Monday, March 7, 2011

Some reflections on Ashtanga and the journey of yoga practice

Lately, I've been thinking about the nature of the Ashtanga practice, and how and why I came to practice Ashtanga. There are many questions that come up in the course of my reflections, questions such as: Do all Ashtangis go through the same experiences and processes in the course of encountering and starting the journey of practice? Are there common themes that run through all such encountering-and-beginning-Ashtanga stories? Or is every practitioner's story very different from every other practitioner's, so that there are no commonalities at all? Is Ashtanga for everyone? If it is not for everyone, what kinds of persons is it for? Why do some people begin with some other style of yoga, and then gravitate towards Ashtanga? Why do others go in the opposite direction, beginning with Ashtanga and then gravitating towards other styles? Do these movements to and away from Ashtanga simply reflect what is going on in the individual's life, and what he or she needs for his or her individual journey? Or do they indicate something deeper about the nature of the yogic journey itself?  

These are big questions, and I cannot pretend to even begin to have answers to them. But I think they are no less worthy of reflection for being big. Maybe I'll begin by sharing a few things about my own journey of practice. 

I'll start by talking about the three things about the Ashtanga practice that really resonate with me: Structure, Simplicity, and Surrender. There is a clear structure, and once you have memorized the postures, there is nothing to think about: Simply do the same postures day in and day out. Some days you will be or feel more flexible and strong, other days less so. But if you keep on with the practice, there is nothing to worry about: All is coming. The practice, by its very nature, demands surrender within effort and effort within surrender: One tries one's best at every posture (effort), and if one doesn't "get" a particular posture today, there's always tomorrow's practice (surrender). It doesn't really matter whether I happen to be feeling tired or full of energy on a particular morning: Either way, I start with the suryas, take everything breath by breath, and see where the ocean of breath/prana takes me on any particular day. Because the postures are always the same, the only thing I can do on any given day is my best: There is less psychological space to "cop out" by saying that I am tired, because even if I am feeling super-tired on a particular day, I just do what my energy level allows me to do on that particular day, which almost always turns out to be much more than I think I can do when I first start out.  David Williams once said at a workshop that the primary purpose of the practice is to increase the amount of prana in the body. In my experience, the practice has this "sneaky" way of increasing one's prana almost without one's noticing it. Even on a "low-energy day", if I start out by telling myself to take everything breath by breath, each passing breath I take slowly increases the amount of prana in my body, so that by the time I get through the standing sequence, I find myself having a lot more energy than before the first Surya A, and I end up doing my usual practice anyway.

But here's what interesting: I didn't always feel this way about the Ashtanga system. I started my yoga journey by teaching myself postures from Mr. Iyengar's Light on Yoga. Early in my journey, I had met a few Ashtanga practitioners, but I wasn't impressed by what they said or did. When they told me that Ashtanga practice consists of doing a set sequence of postures every day, I remember my first reaction being: Why? Isn't the mind/body changing everyday? And if it is changing everyday, wouldn't it need a different sequence of postures everyday to meet its different day-to-day needs? At the same time, all the Ashtanga practitioners I knew at that time were pretty new to the practice, and were struggling with what I felt were pretty basic postures (for example, Parivrtta Trikonasana and the Prasaritas). I know, I have this arrogant streak... But hey, I never said I was a yogic saint, so cut me some slack :-) In any case, all this led me to see Ashtanga practice as a rather futile attempt to try to fit one's body into postures that one is not ready for; it seemed to me at that time that coming up with a specific sequence that is specifically tailored to the needs of one's particular mind/body would be a more productive way to proceed.

Anyway, to cut a very long story short, all these considerations were what prevented me from getting into Ashtanga for a long time. And even now, looking at what I just wrote, I can see how these considerations kind of make sense, on a theoretical level.

But theory is just that: Theory. What works in practice is quite a different story. For the longest time, I did my own custom-made daily home practice, strung together from various places (Yoga Journal, Light on Yoga, and a few other miscellaneous sources). I even "dabbled" with Ashtanga now and then, doing the primary series or parts of it a couple of days a week. This whole arrangement worked for a couple of years. But eventually I got to a point of burnout: There was simply a limit to how far I could go by just stringing together random postures on my own. At some point, I started to feel that I needed something that could challenge me in a more tangible, systematic way. And even though the answer to this need was right in front of my eyes, in a way (I had known about Ashtanga since the earliest days of my yoga journey), it took meeting my teacher in Milwaukee to get me started on the path to a regular mysore practice.

