What is so different about Ashtanga Yoga?

Ashtanga Yoga can be a controversial subject. Controversial because if you are a student of this practice and mention to another practitioner of another type of Yoga more often than not you then have to listen to them telling you about why they don’t do Ashtanga. “Oh its so competitive”. “To me that’s not Yoga”. “Yes but beginners can’t do it”. “Oh I prefer a practice where I can creatively express myself and see where I arrive” “Oh but its boring always doing the same thing” etc etc. Sort of like being a recovered alcoholic who refuses wine at a party then has to listen to the person with the bottle talk about how actually they don’t drink that much. And like the ex alcoholic who’s only trying to beat out their own path, not anyone else’s, it all feels a little unnecessary.

When we talk about Yoga in the West we are generally referring to physical practice- Asana practice, which is but one part of  Yoga. The origins of Ashtanga are obscure. Naturally there is a lost sacred text. It owes much to the work of that genius, Krishnamacharya, a man who had discipline second to none- as well as unearthly energy and will that was beyond the realms of most of us- this is a man who could stop his own heart beating- which was empirically proven in a scientific study. The three best known traditions of Yoga came from Krishnamacharya- and these are the schools of Iyengar, of Desikachar, and of Pattabhi Jois. Very different expressions and yet springing out of the same source.

What is different about Ashtanga? I believe it was invented as Yoga for the everyday person with responsibilities. That is, as something to wholeheartedly partake of for less than 2 hours six times a week- which may sound like a lot, but compared to the practice of a full time Yogi or renunciate, is actually nothing at all. And if many of us were to give up, say, our TV meditation time, then it IS within our reach. But its not easy. And the eight limbs of Yoga in a nutshell are these- Yama (observance) Niyama (discipline) Asana (physical practice), Pranayama (control over the breath, and as a consequence, the harnessing of life force) Pratyahara (withdrawal of the senses), Dharana (concentration), Dhyana (meditation) and Samadhi which is the goal of Yoga- to see all, no longer restricted by your own patterning, but free of the ego able to see the big picture. Now classically these are studied one by one. Over many many years. In Ashtanga Yoga they are homogenized- within the practice all the elements work together.

This sense of wholeness is to me how the Ashtanga practice differs from a class which is purely about the body. Even though the body and the mind ARE, in the tradition of Yoga and also in a Tantric sense, one and the same, the practice of Ashtanga has a sense of ritual about it. Of the sacred. As you go through the sequence, time and again, you come across the same old demons, the same pains, the same restrictions. And over time, and with dedicated practice you change your relationship with them.

I have walked away from the practice before. But never for more than three weeks because it calls me back. There’s the part of me that wants to ‘fly’ through it. And after seven years of practice I am still a long way off that. But what has become clearer and clearer to me after several years is that the physical practice of Ashtanga Yoga is the polar opposite of what a lot of people seem to believe. That it is overly physical and achievement oriented. YES- you do see that, of course you do. You see people who beat themselves up over it. And watching people in their 30’s and 40’s sulk like toddlers when they can’t get a posture just right too. That definitely happens, especially in Mysore. And its hilarious, I won’t lie. I’ve even heard tell of people popping painkillers before class.. So you see the full ugly story of people playing out their own attachments, their own ego goals. And you go down this route and you break. Because you cannot control the practice with your own agenda. You HAVE to surrender. You must accept your own limitations before you can grow. If you don’t start out from a place of honesty, well, Ashtanga Yoga will kick you to it. Tuck a handkerchief under the mat and get on with it.

And this is where many people walk away. They want a practice they can be good at. Something that’s not undignified. Perhaps something where the ego can hide a bit better, and not come out to (in David Sye’s words) “fight like a cornered rat”. Like any process of recapitulation or having to face unwanted aspects of self its not always pretty. But when you see an advanced practitioner ALL that falls away.

When you see the Ashtanga practice in its advanced form it is as if the practitioner is fuelled by the silent purring of a Rolls Royce engine. They dance on thistledown and there is a gentleness, a peace, that is pure magic. Like there are invisible benevolent beings holding them up and placing them down tenderly, there is no strain, there is nothing excessive. There is peace. And there is kindness too. On my first visit to Mysore, as a total beginner I somehow slipped through the net into Sharath’s class and he was very kind to me.

And I must mention bandhas. I have only just started to really feel the bandhas within my physical practice. Bandhas are known as ‘locks’. And just as locks in canals dam up the water and then let it through at a controlled level so that the water can traverse as it must, this is exactly how Bandhas work. And there is a physical basis for the bandhas but I would they are mostly about energetic awareness. Advanced practitioners have true understanding of their bandhas through dedicated practice. And this is what gives the practice its floating and otherworldly quality. And this is what I aspire to every day. And when I stop thinking about what I want, well, that is when I feel it.

You don’t chase after the Ashtanga practice, all you can do is sow the seeds of it through practice, through attitude, through intention. And then the magic happens. But as I said earlier, it is one of three strong paths. Perhaps the Iyengar way is for you. Perhaps you have other things going on and the Viniyoga approach of Desikachar is where your bliss lies. Ashtanga does seem to attract a certain type, perhaps the people who are a little fiery, a little aggressive, a little compulsive. But it transforms that too and in its wake there is grace. There is lightness. There is humour. And as the teacher Louise Ellis said in a class once ‘Perhaps it is your attitude to the practice that needs to change’.

So ignore what people tell you about how it is ‘not for beginners’. It is for everyone. Everyone deserves a taste. And if its not for you then its not for you. We are all different. But how would you know if you don’t try it?

Come and try the practice for yourself. If Sheffield in the UK is too far from you, drop me a line and I can recommend someone in your area, more than likely, I’ve trampled round the globe practicing, and will recommend a teacher, happily.

If you are in Sheffield- then come to my class and feel the fire that still burns within you, long after the class is over. It is the deepest cleanse. Things begin to fall away and you discover a new strength.

See you on the mat…

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