Friday, July 29, 2011

The nature of Ashtanga yoga

Nobel recently blogged about how his friend doesn't get why Nobel's goal in practicing yoga doesn't seem to be to master all 6 levels of Ashtanga. Megan recently blogged about waiting to hear about results from biopsies and medical test with the possibility of having cancer (sending her well-wishing thoughts). In my previous post, I wrote about how I am coming to the realization of peculiarities in my old habitual behaviors, and one of the commenters, Alison, suggested that perhaps I should look into restorative and yin yoga, since Ashtanga seems to be stirring up quite strong emotions and reactions in me.

If she had suggested this to me a year ago, I might have seriously considered her advice and switch to a calmer, more reflective yin practice. For those who have not tried practicing Ashtanga regularly, on the surface, this style of yoga appears to be a fast-paced, dynamic, heat-generating work out. Indeed, in the beginning I totally exhibited type A personality, coming to the led primary series because it challenged me more than any other yoga classes. I enjoyed the masochistic aspect that my back would ache and my arms would feel jelly the next day. Once I tried to practice two days in a row and the second day's class felt miserable. I had to do all my vinyasas on my knees. The teacher kept mentioning this was meant to be a 6-day practice and I thought he was nuts, that only exceptionally fit people could pull it off. The teacher did keep repeating the fact that this series is meant to be therapeutic, which made no sense to me at the time (which part of having my ass kicked is therapeutic??) Somehow I chose to trust the teacher because he sounded very sincere. I decided to give this class a year and see if my lower back would heal and stop aching at some point, or else I was going to move on to something else.

Well, 1.5 years later, the primary series no longer feels like an ass-kicking work out. It's still not a walk in the park, but it feels more like a full body opening stretching sequence than a heart pumping, muscle building exercising sequence. My heart rate does go up a bit while doing the sequence, but in terms of breathing, I feel no other yoga classes can bring me to breath so deeply for such an extended period of time. My teacher didn't lie; in terms of breath work it really does feel very therapeutic. I now practice Ashtanga for its calming, therapeutic effects more than anything else. So, even though it does build strength in the body, it's not the main reason why I practice Ashtanga.  Even though it doesn't burn as much calories as my previous exercise regime (I am fatter than I used to be), I am sticking with this routine until my mental clutter improves and I free up more time to exercise for the sake of exercising.

I have been thinking about yoga and spirituality. Why are some people totally fine with pursuing spirituality by long hours of sitting meditation, never having the desire to try yoga or even other forms of exercises? How come yogis seem to squirm like worms all the time and the only way to calm down is to contort their bodies into pretzels? Perhaps David Garrigues explains best in his blog post: "Ashtanga is for the hungry, the ones who have something gnawing inside, the ones who honestly aren't happy accepting complacent norms. Ashtanga is for those who are alive with intense feelings that there are worlds to discover, worlds that are found by reaching passionately inwards for expression that will contribute to personal and collective healing. "

I don't feel yin yoga works the same as Ashtanga, nor does "Core Power yoga" or Bikram or Iyengar or Anusara yoga. Don't get me wrong, I am not against these yoga styles and I think they have helped many people. I do feel I would benefit from sitting meditation, but it's the Ashtanga practice that calms down the "gnawing inside" so I can sit still for longer. I've heard there are people who practiced up to intermediate/advanced series, and then realized they actually only need to do the beginning standing series and the closing series in order to calm down and benefit from the practice.

I feel Ashtanga is very vast and deep. Devoting 1+ years to familiarize myself with the primary series is the best thing I could have ever done. From here, I can also choose to do just the opening and closing sequence, and focus on the meditative aspect of yoga; I can just practice the primary series; I can move onto the intermediate series and keep going until I reach my body's limits; I can always fall back to the primary when my body becomes injured, when I grow older, or when I am mentally drained/stressed out. I used to analyze every issue to death, thinking I have to understand everything / rationalize everything in order to find peace/resolution. Now I feel like peace comes from calming the breath, emptying the mind, and letting go of things we can't change. This realization is more useful than any psychoanalysis or any amounts of knowledge/information with which I try to cram into my brain.

