasana, etc., in your observation in the long run?

What do long-term Ashtangis actually practice?

Long-term practitioners practice mostly primary and intermediate sequences

Before I directly address the student’s question above, let’s back up. Recently, our research team here at completed a study of Ashtanga practitioners. We were interested in what long-term Ashtangis really do in their regular practice. One of the interesting things we found was that even among very experienced Ashtanga practitioners, for example, those Ashtangis with more than 20 years of experience, most practitioners don’t practice any of the advanced series. Only 21% of Ashtangis who had practiced for 20 years or more did any of the advanced sequences. Even fewer, only 6% of those practitioners did one of the advanced series as their regular daily practice. So if we define extreme Ashtanga poses as those in the advanced series (third series and beyond), then most people don’t even do those poses.

Long-term practitioners modify their practice

Another interesting finding from our research project was that nearly all long-term practitioners modified their practice (more than 98%). Among long-term practitioners, respondents to our survey said they modified their practice for an injury (79%), when they were short on time (66%), when they were tired (64%), when they were sick (47%), or when they couldn’t do the full expression of a pose (50%). So, even if someone practices challenging, more extreme Ashtanga postures in the intermediate series like kapotasana and eka pada sirsasana, or supta kurmasana in the primary series, they don’t necessarily work with extreme ranges of motion. Or, they don’t work with all those edges all of the time.

Our research project didn’t ask about specific outcomes from practicing individual postures. I don’t think that anyone has done research to track specific Ashtanga postures with regard to the long-term effects. I would expect to find that practitioners whose bodies are more on the flexible end of the spectrum would be more drawn to maintaining a greater range of motion than those on the tighter end of the spectrum.

What about the idea that everyone who is naturally flexible has a disorder?

As the student’s question at the top of this article suggested, just because practitioners are on the more flexible end of the spectrum does not mean that they have hypermobility spectrum disorder. Many people are more flexible than average and have no pain or loss of function. Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome is a particular type of hypermobility spectrum disorder. And no, everyone who chooses to practice Ashtanga postures that incorporate flexibility at the ends of range of motion does not have Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome.

How to practice if you’re more flexible?

Are there some people attracted to yoga who are more flexible than average? Sure. Just like people may be more likely to choose marathon running when they have long limbs and a body type that makes them more suited to running long distances, we often gravitate towards things we feel suited to in some way. But, just like any other yoga student, those with hypermobile bodies need to stay in touch with what they feel as they practice so that they don’t overstretch. It can also be helpful for those with more flexible body types to be intentional about building strength. It’s important that they keep the strength to support the joints in balance with their flexibility.

How to practice if you’re less flexible?

That doesn’t mean that those with average flexibility can’t or shouldn’t do an Ashtanga practice. It’s very possible to increase ranges of motion with consistent practice and good technique over time. But for those with less flexibility when they begin a practice, it may take longer to experience those ends of ranges of motion. Their ends of range of motion may also be different than those with a greater amount of potential flexibility.

All that doesn’t mean that less flexible folks shouldn’t work with challenging postures. It just means they may need to take more time and break the postures down into smaller steps. Their “end range” may also be more variable from day to day. And, as I am sure you already know, those who are less flexible need to be mindful of not comparing themselves to those who are more flexible. It sounds obvious but this leads to pushing the body towards its end of range of motion too quickly and increasing the chance of injury.

Why do challenging yoga poses at all?

If there is any possibility of injury in more extreme Ashtanga poses, should we do them at all? As I mentioned in the introduction, there are many reasons that practitioners take up and/or maintain a yoga practice. One of them is for its potentially physically healing benefits. Yes, it can create additional flexibility and strength in the body. And that can be supportive and healing depending on a practitioner’s situation. But, that is not the only reason people begin a yoga practice. It’s not even necessarily the most common reason to do an Ashtanga practice. One reason that people practice is to challenge their body and mind, and their beliefs about what they can do. Those kinds of challenges can be empowering and inspiring.

The myth of magically healing yoga

There is a particular assumption that for some reason often gets attached to yoga. We seem to have adopted a myth that yoga is always akin to a type of healing physical therapy and it should never carry a risk of injury. But this does yoga a disservice. And, it assigns the responsibility for the impacts of practice to the postures rather than to the person who is doing them.

Physical activities have risks

When someone takes up just about any other physical practice to challenge their physical limits, like for instance, long-distance running, cycling, basketball, gymnastics, dance, or martial arts, there is an acknowledged risk of doing too much. There is also the risk of simply being present at the intersection of doing a difficult physical thing and meeting some existing condition or physical limit, and then an injury happens. We recognize that running marathons is challenging, that not everybody can do it, and that there are risks of injury when training to run that kind of distance. But yet, we don’t label marathons themselves as “bad.” We acknowledge the risks. Folks who choose that sport do it knowing both the pros and the cons of the challenge that they’re taking on.

Extreme postures aren’t required

I’d like to see yoga in all its variations held up in a more similar light. No one who chooses to do an Ashtanga yoga practice has to do postures which include more extreme movement at the ends of ranges of motion. In fact, what we saw in our survey project was that long-term Ashtanga practitioners naturally moderate their practice. That was true in terms of the postures they did and the length of time they practiced each day, as they got older. Those who enjoy the physical challenge of the more extreme postures continue to do them. Those who don’t, don’t. Just like the existence of marathons doesn’t mean that you can’t decide that the 5K distance is a better fit for you, the existence of Ashtanga yoga postures that incorporate challenging flexibility doesn’t mean that you have to do them.

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Ultimately, Ashtanga yoga is about what we do internally while we’re working with the external shapes. Which external shapes make sense for each practitioner over the lifetime of their practice differs from person to person. If you have more potential flexibility and you want to explore postures that go towards the ends of range of motion, then the Ashtanga practice offers that. And, if you don’t want to do that, it doesn’t mean anything about the quality of your internal practice. Moving through so-called extreme ranges of motion is not inherently injurious and it’s not a magical ticket to enlightenment either. Ashtanga offers us options. How we engage with the practice depends on our individual constitution, interests, and our stage in life.