My first week of Ashtanga yoga

I really like this lineage of yoga … which comes as a surprise to me.

I journeyed to Mysore expecting Ashtanga to be a real challenge, and not just in the physical sense.  I was actually preparing to hate it.  It’s not Hatha-Vinyasa flow, the style with which I am most familiar.  Ashtanga practice has a set sequence to be performed everyday with no deviation or on-the-fly creativity.  I have always found this approach rigid and no fun.  Boor-iiing, in other words.  Plus, students are not given the entire sequence at once.  It’s a build.  A very slow build.  This makes me a beginner when it comes to learning the Primary Series, the first set of poses in the Ashtanga sequence.

But, as the sign outside of the Sthalam8 yoga shala reads: “Leave your ego outside of this door.”

Why do I like this approach that I once found rigid and boor-iiing?

1.  Repetition fosters growth.  The structure enables me to note progress — namely, which poses and parts of my body need further development.  Because I have to do the same set of poses everyday, it is very easy to identify where I need to devote more work.  This isn’t always as apparent when I am practicing other lineages of yoga, where the sequence can change each day.

2.  There is a special energy in the room.  The sequence itself transforms into a moving meditation, just as a yoga practice should.  However, there is a unique energy that emerges in an Ashtanga practice, as everyone is practicing the same sequence, at their own pace.  There is a dedication to the practice among the group that I haven’t necessarily found in other yoga classes.  Perhaps this is special to Mysore, as we have all made the journey here with special purpose.  But I think it extends to all practicing Ashtangis.

3.  The practice is at your own pace.  To anyone peeking into a Mysore Ashtanga practice, it must look like chaos.  There is no teacher up front leading the sequence.  The teacher and assistants are zipping around the room, providing adjustments and whispered direction to individual students.  The students are doing different poses, and at different ability levels. Nothing appears to be in sync.  But that is what makes it awesome.  What looks like chaos on here surface is actually a group of students being given permission to practice at their own pace.  Sometimes I am in a yoga class and the teacher is either super rapid in pacing or super slow.  This can be frustrating.  That doesn’t happen in a Mysore Ashtanga class.  We all know the poses in the sequence, especially with the aid of a cheat sheet nearby.  It’s up to us to practice to our breath and with bodies accordingly.

Those are my three biggest observations so far.  There are other things, of course, and I am sure new observations and epiphanies will arise over the next three weeks in Mysore.  I look forward to the continued education.

What I still cannot get past, however, are some quirky aspects to the breathing.  And breathing, for me, is the heart and soul of any asana practice.  First, there is what I playfully call the “Darth Vader” breathing.  A handful of the yogis in my morning session breathe very, very loud.  The teachers encourage it.  However, I was taught that ujjai breath needn’t be so vocal and learned how to refine it so that it eventually became a throaty whisper.  I can hear and feel my breathing.  The person on the mat next to me doesn’t need to hear or feel it.  Or in Asthanga, do they?  (This is a good question for my teacher.)  Second, the pace of the guided breathing can agitate my nervous system.  When it is guided at the top of class and in back bending workshop settings, it’s a little too fast for me.  I am used to breathing a six- to seven-count inhale/exhale.  When sun salutations are counted off by the teacher, however, it’s about half of this count.  I am not motivated to keep up when the pace is muy rapido, as it I fear it would disrupt my calm.  I am a bit of a little girl folding her arms in a huff when it comes to this … which is interesting to observe.  Perhaps in time this, too, will change?

I definitely have a lot to learn.  Looking forward to it.

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