The Ashtanga Yoga System

The traditional practice of Ashtanga Yoga emphasizes steady, fluid breathing, which is coordinated with specific movements, called Vinyasas. Each inhale and exhale is choreographed within this set series, and does not deviate from the sequence. Similar to a martial arts tradition, in which one passes through different levels, there are successive series in the Ashtanga Yoga system. The first is called the Primary Series. This is the one to start with, and stick with, until the whole thing is comfortable. Many people will spend a lifetime learning only this one. From there, one would theoretically move on to the Second or “Intermediate” series, perhaps to the Third, and possibly even the Fourth, or “Advanced A and Advanced B” series — although there are not a lot of Fourth Series practitioners out there, and they could probably join Cirque Du Soleil!

The practice as delineated in ancient texts was passed down to Sri T. Krishnamacharya in the early 1900’s, and then to disciple Pattabhi Jois in 1927. Today, Jois’s grandson, Paramaguru Sharath Jois, continues the lineage, or parampara, of his grandfather, at the KPJAYI institute in Mysore, India. Teachers who were not previously authorized by his grandfather must be directly authorized by Sharath to teach the method. Since I’ve never even been to India, I must consider myself purely a student of Ashtanga. Ashtanga became my practice of choice — and has been for almost 20 years — while my own teaching of Yoga, a blend of what I’ve learned from the Ashtanga method along with other forms, takes a more personal approach. What I can offer is a longitudinal perspective on how Yoga has informed, changed, and transformed my life over almost 3 decades. I enjoy passing along what I’ve learned from my teachers over many years, and introducing others to the concepts that have sparked me. From there, they can seek out their own path, whether it’s one of traditional Ashtanga, or not.

My first introduction to Ashtanga was with Maty Ezraty and Chuck Miller back in 1993 at Yogaworks in Santa Monica, California. After a short time, I quit. It was too hard, hurt too much, was too frustrating for my distracted, early-twenties thirst for immediate gratification, and required too much discipline and too many early mornings for someone who was also playing in a band, working the night shift at Damiano’s Pizza until 3am, going on acting auditions during the day, and mothering two large dogs (in addition to a boyfriend and a cat). I went back to other, “fun” forms of yoga: Power Yoga, Vinyasa Flow, and dance-like Anusara, while also studying Iyengar and Kundalini. I did some sort of yoga every day, sometimes twice a day. When I didn’t make it to class, I spent hours on the floor at home in some sort of amalgamation of whatever stoner yoga felt good to me. These self-explorations gave me a deeper understanding of what it meant to let go and surrender into my body.

I didn’t start a daily Ashtanga practice however until several years later, when I found out about a small Yoga Shala in the Silverlake area of Los Angeles called Ahimsa, which offered “Mysore-style” Ashtanga, in which you practice at your own pace, wherever you happen to be in the Ashtanga series. This is where I met my teacher Noah Williams, who was then 27, a few years younger than me. He was (and is, almost 20 years later) beautiful inside and out, with a no-nonsense, reassuring, and inspiringly equanimous, calm demeanor. Suddenly, I was inspired to set the alarm and come back every morning — and to progress!

For many years, I approached my practice just like everything else in my life — driven by ego and the need to prove myself — to myself, to my teacher, to the world at large. But Ashtanga cannot be fooled. When we practice too intensely, too competitively, with wrong motivation, we are humbled by injuries, and reminded that contrary to popular belief, we are not invincible. My first lesson was my wrists. My wrists felt like they were going to break. I was in unbearable pain, and rather than trust the practice to heal, once again, I fled. I spent hundreds of dollars on acupuncture, wrist braces, and the best hand doctors at Cedars-Sinai, who sternly advised me not to bend my wrists back under any circumstances. But nothing helped, and I got worse and worse. It didn’t help that I was playing guitar and piano for hours a day, since I was signed to a record label and pursuing a music career at the time. The pain kept me up at night.

