ARTICLE: Starting An Ashtanga Practice
Ashtanga can seem both elusive and exclusive, as if it were only for the very hip, the very flexible, and the very strong. Yet seasoned practitioners extol its therapeutic, transformative value. So which is it? And how does one cross the threshold to learn this complex practice that you are expected to do alone? YogaCity NYC Anneke Lucas asked five people why they began doing Ashtanga, how they learned it, and what they continue to receive from it.
In 1980 I saw Norman Allen– the first westerner to learn the entire Ashtanga vinyasa asana series - do a short demonstration of the advanced series: I was quite impressed. I had been teaching Sivananda yoga, the most vigorous system going back then, with Iyengar influence. ‘This is yoga?’ I thought to myself. ‘I have to learn this!’ I told Norman I wanted to study with him.
“Okay, 5:30 in the morning, 24 days a month. Six months minimum. If you miss a day; you’re out. Yes or no - no pressure.”
My eyes were wide as saucers! I was a little spaced out after some years in Southern California and the Rocky Mountains. But I felt as if had come home. The next morning I arrived at the old butter factory on Duane Street, and Norman said: “Beryl. Hi, come on in, you sit, you watch.”
Two people were practicing, and I sat there, for twenty minutes, looking around, fidgeting and thinking ‘Okay, what about me?’ An hour and a half passed, the students picked up their mats and left, and Norman looked at me and said:
“Ah, yes. Thank you very much, you come back tomorrow.”
I left feeling totally dejected! The next day I was greeted the same way: “Oh Beryl, you’re here. Good. Welcome. You come. You sit. You watch.”
An hour and a half went by, the students left and Norman told me to come back the next day. I thought: ‘I can play this game! There’s no way I’m going to give up on this!’ The next day I decided, since I’d been meditating since 1971, that I’d sit in full lotus, so Norman would see what an advanced yogi I was! After about 20 minutes I was in terrible pain, sweat was pouring down my face, and Norman didn’t even notice. But I kept coming, and started to pay attention to what the students were doing. One day I just surrendered, and that day Norman said: “Beryl, you put your mat down here; you practice.”
I did three Surya Namaskar As, and then he told me to lie down and take rest, and to “Come back tomorrow.”
I was drawn to Ashtanga for the beauty of the athleticism. In sports, sweating happens involuntarily: the respiration and heart rate go up so you start to sweat, but with ashtanga yoga you turn on the sweating mechanism while keeping the respiration and heart rate slow. The practice leads you into more subtle levels of awareness. Patanjali regarded asana as simply practice for meditation. In this tradition, you do pranayama along with the asana, training the mind to concentrate and pay attention, and then you begin to transform. Attention drives transformation.
When I was 16, I developed Bulimia. It was a means to manage stress and control parts of my life that were uncomfortable, be it emotions, relationships, puberty, etc. As the disease became more prevalent, I became more disconnected from my body and spirit, making activities like running or yoga a competition within myself, further injuring my confidence and self-esteem. Though my days were spent indulging the addiction, I managed to continue to function in society. I held a job, showed up to social engagements etc., but was not truly engaged with my life. I went into therapy to treat the eating disorder, and continued the yoga practice. I loved the structure of the classes, and later found out that the power yoga I had been doing was ashtanga-inspired.
Shortly after my 26th birthday, in 2007, I began the actual Ashtanga practice. This is when things changed: this was more healing than any talk therapy or food counseling. I managed to cultivate a compassionate discipline with myself and reconnect with my body and spirit. I love the fact that Ashtanga offers support in its consistency: this allows for a feeling of control as well as a sense of discovery and excitement. I developed a sense of esteem and confidence I never had before.
I continue to practice daily at AYNY, and founded Sangha Yoga Shala so I can create a space to offer this kind of compassionate discipline and share this perspective with others. I teach from my experience, and love inviting students to use the practice to reconnect with the beauty within themselves, with both the light and the dark.
In 1999, I’d been practicing yoga at Jivamukti, and didn’t really plan to start an Ashtanga practice, but since I was involved in projects with Sharon Gannon and David Life at the studio, it was only possible to practice early in the morning, when Mysore ashtanga was offered. Prior to that, Ashtanga had been elusive to me. I respected it and thought it was incredibly beautiful, but felt that I couldn’t personally do it.
When I started the Mysore practice by default, it was like instant combustion! I loved the silence during practice, which I felt I really needed in NYC. It was clearly what I had been looking for many, many, years, and after four months I was on my way to India to practice with Sri K. Patthabi Jois. He made me realize that I could grow into and grow with Ashtanga instead of just aspire to get it right. He gave me the sense of being completely supported in the way he adjusted the poses, and loved.
Fed up listening to silly little dharma talks in New York classes, I felt a need to return to one of the sources of yoga to find out what it was really about - not the American style version. In 1998 I went to Mysore, to Pattabhi Jois’ shala. But when I attended the afternoon talk, I felt that I was at a Brown College reunion, with all Americans in REI jackets sitting around listening to their Guruji. So I left and found another Ashtanga teacher in Mysore - the other Mr. Iyengar - B.N.S. - also a student of Krishnamacharya. Class began at 5:45am. Mr. Iyengar took us into a tiny room since we weren’t allowed to practice in the main room, where the masters did their practice. He then asked us questions like: “Why does the dog breathe 20 times a minute? “A dog breathes 80 times a minute and lives for maybe 15 years. A turtle breathes 4 times a minute and lives about 200. Regulate your breathing!”
He then pulled out this old piece of paper with the poses on it and made us do them. If we did something wrong, he hit us with a stick. My fellow student was a drug addict trying to quit heroin, so he didn’t mind much. After we learned the poses, we moved up to the next room - we still didn't make it to the main room – very few Westernerns ever did. But I learned how much bigger yoga was than just asana. Or as Mr. Iyengar said: “mudra, asana, pranayama, kriya, sutra study, it is all yoga.”
In 1993, my sister Erika wanted me to practice Ashtanga when I visited her in Santa Fe, but I was reluctant – I had been studying Iyengar– but when I finally began it I realized Ashtanga was the form I wanted to practice. Traditional led classes have a strong focus on the breath, and I found that to be very helpful. Phattabi Jois always said Ashtanga was based on the eight limbs of the Yoga Sutra, and I find this holistic, integrated approach to yoga very compelling. And of course there is Guruji, and he was very compelling to me.
During Guruji’s afternoon talk on my first trip to Mysore, I asked him if we should study the Yoga Sutra. He answered it was difficult -- we should start with the Bhagavad Gita, then the Sutras would be easier. He sent me to Narayanacharya, and we’d chant and discuss the Gita each day. There were just about three or four students, and he gave us so much every day, for years, until he passed. He was completely unassuming, a quaint little old man, and after his death I found out he had been an important teacher in India: he was the preceptor for the third great Vedanta teacher after Shankaracharya.
Some believe that ashtanga is only for the young and athletic, and some will even say that it was designed for 15 year old boys and not meant for older people, and unfortunately lots of Westerners have gotten injured doing Ashtanga in a way it was not meant to be practiced. However, if you asked Guruji, he said asana and pranayama practice is for everyone, even the extremely elderly and the debilitated. When Guruji finished his studies with Krishnamacharya, his final exam was to heal a sick person. There is the art form aspect of Ashtanga, but it is secondary to the therapeutic. Krishnamacharya’s teachings bring the yoga to the people and not the people to the yoga.
-- Anneke Lucas