[This is Part 5 of the Not-A-Yogi Guide Series - About Ashtanga Yoga]
To me, an Ashtangi (i.e. a yogi who lives and breathes Ashtanga) are superhuman. They are uber flexible and strong. Imagine being able to do that "chakorasana" or I call it "elephant trunk on crack" without breaking a sweat (or a bone).
I could go into all the “why I cannot” stories - I’m not flexible; I can’t even touch my toes, I’m not strong yet” but the Ashtanga Yoga system is one of the more traditional yoga practices and is very strenuous. This practice requires discipline and it’s not for the casual practitioner as the die-hard Asthangi practises #everydamnday .
In every google search , it is said that this practice is suited for the type A, high-achiever sort, and can I add that it is especially suited for you if you are fortunately to be be born - flexible.
So it's not really suited for today’s more or less sedentary bodies, where we spend more than 8 hours, seated at a desk unless you are genetically inclined to bring your feet behind your head.
I have a normal human body, with its own share of skeletal and muscular issues. My hamstrings are tight to due to pole dancing injury. I have a lower back compression due to daily wear and tear, my right hip is torqued' I have a childhood scoliosis and I have a neck compression and my list goes on.
In short, I have to be realistic and embrace my body as it is not, ie not meant to contort into weird poses. Though I admire the Ashtangi’s dedication to their practice, I am after all a non-yogi, a yoga rebel if you want to call it; I attend an Ashtanga class once in a blue moon, especially if my teacher is in town.
However that being said, all styles of yoga is accessible to any bodies, you just have to make it your own. And SO WHAT, if I can’t bind that way or any other way or straighten my legs in a titibasana! So what if I cannot flatten my body down like a pancake in kurmasana? So what if I cannot do a chin stand . SO WHAT?
I’ve learnt to practice according to how my body feels. If cannot, cannot lar. SO WHAT!
MY ASHTANGA STORY
My first Ashtanga class experience was with Charat Singh from Pure Yoga, who’s one of my favourite teachers in 2014.
I just finished Baptiste Yoga "40 days of Personal Revolution" program at Pure and knew I had to step up my game in order to grow.
I remember that it was a Sunday, and it was a 90 mins class. I sat there uncomfortably, and I did put my hands up when he asked if there’s anyone new. And boy was I put through my ranks- I hope it didn't show up on my face but after the millionth Vinyasa - I was thinking "Oh No, it’s like groundhogs day. When it is going to end?”
But Charat is a great teacher and he put me at ease because he has such soft demeanour about him and he tells jokes in the most inopportune time, so it makes my struggles in the practice less strenuous. And yes I did show up every Sunday.
BUT like ALL good things, it came to an end, like all good teachers, he left Pure Singapore to help with the opening of the New Pure Shanghai, and so that ended my Ashtanga journey.
The teachers do matter, and I have not found another teacher that gives me the same feeling of love and connection to the practice. If he had stayed, Ashtanga might have been my passion instead of that of Baptiste Yoga.
Thanks to him (and Ashtanga) , I grew to love my downward dogs and got stronger because of the millions (ok I exaggerate) vinyasa (mini Sun salutations) in between every pose.
DEfinition of Ashtanga yoga, according to wikipedia
Ashtanga means eight limbs or branches, of Yoga, which are guidelines intended for yoga practitioners to follow in order to live a more disciplined life.
The asanas, which is the physical practice of Ashtanga Yoga, is one of the limbs and is a set sequence of postures linked together with vinyasa, or flow of movement, in order to build heat in the body. The use of pranayama or breath which is another limb of yoga, when used while performing the asanas, then makes the practice a moving meditation.
Ashtanga Yoga is the traditional power yoga coded by K. Pattabhi Jois during the 20th century, which has its roots firmly grounded in India and Yoga philosophy, chanting and pranayama is commonly seen or experienced. A lot of the modern power yoga practices are derivatives of Ashtanga Yoga including Baptiste Yoga. Madonna and Sting are one of the many famous stars who practise Ashtanga, and who wouldn’t know Kino Macgregor - she made this style popular in the instagram world.
Traditional Ashtanga is made up of six series of asanas, increasing in difficulty as you progress through the different series. The series are the primary, intermediate, and the four advanced series. Each series builds upon the last series to prepare you for the next. Traditionally the schedule for Ashtanga is early mornings, with a six day a week practice with one day of rest, and they follow the cycle of the moon; i.e. On moon days, they typically take an extra day of rest as well.
WHAT TO EXPECT IN AN ASHTANGA CLASS!
There are 2 teaching styles to Ashtanga Yoga - Led Classes and Mysore Practice
I’ve never done Mysore, which is a self-led independent practice where you work your way through the typically 90-minute practice at your own pace, without any instructor telling you which poses to do. Ideally you’d have memorized the sequence, and the instructor comes around for assists and alignment adjustments.
Most yoga studios offer a normal Ashtanga - Led class, which is like normal yoga class, teacher in front directing and telling the students what’s the next pose, - which is good for beginners and even for those regular practitioners who just don’t want to think too much and let the teacher teach them.
