Articles Tagged with: ashtanga yoga
Ashtanga Yoga’s Bad Rep

I see it as part of my role as a teacher of ashtanga yoga to change the reputation it has gained of being ‘the hard yoga’.

We get so many students that arrive into the shala (who have done lots of yoga before) who say they are a bit nervous about trying out Mysore-style ashtanga yoga. A lot of the time they have done ashtanga yoga before but only led classes. That’s when I know that I am going to have to work hard to change their opinion of the practice.

Starting with led classes is the absolute hardest possible way to start with ashtanga yoga. A new student goes along to the class and goes through all, or at least half, of the primary series on the first day! It would be like joining a boxing club and being expected to fight for 12 rounds on day one. The main impression new students will get from that is that ashtanga yoga is really hard.

Then, when they first hear about Mysore-style (or ‘self-practice’), they think “Ok, that’s already hard, and now I have to memorise the sequence too!?” You can see why that would be a little intimidating for a new student.

I want to put this on the record once and for all…

Ashtanga yoga was NEVER intended to be taught that way.

It takes most people years to learn the whole of the primary series. And many never even get all the way to the end of that. That’s absolutely fine.

The idea of the traditional Mysore-style method is that each student can start (and continue) at their own pace with the practice. The postures are taught one by one, at a sensible pace, so that the student can build up strength, flexibility, stamina and concentration over a long period of time. In that way, not only is it so much easier for a student to build up towards doing the primary series but it actually feels good along the way, and it’s a lot safer for the body.

Almost all of us have the desire to learn more and more postures but it doesn’t take very long in this practice to get out of our depth. Sometimes it’s fun to try a few of the later postures, beyond what we have learned. If, though, we were to suddenly decide that we were gong to do that every day we would end up sore, injured and worn out pretty quickly.

Ashtanga yoga, learnt and practised in the way it was intended, is a beautiful practice that can give us so many incredible benefits.

It saddens me to see that people are intimidated by the practice because of the way it has been taught to them in the past.

How many more students would come to ashtanga yoga and gain its benefits if they didn’t have misconceptions about what it really is?

Spread the word!


Seeking and avoiding sensation

I had a discussion with Luke Jordan last week after his visit about his overall approach to the practice and, more specifically, to teaching. Luke said that his main focus when teaching is towards keeping the students fully present, connected and engaged with the practice from one moment to the next. One way that he does this is by getting the students to focus on the sensations that they are feeling in the body. Pretty simple but very effective.

That set me thinking about our individual relationships to sensation in the body during yoga practice.

Like almost everything in life there is a balance to be found between seeking out sensation in the asanas and avoiding sensation altogether. We can end up in trouble if we favour either.

My experience of seeking out, and going further into, bodily sensations in the asanas is that there is potential for injury and for creating unhealthy patterns of movement, especially in the joints (notice I only say potential here). The idea that we should be feeling discomfort in the asanas is not quite right. Conversely, it is almost impossible to feel totally comfortable all the time, especially when we are learning a new asana (as Sharath always says, “You get a new asana, you get a new pain”!).

If, however, we avoid uncomfortable sensations in the body there is potential for us to get stuck into old physiological patterns that are not really useful or healthy. Most of us, when we are doing asanas, try to do them in a way that is most comfortable for our particular body (naturally). But the policy of sensation-avoidance can result in us never really experiencing the full benefits of each asana. That is, when we practise the same asana for many years without bringing our full awareness to where the restrictions are in the body, we can limit the transformative potential of each asana.

So, there’s a trade off here between seeking and avoiding ‘feelings’ in the body.

Where does that leave us? Confused, probably. It’s not an easy conundrum to solve.

I would suggest that becoming aware of our own patterns is the first step. Become aware of whether you are seeking out or avoiding sensation in the body in each asana that you practice. You’ll usually find that this varies from asana to asana because we all have different areas of physical tension and physical freedom. If you can become fully aware of these habits then they will automatically stop. There’s no need for you to actively try to go deeper into comfort or discomfort, it will happen once you shine the light of awareness on your tendencies.

I talk a lot about the more subtle aspects of yoga practice but we must not forget that we are using the physical asanas as the tool to gain the mental, emotional and spiritual benefits of the practice. That means that, if we can bring the full power of our attention to what we are feeling and experiencing in the asanas in each moment, then the inner benefits of the practice will come to us automatically.

I’ll leave you with more words of wisdom from Luke:

“We spend so much of our lives up in our heads. We need to become aware of what is happening in the body”.

And don’t forget to breathe.

Patanjali Yoga Sutras II:46

Sthira sukham asanam

Asana should be steady/stable/firm and comfortable

 

 


Cultivating Joy

I can’t take any credit for formulating the concept I’m writing about this week, but it’s something that I want to share with you all anyway.

