Okay, so you’re all excited about this new Ashtanga practice. Do you have any goals?
Well, yes and no. The Bhagavad Gita, an ancient Hindu text with a lot to say about the nature of yoga, defines yoga as a consistent work without any attachment to the fruits of that work. So in a sense, losing five pounds, dropping a size, growing measurably stronger or more flexible: all of these would be worldly aspirations that I’d be grasping onto, which would work against the kind of detachment, renunciation and equanimity that can be a part of the practice.
On the other hand, who am I kidding? I’m not a nun; I’d love to have the gorgeous body and the physical ability that Ashtangis sport in Instagram selfies and photo books. I can feel my ego latching at that, so I don’t want to name physical measurable goals for myself to achieve. A pitfall of Ashtanga, at least in my own fledgling practice, is that because you move through the sequence, it’s easy to become goal-oriented.
At the beginning and end of my favorite classes, one of my teachers talks a lot about cultivating gratitude. Gratitude, she says, is a great place from which to set an intention for your practice. So I’ve set an intention for this experiment, and I do so from a place of gratitude.
· I’m grateful for a practice like this that can help me realize and enjoy a balanced, healthy life.
· I’m grateful for this community, where I can reflect on my process among readers who are encouraging, without judgment, who will hold me accountable, while full of compassion.
· I’m grateful for a practice space.
· I’m grateful for teachers—past, present and future—who teach me about the fascinating dance between practice and life.
With all this in mind, I’ve set this as my intention. The verb tense is weird because putting it in the present helps me trick my brain into making it reality, not just wish. Thus:
I practice the Primary Series of Ashtanga yoga six days a week, observing moon days and rest days as the tradition states. Once a week minimum, I practice Mysore-style with a teacher, who will guide me as I move through the series. Once a week, I attend class at my own home studio (non-Ashtanga).
My plan is to blog about this practice here, regularly, for the next 30 days, then hopefully, to have a 90-day check in and even a 365-day check in. I’d really like to make this a habit. Starting a new habit is hard, though. So: after two weeks, I’ll reward myself with some cute pedicure. My thinking is looking down at my feet to enjoy my pretty toenails might keep me practicing. After four weeks, I’m thinking of a splurge: maybe a new yoga mat, or maybe a book about Ashtanga.
In the comments below, I’d love to hear from you readers. I’m also looking for smaller, weekly or even daily, reward to help me make this a pattern. Do you have any ideas? You Ashtangis out there, how did you get started? How did you stick with it when it was tough?
If you’re interested in learning the Primary Series, I’d suggest you find a teacher, and also get your hands on a list or chart of Sun Salutations, standing poses, the Primary Series and the finishing sequence. But really, get a teacher: they’ll help you know what your body can do, and they’ll help you grow.
For those of you interested in what I’ve been reading, here’s a list:
· Ashtanga Yoga by Gregor Maehle—everyone says you can’t learn Ashtanga from a book, and they’re right. Still, this is an exhaustive description of the Primary Series and has a copy of the Yoga Sutras in the back. Pros: lots of photos and clear description of alignment; Cons: not super-accessible for those unfamiliar with yoga. There are few modifications.
· Total Astanga* by Tara Fraser—I found this one in the bargain section of a giant bookstore years ago, and I still use it, but with a grain of salt. It’s got great photos of poses, and lots of suggestions for modifications, but not a ton of instruction. Pros: easy to read, lovely color photos, contains adapted practice for beginners and a short practice for all levels; Cons: less detail than some other Ashtanga manuals about each pose.
· The Wisdom of Yoga by Stephen Cope—this is not an Ashtanga manual. It’s a meditation on the nature of the self, on patterns of life that we want to break and to cultivate, and that pursuit through yoga. Part-memoir, part-philosophy, it explores the connections between the physical practice and mental, psychic and spiritual growth. Pros: beautiful translation of the Yoga Sutras in the appendix; Cons: zero instruction of physical practice.
· The Bhagavad Gita: A New Translation by Graham M. Schweig—I’m only about halfway through, but this amazing text is another philosophical treatise on what yoga means beyond being able to sit in lotus pose or stand on your head. Incredibly readable, given the source material is ancient Sanskrit. Pros: a historical and philosophical exploration of what yoga is beyond physical practice; Cons: über-spiritual. If you’re not into the spiritual side of yoga, you won’t appreciate it beyond its literary beauty.
· The Ashtanga Ann Arbor House Recommendations—initially created for students of a particular studio, this is a .pdf compiled by Ashtangi and teacher Angela Jamison (quoted earlier), who runs a shala (Ashtanga yoga studio) in Michigan. She has a strong voice and a clear knowledge of Ashtanga. This document is full of helpful suggestions on making this practice a part of your daily life. It’s been invaluable to me. Pros: great ideas and useful tips on beginning and continuing Ashtanga; Cons: if you don’t know the poses, you won’t learn them here.
*Same word, different spelling. Sometimes you’ll see Ashtanga spelled this way; it’s a more old-school translation of the word, but it sounds the same.