Alternatives to Ashtanga Vinyasa's Claim to Yoga Chikitsa

By Mark Stephens on Fri, 09/22/2017 - 13:33

There are very few human beings who receive the truth, complete and staggering, by instant illumination. Most of them acquire it fragment by fragment, on a small scale, by successive developments, cellularly, like a laborious mosaic.
         —ANAIS NIN

Healing what ails us, whether physical injury or existential angst, is a leitmotif of yoga dating to ancient times. Today, yoga therapy is emerging from the shadows of intensely vigorous, workout-oriented yoga, reaffirming the healthy transformative potential of yoga. This growing trend might be associated with “leading edge baby boomers,” many of whom caught the largely countercultural 60s yoga wave, but now at an average of 70 years-old are a bit more frail. There’s also growing awareness that yoga can help with everything from alcoholism and PTSD to sprained knees and injured wrists.

Curiously, yoga chikitsa – Sanskrit for yoga therapy – can be a confusing concept. It is the term coined by Tirumalai Krishnamacharya to describe the beginning level (“primary series”) of Ashtanga Vinyasa that he designed in the mid-1920s, blending several Hatha yoga asanas with Danish gymnastics and British military calisthenics and teaching this method to Brahmin boys in the Maharaj of Mysore’s palace gymnasium.

While the Ashtanga Vinyasa practice might be therapeutic for a very small population of healthy, athletic students for whom its vigorous, acrobatic and contortionist forms are safe and accessible, if one is young (with bones and ligaments still developing), old (with less resilient joints and brittle bones), or simply interested in yoga sequences and postures that are informed by basic functional anatomy and kinesiology rather than the apparently random assortment of postures in the set sequences prescribed in Ashtanga, they might well follow another path suggested by Krishnamacharya. Indeed, even very healthy athletes are often injured in Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga, especially in asanas that are inherently risky such as Setu Bandhasana, in which the neck carries extreme force while in hyperextension, or due to the reality that one does 38 wrist and low-back vinyasas in the beginninglevel practice with only breaths of wrist counterpose and very little to strenthen the muscles that support the lumbar spine.

Krishnamacharya wisely taught a very different yoga chikitsa method to his son, T.K.V. Desikachar, who started practicing yoga in his mid-twenties after years of stressful university studies in mechanical engineering. Desikachar more fully developed yoga chikitsa as an individualized therapeutic system, Viniyoga, integrating asana, pranayama, meditation and Ayurvedic techniques in offering unique healing treatments. The contemporary yoga therapy movement, including the International Association of Yoga Therapists (IAYT), is rooted in this tradition while bringing Ayurveda, evidence-based scientific medical insights, and other healing modalities into the inspirationally, intuitively, and experientially received wisdom of yoga chikitsa.

Today’s yoga teachers and yoga therapists are similarly wise in advising students and clients to consider such an approach in sharing yoga in general, and most definitely in sharing it with those with injuries and other challenging conditions. Rather than attempting to have everyone do the same exact form of yoga, the better approach is to do yoga practices that make sense in relation to one's conditions and intentions. For yoga teachers, this makes things more complicated - a welcome complication that invites us to learn more about human anatomy and physiology, psychology and philosphy, and to be prepared to offer uniquely integrated practices that are appropriate for the students in our classes.