Ashtanga Yoga has an undeserved reputation within the yoga community as being inaccessible to beginners. The practice is a common target for criticisms ranging from assertions that the system was created solely to be practiced by teenage boys, to accusations that the ancient text upon which the system is said to be based on never existed. At best, these myths are debatable. At worst, they deter aspiring yogis from discovering a powerful style of yoga that can be personalized and practiced with a modest time commitment each day.
In its purest form, the repetition and individualized instruction common to Ashtanga Yoga create an ideal foundation for beginners to build their yoga practice. What’s more, Ashtanga is designed to save time by incorporating other elements of yoga, such as breathing and sense withdrawal techniques, into the physical practice. The Ashtanga practice becomes a moving meditation in this way as students combine the poses with Ujjayi, or victorious, breathing; specific gazing, or drishti points; and certain energetic seals known as bandhas.
The physical Ashtanga practice works like a sandwich, with a student’s personalized practice wedged between a fixed set of opening and finishing poses. The opening positions include sun salutations and foundational standing postures. They work to build heat in the body, which can facilitate detoxification, and prepare the student for postures that occur later on in the practice. The finishing postures include basic inversions and other positions that transition the student to the final resting pose.
The middle portion of the Ashtanga sandwich is also derived from fixed posture sequences. The poses are typically prescribed by a qualified teacher that assesses the student’s proficiency and determines which postures should be practiced. Once assigned, the student can practice the postures at a level of intensity appropriate for them on each particular practice day.
This individualized style of teaching is known as the “Mysore” method, a reference to the home city of the K. Pattabhi Jois Ashtanga Yoga Institute in India. Students can also practice in “led” classes, whereby the vinyasas are counted aloud by a teacher. In either case, the focus is directed inwards, rather than on the teacher or which postures might be coming next. Practicing this way can enhance awareness, generate tranquility, and set the stage for self-realization.
If you have been contemplating starting an Ashtanga practice, give it a try! The practice conveys a deep experience through well thought out sequences that can be memorized and mastered at your own pace. Catch Michelle Hackett teaching Ashtanga at Buddhi Yoga every Tuesday from 10-11am and if you’re ever in Carlsbad, take class with Tim Miller at the Ashtanga Yoga Center. Tim is a direct student of Pattabhi Jois and has had a consistent practice for over forty years.
-Written by Mike Blasi