Ashtanga 101: Welcome to Ashtanga

Here’s the truth: Starting an Ashtanga practice is hard. Yoga is often misrepresented as being all happy feelings and pretty asanas, or my personal favorite “relaxing.”  But the fact is that getting serious about your practice is a challenging endeavor. The thing is, though, that that’s the case with starting anything new. It makes us feel awkward and frustrated and challenged. Starting something new is a struggle.

A big part of an Ashtanga practice is learning to honor the struggle.

Unfortunately, the struggle is a hard sell. Yoga is sold as a feel-good, relaxing experience, when the truth is that a daily Ashtanga practice will make you work. There will be a lot of difficult steps along the way and there will probably be days that you don’t want to practice.

The benefits of an Ashtanga practice, though, far outweigh the struggles that they grow from. If you engage wholeheartedly, your practice will change you – first it will change your body, then it will change your mind, and then it will change your behavior. And that’s when it starts to change your life.

Strictly speaking, an Ashtanga asana practice is six asana sequences that are practiced with prescribed drishti, breath, and duration, and a pranayama sequence that is equally well defined.

When you start an Ashtanga practice in the Mysore setting, you start small. You don’t need to have all of primary memorized, in face you don’t have to have any yoga experience at all. You don’t have to be flexible or strong — your body will change with practice. Trust that you’ll get there.

When I first introduce a new student to the Ashtanga practice I explain it to them the “bookends”. Each day, you start with sun salutations and the end with the last three seated postures. These are the bookends. They’ll always be how you start and finish your practice, but what will change over time is what happens in between them.

Your teacher will show you the postures one by one. When you come to practice, repeat the practice that you have been taught; when you get to the last pose you know, go to your finishing postures. It might seem tedious sometimes, and it might look like you are doing the same practice every day, but it’s never quite the same. If you go through all you know every single day, you’ll get to know it that much better in both your body and your mind. The body changes with every single practice as well as with every day, and week, and month. In fact, this is one of the most important philosophical concepts we learn — that nothing in this material world is permanent. Don’t expect it to be the same every day, but rather observe the change without attachment or negativity. Part of the practice is being ready each day to work with the changing nature of your body.

The repetition that is built into the practice lends itself to transformation. You will quickly begin to feel more comfortable and proficient in the postures. You will begin to notice how the body changes from day to day. Importantly, the repetition of postures also provides us with the opportunity to not only recognize our habits, but also to change them. And then as soon as you begin to get more comfortable, a new pose will be introduced.

Initially, your practice will be short. It’s a steep learning curve and things change quickly at first. Plan on 45 minutes to an hour for your first practice. In the Mysore room, it's an open format, so arrive based on when you want to leave. If you have to be on your way to work at 8:00 and your practice takes 45 minutes, plan to start no later than 7:15. Regardless of how much time you have, though, the absolute most important thing is that you make it to your mat. This can be for five minutes or forty-five. But if you have a jam-packed day, a shorter yoga practice is always better than none.

Don’t worry about what you can’t do. If you can’t do a pose or if you forget a sequence, it’s all part of the growing process. Begin the practice of listening to your body, rest when you need to rest, and keep going.

The most important thing to do in your practice is breathe. Movement always follows the breath, and finding breath consistently throughout the practice will help you cultivate a greater ease in your practice. Try to worry less about what your pose looks like — instead, continually check in with your breath. Breath is the foundation for everything — it’s a constant in our lives from beginning to end. Over the years postures will come and go, but the breath will be something we do until we die.

Don’t be afraid to ask questions if you don’t remember what pose is next or when sensations come up in your body — a good teacher (or teachers) will support your practice and encourage you to ask questions. Communication with your teachers will become paramount to your development, so start practicing now. And remember that the teachers are here to support you.

If you don’t have a teacher available to you, there are lots of good resources online. You should follow the same guidelines: Show up consistently five or six days a week, gradually add poses of the primary series, try to achieve a level of ease in the pose, and continually check in with your breath. You don’t have to do all your poses for it to be considered a practice, and you’ll learn to recognize when less is more. Your practice should leave you feeling energized, not drained.

If you’re like most people, you will be sore from practice. The best thing to do, even though it might feel unnatural, is to keep practicing. A common early mistake is to rest every time you’re sore, but this tends to perpetuate the cycle of soreness. If you show up more frequently but do less, this will allow your body to adapt to experience less soreness in the future and will give you the opportunity to better understand your discomfort.

Try to be consistent with a practice time and set a routine to help you make it to your mat. Showing up is the hardest part — it’s much easier to keep going than it is to get started.

And remember, always be compassionate to yourself. Practice loving kindness on you. No one said this would be easy. But I promise that with the right attitude and guidance, this practice is for everyone. You don’t have to be flexible or strong or fit or young or skinny. You just have to be open to change.


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