October 2012 – Flavors of Ashtanga Yoga

Flavors of Ashtanga Yoga – notes and thoughts from my 2012 teaching tour

Cairo . . . everyone is asking me how it was in Cairo . . . and it was just fine. No hostility or animosity toward me for being American. Actually the people there went out of their way to be friendly. I am not sure what the media is up to, but the issues there were blown out of proportion and mis-represented. The real issue is between the Egyptians and Egyptian Muslims. It has only been the last 50-60 years that Muslims have taken over Egypt — now it is 90% Muslim. The Egyptians who are not Muslim don’t want religion pushed on them and fear that it will be.

I do have a cute story of a Muslim woman in one of the workshop classes, there was no men in class, when she realized this she got a big smile and threw off her veil 🙂 Then someone knocked at the door and she went running into the back . . . luckily it was just another woman coming a bit late for class.

Many Flavors all over the World yet we are all very much the same
All around the world the most challenging aspect of asthanga is daily/home practice…
So let’s put our practice into perspective:

  • What is the essence of yoga? Yoga is connection. Connection with family, a partner, the earth, the universe.
  • What about yoga helps us do this? The breathing and the mind stuff. The breath and mind are linked. You can feel this yourself in rest pose. If you are thinking about what you need to do when you are done with your practice, about what you are going to eat ;), etc. you will catch your breathing being short and rapid. If you make the conscious effort to slow down your breath your will notice your mind stuff slow down too 🙂

Keeping this perspective on our practice means your home practice only needs to be long enough to connect you with your breathing, your bandhas, and your meditative mind. Then you take those with you off your mat and into your day.

For a nice balance in the practice that is not obsessive I recommend full practice 3-4 days per week and short hime practices 1-2 days per week — and one day completely off each week. If you have a yoga studio nearby I recommend you do 2-4 practices each week with a teacher and other yogis (satsang) and practice at home 2-3 times each week. Home practice is very important too, it has a lot of self discovery in it and it is very empowering. It brings your yoga into your heart.

IF YOU ARE ALREADY DOING 6 DAY/WEEK FULL PRACTICES and are feeling good, please continue 🙂 I am writing from my experience of 16 years in this practice. Make it ADAPTIVE. There have been times in my life where full practice 6 days/week gave me energy and felt great. There are times in my life where full practices 6 days/week took my energy.
If you are working a full time job and/or have a family . . . going through changes in your life from change of life like menopause to taking care of parents, etc. LISTEN to your body, if you are feeling depleted then adapt your practice. Yoga should enhance your life not take over your life (unless you are a yoga teacher or own a yoga studio 😉

LONG PRACTICES . . . It seems the trend in ashtanga is to make it even more challenging . . . Some teachers are teaching to do full primary + full 2nd 5 days per week! Too much . . . of a good thing . . . WE have this tendency to think if something is good then more is better . . .

Long practices sometimes are beneficial — for ex. if you are taking a workshop or going to Maui or Mysore where your day revolves around your practice. In our daily life long practices too often may be too taxing. Latest research in the fitness industry is proving marathons to increase the risk of heart attack! The best exercise for health and fitness is interval training — short duration/high intensity.

  • Derek Ireland –the person responsible for bringing ashtanga yoga to Europe liked to do full primary, second, and third every day! He died from cancer . . .
  • Jim Fixx the famous marathoner died suddenly of a heart attack
  • Thom Birch, Beryl’s husband was a long distance runner and a yogi and a vegetarian yet he died at 55 of a sudden heart attack

HOME PRACTICE – make it fun
Intensity vs. duration – Latest research shows our body needs intensity (only for short bouts) to stay fit and heathy — especially for heart/lung function. I love the fact the ashtanga practice has pieces in each series that are intense, this is perfectly designed. A shorter home practice is also perfect to add some intensity — when you work intensely duration should be limited otherwise it is too much on our bodies. In my shorter practices I most always include Urdhva Dhanurasana, drop backs, ticks, etc. I also like to do the more intense part of the practice; for example the second half of primary — after standing poses jump into navasana and go through to setu bandhasa then closing.

short home practices =
sun salutes + play + finishing lotus flowers + rest
or
Surya Namaskar + standing poses + +play + finishing lotus flowers + rest
or
half a series:
Surya Namaskar + standing poses + Navasana-Setu bandansana + closing + rest
(or 1st half or 2nd half of second series)

And the nice thing about home practice is it carries a lot of grace . . . you do half as much and get twice the benefits 😉

The Masculine and The Feminine
At the end of one of my workshops someone came up to me and said “you are so gentle — you have such a gentle nature. It is really nice to have that with the asthanga practice.”
Really It’s just how I learned the practice; I don’t think I’m that gentle, my approach just feels like it in comparison to how the practice is being done with so much emphasis on attaining a perfect posture.

