I had my first yoga experience more than ten years ago, and I’ve been practicing yoga faithfully since 2006. In that time I’ve consistently flirted with Ashtanga* yoga: ooh, what’s that yoga over there? Ashtanga, what an exotic name! You’re cute; can I take you out for a smoothie or a chai sometime? We’d date for a while, me earnestly rolling out my mat six days a week and puffing and sweating my way through sun salutations and standing poses, only to be thwarted by sitting poses that highlighted how tight my hips and hamstrings are. Then, I’d make up some excuse—“I’m going to blow my shoulders out with all these vinyasas”, “I shouldn’t do Ashtanga, it aggravates my pitta too much*”—and I’d split.
(*Sidebar: this pitta thing is yogi speak, or more precisely, Ayurveda-speak. Ayurveda is a profound and thorough science, often known as the sister science to yoga that explores a way of taking the best care of yourself to achieve homeostasis. It features wonderful and strange practices including stripping naked and massaging oil your body all over on a daily basis, rinsing your nasal passages with salt water, and a delightful treat known as a basti. If you’re interested, I’d start with this book for more info.)
This time I’m done with the on-again off-again. I don’t really know what’s taken hold of me, but I’m determined that my relationship with Ashtanga not be a booty call or a couple of insincere attempts. Love is always better the second time around. To make sure this flirtation becomes a lifelong practice, I’m writing about it here, so that you can see my progress, hold me accountable, practice with me and suggest helpful tips and encouragement.
What is Ashtanga yoga?
God, where to begin? On their website, Yoga Journal defines Ashtanga as a system of yoga modeled on the eight limbs of yoga, articulated by Pantanjali in the Yoga Sutras. The greatest emphasis is on the third limb, asana or poses (think the yoga class at your gym), as a vehicle for realizing all eight limbs. On perhaps a different end of the spectrum, FitSugar.com describes Ashtanga as a fast-paced, athletic yoga perfect for Type-A personalities who love structure, or for runners, cyclists and climbers looking to open up tight hips and hamstrings. Some say that Ashtanga has the power to transform the entire world—but it’s probably asking a lot to bring peace to the Middle East just by doing a few sun salutations together. A comprehensive, if a bit academic, definition can be found at Ashtanga.com. A gentler and perhaps a little more new-age answer to this question can be found here.
Based on all of the stuff I’ve read (and though I’ve read a lot, I’ve not even scratched the surface), I’m considering Ashtanga yoga to mean exactly what it says it is: an eight-limbed yoga practice that touches all aspects of life. Yoga isn’t just the stretchy, sweaty stuff you do on your mat. It’s a way of living that can help you achieve calm, balance, contentment or even a state of bliss, if that’s what you’re into. Asana is just one element of the practice; others include external and internal disciplines, breath control, sensory withdrawal, concentration and meditation, all of which can lead to samahdi, a state of perfect, unending connection with the Divine. I suppose when you look at it that way, maybe a physical practice can bring about lasting peace; but only if we all have our asses on our mats, and if we’re all open to manifesting more than just a tight butt from our yoga practice.
Why Ashtanga yoga?
Like I said, I’m no stranger to yoga, or even to this style. I’ve seen a lot of people do stupid things practicing Ashtanga: bad patterns create injuries; all that jumping back and jumping through makes for a lot of repetitive motion; I’ve even done myself some sprain and strain trying to work too fast through the primary series. So why Ashtanga? Why now?
I wish I had a better answer than the granola, flaky, “Now is the right time,” kind of thing, but that’s all I’ve got. Recently, it had gotten to be that time of year again, when I cast longing glances at the Ashtanga books on my shelf and wonder “What if?” Often, I get excited about a new practice or project and then I get bored and quit. Maybe I’m looking for a quick fix, and when I don’t find it, I blow out. Ashtanga’s not a quick fix for anything. This time, the “what if Ashtanga” question didn’t go away. The texts I’ve been reading talk about change happening over the span of years. I don’t want this to be a practice I tire of in a week. I want to make it a habit.
Why Ashtanga? Because it is a hard-working method of physical practice that, at its core, incorporates many off-the-mat practices that speak to the heart of what yoga is. I’ve been ignoring these things in my life for too long. I’m ready to make my practice about more than just physical health. I love the way Angela Jamison from Ashtanga Ann Arbor describes it: “Ashtanga is a bullshit-burning fire. It feels white-hot, razor sharp, transcendent.” I feel mature enough to deal with that practice now. I need some ego blasting. Where do I sign?
Stay tuned for part two of this post, where I discuss a bit more of the practical parameters of this experience. See you soon!
*How do you say this word? Say, “Ah-sh-tahng-gah.”