“Ashtanga: a light and strong body, improved circulation, a calm mind”
Admittedly a beginner to Ashtanga yoga, I began my practice due to a recommendation from my sister who has been a practitioner for a couple of years. Several months prior, I suffered a severe tear in my hamstring which impelled me to stop doing physical activity almost completely. After three to four months of non-activity, combined with daily attempts at stretching, I didn’t think my hamstring would ever be the same again. There are a multitude of horror stories told by both professional and amateur athletes revolving around the theme of a hamstring tear and an inability to ever fully recover–and I will admit that this fear lived in the back of my mind. I had tried running to strengthen it, but all efforts remained staunchly unsuccessful. I began practicing Ashtanga yoga three days a week with exceedingly low expectations and a simple goal of being able to participate in physical activity once again.
To describe the condition in which I started Ashtanga a bit more: I experienced leg pain while sitting at my desk, discomfort while crossing my legs sitting upright, and while previously able to comfortably lie my hands flat on the floor (and under my feet) in a forward fold, I could not even touch the ground anymore.
What is Ashtanga Yoga?
Ashtanga is a method of yoga practice invented by K. Pattabhi Jois. It involves a set sequence of relatively fast-paced poses and flows–my instructor identifies it as “moving meditation.” It takes around 90 minutes to complete a daily practice, and the Primary Series commonly takes 1-4 years of practice before the instructor believes the practitioner is ready to advance to the Second Series. And so on with the following series. Although Ashtanga is physically demanding, the Ashtanga method delineates that the poses are not nearly as important as the breathing, inner peace, discipline, and physical cleansing. This prioritization was something that I experienced first-hand.
My Experience with Ashtanga
Traditional Ashtanga is not lead by a teacher, but rather, an individual practices with a qualified instructor who makes adjustments to the practitioner. During the session, sensations range from mild discomfort to downright pain, all for the sake of reaping benefits for the body. During my first class, I began to learn the sequence, and I discussed my hamstring with the instructor. She did not sound shocked or doubtful but instead said to listen to my body and asserted that some things take time. With a surge of confidence and hope reentering my spirit, I followed the class through the Primary Series and immediately felt frustrated that on my right side, I could not move into the poses deeply or even push myself hard–my hamstring simply did not allow it.
During the seated flow poses, which are all hip, back, and hamstring openers (the Primary Series is mainly about opening the hips and cleansing the body of impurities), my instructor continually adjusted me, pushing my body. This experience was significantly painful for my hamstring and made me want to immediately exit the pose (or class, haha). She repeatedly told me, “pranayama” and ‘ujjayi,” meaning breath. She repeated that we go deeper to cleanse the body, to get the benefits for the body, not to make the pose look a certain way.
After the class ended, and the regimented sequence and painful adjustments were finished for the day, incredibly, my hamstring felt the healthiest it had since the injury. It is important to note that Ashtanga is reputed to enhance spiritual enlightenment and instill humility and confidence in its practitioners. I assumed that after enduring a yoga class that included a fair amount of pain and face-to-face meetings with my injury-induced limitations, I would feel frustrated. Instead, I left my first class, and every class, feeling peaceful and brimming with a quiet hope for full healing.
I no longer experience hamstring pain while performing mundane daily tasks such as sitting at a desk. Miraculously, after three sessions, I regained the ability to touch the ground. My hamstring is not completely restored yet, and I still experience the sensation of pain while stretching it, but as my instructor said, things take time. My practice has not only helped me in my physical health but has also improved my everyday temperament and emotional well-being. And to be perfectly honest, this is what keeps me coming back as often as I do. I encourage all individuals curious about Ashtanga, or in need of a new passion, to try it.
Things that Ashtanga Yoga has taught me:
–With discipline, you can do anything.
–Give your body attention and care.
–Be patient but persistent with yourself. Above all, maintain your peace.
Have you tried Ashtanga Yoga? What was your experience like?
Also by Anastasia: Benefits of Inversions–Plus 4 Poses to Get Started
Related: Ashtanga Poses for Opening Your Hips
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Photo: Anastasia Bailey