Thoughts on Ashtanga

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Via Flickr User milopeng

I have returned from my accidental hiatus. No reason for it, really, except having been wrapped up in summer events. And procrastination. Again.

School is back in session, though, so I’m hoping I’m going to be a little more regular about updating this thing. But we’ll see 🙂

Anyway! In yoga-related news: I participated in an Ashtanga workshop today, led by Greg Nardi. I chose this one in particular because it focused on backbends–some of the poses I love the most. But one thing I’ve noticed about my backbends in the last few months is that although they felt awesome, my lower back ached afterward. I learned I was compressing my lumbar spine instead of lengthening from it. 

This is when you learn that your supposed advantages don’t necessarily make things any easier. I have a hypermobile lower back, which enables me to get into fairly deep backbends with relative ease, but, as Greg Nardi told us today, “Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.” He showed us some techniques for practicing safer backbends, which will hopefully help out my poor lower back in the future.

I felt a little out of place at the workshop, which was filled with a lot of teachers and advanced practitioners, but that was something I expected. The class certainly was Ashtanga-based: the instructor called the poses by their Sanskrit names and opened and closed with chants (I try, but it’s mostly mumbling. At least I have “om” down…). I tried to just focus on learning something, and I enjoyed the workshop despite my anxiety.

Later I started thinking about my complicated relationship with Ashtanga. Oh Ashtanga. I have mixed feelings. On the positive side, it was among the first yoga styles I tried, and it was really the one that got to me. The classes were insanely challenging, but I left feeling much lighter and stronger. Those were the classes that stuck with me and granted me the realization that yoga was a whole lot more than “just stretching.” 

But to become an Ashtangi takes an enormous amount of discipline. Many of these yogis wake up at 5am to do their hour-and-a-half practice, 6 days a week, excluding moon days (the full moon and the new moon). It’s all structured: the schedule, the sequence of poses, etc. For me, such a practice isn’t really sustainable, as much as I’d like it to be. I have too many health issues that can flare up at random times, causing me to need more rest, which is something I have learned I really shouldn’t ignore and simply try to “push through.”

There’s also the problem of the athleticism that Ashtanga (arguably) requires. I once heard a yoga instructor, who taught classes that were more on the gentle side, refer to Ashtanga as “something that’s for 20-year-old male athletes.” I don’t entirely agree, but there is something to be said for this point. Ashtanga is physically demanding, and it has the potential to cause people who aren’t in stellar athletic shape to feel inadequate. Of course, this can be part of a humbling, letting-go-of-your-ego process–after all it’s not really about how well you can do the poses–but also, realistically, when you experience a class in which your fellow students seem to be practically levitating while you’re struggling to make it through your rounds of Sun Salutation B, you’re just not that likely to come back. If you stick with it, fantastic, but the pitfalls of humanness makes that tough for most people to do. If there’s something different about you, something that sets you apart from other people, it’s likely that the world has, directly or indirectly, pointed it out to you repeatedly. That doesn’t just stop when you want in the door of a yoga studio, unfortunately–one of the problems with not just Ashtanga but many yoga practices and the reason people who don’t fit the stereotypical mold of a “yoga person” often steer clear. 

And yes, I should recognize that yoga is supposed to be internal. It should be about your breath, your body, your practice–not the people around you. But we’re also human, and the internalizing aspect of yoga is a long, hard process. And to a certain extent, we’re always going to be aware of what the people around us are doing, unless we get to a monk-level mastery of meditation.

One of the things I loved about my hometown instructor’s classes was that they truly were mixed-level. So on Ashtanga nights (once every other week), there wasn’t that sense of singled-out embarrassment when a difficult pose came up. I miss that. One of the disadvantages of living in a “yoga mecca” now is that that doesn’t happen a lot here.

I should note that in traditional Mysore-style Ashtanga, students only practice the poses they’re able to do. They stop at the pose they are still working at mastering. So beginning students have a much shorter practice than the more advanced practitioners. Practicing this way makes more sense, of course, but US culture is a bit lacking in patience, and we want the whole thing right now, rather than cultivating patience and working our way up slowly. 

I do think Ashtanga is an admirable practice, and I’m thankful for its existence. It served as the foundation for all modern vinyasa practices. I don’t know that I’ll ever call myself an Ashtangi, but I plan on learning more about Ashtanga–I have a David Swenson workshop for beginners later this month that I’m excited/nervous about–and incorporating it into my practice. Even if that’s against “the rules.” 🙂

 

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2 responses to “Thoughts on Ashtanga

  1. Good for you breaking those rules! 🙂 That sounds like a very difficult class, way to go! I agree, sometimes even as relaxed as I am in class, I can still look around a realize I’m not as experienced as most of the my other fellow classmates. I think the best mode is to fake it, pretend like you know every move, that’s what I do, and most of the time it works (as long as I have a good view of the instructor)! 🙂

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