There are lots of myths about Ashtanga practice and us as practitioners. Like any story, some of it is probably based in truth. And much of it is often exaggerated. One of those stories is about how Ashtanga practitioners actually practice and what it means to modify Ashtanga yoga. If we do an Ashtanga practice, then at some point we first learned the practice, probably from a teacher. Initially, we likely learned that whatever we were taught was the Ashtanga practice. But what was hopefully true was that that was the right practice for us, in that moment.
And just like anything with a structure, think learning a language or how to play a musical instrument, there are times to stick with the structure, and then there are times to make changes to it. How many “rules” to the English language did you learn exceptions to in grade school? In Ashtanga, we’ve come to refer to those changes to the structure of practice as “modifications” or “modifying”.
Structure and Ashtanga yoga
Who decides what the underlying general structure is that makes up Ashtanga yoga? With no structure at all, it wouldn’t be Ashtanga yoga. Because something like yoga is pretty subjective, we rely on those who have spent many years practicing to help us decide what the structure is. Hopefully, they learned from their own direct experience AND from the collective experience of those that they learned from, who had themselves practiced for many years, and so on backward. This is one way we could define the idea of “lineage practice”. The collective direct experience of many practitioners over many years ideally informs how the practice is taught, practiced, and passed on.
For some reason, Ashtangis, both within the community and outside of it, have a reputation for not making changes to the structure of the practice. There are lots of assertions floating out there on social media and elsewhere that we don’t modify Ashtanga yoga. There seem to be some ideas that if we admit to making any changes to the practice, that our practice is no longer authentically Ashtanga. Where does our idealization of not modifying come from? And what is really true? Our research project gave us an opportunity to answer that question. In this article, we’ll focus on when, how, and why Ashtanga practitioners modify their practice.
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Are you breaking the rules when you modify Ashtanga yoga?
Ashtanga yoga is probably best described as a lineage practice as we mentioned above. That too could be debated because Ashtanga yoga as taught by Pattabhi Jois hasn’t been around that long. Of course, Jois learned the underlying fundamentals from Krishnamacharya. And Krishnamacharya learned it from his teacher, whether that was in the current form or not. How long does a practice have to survive in order to be considered part of a lineage? That’s a big question and one that doesn’t really have a single answer.
But I describe Ashtanga as a lineage practice to contrast it with learning a more concrete skill, like adding and subtracting for example. Simple math calculations have right and wrong answers. It makes teaching and learning those skills a more objective process. Learning and teaching something like yoga is far more subjective. Who decides when you’re doing it right? And how do you know when you know enough to know when to change something?
If we change everything then we are no longer doing Ashtanga yoga. But, if we are too rigid, we risk injuring ourselves, and potentially missing other benefits of making appropriate changes to our practice. Somewhere in there exists a healthy middle ground of the right amount of adaptation to context and circumstances while maintaining the lineage. We might look at that as truly being present and responding to the moment at hand.
What do we mean by “modify Ashtanga yoga”?
Ashtanga yoga has generally been taught as several set sequences. Postures are done in order to presumably create a particular effect. We also have an idea that most postures have an endpoint that we call “full expression”. So we could consider anything that adds to or takes away from the order of postures to modify Ashtanga yoga. We could also think of doing a version of a posture that is something other than full expression as a modification.
As we talk about the idea of modifying our Ashtanga yoga practice, it’s worth considering our language. By using words like modify or change, it sounds like we have an idea that there is one “better” or “right” order of postures or expression of an individual posture. But for me personally, that couldn’t be further from the truth. It’s certainly not the way I approach my personal practice or the way I teach. But these are the words that are most common. Therefore I think they are the clearest way to explain what we mean, among our community of practitioners, when we say modify Ashtanga yoga. But, if nearly everyone is “modifying”, is it really a modification if it’s actually the norm?
Do Ashtangis modify their practice?
Overwhelmingly, yes! Ninety-three percent (910 out of 976 respondents) said they modify their Ashtanga yoga practice some of the time. In a separate question, we asked respondents which of the following are reasons that they modify their practice. The three most common reasons practitioners reported were injury, being short on time, and feeling tired.
When do Ashtangis omit practice altogether?
We could argue that if yoga is broadly about cultivating balance and equanimity, then knowing when to rest is as important as knowing when to practice. Along those lines, we asked survey participants when they chose to skip practice on some days. Similarly to when practitioners modify practice, the most common reasons for skipping practice altogether were: feeling sick, taking a weekly rest day or moon day, and being short on time.
What about ladies’ holiday and pregnancy?
We also asked survey respondents to comment on whether ladies’ holiday and/or pregnancy were reasons they chose to modify or skip practice. Of course, those situations don’t apply to everyone in our survey. They don’t even apply to a single individual over the entire course of their practice life. Practitioners to whom it was relevant were pretty evenly divided between whether they usually, sometimes, or rarely practiced during ladies’ holiday. Among those who indicated that they choose not to practice during ladies’ holiday, the most common reason for abstaining was that it simply didn’t feel good to practice. Pregnancy was another reason that practitioners chose to either modify or abstain from practice. But, as this is a whole additional subject on its own, we didn’t ask further questions on this subject.
