Today I’m writing about Ashtanga yoga, which many of you will know is at the very heart of my yoga practice and experience.
There are increasingly more and more styles of yoga available, from the relative old timers such as Ashtanga and Iyengar, to the more modern types such as Jivamukti, Anusara and Forrest. All of these different types have their merits and it pains me greatly when people make claims that their favorite practice is the ultimate form of yoga. It is important to remember that all forms of Hatha Yoga (including all styles mentioned above), come from the same background. All of these practices are rooted in the contents of _Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras_ and the _Hatha Pradipika_, which are recognised as two of the oldest and most revered yogic texts.
In all that I say about the benefits of Ashtanga yoga here, it is with the utmost respect to all forms of yoga and yogis, especially in their shared historical elements.
So, to make a start, here is my standard short description of Ashtanga Yoga:
“Ashtanga is a set sequence of postures designed to bring health, vitality, strength and flexibility to all aspects of your being.”
… And I fear that I have already lost some people’s attention by the time I reach words four and five. I have recently been asked this question (not for the first time):
“Don’t you get bored doing the same sequence over and over and over?”
My honest answer is “No!”
I’m sure there have been days when I’ve been less focused, when perhaps my heart hasn’t been in it, when I’ve skipped my Ashtanga practice to do something else instead. But do you know what? That has all been part of the process that has brought me to where I am now, which is a pretty darned committed Ashtangi. So no, it definitely has not been a boring process!
Today I love my life, I am grateful for everything and everyone in it. My body is healthy, strong and flexible. My mind is immensely calmer and happier than it used to be. Many of you wouldn’t know that I had a nasty bout of depression and anxiety a few years ago, which filled my days with doubt, tears and awful mood swings – I received vital support from friends and family, but, at the end of the day, it is on my mat that I’ve had the time and space to figure things out for myself, to gain emotional strength and maturity, and to let go of some serious baggage.
I truly believe it is the regularity and familiarity of the Ashtanga primary series that guided me through that stage of my life and this, along with a taster of the intermediate series, continue to support me today.
So what is it that keeps me focused and stops me from feeling bored? It is simply finding the beauty and challenge in each breath and each posture; in finding the strength and flexibility to move through the vinyasa more gracefully than before; in recognising the emotions that arise in my mind and learning to just accept them and not necessarily react to them; in recognising when my ego pops up to say ‘hi’ and then in letting everything go.
When people use the word boredom in relationship with Ashtanga, it makes the practice sound stagnant, when it really isn’t. There is a constant challenge as you move through the full Primary Series (yoga chikitsa, literally ‘Yoga Therapy’, or yoga to heal and purify the physical body), and then progress to the Intermediate Series (nadi sodhana, said to purify the subtle energy channels or nadis thus allowing the prana to flow freely throughout the body). Then there are the advanced series beyond these first two.
It is also important to note that although the sequence looks quite specific, it is intended to be personalised for each individual student, as seen in this quote from the KPJAYI website:
Yoga can be practiced by anyone, whether young, old, very old, healthy or sick. Even so, the way in which a young person is taught will differ in manner from the way in which an old or sick person will be taught. Therefore, each student must be considered as an individual and taught at a pace that is suitable for their situation in life.
When it comes to self practice (especially where there is no local teacher to offer guidance, as is my situation), you should also keep this in mind. It is perfectly acceptable to adapt the practice to suit your current situation, your health, your energy levels and even the seasons.
A few tips to keep your practice alive if ever you feel bored:
- Don’t give up! Keep getting on your mat each morning, or each week. Renowned Ashtangi, David Swenson, says “I have never once regretted a practice, but I have regretted missing a practice”
- Question whether the emotions you feel on your mat are a reflection of what you feel in another part of your life.
- Seek external inspiration. Go to an Ashtanga workshop. I have some coming up, but would also recommend heading to TriYoga in London to seek out some of their guest teachers, including the likes of Kino MacGregor, David Swenson, Tim Miller and John Scott.
- When you can’t get to the teacher in person, buy their books, DVDs, online classes, and follow them on social media.
- If it’s hard to practice on your own, go to an Ashtanga class or practice with a group of fellow Ashtangis (speak to me if you don’t know where to start).
- Don’t be scared to try other types of yoga (you might have noticed that I’m a huge handstand and inversion fan, plus I love doing yoga on my paddleboard, and also teach lots of vinyasa). All of these add to my Ashtanga practice rather than taking away from it. Each of them adds another level of strength or flexibility that allows me to find more depth in my regular practice.
- Don’t beat yourself up if all you manage today is a few sun salutations – stick with them each day and see where they lead.
If you’re interested to read more on this subject, I’d also recommend heading over to Kino MacGregor’s website: www.kinoyoga.com
“Beyond the wow phase of yoga you confront the monotony of doing the same practice everyday and if you stay with your yoga practice through this inevitable period you will one day tap into a limitless wealth of wisdom. You have to do your yoga practice so much so that it is not special anymore so that you can learn to experience a kind of specialness that never fades and a beauty that is truly eternal.” Kino MacGregor.
Yours in yoga,
xx Helen xx