Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Day 179

A few people have asked why I'm the 'Reluctant Ashtangi'. Why 'reluctant'?

I was reluctant because I had some very bad experiences with the Ashtanga practice early on. Years ago, I started practising yoga without a teacher, using a video. The video I used was based on the Iyengar system of yoga: lots of focus on alignment, longer holds, not a lot of vinyasa. When I did start taking classes, they were in classical Hatha yoga, which is more gentle and less vigourous than Ashtanga (Hatha is what I mainly teach now).

With eight years of Hatha Yoga under my belt (and on the verge of yoga teacher training), I started experimenting with classes in different yoga systems. As part of my entrance evaluation for YTT, each of the YTT instructors needed an opportunity to evaluate me in a class setting. This was my first encounter with Teacher M - I tried his Ashtanga II class thinking “How hard can it be?“ The answer: “Very hard.“

I hated everything about Ashtanga: the pace, the postures, the people (many of whom seemed conceited and body-obsessed to me). I couldn't do Chaturanga, my hamstrings were tight. I left the class convinced that I had flunked out of YTT before I even started, but M gave me his seal of approval.

For years, I was negative about Ashtanga. This attitude was reinforced as I started getting 'Ashtanga refugees' in my classes - students who tried the form and hurt themselves. Their injuries, and the negative attitudes they developed about yoga as a result, reinforced my perception that Ashtanga was a potentially dangerous style of yoga that could cause harm. I cautioned students to be careful in Ashtanga classes and to listen to their bodies.

So I came to the practice reluctantly and admittedly, with a bad attitude. When I started, it was truly an experiment and one that I only intended to do for the summer (I never thought I would actually be able to carry on for 365 days). I recognised the potential for building strength in Ashtanga and I believe that's what drew me to it - I was ready to advance my practice and instinctively, I felt drawn to the form. I decided that my strong background in alignment and years as a teacher would allow me to avoid injury.

I'm currently on Day 179.

I do teach one Ashtanga class now, and it's an introductory one. In my class, I teach all postures in 'phases' so that students who are not as strong or flexible can still benefit from them (this is similar to the approach in David Swenson's book which I use as my reference). I don't use props. I do teach Ujjayi breathing. I introduce the Bandhas, but don't emphasize them a lot (I feel that these beginners have enough on their minds)

I still have issues with the 'adjustments' given in many Mysore classes. I believe it's important for students to develop a sense of their own 'edge' and work with it. The magic of the practice is that it is just that: practice. If you keep doing it, the strength and flexibility will come. I don't believe the injuries are a sign of the body 'opening', an idea sometimes circulated in Ashtanga circles

Good alignment in poses keeps the body safe - particularly the spine and joints - so I emphasize this in my classes. I genuinely believe that if you move slowly and carefully, with good alignment and don't use force, you can build incredible strength and flexibility *without* hurting yourself. This is the magic of the Primary Series for me.

So, I'm no longer reluctant. I am, however, sometimes skeptical. I'm holding onto this skepticism because I believe it's healthy to question and by questioning, I learn.

Today's practice: Full Primary Series, steady and strong. I was very focused today and cruised through the practice in an hour and fifteen minutes. My hammies are still tight - don't know what's going on there. My low back was feeling cranky, but it was fine by the time I tackled my three Urdhva Dhanurasanas. The backbends are kind of on a plateau right now. I don't feel like I'm moving forward, nor backward. I'm just abiding in them.

Musical Sirsasana: 'Wake Up Exhausted' by Tegan and Sara (3 min, 16 sec).


Michelle said...

Interesting. I have those same initial thoughts about Ashtanga yoga. Now that I am 42 years old, I think it is much too athletic for me to start. Do you agree?
Oh, and I love your blog. I was about to say column.:) You are so honest and frank.

Kaivalya said...

I disagree that 42 is too late to start Ashtanga. I'm about to turn 38 and I was 40lbs overweight and not in the best of shape when I started. However, it's not a practice that you can do once a week and expect to see fabulous results. As in anything, to build strength, you need to be consistent and disciplined.

Michelle said...

You were 40 lbs overweight? Hard to believe. You're a skinny minnie now. Or shall I say a skinny musclie.

Yogini said...

i really enjoy your blog. a great inspiration!

Rachelle said...

Thank you for answering my question about "reluctant". You write about people injuring themselves, which is a big problem. As you know I came to this practice because of severe chronic shoulder pain; reading Beryl Benders book where she asserts that if you do this practice (every day) you lose your pains and pain of old injuries (which I had in the knee and ankle too). Well I thought I have nothing to lose but try and see if it is true what she says. It is. My pain is almost completely gone, and starts coming back only when I stop practising for about 2 - 3 weeks. But I have to admit that I am worried about hurting myself doing this practice, the last thing I need now is an injury... and even when trying to do my best I can't be sure that my alignment is correct...

Kaivalya said...

Rachelle: Be cautious and listen to your body closely - like it's a beloved friend who you would never hurt. That's the policy I used for years in my Hatha yoga practice and I've used it in my Ashtanga practice too. And I've *never* injured myself doing yoga. In classes, I speak up right away if the teacher wants to adjust me. I make sure that he/she knows that I want subtle adjustments and like to do things 'on my own.' If something hurts in a class, I back off right away. It sounds like you're doing everything right in your yoga practice. As long as you're moving away from pain, you're doing the right thing for your body. (Discomfort, however, is something different. I should blog about this, because it's been on my mind...)