The Magic of Ashtanga Yoga

A few years ago ‘Girls Can Blog’ wrote a fascinating article ‘Why I broke up with Ashtanga’… It’s honest, emotional and raw. img_5865 The other day I saw it posted again on a social media page for a person I know who apparently has broken up with ashtanga too. This provoked a bout of introspection for me.  (Also worthy of note that anytime any of us has broken up with anyone or anything there’s a period of utter contempt and dissatisfaction that was necessary to create the break.)  It is a rare trait indeed for a person to say simply ‘this no longer serves me, although it once did, and I am moving in a new direction, with love.’   Instead we often rage at the situation, often creating regrettable circumstances, only later becoming peaceful and compassionate with our own evolution.

The referenced article is located here: Why I stopped Practicing Ashtanga

The post begins with a simple introduction related to the author’s dedication to yoga, ashtanga specifically, to having been through a teacher training, marrying a male yogi and to being vegetarian then vegan.  It’s the quintessential checklist for ‘things a yoga student might do’.   And a lot of it, if it being done for reasons other than ‘this is sustainable and healthy for me’ is basically neither.

The author’s first subject heading states that specifically Ashtanga Yoga is a relationship outside of your relationship, designed to be a distraction from, presumably, interpersonal issues one might be avoiding.  However my first heading would be:

Ashtanga Yoga is a Quiet, Internal Practice, which uses a series of foci to help the student become an observer of the inner state… 

A nice illustration of Patthabi Jois method, thanks to Boonchu

The Mysore method is decidedly different than some other methods which I feel are more externally focused.  Those may have trendy playlists, a charismatic teacher giving oratory, a teacher calling poses and cues, but do share the movement to the breath, the sense of shared energy and community.  The Mysore method allows the student to take responsibility for learning the sequence, asana, count and dristi… so that the practice becomes the teacher and the teacher teaches the practice.  Most of us who regularly practice have experienced that the sensations we experience on the mat are very often strong indicators for how we show up in life, especially as it relates to how we show up in increasingly challenging situations.  Part of the magic that occurs is we begin to nurture ‘the observer’ within us.  We start to simply observe the sensations as we learn to not be bullied by them.  Overall there is a calming, and a developing sense of compassion that extends beyond the mat.  I think for me, if it was not this way, I wouldn’t be coming back.  There was a time I loved a variety of lead classes, and where I really connected to the chosen lesson a teacher might be weaving in, but ultimately I find the voice inside to be the one that is most compelling.

My teacher Marsha, owner of Balance Yoga Atlanta

( I need to add that I find attending my teacher’s weekly lead primary to be critically important in my learning to pace my breathing in a way that helps me bring better tempo to my Mysore practice)

In the next three sections the author discusses how many days a week one exercises, how to handle injuries, and anorexia.

Coming from a sports background I can say first hand that the level of intensity and energy a person expends on exercise are both highly individualized and extremely baffling. A fun day for me in summer in college consisted of riding my bike to play soccer, running 3 miles between games, swimming a mile, then hopefully hooking up with friends for some water skiing.  And it was fairly common for me for many years to run, then do any other activity.  Hours and hours per day.  I enjoyed this level of activity.  My point is that Ashtanga is recommended to be practiced 22 out of 28 days (One rest day per week, and one moon day every other week.  Less for ladies holiday).  However I have heard several qualified teachers advise their students to listen to their own bodies.  I would add ‘check your motives’ as to why you practice less or more.

I have certainly had injuries.  In everything I have ever done.  In fact it was a series of painful running injuries that initiated my  movement into yoga, which I misunderstood to be radical stretching.

Usually injuries are attributable to violating one of the following:  Did I go too far, too fast, too soon?  Or the other — did I go for ‘one more’ after knowing I was already tired?  I have found the same rule applies no matter what.  However, recently I developed a muscle spasm at work.  The type that takes your breath away.  I showed up for practice, and my teacher worked with me closely to help me experience what  felt therapeutic, and what did not.  I also saw a masseuse, and a chiropractor twice.  My practice was very limited, and we discovered I needed some additional stretching in another area, so we incorporated some new poses into my daily practice. Slow, thoughtful, compassionate, deliberate yoga therapy.  I healed up without exacerbating my injury, and learned a new benefit to the daily practice and deeper meaning to the idea of ahimsa and how we practice.

With respect to anorexia, it is a disease, very similar to addiction, and requires outside intervention.  I suppose the author may have been referencing the solar aspect to the practice, and people other than me have lost weight, but I have not.  There are times I sincerely wish this would kick in.  On the other hand, I genuinely feel for all my fellow souls suffering from active addictions — and am here to both assist and hold space as they come to terms with and then are released from the disease. (See ‘outside issues’… below)  Once a person has had adequate treatment, then there are amazing benefits from practice, and truly innovative programs like Taylor Hunt’s Trini Foundation which can boost recovery rates substantially.

Next, the author takes on some of my favorite subjects! Chakra balancing, the rabbit hole of ashtanga, about living in isolation, and my favorite kindness to self.

With respect to chakra balancing — it really doesn’t matter whether you’re a believer in the subtle body, the nadis, the meridian system… If it exists, it will exist without your approval.  Yet, in all my studies, increasingly there is merit for their existence.  And with respect to chakras, I have heard it said, and I utilize this philosophy:  One can bring balance to the chakras simply by bringing one’s attention to them.  Additionally, if one is so inclined, one can use sound, or light, too.  So really, the idea of signing and chanting does have the necessary intention to help restore the subtle energy body to balance.