When do Ashtangis modify their practice?
Years of practice and modification
More specifically, we wanted to know if there was a relationship between the context of practitioners, like age or years of practice, and when they chose to modify their Ashtanga yoga practice. We found small associations between respondents’ reasons for modifying practice and a few aspects of practitioners’ situations. We found a small association between how long someone had been practicing and whether they indicated that they modified their practice for several reasons. Generally, the longer respondents had been practicing, the more likely they were to say they modified their practice when they were tired (p=.005, Cramer’s V=.13), injured (p<.001 Cramer’s V=.22), or short on time (p=.001, Cramer’s V=.14). Interestingly, the longer respondents had been practicing, the less likely they were to modify their practice because a teacher instructed them to (p<.001, Cramer’s V=.18).
Age, gender, and modification
There were also small associations between some contexts and age and gender. We found that practitioners were generally less likely to modify their Ashtanga yoga practice because they were sick (p<.001, Cramer’s V=.14) or because a teacher instructed them to (p<.001, Cramer’s V=.14) as their age increased. Our data also showed that men were less likely to modify practice because they were sick (p<.001, Cramer’s V=.11) or because a teacher instructed them to (p<.001, Cramer’s V=.14) when compared to women.
Practice sequence and modification
Finally, we found a small association between the practice sequence that respondents were doing and whether they modified practice when injured or because their sequence felt anatomically unbalanced. As complexity of practice sequence increased, respondents were more likely to modify their practice when injured (p<.001, Cramer’s V=.16). Those who practiced full intermediate and/or some advanced sequences were more likely to modify practice because their sequence felt anatomically unbalanced (p=.01, Cramer’s V=.12).
Other reasons for modifying practice
From open-answer style questions, we learned that respondents also modify their Ashtanga yoga practice for other reasons that we didn’t list. Those reasons included things like modifying to accommodate a travel schedule or when under mental and emotional stress. Respondents also said they made changes to focus on a specific aspect of practice like standing poses, backbends, or hip-opening.
How do Ashtangis modify their practice?
Ashtangis indicated that they make different kinds of changes to their practice depending on the situation. Some of the most common ways that respondents reported included: changing something about the pose itself, changing the sequence, modifying the transitions, or shortening the practice. We also learned that Ashtangis modify by softening their practice overall, by stepping instead of jumping in vinyasas, leaving out jump throughs, or simply not going as deep into postures. They make changes that accommodate the reality of their bodies, when they’ve had experiences like having hip replacements, leg amputation, or arthritis. And some practitioners reduced their overall amount of time spent on asana, in order to focus more time on meditation and/or pranayama practice.
We found some small relationships between the context of the practitioner and the ways that they chose to modify practice. As years that respondents had been practicing increased, they were generally more likely to modify their Ashtanga yoga practice by shortening it (p=.03, Cramer’s V=0.1), making a change that avoided pain/injury (p<.001, Cramer’s V=.23), changing the sequence (p<.001, Cramer’s V=.15), leaving out poses (p=.01, Cramer’s V=.12), and changing the transitions (p<.001, Cramer’s V=.14).
Interestingly, as age increased, respondents were less likely to modify their Ashtanga yoga practice by shortening it (p=.01, Cramer’s V=.11). As complexity of practice sequence increased, practitioners were more likely to modify practice by changing it to avoid pain/injury (p<.001, Cramer’s V=.17), changing the sequence (p<.001, Cramer’s V=.17), and adding preps (p<.001, Cramer’s V=.16).
How do we know how and when to modify Ashtanga yoga?
So now that we know how and when practitioners modify their Ashtanga yoga practice, it’s worth considering what level of experience is required to know that you are modifying for a “good” or “worthy” reason. Hopefully, in the early years of practice, we have a teacher who is helping us understand how and when to make those decisions. Hopefully, that teacher is teaching us as students to think through a process that can empower us to make those decisions when we are practicing on our own.
When are we avoiding something that could be advantageous for us or just being lazy? Personally, if we intend to practice Ashtanga for the long term, then I’m not sure it’s helpful to think of ourselves as lazy for simply making changes to our practice. I lean more towards simply considering the choices we have and that they have particular effects. If we practice more consistently, then we experience more of the benefits of yoga. We showed that in our previous research study. If we only practice once in a while then the effects are different.
Making choices in practice
Ultimately, we make a choice about where we want to put our energy and time and how hard we want to work in practice. Working as hard as possible to “achieve” full expression of challenging postures may not be our goal in practice. As teachers, we have an opportunity to engage with our students and learn what their goals for practice are. Why are they in our class? That helps us then tailor the structure of the practice to meet them where they are. If we consider our lineage to go back from Pattabhi Jois to Krishnamacharya, then modification, otherwise known as teaching to the student, IS our lineage.