It suddenly dawned on me that the only way for me to heal was to keep practicing, but to practice differently. I had to back off from my ego, and move slowly, patiently exploring my breath and my bandhas (internal lifts deep within the core). I had to spread weight evenly into the palms of my hands and into my fingertips. Over time, my wrists healed, and became strong. Next was my knees; but this time I hobbled through and kept practicing, and they healed. Then my shoulders. That was excruciating, and it passed.

Maybe I’m a late bloomer, like with a lot of other things in my life. But for whatever reason — it’s only now, as I’m entering my 19th year of this love affair with Ashtanga, that I am finally catching glimpses of what this practice is all about: how letting go of the need to prove anything to anyone — myself, my teacher, my parents, my community — is the key to experiencing joy and bliss, both on the mat and off; how the practice is essentially a breathing system, and the asanas merely shapes to enhance the transport of Prana, or “life force”, via the breath, to the cells of the body. What was previously a torturous ordeal full of frustration and struggle has now given way to sweet relief; the delicious, precious respite of self-care, self-healing, and self-transformation.

It’s a good thing that I’m learning these lessons, because there will a come a time when I will have to release the physical body. I am already practicing non-attachment to the physical, accepting that one day I won’t be able to throw my leg behind my head, spring up into a handstand, or drop back into a backbend. I hope it’s a long way off, but one never knows. I want to be prepared mentally for this eventuality. I don’t want to remain stuck in the ego, on the roller coaster of self-congratulation and crushing disappointment. This is maybe the hardest part of the whole practice for me. I never had to think about it before; but now, later in life, even as I still progress within the practice, I’m keenly aware of how my body is changing, and how differently and attentively I must approach each movement.

There are many misconceptions about Ashtanga. It’s easy to see from the way that it’s structured — with progress within series depending on mastering poses in order of the sequence before moving on to the next — that it can be misconstrued as a very “goal-oriented” form of Yoga. This is a dangerous mistake that will lead to many lessons learned — take it from me! — about how to practice safely without hurting oneself. It’s true that it’s extremely fun and exciting to master new, difficult, previously unattainable postures. But the practice teaches us about much more than just the physical. It teaches us that without patience, self-care, and humility, we will invite pain. It also teaches us that our previously held limiting beliefs are false stories that we have used, possibly from an early age, to define ourselves. Ashtanga helps to unravel those stories and write a new one — full of possibility, growth, freedom, and strength, and also acceptance, surrender, and peace.

Noah, who studied directly under Sri K. Pattabhi Jois in India for many years, tells the story of how he once asked Pattabhi Jois, “Guruji (my teacher), when is the right time to move on from the primary series to the intermediate series, and from intermediate to advanced?” Pattabhi Jois answered, “When primary series is mastered, and happiness has not come, then one must learn intermediate. When intermediate is learned and still no happiness, then you must learn advanced.” I love this story, because it’s easy to get hung up on the (potentially very competitive) achievement-oriented structure of mastery within the multiples series of Ashtanga. The important thing is the quest for peace and happiness. The asanas, or physical postures, are a tool to get there, but in and of themselves, they are not the end goal.

There are some additional key components to the asana (postures) limb of Ashtanga. These are bandhas, and drishti. Bandhas refer to “locks” that hold strength deep within the core. Drishti are points of focus where we direct our gaze (and hold it there) in each specific pose. The dance between breath, vinyasa, drishti, and bandhas, as applied within the shapes of the asanas, constitute the physical part of the Ashtanga series.

Asanas are only one part of the “8-limbed” Ashtanga system; they are considered a tool to clean and purify the body, calm the nervous system, and direct concentration, in preparation for deep meditation, and ultimately inner purity and peace. On the KPJAYI website’s description of the Ashtanga Yoga method, a paragraph stands out to me that I would like to quote here:

For cleaning the body internally, two factors are necessary, air and fire. The place of fire in our bodies is four inches below the navel. This is the standing place of our life force. In order for fire to burn, air is necessary, hence the necessity of the breath. If you stoke a fire with a blower, evenness is required so that the flame is not smothered out, or blown out of control.