Once I started doing mysore practice everyday, things just clicked: I started seeing the same things in a different light. I began to appreciate what I used to see as blind repetition to be constructive practice, for I began to understand that repetition is actually a very effective way of getting the mind/body to really engrave a particular movement pattern into its memory banks. Repetition is the only way one can progressively free the mind/body from the vicissitudes of past conditioning, by not giving it too many options or ways to run away from the necessity of having to squarely face its own weaknesses and perceived limitations. I also began to have more compassion for the limitations of others. I began to understand that what I used to see as futile attempts to fit one's body to a sequence of postures are actually courageous, honest attempts on the part of the practitioner to challenge his or her limitations little by little, day by day, even if the process of such striving is far from glamorous.

But I can only speak for myself. I know that there are many people out there who see Ashtanga as a very boring, repetitive, and even dangerous and injury-inducing practice. I don't know if their reasons for holding such views are the same as those I used to have, or if they have their own unique reasons that are informed by their own individual unique experiences. I can only understand the practice through my own experience.

But perhaps we can learn from each other. Perhaps we can gain some insight into the nature of Ashtanga practice and the yoga journey as a whole by sharing our own stories with one another. Whether you presently practice Ashtanga or not, please feel free to share. So in this spirit, I'll leave you with a few questions:

(1) Do you presently practice Ashtanga?

(2) If you do, did you start your yoga journey by practicing Ashtanga? If not, what caused you to "switch" to Ashtanga?

(3) If you do not practice Ashtanga now, why not? What are your reasons for not practicing Ashtanga? (Feel free to say anything you want to. There is no "Ashtanga Secret Police" :-))

(4) If you do not practice Ashtanga now, would you be open to practicing it in the future? Why or why not?

I look forward to hearing your views, and to learning as much as possible from what you have to offer.         


  1. Always a sucker for these sorts of quizzes/questions! So -
    1. Yes I practice Ashtanga now.
    2. And yes, the first yoga I encountered was Ashtanga! I was going through a desperately unhappy period following a long-term relationship breakup. Someone came to the uni where I work to run a series of 10 yoga classes and as others in my work were going, I joined in. The teacher was a long-time ashtanga practitioner (though she also taught other forms) and basically took us through to navasana (by the 10th class). It was an instant hit - I just loved it!

    When the classes finished I went to classes she ran elsewhere in the city. But they weren't always ashtanga, and so I rang up the local yoga association to find out where I could do ashtanga in the city ... and was sent to the shala I attend to this day!

    The other two questions don't apply. I've never wanted to do anything but Ashtanga. I have been taken to other classes occasionally (eg Iyengar), and I sometimes go to a vinyasa yoga class at the Uni, but there has never been anything that came anywhere near touching me like the Ashtanga practice does.

    I plan to be still practicing Ashtanga when I'm in my 80s ... :)

  2. 1) Yes
    2) Sort of. I tried an Ashtanga led class within the first few weeks of yoga. It's my favorite class, but I still practice a mixture of yoga styles because of the nature of my yoga studio.
    3) N/A
    4) I might have to pause Ashtanga when I go traveling again later this year but I will definitely pick it back up once I settle down again!

  3. Hi Nobel, I am loving your explorations. I can see it now, 30 years from now we will have "BlogaJi" the experiences of the ashtangi blogosphere members as they grew their ashtanga practices ;-) Maybe we will get Eddie Stern to write the prologue hee hee... God bless

    This is fascinating to me as you know, and I thought it curious YYogini replied as she just had a post on being addicted to prana... we all seem to be thinking along the same lines ... so cool

    1) Susiegb talks about a crossroads that brought her to yoga (end of a relationship), I am the same, I crashed, that brought me in, but I started just like you, reading and getting every tape I could find out of the library

    2) I completely relate to you in how everything "clicked" with Ashtanga and that is what made me switch, especially the first time I walked into a Mysore room and saw all those people working so hard at once, that DID it, I could just NOT not go back, I thought I would do Mysore once a week but htat was not the case, I was hooked!. Advertising also played a big role in me finding it, Madonna, Sting, Gwynette, I am GRATEFUL to them all.


  4. This is awesome Nobel! One of the reasons (besides the amazing community of people!)that I started blogging and reading blogs was the same kind of pondering about commonalities or not between Ashtanga practicioners. I still have lots of questions about what others experiences are like...especially about their experiences in intermediate as this particular adventure has truly changed my life.

    I'll have to answer your questions in a post I think or it would be a loooong!