I may have problems in life, but practicing Ashtanga helps me experience moments of calmness during the day. It helps clear my mind and put things into perspective, realizing what's important and what's minor. Do other yoga styles achieve the same? It might for some people, but I plan to write a whole post about my thoughts on the current industry of yoga.


  1. You're right that Ashtanga is very vast and deep. What I love about it is that it's a tool for calming the mind and you can go as fast and as far as your body is capable of taking you on any given day. I've slowly discovered its therapeutic side too especially on days when I'm feeling less than 100%. There's always something new to discover.

  2. Hi Yyogini
    I really enjoyed your reflections on ashtanga, and appreciate how it is helping you. I've been going to ashtanga class for 10 years now but unlike you have only ever done it once a week so haven't put it to the test of a 2, or 6-day routine. Impressed if you are doing that. I live in a small town where is only 1 ashtanga class a week (and, only the primary series, although somtimes in the summer he teaches the second series). So ... do self practice at home, I hear people cry! But for me personally I enjoy the variety of different yoga styles and go to 3 other yoga classes a week. My relationship with ashtanga now though is that I've been 'bored' by it, knowing what comes next, and I'm not seeing progression. Maybe because I'm only doing it once a week? Also, my experience with other yoga styles and teachers is leading me away from some of the 'classic' yoga postures and to reflect quite a lot on why we are doing a particular posture. Having said all that, I recently have enjoyed the Jivamukti yoga and that co-incidently has 3 core influences, ashtanga being one of them. However, for Sharon and David the founders of Jivamukti yoga, they also wanted the spiritual side of yoga, the philosophy and more pranayama, and music, so it's still deep and intense asanas, but with lots of other bits. And I realised that was what was missing from my experience with ashtanga. But I do believe that we all seek different things from yoga at different times in our lives, due to our physical, emotional, mental, spiritual point in time, and that it's probably a good thing that there's lots of different types of yoga out there so that the right kind can be on offer for each person at the right time in their life.
    I look forward to your views on the current yoga industry.
    Sorry to have written so much!!

  3. @Savasanaaddict: I completely agree with you! You're totally right about practicing the series on days when we're feeling not so well.

    @Alyson: Wow.. 10 years! I can't guarantee I won't be bored after 10 years of practice but right now I like it a lot (only 2-3 times/week) :) I think it all comes down to meeting the right teacher, and having a community that is enthusiastic about the practice to help you stay motivated. I would say these 2 factors matter more than the style of yoga you practice. However, if you want some inspirations for Ashtanga in particular, you should consider going to a senior teacher's workshop. It can be expensive, but a senior teacher will be able to give you personalized adjustments and instructions that will take your practice to a new level. Also, the experience of practicing alongside seasoned Ashtangis feels pretty darn cool on its own.

  4. @Yyogini - yes, very true, I went to John Scott workshop once and it was really really good - room was packed, sweat poured, and I felt fabulous afterwards. I think I learnt alot too. I'm impressed that you do it 2-3 times a week - I can see how that level of intensity takes it to another level.

  5. @Alyson: I would love to attend a workshop with John Scott's if I ever get a chance!

  6. Interesting post! I also started my yoga journey w Ashtanga (almost 7 years ago!) and after two years of practice something within me changed.
    Now I practice mostly Vinyasa with a good helping of yin and restorative, and a couple of Ashtanga classes here and there for good measure. It works for me, and I find the restorative practice of yin VERY challenging- stopping and slowly moving through asanas, holding them for 3+min???? difficult on a whole other level and ultimately good for me in small doses.

    just as life changes, it's nice that we have the choice to bring flexibility to our yoga "denomination" (as "itsallyoga baby" said recently) of choice. :)

  7. Hi Eco yogini, I totally agree that we're lucky there are so many styles of yoga "denominations" out there to suit everyone's diverse personalities, body types, fitness levels, and day-to-day needs. I think at this point in my life I need a yoga style that is physically challenging, yet doesn't require too much thinking (what pose comes next? Better look up at the teacher and have my flow of breath interrupted), so that I can have minimal strain on my normally overloaded analytically obsessive brain :)

  8. hi Yyogini.
    just found your blog through nobel's. i'm enjoying your reflections. i'm adding you to my blogroll!

  9. Hi Frances, thank you for visiting my blog. I've added you to my blog roll as well. Looking forward to reading about your yoga journey!

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