Ashtanga Yoga gets a bad reputation. People blame it on injuries. They say it’s too physical. I’ve also heard people say it causes attachment to postures. My favorite is that Ashtanga is a cult. Then, there’s the issue with the militant, judgmental, and mean teachers known as the Ashtanga police. These are all Ashtanga myths.
First of all, the practice is neutral, so there is no way the practice could be to blame for an injury. It’s only the practitioner that can create injury (or on rare occasions, a bad teacher adjustment). Second, a teacher should never be worshipped. You can surrender to a teacher, but following by blind faith is forbidden. The sutras specifically say that you should never study yoga by blind faith, and that you must practice for a long period of time without break in order to reach self-realization (Sutra 1.14). This means that no matter how much you learn from the most realized teacher, or study and memorize scriptures, (both very important) you still have to utilize that knowledge into your practice and personally experience it for it to take on true meaning. To say, this teacher gives Ashtanga a bad name because this that and the other is unacceptable. We have our own minds, know right from wrong, and can change teachers if we’re not resonating.
Ashtanga is very specific, and it is for a good reason. It’s a system, and it works! I have been practicing daily for years now, and I can tell you that by following the system, my life has changed.
There are other styles and forms of yoga, and you don’t have to practice Ashtanga for yoga to work, but I will always be forever dedicated to it, and suggest it to others because I’ve seen my life change and felt my heart open.
So, if you’re new to Ashtanga, or Mysore style, I’m going to share with you a few things that you should know.
These are things that will drive any teacher crazy in a Mysore room:
A. Extra stretching
Most people stretch before and after they exercise, but yoga is a little different. The practice starts with the perfect amount of stretches, and it closes the same way. The Sun Salutations are sure to wake up every part of your body. Also, don’t do the whole jogging thing with your legs in Downward Facing Dog. Don’t lift a leg either. Just keep the feet on the floor, legs straight (if possible), and push the heels back and down.
B. Drink water:
The way that we breathe during practice builds agni (internal heat) and prana (life force). This helps to cleanse and detox the body. If you stop to drink water, then that cools the body down and counteracts all of the work you’ve been doing. But also, the breath we do should not be broken because it’s the foundation of the practice, and the key to meditation. When we break the breath, we break meditation, and lose prana.
D. Breathe through the mouth, close your eyes:
The breath should be in and out through the nose, only. If you’re brand new to Ashtanga, then you might forget, and that’s okay. But, the goal is to never open the mouth. The breath through the nose is what creates the heat and the sound to create meditation. It also creates energy.
Breathing through the nose also teaches you how to control your and expand your breath. In the beginning, you might have a hard time doing a movement for a full exhale, or you might find that you become out of breath easily. As you practice more and more, your concentration will deepen, and you’ll learn how to expand your lung capacity as you breathe through the nose.
The eyes should always be wide open and focused. When we close the eyes, the mind wonders. In the practice, we use a drishti, which is a gazing point. This is another way that we are brought into meditation through Ashtanga.
E. Skip a posture, add a posture, skip vinyasas:
Every posture leads to the next. The series of postures is there to create consistency and to help reveal or strengths, weaknesses, patterns, and obstacles. If you’re skipping postures, then you’re defeating the purpose of the practice. You’re skipping around which might reveal that you’re scattered in life, or that you’re avoiding something. Just a thought.
The vinyasas are built into each posture. If you skip them, then you’re breaking the flow and the practice.
Adding postures is really dependent on your practice given to you by your teacher. You shouldn’t ever add a posture on your own, but, for example, my teacher has prescribed me extra stretches to prepare my body for the upcoming posture. When I was working on legs behind the head, my teacher would have me do a few hip opening stretches before I went into it.
Only add postures if it’s been given to you.
F. Stop & watch:
The Tristana – Breath, Drishti, Posture - are the foundations of practice. If you stop and look around, then you’re breaking the drishti and losing prana. Practice in a group, but always act like there is no one else around you. Your breath should be loud enough to drown everyone out, and your drishti should be strong enough to focus on everything as a point.
You’re sure to become distracted – just bring it back to the breath – back to the drishti. Over and over and over again.
…And some common posture issues that are sure to get a teacher to run over to you…
Mudra: There are no guns in yoga. I can’t take credit for this quote. Instead, press the palms and all fingers together resembling a prayer position.
Sun Salutation: Don’t lift the leg – just step forward. This is the same for Warrior 1 & 2.
Chaturanga Dandasana: Again, don’t lift the leg. You’ll see this in flow classes a lot, but an Ashtanga Chaturanga is balanced with both feet on the ground.
Uttita Trikonasana: Grab the big toe! It was easier to show what to do here vs. what not to do. Grabbing the toe creates an opposition of force, and encourages an opening in the shoulder girdle.
Uttita Parsvokinasana: Don’t bind hands. You want to open up and get that amazing side stretch. The bind prevents you from getting the side stretch. Instead, bring the hand to the ground on the pinky-toe side of your foot. Press the leg into the arm and arm into the leg & open.
There are exceptions to everything, so the practice is really dependent on how it’s given to you by your teacher. Everyone was taught differently, so if you are told to skip vinyasas, skip postures, add a posture, or do something differently, then go with that. Just don’t judge the next person because their practice is a little different. The practice might also have to change to accommodate an injury. Just commit to a teacher, and devote to your practice.
Also, I’d love to see the whole Ashtanga Police thing go away. Let’s just all support each others teaching style, practice, and show love in the community.