The Ashtanga Shift
What is Ashtanga? As defined by Ashtanga.com ::
“Ashtanga yoga is a system of yoga recorded by the sage Vamana Rishi in the Yoga Korunta, an ancient manuscript "said to contain lists of many different groupings of asanas, as well as highly original teachings on vinyasa, drishti, bandhas, mudras, and philosophy" (Jois 2002 xv).
Ashtanga yoga literally means "eight-limbed yoga," as outlined by the sage Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras. According to Patanjali, the path of internal purification for revealing the Universal Self consists of the following eight spiritual practices:
Yama [moral codes]
Niyama [self-purification and study]
Pranayama [breath control]
Pratyahara [sense control]
Samadhi [absorption into the Universal] (Scott 14-17)
The first four limbs--yama, niyama, asana, pranayama—are considered external cleansing practices. According to Pattabhi Jois, defects in the external practices are correctable. However, defects in the internal cleansing practices--pratyahara, dharana, dhyana—are not correctable and can be dangerous to the mind unless the correct Ashtanga yoga method is followed (Stern and Summerbell 35). For this reason, Pattabhi Jois emphasizes that the "Ashtanga Yoga method is Patanjali Yoga" (Flynn).
The definition of yoga is "the controlling of the mind" [citta vrtti nirodhah] (Jois 2003 10). The first two steps toward controlling the mind are the perfection of yama and niyama (Jois 2003 10). However, it is "not possible to practice the limbs and sub-limbs of yama and niyama when the body and sense organs are weak and haunted by obstacles" (Jois 2002 17). A person must first take up daily asana practice to make the body strong and healthy (Jois 2003 10). With the body and sense organs thus stabilized, the mind can be steady and controlled (Jois 2002 16). With mind control, one is able to pursue and grasp these first two limbs (Flynn).”
For the past 11 years, I have studied Hatha, Vinyasa, Power, Iyengar, Yoga for Athletes, Restorative + Yin Yoga. Always a student of yoga and will be forever. However, I wanted to explore this practice deeper by becoming a certified yoga instructor. For the past three years, I devoted about four days a week to my practice. As my practice developed, I accepted my limitations instead of forcing myself into a picturesque “perfect” pose. Mainly, I started to let go of competition towards other’s practices and this shift allowed for more internal awareness within my own practice. Coming to yoga from college athletics, this experience took time and acceptance. I also admit, I am a bit type A.
It took years, as my ego was a beach ball held under water. I needed to face it in order to move forward in my practice, as the beach ball always wants to surface above water. There were breakdowns, tears, Ah-ha moments, enlightenment, inner awareness, clarity, and making space for non-judgment.
A MAJOR shift occurred when I started to develop an Ashtanga practice. I have to admit (thank you Brené Brown for showing me the acceptance of vulnerability and shame), my first Ashtanga mysore class was on October 11, 2013.
I’ll backtrack a bit first as to what brought me to this class, Salt Room Yoga. Each time I walk into the studio, I become calm and at peace. There is something truly special about this space, and I find it incredibly inspiring to practice at this studio and the lighted Himalayan Salt Wall. The etymology of the word INSPIRE means to BREATHE. The practice of Ashtanga connects the breath with each pose, sometimes holding poses for 5, 10, and 15 breaths.
The studio also has another advantage, the teachers. Almost all the teachers at this studio have influenced my practice of yoga over the past three years while living and practicing yoga in Seattle. Truly, I full-heartedly mean this last statement within my own personal growth and practice. Emily and Nancey have been mentors in the practice of Yin + Yoga Nidra. Each time I leave their classes, I have a positive and clarified shift within my own inner awareness. Rhonda by living the Yogic Lifestyle and leading by example, each time I leave her class, workshop, discussing Ayurveda, or just simple conversation I always learn something wholesome. She also introduced me to the practice of Ashtanga.
My practice has deepened on and off the mat. Now practicing 5-6 days a week, a mix of Ashtanga, vinyasa, yin and restorative, depending on how my body is feeling and doing the practice that will serve me best that day. I also cycle and train for marathons, so a recovery type yin/restorative practice helps balance my Vata-Kapha type.
What I have noticed the past 6-weeks is how I am able to deal with my anxiety. I was prescribed ADD medication in high school due to the load I carried since high school (academics, athletics, college, being accepted socially, being comfortable with my body and all the other stresses) and this continued into college. I was a D1 athlete, in school full time, and worked 30-40 hours a week. I was stressed out all the time, hyper-active, never accepted my body, or that I was good enough…yoga changed all of this.
Now, I am delighted to admit that I am medication free and have more clarity and calmness than ever before. The Ashtanga practice has opened a door to my inner awareness and the benefits of living a yogic lifestyle, to be free from suffering. I am able to detach my emotions in certain situations….WHAT? Yes, this has been an incredible shift in my life. For example, I was working on a task for work, and the Internet was just not working accordingly to what I needed to be completed. I couldn’t fix this issue for 3-4 hours as it was in the middle of the workday and I am a staff of one with interns (no interns in the office this day). Well, instead of freaking out and letting my body become anxious, I thought what could I do now about this situation? Nothing. Is it worth stressing over for the next 3-4 hours. No…..Whoa, I was able to detach myself from a stressful situation that could of hindered my afternoon and work that needed to be done. Instead of reacting to the solution in the moment, I made a choice.
The physical practice of Ashtanga – asana practice is a powerful and beautiful platform for change – on and off the mat. About two months ago, I could barely get my leg straight in Janu Sirsasana. A few weeks ago, Ah-ha! Forehead to knee during an Ashtanga led class! Halasana was always extremely difficult and a pose I often avoided. Well, in the Ashtanga it’s a pose in the ending sequence, it’s a pose you have to “face” as a student. BAM! Toes touched the floor and legs overhead. About two weeks ago, was able to bind in half-lotus, another asana that I always found challenging, as my ankle dislocates quite often while attempting this pose (thank you athletics and not properly healing at a younger age). I got sooo excited to bind that I wrote Rhonda that night and her warm response back was perfect for such a simple accomplishment.
The practice of yoga and living the yogic lifestyle is to free yourself from suffering, incredible. The practice of Ashtanga provides inner awareness, acceptance, clarity, peace, detachment, non-judgment, non-harm, the ability to show up as you are, and a safe space to use your breath to inspire you, the student.
I thank my teachers for their inspiration and influencing my practice.
Loka samasta sukhino bhavantu,
Has Ashtanga influenced your life? We'd love to read about your experience in the comments!