In other words, we are trying to stoke the fire — the furnace area — of our bodies, four inches below the navel, by using deep, steady, even breath. The seat of our power lies in the center of our core, like a peach pit is nestled inside the core of the fruit. The notion of stoking our internal fires is called creating Tapas, or heat. It’s very important to sweat out toxins, in order to purify the body from the inside out.

A primary function of the asana portion of the practice is simply to move Prana most efficiently through the body. On the inhale, Prana, or “life force” is pulled very deliberately into the body — from the floor, from the outer edges of the extremities, and from the ethers, and it is disseminated on the exhale, throughout the entire body and cellular system. Our goal is to keep this Prana circulating powerfully and freely throughout our system, without blockage or leakage. Therefore, we don’t take breaks between poses, or even extra breaths beyond those designated in the sequence. The practice is a non-stop, fluid flow of inhale and exhale, followed by inhale and exhale, and each breath is designed to match its own specific movement or sequence of movements. This creates a transcendent, hypnotic soundtrack of breath that sounds like ocean waves rolling in and out of shore, and has a profoundly calming effect on the nervous system.

This breath is a bit like a long sigh in the back of the throat, with the lips gently resting together. It is not an effortful or labored breath, and isn’t sniffling in through the nostrils, or relegated to the sinuses. Instead, it’s full-lung, full-chest breathing, while the belly and bandhas (core lifts) are drawn in and engaged. Moreover, in order to prevent losing any of the Prana we have been drinking in, we breathe only with the mouth closed (unlike in some other forms of yoga), and redirect the breath — i.e. the Prana — throughout our closed system, into every nook and cranny of our being. Keeping the mouth closed, we practice a breath that sounds and feels very much like an ocean wave, and we ride this breath like a surfer, waiting for the wave to crest and ebb back out again. Each movement is thus inextricably bound to an inhale or an exhale. There is no movement without the breath.

One of the many great things about Ashtanga is that once you learn the series, you can (and should) develop a personal practice at home, on your own. While it’s crucial to study intensively and consistently with a great teacher, it’s incredibly elucidating to discover new dimensions of your practice in solitude. Having a set series to do becomes inherently liberating, because it removes the “thinking” step of trying to figure out or guess what to do next. The practice is designed to be done 6 days a week, with one day of rest. This might sound daunting with our busy schedules. But the discipline and devotion of stepping onto your mat every day, even for a short time, creates a foundation for the roots to grow.

One might assume that doing the same set of postures every day would lead to boredom. And yet, it’s quite the opposite. When the physical movements become automatic, the mind gets to rest and focus solely on the breath, and on moving Prana. Finding the ever-increasing subtleties and nuances of the asanas is a never-ending exploration, full of magic and surprises. Every single day I discover some mind-blowing, lightbulb-aha-moment new epiphany in my practice. Even in the most basic of postures, not a single practice goes by without one of these new revelations. And once I am comfortable within a pose, there is always another asana, waiting in the wings to challenge me.

The longer I practice, the more I understand that the physical is merely a gateway to a higher state of consciousness. To quote the KPJAYI site once again, bodily purification is in ultimate service of spiritual purification:

A vital aspect of internal purification that Pattabhi Jois teaches relates to the six poisons that surround the spiritual heart. In the yoga shastra it is said that God dwells in our heart in the form of light, but this light is covered by six poisons: kama, krodha, moha, lobha, matsarya, and mada. These are desire, anger, delusion, greed, envy and sloth. When yoga practice is sustained with great diligence and dedication over a long period of time, the heat generated from it burns away these poisons, and the light of our inner nature shines forth.

Ashtanga is a life-long journey, into the heart of oneself. It’s not easy, and it’s not for the faint of heart. But it’s worth it.

“Practice, and all is coming.” — Sri K. Pattabhi Jois



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