Up until my yoga teacher training I’d had very limited experience of Ashtanga yoga—I only knew it’s not for beginners and only watched a few Youtube videos and decided it wasn’t for me. I signed up for my first YTT in India for a Hatha and Vinyasa yoga yoga teacher training, but when I arrived I had to face the fact that something went wrong: it was a Vinyasa and Ashtanga yoga TT. I was confused and worried. I was a quite inexperienced yogi with an inflexible and rather weak body (and mind). I wanted to escape but it was too late. I might as well just die in the heat and from the difficulty of an Ashtanga class, running out of breath… However, over the month long course I showed up for every ashtanga class—even when I had my period I went to class just to look at the others practicing while I was lying over a body cushion in child’s pose. I fell in love with this strict and hard sequence. Ashtanga yoga seeped into my life, and I’ve worked my way up to a six-day per week Primary Series practice (there are six levels of increasing difficulty). There are still poses I am unable to perform perfectly due to an ankle injury, but I still diligently work toward them with an open mind, accepting whatever comes each day on my mat. Because despite the sequences being always the same, the experience differs each day for me. I meet myself and different shades of me on my mat each time.
Here are few things of how Ashtanga yoga proved me wrong since my first practice:
- Ashtanga hurts
Two years ago I broke my ankle and tore the ligament around it when I fell off a tree in an adventure park. Even after the bone healed, it caused me chronic pain. I had a hard time learning to walk again and my legs and hips are still stiff compared to how flexible they were before the accident. Lots of nerve irritation and muscles in spasm did not go well with trying to force myself into some asanas of the Primary Series, and I spent most of the class and the week after it in agony.
I realized that the increased pain was not caused by Ashtanga but by my approach to it. I was trying to push through and ignore painful sensations to return to the state I have been before. So when I started my practice again, I went back to basics. I started to re-teach myself the asanas one at a time and valued the correct alignment more than going deeply into postures. In the process I learnt about my body—what worsened the ankle pain and what helped.
- Ashtanga is boring
I used to love the flowiness of Vinyasa classes and when we had to repeat a sequence more than twice, I got irritated and bored by it. So when I found out that Ashtangis do the same sequence of asanas every time they practice, I couldn’t think of anything worse. I still crave variety and change and creative sequences and transitions. But when I started to practice Ashtanga and slowly learned the routine I started to connect to myself more on the mat. I did not have to think about what asana comes next because my body knew it, so I could focus on the inner journey with my full attention.
I found physical and mental strength in the discipline and began to tune into the subtle differences in my experience and the sensations of the asanas each day. When I did this, my practice became anything but monotonous. Every session is unique, and recently I had more realizations on the mat during Ashtanga than I ever had before with my psychologist.
- You have to perform advanced asanas perfectly
My first Ashtanga class felt competitive and was very disappointing. I was so attached to the idea of achieving the perfect asana that when I couldn’t, I got frustrated. I kept looking around and saw others flowing through the sequence seemingly effortlessly and I couldn’t help but compare myself to them.
Truth is no one in that class told me that I had to perform the poses fully and perfectly. Our teacher gave us modifications so we could adjust the pose to our levels and not to push through all of them so we can achieve the perfect asana. My disappointment and frustration was fueled not by the teacher or the style of yoga, but my own ego. I wasn’t willing to allow myself to be a beginner, although I called myself a beginner. Once I let go of the desire to do it “well” and just focused on the process of moving toward each asana, I found a new, very different experience on the mat.
- Ashtanga is all about strength
This is related to the previous point. I thought I have to be strong to be able to complete a full sequence of Primary Series, which is about 90 minutes. I couldn’t be more wrong. It’s not muscle strength but breathing that is the most important and relevant thing within the practice. As you embark on the Ashtanga journey the first curious thing is that there is no pause, one keeps breathing and flowing from one asana to the next and the body is constantly moving. It is not uncommon to go out of breath in the beginning. I often found myself in both extremes of either breathing too loudly or not breathing at all. The Ujjayi breath of the practice is required to generate heat, focus, and reach the edge of each asana, then transcend it.
- Ashtanga will make me skinny
During my years of practice I noticed how most advanced Ashtangis have strong, lean, and balanced bodies, and I wanted to look just like that. I learned eventually that the practice might not make me lose that extra 5 kg I have left, but instead it would return my body to its most natural state. For example: I learned that to do the deep twists (Marichasanas) I needed an empty stomach. I get tired and unfocused more quickly if I my body is busy with digestion. So since I wake up early naturally, practicing right then before breakfast or starting the day is the most beneficial for me. I didn’t lose much weight only from an Ashtanga practice but my body certainly changed—stronger, more sculpted, and more graceful in movement.
I’m just at the beginning of my journey with Ashtanga, and it’s already proved me wrong on many way. But it’s a good thing for the ego, to be proven wrong every once in a while and teach you are a student for life and there’s always new things under the sun.
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Photo: Yayan Sopian via Unsplash