Up until last year, I’d had very limited experience of Ashtanga yoga – I’d been to one class and had watched a few Youtube clips. I was not a fan. However, over the last few months, Ashtanga yoga has somehow seeped into my life, and I’ve worked my way up to a six-day per week Primary Series practice. One of the best things has been in the number of ways this daily practice has proved me wrong! These are 3 of my misconceptions…
- In Ashtanga, you need to perform advanced asanas perfectly
My first Ashtanga class felt competitive and almost aggressive. I really wanted to like it, and to like it I thought I had to be “good” at it. I was so attached to the idea of achieving the perfect asana that when I couldn’t, I got frustrated. I looked around the class and saw others flowing through their vinyasas and seemingly effortlessly moving into postures I found painful just to watch. I wondered how the hell I was doing so badly, and strangely enough, I found an excuse not to go back the next week!
I now realise that the competitiveness and desire for perfection came from me. No one in that class told me that I had to perform each pose fully, perfectly, or even attempt it at all if it was beyond my capabilities. The aggressive attitude was fuelled not by the teacher or the style of yoga, but my own ego. I wasn’t willing to allow myself to be a beginner. Once I let go of the desire to do it “well” and just focused on the process of moving towards each asana, I found it to be a very different experience.
- Ashtanga hurts
Two years ago, doing a workout programme called Insanity (not an ironic name, as it turned out!), I injured my lower back, which caused chronic pain. Lots of nerve irritation and muscles in spasm did not go well with trying to force myself into the forward bends of the Primary Series during that first Ashtanga class, and I spent most of the class and the week after it in agony.
I realise now that the increased pain was not caused by Ashtanga but by my approach to it. I was trying to push through and ignore painful sensations. So when I tried it again, I went back to basics. I carefully, taught myself the asanas one at a time and valued the correct alignment more than going deeply into postures. In the process I learnt about my body – what worsened the back pain and what helped. I tried to lengthen, rather than bend into forward folds. I learnt the importance of strengthening and engaging my core, and found that hip openers greatly relieved the tightness in my lower back. I am still learning, but my pain is significantly reduced, despite the fact I am doing more physical activity than ever.
- Ashtanga is boring
When I first realised that Ashtangis do the same sequence of postures every time they practise, I couldn’t think of anything worse. I crave variety and change, and the thought of doing the same thing every single day seemed mind-numbingly dull. Even once I decided to give Ashtanga another try, I wasn’t keen on repeating it every day. I wanted to avoid those asanas that didn’t feel good and spend more time playing with the ones I could do.
But what I experimented with was just noticing those thoughts, and then continuing with my practice anyway. I found physical and mental strength in the discipline of not following my thought patterns into altered behaviour. And I began to tune into the subtle differences in my experience and the sensations of the asanas each day. When I did this, my practice became anything but monotonous. Every session is unique, and following the same series of asanas allows me to be more sensitive to the differences I feel in my body.
I’m just at the beginning of my journey with Ashtanga, and it’s already proved me wrong on many counts. I think this is a good thing, because it means I must be learning! It’s not the only style of yoga I enjoy, but it has become the “bread and butter” of my self-practice.
Has anyone else had a change of heart about Ashtanga? Do you love it or hate it? Please comment and let me know – I’d love to hear your thoughts!