Ashtanga – My Experiences
(I originally wrote this article before India. I’ve added on section devoted to my experiences in Mysore, India with Saraswathi Jois)
I love Ashtanga. I wish I had a morning Ashtanga practice that I could do every day with a teacher leading, maybe 2 hours. Ashtanga is a system of Hatha (physical yoga) that is extremely challenging and takes a long time to work into. You can tell pretty easily if someone does Ashtanga, just watch them go into plank and lower into chataranga and you’ll know. They don’t shrug their shoulders at all and it looks like they’ve done it a million times and can jump to handstand at any moment. Like a feather. That’s because they have done it a million times and they can jump to handstand at any moment.
Practicing Ashtanga in Mysore, India
In January 2015 I left Sacramento to travel to Mysore, India for three month in one of the poorest and most interesting countries in the world. Mysore is relatively peaceful and is one of the more religious places in all of India.
I arrived in Bangalore and traveled to Mysore over the course of another 7 hour drive. The Jois Shala, where the Ashtanga yoga method is now taught by Patthabhi Jois’ descendants to people that sign up in advanced to study with them.
Saraswathi Jois is a kindhearted and very loving older woman who looks fierce in her defense of her father’s tradition. Her ability to guide individuals in the primary series is powerful if guided by your own knowledge of limitations, injuries, and anatomical quirks that may exist in your body. No one in India will be able to reconcile these type of unique individualities for you, simply because the science and education are not at high enough levels yet.
Sharath looks a bit more imposing than Saraswathi, but is more accomplished in the series. I did not have a chance to practice with him, did not feel drawn to.
In modern Ashtanga there is a lot of forcing, which is not something I consider to be a truly mindful yoga practice. India taught me a lot about how to work within my own body and within a week of practicing yoga in Mysore I hurt my knee doing poses I had no business doing. I was forcing. I returned over the next fews days determined to be gentler and softer with myself and it worked. In a week I was 95% better.
Ashtanga is no replacement for science. Remember to educate yourself with your own unique anatomy, each pose is different in each skeleton.
Ashtanga in Boston
In Boston, I practiced at Back Bay and they had an Ashtanga class that was 2 hours every day and I tried it out. It was self led, so you did 5 sun salutation A, 5 sun salutation B (add chair & warrior 1), then straight into the standing series. We practiced until the end of the primary series and the teacher might talk to you about your practice for a minute. Maybe.
It was not fun to have the seasoned teacher of 15 years leave for a month-long vacation and have the sub teach, especially when the regular teacher wasn’t amazing to begin with. That’s when my practice at Back-Bay ended for a while, I was pretty disappointed. But I started to practice the primary series on my own and now I have a personal Ashtanga practice. Taking ownership of a personal practice is pretty powerful. In the end, it all kind of worked out (minus two months of paid yoga that I didn’t get to use for Ashtanga).
Ashtanga is an intensely personal practice. Anyone who has an regular Ashtanga practice will likely care about it a lot. You have to really regulate yourself, because its really easy to get injured doing scorpion poses and handstand lion’s breathes. I recommend some good prana-yama 30 minutes before practicing an Ashtanga series or class, it will mean a big difference in your prana passageways.
Ashtanga’s primary series can be really fun. Triangle, Prasaritta, Hasta padagustasana, Navasana, and Kurmasana are some of the first poses you will do after Sun Salutations and they are really great poses for the body to experience. Lots of inversion to help bloodflow and circulation of cerebral-spinal fluid. Not to mention the increased circulation because of sun salutes.
I found a studio in Sacramento that might offer good classes with a guy named Bill. This combined with Fridays at LEAP with Karen from 1 to 3 should make up my led Ashtanga classes. Maybe I can do it 3 times a week? 5-7 would be my ideal, but even that is very taxing, Ashtanga practices can be over two hours if you need it. Which happens.
I also think that yoga will evolve from the existing Ashtanga practice, which it seems has been lacking since Jois’ death. Iyengar is definitely a great teacher, and less controversial. I feel like Ashtanga type of yoga is destined to evolve. Maybe it already does somewhere…