Sometimes, Ashtanga Yoga has a bad reputation. When I mention that I taught Ashtanga for over twenty years, I often see people recoil in something resembling terror. They may have witnessed pretzel-like postures or heard of grueling six-days-a-week practice or trips to South India for crowded 4 a.m. classes. Yes, Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga is an intense practice, and it tends to attract people who are somewhat driven. You have to have a certain amount of passion to get on your mat each morning and sweat through a self-directed hour and a half of postures and actually enjoy the practice of Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga. But I’d like to clarify a few points, because Ashtanga sometimes takes a bad rap where it’s not deserved. Here are a few of the more common ones you may have heard:
Myth #1: You need to be young, fit and flexible to practice Ashtanga.
This idea has always baffled me. Do I need to already know how to hit a tennis ball before I take tennis lessons? Isn’t the point of a practice to learn the thing you are practicing? You start where you are, then grow and transform along the way. If you can breathe, you can do Ashtanga yoga.
Myth #2: Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga is thousands of years old.
It’s important to distinguish Ashtanga Yoga from Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga. The former is the classical path of yoga as outlined in the Yoga Sutras and is thousands of years old.
Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga is a system of practice originally created by Pattabhi Jois, derived from his studies under his teacher Krishnamacharya in the 1920s and 30s. Ashtanga Vinyasa is distinguished from other forms of hatha yoga by three signature elements: dristi (incorporating specific gazing points during the yoga practice), bandha (internal awareness points) and ujayi pranayama (a deliberate, steady breathing technique). These three alone can consume a lot of mental bandwidth, but then pair these with the sometimes radical postures in the Ashtanga Vinyasa series, and you have the makings of an intensely robust practice.
Myth #3: You must practice 6 days a week.
Yes, the protocol set by Pattabhi Jois was 6 days a week, minus moon days. But the fact is, things get in the way. Life happens, relationships happen, people travel and get sick and have crises and die. If it’s not possible for you to practice 6 days a week, then you practice when and how you can.
Myth #4: Ashtanga is about purifying the body or getting physically fit.
I asked Pattabhi Jois years ago, “If Ashtanga is for purifying the body, how do we purify the mind?”
He said “Ashtanga yoga is for purifying mind.”
I wondered, if Ashtanga is about mind purification, then why do we emphasize the body so much? Next time I saw him, I asked, “Why so much emphasis on the body? Why don’t we teach the other seven limbs of Ashtanga yoga?”
“Asana is the door, then discover the other limbs of yoga, as outlined in the Yoga Sutras,” he said.
So the physical postures are the convenient entryway into the path of yoga.
Myth #5: A flexible body or ability to do a fancy yoga posture means you are more enlightened.
There is a misconception that physical prowess in Ashtanga means a more advanced view. Nothing could be further from the truth. The physical postures and focus on breathing in an Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga help clear the subtle channels so that the mind can rest. While developing a healthy physical body can encourage this process, it is entirely possible to clear the subtle channels through other means. There are plenty of enlightened masters in India and Tibet who have never in their lives done a sun salutation. I’ve also seen fantastic feats performed at Cirque de Soleil. A beautiful body has nothing to do with spiritual enlightenment.
Myth #6: Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga is a substitute for meditation practice.
While it is not a substitute, it is a fantastic preparation. In order to learn to settle the mind in meditation, it helps settle the subtle body by clearing away blockages in the subtle energy channels. This can be done through breathing exercises, specifically the ujayi pranayama that is part of the Ashtanga yoga system.
Ashtanga in Sanskrit means eight limbs, and asana is just one of those limbs. Asana, or posture, at least from the Yoga Sutra point of view, means the posture of meditation. Popularization of yoga in the West has expanded this term to include all the physical poses found in yoga studios these days. But essentially, yoga is about learning to meditate by preparing the system, and then guiding the mind to stillness.
Myth #7: The best Ashtanga teachers are the ones who have the most advanced practices.
Teaching is an art, and it is important to find a teacher you resonate with. A great teacher is empathetic, compassionate and looks out for a student’s best interest while conveying their understanding of the practice. Just because someone is able to perform difficult physical postures does not necessarily make them a wise or kind human being. Kindness trumps knowledge any day, in my book.
Myth #8: You must practice early in the morning.
For the first few years, I practiced only in the evenings. I worked during the day, so evenings were when I could practice. Because I live in the mountains where mornings are cold, I still prefer practicing in the early evening.
Myth #9: Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga is the same as Power Yoga.
Read Pattabhi Jois’ own words on the subject, from Yoga Journal, Dec 1995: “The title “Power Yoga” itself degrades the depth, purpose, and method of the yoga system that I received from my guru, Sri T. Krishnamacharya. Power is the property of God. It is not something to be collected for one’s ego. Partial yoga methods out of line with their internal purpose can build up the 6 enemies, desire, anger, greed, illusion, infatuation and envy, around the heart. The full Ashtanga system practiced with devotion leads to freedom within one’s heart.
The Ashtanga yoga system should never be confused with Power Yoga or any whimsical creation which goes against the tradition of the many types of yoga scriptures. It would be a shame to lose the precious jewel of liberation in the mud of ignorant body building.
Myth #10: The harder you work, the more results you will see.
Yoga is about finding balance between opposite extremes in order to settle the mind in a state of equipoise. Approached with sensitivity and wisdom, Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga is such an incredibly powerful tool to help calm the mind and tune the body. But like anything, if we take things too literally, or use too much force, there is a risk of becoming dogmatic and losing the essence of the teaching. Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga is one of the best ways I know to help you develop a routine of self-discipline and eventually your own daily yoga and meditation practice. If you’ve been wondering about Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga, find an experienced teacher and give it a try.
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