Ashtanga Yoga With Antonella
Ashtanga, yoga, mysore


During the first yoga class I ever took I was amazed to see all of these seemingly graceful and limber people doing things that appeared like something out of a Cirque Du Soleil performance; they were moving, jumping, twisting, sweating. Unbeknownst to me, I had walked into a beginning Ashtanga class. Ashtanga or Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga, for those unfamiliar with the term, is a practice known for its fast paced and physically challenging style that links a set series of poses with your breath in a seamless flow. From that first day I was hooked. Determined to be able to move with the strength and fluidity it seemed everyone else but me had, I returned to the same studio and took classes with many of the wonderful teachers for the next four years. Over that time I studied only Ashtanga, and slowly I saw my practice grow and mature.

As time passed I began to notice subtle changes and new sensations in my body, and I realized that my yoga practice had helped calm my typically overactive mind. Circumstances that would have once bothered me no longer seemed to phase me and I was able to let go of people and situations that no longer seemed to be in my best interest. Somehow this more thoughtful, self-aware way of being seemed to go hand in hand with my yoga practice, so I continued to go to classes regularly. The more I went the more I felt like something was missing from my day if I happened to miss class.

As the fourth anniversary of my first class neared, I decided to take a month long teacher training intensive to further my knowledge of yoga and explore philosophy and anatomy as it related to my practice. In that training I was suddenly exposed to a range of different perspectives and styles of yoga which I had never considered exploring. As soon as the course was over I went out and took as many different types of classes as I could find. I thought that because I had “only” practiced Ashtanga that I had somehow limited myself.

In trying these new classes over the next few months, I came to the realization that although the teachers were good and the yoga was challenging, they didn’t satisfy my body, mind and spirit the way my original Ashtanga practice had. In a funny way, by trying a number of classes my commitment and love of my original practice was reinforced. This may seem like a contradictory idea, but I view it as a good example of “the grass is always greener”. When you venture into new pasture you see your own terrain in a clearer, more objective light. Likewise, with a change of perspective my practice changed from just a routine to a way of experiencing my life in a different way.

Many people who do yoga jump from one class, teacher and style to the next the way they change their clothes from day to day. Their practice is generally viewed as physical exercise and subject to their particular mood. Whether they feel like working or taking it easy, yoga is just another commodity to be utilized for a student’s own purpose and to reinforce the wandering mind that our modern world seems to cultivate.

Not to be misunderstood, having a yoga practice, whatever it may be and for whatever reason a student chooses for doing it, is by far better than doing no yoga at all. Just by attempting the poses and focusing on the breath a student gains the benefit of a more flexible body and quieter mind. However, constantly changing styles sometimes keep students from repeating poses for weeks or months at a time; it feeds the need for variety but doesn’t let the student measure their progress in a consistent manner. One teacher will tell you to put your feet, hands, or legs in a particular way in one pose and in the next class another teacher will tell you to move your feet, hands and legs in a completely different way in the same pose. One then asks: “Who’s right?” The truth, no one, or everyone, depending you your point of view.

If you believe that yoga is more than just physical exercise, then treating it the same as going to the gym and lifting weights is nonsensical. Yes, there is a definite physical component to the typical practice we do in the West, but most practitioners are also aware of additional benefits of doing a yoga regimen that go beyond having nice triceps. If we then delve a little deeper and suppose that yoga has an effect on our nervous system so that our bodies and minds can relax, we need to ask ourselves what is the best way for creating that relaxation response. The answer: training. In order for something to become engrained in the body it must be repeated, over time this repeated pattern becomes a habit. Likewise by repeating yoga postures again and again, trying to keep your breath even and mind still, yoga teaches our nervous system to react calmly to stress when it is encountered.

According to the Yoga Sutras, a yoga practice “becomes firmly grounded when well attended to for a long time, without break and in all earnestness“ (1.14). So in aimlessly flitting from one style and teacher to another we’re actually avoiding the point of a physical yoga practice, to be grounded and stable in both mind and body. It is obviously up to interpretation what “a long time” and “in all earnestness” could mean. A good analogy, though, is to view your yoga practice like learning a language. How long would it take for someone to become truly fluent, understanding the subtle aspects and nuances of that language? If you immerse yourself in a culture where you hear and speak the language every day, it could take 5 years, maybe more? If you only practice the language once a week when do you think you would become fluent? And if you only did it once a month and tried to learn another language at the same time? You get my point.

Although there is something to be learned from trying many styles of yoga, when a student finds one that resonates with them, they should stop and examine it a little closer. Examining not just the physical aspect of that style but the philosophy and reasons why a teacher may do things in a particular way versus another practice. Only in this way can a student truly move beyond the introductory stage to speaking the language of the practice. What style one chooses is up to them, and how someone interprets that style is also up to their individual discrimination, which, to me, is one of the greatest gifts a dedicated yoga practice can give: a better knowledge and connection to ourselves.