“If you want to be near God, turn your mind toward God, and practice Yoga.”
– Sri K. Pattabhi Jois1
In my last post on yoga, I discussed the beginning of my yoga journey and some of what keeps me on that path today. Today I will delve into the specific system I follow, Ashtanga. As R. Sharath Jois says, “there is only one Yoga”2, and it is as old as the universe. But there are many lineages, and Ashtanga is one such that has been passed down since antiquity. It is a physical and philosophical system for attaining the one Yoga – the knowledge of consciousness. Ashtanga means “eight limbs”, referring to the eight branches that make up that practitioner’s approach to life. They are the five external limbs: Yama (moral code for living), Niyama (personal discipline), Asana (physical practice), Pranayama (breath control), and Pratyahara (discipline of the senses); and three internal limbs: Dharana (concentration), Dhyana (meditation), and Samadhi (self realization).3 The system of Ashtanga widely practiced today uses Asana as an avenue to all the other limbs – we will see later how that actually works.
Now that I have hit you with enough terminology to make your head(stand) spin, let’s rewind to when I discovered Ashtanga in 2010. I had re-initiated my yoga practice in the lead-up to the Gobi March4 the year before, and had committed to continuing with it after the event. I was doing Kest’s Power 2 and eventually Power 3 a few times a week, and had started to add more advanced routines such as Shiva Rhea’s Yoga Shakti. Then I stumbled on a video on my girlfriend’s computer that was under the folder “Difficult Yoga”, called “David Swenson – Ashtanga Yoga – The First Series”.
In the first five minutes of the video, the hooks were in. Swenson, then in his mid-40s, performs a yoga exhibition, floating from down dog to hand stand, to lotus in hand stand, to a split, all with ease and calm (check it out here). This was well beyond anything else I had encountered, and immediately I wanted to see what had led to someone having such strength and flexibility at that age. I watched the remainder of the video intently. I encourage everyone to watch the introduction (after the exhibition) of this video because in about 20 minutes he introduces most of the important aspects of the physical practice of Ashtanga – Ujjayi breath, the energy locks Mula Bandha and Uddiyana Bandha, the Sun Salutations on which the entire practice is built, and Vinyasa – all of which and more I will go into to detail in upcoming posts.
I then decided to give the full practice a try and had a similar experience to doing Kest the first time back at age 15 – profuse sweating, muscular exhaustion about half way through – but yet, no desire to give up. The challenge and my ego brought me back for more in the following weeks. I rotated this video in with others with varying frequency until after a couple years I finally decided to go in to a real studio and make it a bigger part of my life. With the wisdom of further experience (and a couple of largely avoidable injuries) I now know that, while Swenson is an excellent guide, learning from a video was the wrong approach. For those new to Ashtanga and interested in practicing it, go to a certified teacher5 – they will take you through the practice at the appropriate pace, starting with only the Sun Salutations, adding the standing and finishing sequences, and finally the Primary Series, one pose at a time. Doing this will most importantly save you from your ego, which will want to tackle more than it can handle. Four years after first trying this practice, and 15 months after practicing under a dedicated teacher, I am still a blue belt – practicing the Primary Series (there are six total), and finding new depths and challenges in it every day.
Now that I have covered how this practice entered my life, let’s briefly cover what it is within my everyday reality. Ashtanga is:
– A daily asana practice, specifically all weekdays and Sundays except for new moon and full moon days; Saturdays are rest days. I do three days at Mysore Tokyo (Mysore classes are at the practitioner’s pace but with assistance and occasional instruction from the teachers) and two or three days at home, depending on whether there is a moon holiday or not
– Daily asana is a four-part practice consisting of: Sun Salutations, a standing sequence, a seated Primary Series, and a finishing sequence6
– The standing sequence consists of 18 standing postures held for 5 breaths each, Primary Series is 26 seated postures held 5 breaths each, and finishing sequence is 14 seated or inverted postures held between 8 and 20 breaths with a final rest pose (Savasana) held for five or more minutes – the standard practice is about 90 minutes long including Savasana, but mine is around 100 minutes due to holding some of the finishing poses longer at the instruction of my teacher7
– Concentration throughout the day via engaging Mula Bandha
– Ujjayi meditation before bed
– As Sharath says, yoga happens all day, even in sleep, but not sure I am quite there yet!
With the how and what covered, in the coming weeks I will get into the deeper topic of why I keep this infinite practice in my life:
Every day a challenge
Every day a prayer
Every day a life lived
4 I credit this event as the first catalyst to reawaken my earlier passions in life and set me on the course to the path I follow today.
5 If there isn’t one in your vicinity, try contacting the one closest to you and ask whether they can recommend someone in your area, or advise you remotely
6 The Sun Salutations are an excellent way to build strength, flexibility, and discipline into your day in less than 10 minutes: http://youtu.be/jQmT2yogtI4
7 See the practice in its strictest form here, led by Sri K. Pattabhi Jois http://youtu.be/aUgtMaAZzW0
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