It’s a very simple idea and it is this:

Joy is the default setting of our minds and if we can get rid of mental chatter we will experience abundant joy.

When we enter a state in which our minds are both relaxed and alert a profound sense of joy spontaneously arises. This has been experienced and has been spoken and/or written about for centuries by many great teachers.

This state of mind can be practised and cultivated so that it becomes easy to experience joy without any external stimulus. We often feel like our happiness and joyfulness depends on external circumstances. We feel happy or sad when we are appreciated/unappreciated by our boss in work, when we experience pleasure/pain, or when our football team wins/loses.

This realisation that joy is available to us independently of anything outside ourselves is an antidote to greed. So often we are chasing money, pleasure, power, love in order to bring us joy and happiness but if we realise that joy really does come from within (and in a very concrete, practical and ‘practisable’ way) then contentment will also arise spontaneously.

So how to practise this?

There are so many ways to cultivate a relaxed and alert mind and the mindfulness movement is making great strides towards bringing these practices into the zeitgeist. But even during our ashtanga yoga practice we can aim to still the mind. The tools are all there inside the ashtanga system; breath, bandha, drishti and asanas. If we can let go of the striving to achieve this posture or that posture we can really start to experience this state where are minds are clear. It just takes a little bit more focus on the more subtle aspects of the ashtanga practice. Then joy, happiness and contentment will come.

Yogas citta vrtti nirodhah.

Inspiration for this blog post comes from the Finding Mastery podcast


What does being ‘good at yoga’ even mean?

The winner of the prize for “most meaningless phrase used by yoga students” is:

“Good At Yoga”

I have heard people use this phrase so many times over the years. It’s always in reference to someone who finds the yoga asanas easy to do. In other words the person who uses the phrase “good at yoga” believes that it is important to be strong, flexible and (usually) lean. They see yoga as being equivalent to football, gymnastics or playing a musical instrument, and in order to be proficient in yoga one has to display talent and ability in achieving the asanas.

To be clear, I do believe that it’s important to cultivate flexibility, strength and to live a healthy lifestyle (that usually results in a lean body) but (as I have realised through my own yoga practice and through having a few hundred yoga students walk in our door over the last few years) many of us will never find the asanas to be easy.

The level of ease that we experience in the ashtanga yoga practice is dependant on many factors. Genetics, age, previous injuries and illnesses, and diet are all very big factors in determining whether we’ll find the asanas easy or difficult (or even impossible).

I’ll try to illustrate what I’m trying to get at by way of two hypothetical examples:

Patrick is a 63 year old man who has a history of lower back pain. He ate a diet of rich and refined foods for many years, causing him to gain a lot of excess weight, and he has had reconstructive surgery on both knees after a car accident. He has been practising ashtanga yoga for 2 years and has found that it has given him a new lease of life; greater energy, more mobility, better concentration, and a general feeling of being a bit more in control of his life.

Because of his physical limitations, age, and previous history Patrick is very limited in which asanas he can currently do. Some days, if he feels his energy is low, he does even less than he has been taught, but he does practise every day.

When Patrick is practising yoga he is very conscious of focusing on his breath, he maintains uddiyana and mula bandha as much as possible and his drishti never wavers. If you see him practising you can tell immediately that he is a very focused practitioner. 

Jenny is a 32 year old woman who has a background in dance. She has also been practising for two years. She was able to do all of the poses of the primary series within about two weeks of starting and now practises about half of the intermediate series too. She can drop back into a backbend and catch her ankles easily. She is flexible, strong and lean.

When Jenny is practising it is hard to tell whether or not she is breathing. She often looks around the room to see what the other students are doing and whenever someone walks into the shala she looks up to see who it is.

Which of these students is “good at yoga”?

In the context of the (quite obvious) thrust of this blog post it is easy to recognise that Patrick is really practising yoga in a more productive way, despite being dealt a set of cards which restrict him in lots of ways. However, if most of us were to witness these two practitioners side-by-side doing their practice then we might suggest that Jenny is “better at yoga”.

I have heard so many people over the years suggest that they would like to start to do yoga but they’re just so inflexible that they’d be “awful at it”. “I can’t even touch my toes”, they say, as if that fact alone somehow instantly disqualifies them from beginning a yoga practice. This would be the equivalent of saying “I can’t take piano lessons because I really can’t play the piano at all”. It’s nonsensical.

Yoga practice is purely a means to gaining health, calming the mental chatter of the mind, and ultimately (if we’re really on the right track) gaining some knowledge of ourselves. The asanas, breath, bandhas and drishti are tools to achieve that.

Let us please retire the phrase “good at yoga”.

“Yoga is a spiritual practice. The rest is just a circus”-Pattabhi Jois