A practitioner for almost 15 years, in three continents, through job and life changes, including childbirth. An authorized Level 2 teacher from the direct lineage of Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, these are some of my reflections on why Ashtanga vinyasa yoga is unique.
1. What you do in class has nothing to do with the teachers personal preferences.
In Ashtanga yoga you practice a series of postures. The series were designed to open the body progressively. Your yoga practice is that portion of the series you are practicing, not a pre-planned class by the teacher. Teachers are there to guide you and offer modifications and hands-on adjustments. We all start out with Sun Salutations A & B and some standing postures, no matter how advanced or new we are. Some teachers may love backbends, while others hate them. Some teachers like arm balances and handstands and hate hip stretches. In Ashtanga, what you learn is not determined by the teachers preferences. We all bow down to the lineage and respect the knowledge of our teachers. We generally stick to the series, unless a student has a limitation that prevents them practicing a posture – and this is rare.
2. You are encouraged and pushed to go deeper inside yourself.
The traditional and preferred method of teaching Ashtanga Yoga is Mysore style. The Mysore room is quiet, except for the sound of students’ breathing and the occasional verbal instruction from the teacher. You are encouraged to make this type of yoga a moving mediation. Your attention is on your own breath and body – this is mindfulness.
3. There is an emphasis on practice, and a deep commitment to practice.
In Mysore India, we practice 5-6 days a week. Yep, yoga almost every day. This is commitment and it can be daunting. However, when you commit, there is an energetic change. Yoga becomes less of a chore and something that helps you each day. You learn to make yoga a part of your day, not just something that you try to do. If you miss a day here and there, no problem, but you get back to it. If you only have 15 minutes, you do Sun Salutations and a few standing postures.
4. You do the same postures each time.
What? Isn’t this boring? I get these questions all the time. Your body is never the same day in and day out. You really learn about your mind when you get on the mat and know what you are going to do. You notice the stiffness or the suppleness in your body. You can see how your hips are opening and your shoulders are relaxing. You very clearly see your own progress over time. This is an amazing thing. I remember watching advanced students in London when I was new to yoga and thinking – “no way will I ever balance on my forearms.” Guess what posture I could do when I was 9 months pregnant ? Now I’ve learned not to put limitations on myself. Yoga brings us big and amazing surprises if welcome it like a very good friend.
5. Your yoga mat becomes a mirror.
Each morning your yoga mat is a quiet place. You are at one with your breath and your movement. This doesn’t mean that every day’s practice is a bed of roses. Sometimes you might feel emotions surfacing – frustration, anger, anxiety, sadness… These things can come up. Or you notice that you feel great joy and peace. Sometimes these subtle, persnickety emotions that we don’t want to pay attention to come out on the yoga mat. You are learning to be mindful and develop awareness. Being aware isn’t always easy! Nothing great comes easily.
6. You see outer and inner transformation.
The amazing thing about practicing with consistency and dedication is that you do see changes. Because you practice a posture and work on it, you will notice small changes. I had one student tell me that each class she would see small victories and changes – maybe touching her fingers, being able to lift a little higher, binding in a posture, balancing in headstand, all these small things are signs of inner and outer growth. What doers the physical have to do with the inner self? I like the way Manju Jois, the son of Pattabhi Jois explained it. We start with at the physical and we impact the mental and spiritual. This happens over time.
7. You are independent.
Over time you memorize the primary series. Yes, even those with the poorest memories ever can do this! After that, you become independent as a student. While it is always awesome to practice in a group and study with a teacher, it is very important not to become dependent. What does this mean? If you cannot practice yoga outside of a studio, but you want to, there is a subtle level of dependence. As a teacher my goal is to teach students so that they can practice on their own at times. Sometimes you don’t have time to get to class, or you might be traveling. It is much better to do something on your own than not to practice at all. And don’t get me wrong – dependent is different from being fond of and loving your teacher. I genuinely love and appreciate my students, but I want each person to feel confident in their own abilities.
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