Chanting in the beginning and at the end
It’s ok, if you don’t chant - there’s nothing for you to do - just close your eyes and listen with an open heart. (And I did open one eye just to see what everyone else is doing!) lol Traditionally each class opens and closes with traditional Sanskrit chant, but I have been to a practice, where it is just the simple OM shanti shanti to start and end the practice. And OM is doable. WHY? Read THIS.
10 Sun Salutations
Thus the began my love for Sun Salutations. It started with pain, more mentally and physically, grew into a trancelike meditate state, and voila. The body is very resilient and plus sun salutations are an awesome warmups for the practice. From my research, they say there is 10 (5 Sun Salutation As and 5 Sun Salutation Bs). I believe it is so.
Vinyasas (Mini Sun salutations) in between poses
Vinyasa translates to flow and this is exactly what you are doing in a sun salutation and in a vinyasa, flowing from one movement to the next in time with your breath. Vinyasa is also the mini sun salutations as you move through chaturanga, upward dog, downward dog.
Note that this is the strenuous part of the practice, and requires a lot of endurance and mind over matter stuff. It can cause injury if you get tired and lose focus on alignment. but you do have the option NOT TO VINYASA (and some teachers will advise you exactly that especially if you are a beginner.) Remember, yoga is all about listening to and respecting your body, so there is no shame in sitting out of a few vinyasas.
It’s going to get Hot
Not hot like Bikram, but the challenging poses plus the multiple vinyasa do get you sweaty.
Not much alignment cues
You are expected get into the pose based on the verbal cues. My experience is that the teacher brought me to the final pose, but the process to get there is a bit unclear and once I’m there there is no additional cues to deepen, or stabilise. All they do is COUNT - 5…4…3…2…Sometimes the teacher do demo but very minimal. I was unfamiliar with the poses so I just watched and followed because there’s bound to be someone who knows what they are doing. And once you they count.
The Ashtanga yoga sequence is set, it never changes. The benefit of repetition is that you will start to see the progress in your body as soon as your body ease in the used-to-be challenging poses.
Expect To Be Adjusted
Expect that the teacher will also assist/adjust you - sometimes it may feel amazing sometimes it can be little too aggressive on the assisting front and push you deeper than your body was made to go, causing injuries. Know that you have every right to request that the instructor not assist you. Just politely tell them at the beginning of class or the first time they approach you.
The teachers talk about Bandhas and speak in Sanskrit whole a lot
I just follow what the others do. Even as a yoga teacher, I don't speak Sanskrit. I only some important ones in that language and that is enough. But you need to know are Bandhas, whichare locks or seals that you hold or engage. Mula bandha is the anal lock The first one is like a kegel, where you engage your pelvic floor. It's the muscles you'd use if you were urinating and someone walked in on you and you suddenly needed to stop. uddiyana bandha is the lower abdominal lock.ngaging your lower abs, drawing your naval toward your spine. Ideally you're supposed to hold these two locks throughout the entire practice to encourage energy to flow upward through your nadis (energy channels). Jalandara Bandha is a Chin lock and engages and tones the neck muscles and also activates and energizes the 5th chakra center.
A lot of Forward Bends
Most Ashtanga classes in studios will start with the primary series and Primary Series is all about different variations of folding in half, whether you're standing or sitting down.
The reason for the forward bendings to open up the hips as flexibility is required for the subsequent series. It is also designed to target the digestive system, to alleviate and heal digestive and dietary issues.
There are going to be poses you cannot do.
Ashtanga is like yoga gymnastics or a version of Yoga art which is beautiful to watch and admire and there will be advanced students who will do more than you can.
My advice is to practice “SO WHAT” , stop comparing yourself and do your best without hurting yourself. This is your own practice and you have start somewhere. Yes it is going to be hard not looking at others. If all else fails, move the front of the class where you are less likely to get a full view of the class. There’s a lot of poses I can’t do either, and my brain says if I can if I practice regularly enough, and I’m opened to new possibilities.
MY TAKEAWAYS FROM ASHTANGA YOGA
After experiencing Baptiste Yoga Methodology, I'm finding alot of similarities with Ashtanga style - more than Iyengar and Bikram. As mentioned in my post; How to Find the Right Yoga Style ; Baptiste Yoga is rooted deeply in the traditional practices of Iyengar, Bikram and Ashtanga.
It is due to the power of the flow of Sun Salutations and Vinyasas; that is the foundation of most modern power yoga practices worldwide.
I've not gone beyond the Primary series but what I love about Ashtanga is that the fixed set of poses that you follow from the Primary Series to the Advance series, is progressive. Since its the same pose and sequence for every practice, there will changes to your body and mind through the repetitive poses, if you practice regularly. You will be stronger and your flexibility will improve.
Like in my Yoga Style story, if you’ve been wondering about Ashtanga or curious if it is right for you, then the best thing to do is to take a class and give it a go. . Try a couple of sessions consecutively lets say over 3 months, to suss out if it suits your body and your lifestyle (and if you like the teacher). If you are beginner, I’d highly recommend letting the teacher know you are new to Ashtanga and they will assist you with modifications.