Not living in isolation.  Part of a community; Sangha

I suppose the rabbit hole of ashtanga is a thing, it’s just not a thing I have ever heard of.  So I will leave that alone.
With respect to living in isolation, I have to say one’s level of isolation is a choice, hopefully based upon their needs.  Personally, I am an introvert, but have training to take care of people, and so have developed skills as an extrovert, yet it is not my nature.  My Meyers – Briggs is INFP, but I can also test as an ENFP.  I prefer a calm comfortable home life.  I prefer anything over the mall.  I don’t like traffic. I do love a festival, however, and live music. In my work life I literally spend ALL DAY connecting with and engaging with people and trying to give them

Get out and have fun.  Carry the message that your practice makes you happier and a better person.  Unless it doesn’t in which case I challenge you to find something which does.

direct hands on care, which is quite draining.  I look forward to finding the pathway to myself each day as I take practice.  And, in contrast from running, where I often looked forward to getting outside my head space, I have found immensely therapeutic value in actually listening and observing the thinking as I move through the series.

If you have an outside issue, seek outside help.

A million times: YES.  Although there are cases I am sure where the practice of yoga leads to epiphany and miraculous transformation, if a person is suffering from a serious problem and expecting a quick cure, I am going to have to say – use your yoga practice as an adjunct, to give you space and time to grow as you navigate issues like addiction, eating disorders, PTSD, and relationship / social disorders.  There are so many useful healing modalities these days.  Make use of them.


I recently read an article in which the author proposed NO ONE participate in seated meditation because a) he had been using it to avoid dealing with a relationship issue for 9 years, and the b) his teacher suggested the physical practice was a meditation.  As an independent and intuitive person, I took my red flag and began to ask others about this.  My conclusion was this:  Never in the history of humankind has a person become a worse person by engaging in peaceful seated meditation.  Not only that, even Patanjali states one of the reasons FOR yoga practice is to prepare the student FOR meditation.  So, just because YOU have a relationship issue and used your meditative practice to AVOID doing your inner work, it’s not okay for you to put your trauma on me.  Boundary set.

The next section was about the method of getting a certification.  

If a student becomes proficient at the primary and

That’s Sharath calling a primary in Miami, and my green, sweaty shirt. He is a really nice man.

intermediate series and wants the KPJAYI credentials – the process isn’t terrible.  You need a letter of recommendation from an authorized teacher, and then need to spend a month with Sharath.  It may take a couple trips and a couple of years.

On the other hand, Manju Jois, Pattabhi actual son offers teacher trainings, as does Tim Miller (the FIRST authorized teacher) and so does David Swenson.  You can study with Richard Freeman, David Williams, the list goes on and on.  There are many paths and not all are KPJAYI.  You get to choose.

It’s really not that complicated.  If you want a certificate, go get a teacher training.

In addition to a regular practice with my teacher, Marsha, I am developing the habit of spending 4 weeks a year with Tim Miller.  I recently completed his primary series teacher training.

Practice ashtanga IF it calls to you.  Then go see a life time teacher who offers trainings.  The thing about ashtanga is it takes you years to learn to teach it well — be humble enough to be the student.  Take your time, ‘Why Hurrying?’… Oh I know, it’s America.  We go too far, too fast, too soon, and wanna make bank.  If you want to go to Mysore every year and study with Sharath, then do that.  You have choices.  You’re not a slave to anything.  Be your own damn self.

Regarding the Arbitrary Nature of the evolution of tradition…

It’s now called KPJAYI not the original Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute. Notably absent is the term research.  It seems Pattabhi was a bit of a tinkerer.

In fact, Encinitas yogis are the reason that the revolved positions of triangle and extended side angle are in the primary.  How about that lift up after utkatasana?  Yeah that was put in there the day before they filmed the original video.   The joke was that Pattabhi would change things based on what felt right  but then never admit he’d changed anything — he was actually doing research, and making changes based upon what seemed best for the most.  It’s possible with the many people who now go to Mysore that it is necessary to stick to the script of primary, intermediate, third and fourth (which used to be advanced A and B).

Once you have established a relationship with your teacher, then you together can cater a practice that is more specific to you, your body, your needs and your abilities.

As far as teaching yoga being a profession… 

I don’t really know what to say.  I know few artists or musicians who went into it for the money and then made big money.  What even is that?  A career in yoga will be one that’s rich in experiential living, filled with devotion, a loving community, and maybe, just maybe the kind of financial prosperity embodied by Lakshmi, which is one of abundance, but never wretched excess.  If a yoga teacher is not coming from a place of love, perhaps it’s best not to trust them when you’re in a vulnerable place, like a yoga practice.

I say, follow your bliss.  And if you do follow your bliss, you fill find open doorways where previously none existed (paraphrasing Joseph Campbell).

Lastly, it’s okay to break up with anyone, anytime.  Ultimately the reason is ‘because I want to’.  Let’s allow others to evolve to grow, to change and to change their minds based upon increased knowledge and awareness.  Let’s bring relief to the suffering and compassion to all.  And let’s include ourselves in that.



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