People all over the world are mistaking the method for the goal . . . and are too wrapped up in “getting a posture”.

The physicality of Asthanga yoga is very mis-understood. We do need some intensity and heat (masculine energies) in the practice as our body needs intensity for a strong heart/lung system and we need heat to aid in the removal of toxins from the organs.

However if the entire practice is intensity and heat you will burn yourself out, leave yourself depleted and have an increased risk of injury. We need a balance of feminine energy in the practice — feminine energy is nurturing, receiving, fluid, cooling.

The vinyasa element increases the masculine energy — and vinyasas and sun salutes are a good place to work the masculine energy of the practice, also each series has a piece that is intense, for example in primary from Navasana to Baddha konasana the intensity picks up, so this area in the practice would be another good area to work the intensity — but not throughout the entire practice.

It is too easy to get the masculine energy out of balance — that is our society. We are taught from young ages to work hard, achieve, get up earlier, and be the best. And many of our parents put their self worth in how smart or athletic their children were, further encouraging us to always push push push.

We need to balance this with the feminine energy of nurturing and receiving. If you are pushing yourself in a posture you are making your body tense and therefore resisting the posture — not receiving the benefits. The best way to honor the feminine aspect of the practice is to RELAX in the poses. There is absolutely nothing else you need to do or be in the posture. Go to where your body goes, relax and breathe. Surrender. Receive the posture.

Receptivity has a “magical force” to it. When we relax our bodies and move from our inner strength we are connecting to this force which moves muscles and bones and mass amazingly well while seeming effortless.

The feminine side of ashtanga yoga is not just softening it — although that may be what some need. As women we use our strength different than a man.

  • Masculine energy is a driving external force. When a powerful man walks in the room you can tell by his voice and actions, by his authority.
  • Feminine energy is more subtle and internal. When a powerful woman walks in the room you can tell by her presence and the fluidity of her movements.

To increase the feminine energy in your practice your practice needs to be fluid, nurturing, receptive while in the postures, with support. The breathing and the bandhas are good examples of the internal strength — internally we have toning — externally the muscles and bones are relaxed.

Know the difference between honoring the feminine and being lazy & between honoring the masculine and pushing too hard.
DON’T PUSH, JUST TRY. Sometimes you will have to put forth some effort, so try your best — then let it go and continue with your practice. It is the repetition of the practice that lets you “get” a posture — not forcing yourself into it. Put in your time in the practice and let the hard and fancy “tricks” come to you.

Remember this practice is not about getting a workout. It is about the breathing system, the bandhas, the nervous system, the internal cleansing and our mind stuff. All the external work is to benefit these systems. Putting too much effort into the external work is mistaking the method for the goal — putting too much effort into something that does not matter.

If you are balanced in the masculine and feminine aspects of the practice your practice will feel:

  • Fluid
  • Powerful yet relaxed
  • Intervals of work and intervals of active rest – use your strength and love it, relax and breathe in the postures.

Work in the vinyasa, jump, build heat — do not push. Relax and enjoy the postures, get into your breathing and bandhas. You should feel GOOD after your practice.

After talking about this topic, someone said to me, how do I do this in 2nd series?

  • First, learn it slowly so you are not pushing yourself through a bunch of new postures at once.
  • Let your breath be your guide. In a back bending posture your muscles that expand to take an inhale (intercostals – muscles between your ribs) are already being stretched by the posture. If you try to take an inhale when these muscles are already being stretched to their max your inhale will be short. Therefore your exhale will be short as well — your inhales and exhales need to be equal. This means less time in the posture . . . 5 breaths in 2 seconds 😉 As you get more comfortable in the posture and are able to start to relax your breath will naturally be slower then you will be ready to spend more time in the posture. It is a perfect design.

Many Flavors yet we are all one
Why do we do this “crazy” practice? I can say from experience it is worth the time and effort! It will make you healthy and fit in body and mind and keep you much younger than people who do not practice. Just look around and compare ashtangis of the same age with people who do not practice.

There are many flavors of ashtanga yoga . . . and they all have benefits. Traveling the world I have seen many different flavors of ashtanga and they all have a common thread — the framework of the practice, the breathing, the bandhas. The intensity and frequency of the practice pulls us ashtangis together in a nice bond. So lets not get too wrapped up in the old method, the new method, extended spine or rounded spine . . . Let’s enjoy our community and our sangha.

As important as it is to me to honor the tradition we each as teachers will emphasize what we need. I see this in ashtanga studios all over the world (and in my own studio . . .), it is the personal element of the practice. In reading the Guruji book you can see how Pattabhi Jois taught the same yoga differently to people based on their needs and his needs at the time.

Lets not worry about our differences but enjoy the connection this practice has given those of us dedicated to it. I love the ashtanga families all over the world and right in my own little studio.

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