In defense of asana

Srivatsa Ramaswami and his teacher, the great T Krishnamacharya.
Srivatsa Ramaswami and his teacher, the great T Krishnamacharya.

Lately I've noticed a growing trend on my Facebook wall of folks (yoga writers and practitioners) that are very critical of everything from the popularity of yoga "selfies" (people posting photos of themselves in yoga poses on the internet), the current yoga "scene" as a whole, to the Ashtanga Vinyasa system specifically.

It's all starting to feel a little "anti-asana" and I have to wonder what the motivation behind these extremely verbose rants is, and what they are meant to accomplish. I'm guessing that the critics might claim that they're trying to "save people from further injury", but in some cases I get the sense that they are really just a little bitter about their own limitations or missteps.

Regardless of the motivation, in my opinion they're missing the point and further, by being so damning and negative, they may actually be scaring people off a practice that could really help them.

Patanjali, in the Yoga Sutras (the definitive text on the practice of yoga), didn't tell us which asana to practice—i.e., which ones are crucial, safe or optional—but he did tell us that we need to practice svadhyaya, or self-study. Judith Lasater defines svadhyaya as “remembering to be aware”. Ultimately, we need to be responsible for ourselves.

When a well-known veteran teacher like Diane Bruni comes out and publicly speaks about her yoga injuries, it's important to know that she initially "learned" Ashtanga Vinyasa primarily from videotapes (see Krishnamacharya's qualities of a good teacher below). It's also safe to say that when she sustained her life-changing traumatic gluteal injury—while obsessively practicing hip openers for hours at a time—she wasn't practicing svadhyaya.

I'm not being judgmental of Diane—I think she's a wonderful teacher and her story is an important one—but to point to her experience and find the blame in the postures or the system is wrong and unfair.

Sidenote: I think it's rather telling that when you do a Google search for "Diane Bruni Injury", the first results that come up aren't from Diane's own site but from a yoga culture critic who seems to be leading the whole "anti asana" charge.

Blaming a system like Ashtanga Vinyasa for physical injury is a bit like blaming the moon for keeping you up at night—we all know that the moon merely reflects the sun's light. Likewise, pointing at the asana or asana system as the cause of injury doesn't reveal the true source of the injury, which is most likely a lack of attention during practice self-reflection after practice.

A discipline of self-reflection and honing of awareness is one of the ways we can guard against avoidable injury in your asana practice.

In the immortal words of Ice Cube, "Check yo self before you wreck yo self".

Another way we can avoid injury is to have a good teacher.

Krishnamacharya said that a teacher must have these three qualities: a good teacher themselves, a daily practice, and they must actually care for their students.

You might be able to find one or two of those qualities in a videotape, YouTube video or group class, but they can never substitute for the care and attention you will find in a one-to-one relationship with a qualified teacher.

I'm reminded of this saying I sometimes am forced to use in my design practice: You can have two of these things but never all three: Good, Fast, Cheap.

Likewise, I think for you to enjoy a practice that heals you physically while acting as a self-transformational tool on a spiritual and emotional level, there are no short cuts. You need to first find and dedicate yourself to a good teacher, commit to an appropriate daily asana practice, and ultimately to an unflinching and honest practice of self-reflection, assessment and correction.