Mired in misconception
Whenever people ask me what type of yoga I practice, they respond with awe and a little bit of trepidation when they hear ‘ashtanga’. They usually say something about what an intense practice it is, and how long the sequence is or how they would never be able to remember all of it. I’m always puzzled by how ashtanga has become so mired in misconception. Maybe it has to do with all the jump backs and jump throughs, or how hard some of the postures look, or maybe it’s the Instagram personality cults of chiseled bodies and discipline-minded posts.
But ashtanga is not what many people think it is. Ashtanga is open to everyone, and at least for me, an immensely fulfilling way to practice yoga.
In a way, I was lucky to have stumbled into this world. For years I’d been vaguely interested in the possibilities that yoga offered, and had my eye on the yoga studio walking distance from my home in Australia for months before I dared to venture in. Turns out it was an ashtanga yoga studio, which didn’t intimidate me at the time because I had no idea what that meant.
My very first class consisted only of learning to pay attention to my breath – this thing we cannot live without yet pay so little attention to. I was introduced to ujjayi breathing, that whispery oceanic way of controlling the breath which is a stalwart of the ashtanga yoga method. It felt unnatural to breathe like that, but it also felt good to suddenly look to a part of myself I never had before. In the second half of the class, I was introduced to surya namaskar A, and did so many sun salutations I thought my arms were going to drop off and I’d never want to come back.
But then I did, again and again, and have not regretted it once.
I have a stiff body – before I started practicing yoga, I’d never been able to even touch my toes as an adult. I’m also not inherently strong, and because I am an introvert I’ve always found group strength training scary and unachievable.
Ashtanga has been a godsend for me. It’s private in a way, as although you practice in a studio with others you do your own thing, at your own pace in the Mysore room, and are taught never to compare yourself with others (the monkey mind, it doth wander). I also love that it’s incremental. While the full primary series flows through a sequence of over 45 postures over the course of a 1.5-hour practice, you learn one pose at a time. Your teacher only shows you the next pose in the sequence once they think you’ve got enough of a handle on the last one. This gives you the time and space to commit the sequence to memory. It also means you build your strength, flexibility and stamina over time.
It may seem boring to keep doing the same poses but trust me, every day is different. Some days you feel like you’re flying, other days your eyes and mind dart everywhere but towards your own practice. Following a fixed sequence means there’s no escape. You do the postures you’re good at, as well as the ones you dread (here’s looking at you, urdhva dhanurasana). Over time you do develop discipline, but the beauty of it is that it has to come from within.
I always tell people that if I can practice ashtanga, anyone can. There are no prerequisites. All it takes is a willingness to learn and an open heart. And who knows, it could change your life. It certainly changed mine.
Kirat Kaur is an editorial manager working in the finance industry. She has been practicing at Ashtanga Yoga Nilayam for 3 years.