  5. @susiegb, thanks for sharing your journey. It's so beautiful to "hear" you speak about how the Ashtanga practice touches your life. It sounds like your first teacher was a very skillful teacher, building up to navasana in 10 classes. Sounds like a very good pace to me; slow enough to allow people who are new to the practice to acquaint themselves with the posture, but not too slow as to be "boring".

    And yes, I also plan to still be practicing when I'm in my 80s (or however long I live) :-)

    @Yyogini, thanks for sharing. Btw, I love your "Addicted to Prana" post :-)

  6. @Claudia, I like the "BlogaJi" idea! Yes, I think Eddie Stern would be a good person to write the prologue. I think Kino would also be a good choice, since she's such a good writer (I don't care what others think of her, I think she's a great teacher :-)); by that time, she would be in her 60s, and would then be truly a senior teacher :-)

    Yes, I relate to your first experience of being in a mysore room. I also felt a wonderful sense of community and quiet camaraderie the first time I stepped into a Mysore room.

  7. @Christine, yes, the blogosphere is a great venue for such pondering about such intricacies of the Ashtanga practice. Even though Ashtanga is supposed to be "99 percent practice, 1 percent theory", there is a lot to talk about when it comes to that 1 percent! Aren't we glad it's only 1 percent? :-)

    I look forward to any upcoming posts you will write about such explorations. Maybe I will write a post soon about my explorations with the second series. We'll see.

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  9. 1) Do you presently practice Ashtanga?

    Yes. But I am coming out of the on again/off again love affair I’ve had with Ashtanga for years.

    2) If you do, did you start your yoga journey by practicing Ashtanga? If not, what caused you to "switch" to Ashtanga?

    I did start with Ashtanga (after a brief introduction to yoga at a gym I sought out a true studio to study at and landed in an Ashtanga class). Later down the road I sustained an injury that kept me looking in other practices for answers. I found out it wasn't the practice, it was my approach to the practice. It is hard to come back to a challenge practice like Ashtanga. It was an adjustment to begin again.

    I have to say each time I am away from the practice, playing with vinyasa style or a freeform practice, I truly miss the familiarity and completeness of the primary series. I always end up back on my mat in the mysore room ;)
    I truly enjoy your blog!

  10. Thanks for sharing, Flo. Yes, many people (including me) sustain injuries in the course of practice. But I think that injuries always teach us something about our attitude towards the practice (both on and off the mat). In this way, they are a painful but valuable learning experience: they force us to reassess our approach to the practice, as you pointed out.

  11. Love this discussion!

    (1) Yes.

    (2) No. Started out with general Hatha yoga classes at the gym which I attended regularly for about 1.5-2 years. Eventually gave Ashtanga a try with a "4 week beginners' class" at a small studio. This turned out to be a crash course in Ashtanga, and the teacher took us up to Ardha Badda Padmottanasana in the first class. It was horrible. I finished the beginners' course and never went back again, thinking that Ashtanga was only for maniacs or super-fit people. Went back to weekly gym yoga classes and then we moved to the US. I didn't want to pay exorbitant gym fees just for yoga and I was also searching for classes that would keep me fit, without all the fluffy talk about love/peace/etc. Someone who knew of my search introduced me to my teacher. It took a while to start because I was terrified it would be another crash course. Eventually went for my first Mysore class and the rest, as they say, is history :)

  12. Thanks for sharing, Savasanaaddict. I take it that you took that Ashtanga crash course in Singapore? I've never taken a yoga class in Singapore before, for the simple reason that I haven't been back there all these years, and I only discovered yoga after I came to the US.

    But somehow, I'm not too surprised by your experience. I am probably stereotyping here, but I have this feeling that many Chinese teachers adopt a rather physicalist approach to mind-body practices. Their idea is that "certain things can only be experienced, not taught." So they put you through the motions, hoping that your mind/body will somehow "get it". Here's an example: In my first year in NUS, I took classes with this Taichi teacher who kept telling me that my body was "too stiff" and that I was simply not "getting it." Which totally turned me off Taichi forever :-)

    Now I'm ranting :-) Maybe I'm just stereotyping. Do you think there is an element of truth in what I am saying?

  13. :)

    You are stereotyping, but you're also correct. Will send you an email.

  14. Hey, Nobel. I finally made it back here to answer these questions early today...and my comment got so long that I posted the answers on my blog instead. I am interested to now go read all the answers to your newest set of questions. Kristen

  15. Very cool, Kristen! It's totally okay to leave long comments. Most of the comments on my posts are quite long anyway :-) I'll go read your blog soon.