Saturday, June 16, 2012

Dear Ashtanga: I'm seeing other Yoga

Dear Ashtanga,

Well, this has been a while coming, so I'm just going to be straight with you: I am seeing other yoga.

Yes, the mere fact that I am writing this is indicative of the problem - you see, Ashtanga, your system is just not flexible enough to meet my needs (no pun intended!). I guess this shouldn't come as a great surprise - just like any partnership, you can't rely wholly on one other person (errr, yoga system) to meet ALL of your needs. And yet, Ashtanga, that is kind of what you wanted me to think, which is, in hindsight, setting the bar a bit unrealistically high, right?

But don't worry, Ashtanga - it's not you, it's me. I've changed. I've grown in my practice, and you, of course, have been a part of that. But as I have become more in tune with my body - and my spirit - there are things that I have become less comfortable with, too.

You see, I'm not a dogmatic person. I don't have a religion, and I don't subscribe to the idea that any one system is better than another. Yet when I was introduced to you, Ashtanga, that sense of superiority was somehow present in the subtext. Now, I know that you're saying "it's not my fault I'm misinterpreted!" - and you know what, you're right. It's not your fault! But somehow that's the message that slipped through - "Ashtanga is like the ferrari of Yoga", one teacher said to me. The implication being that other 'vehicles' will get you there (wherever there is!) all the same, but that Ashtanga will do it faster. And with a bit more panache, perhaps. And I admit, when I first come to the practice, I certainly felt a bit of that turbo charge from the fast pace of the sequence and all those vinyasas! But I've come to a time where I'm suddenly thinking that a Ferrari is maybe not the only car that I need, because really, a Ferrari is only good if you have perfectly smooth, wide roads - say, a healthy, fit, injury-free body.  To be honest, I'm more of a 4x4 girl myself - because life is not a smooth ride, and I'd happily sacrifice a bit of speed to make sure that I have enough flexibility to deal with anything that comes along!

And that's the thing, Ashtanga. In real life, I think that in order to be effective, a system has to be able to evolve and change. But in Ashtanga, there is no evolution of the system. We are taught that the system is perfect as it is, that it is enough, that it cannot be changed or modified. I imagine the reaction of my Ashtanga teachers if I suggested we just "slip" shalabasana into the primary series, or "skip" Marichyasana D and do something else instead. According to the system, they would have good reason to be outraged! Everything is sequenced for a reason, everything in it's rightful place. You have to take things one step at a time! Which is wise advice, for sure. But it also assumes that one particular sequence (or 6, if you like) is right for every possible human body on earth. And the more I practice and the more I teach, the more I believe (as Krishnamacharya himself is reputed to have taught) that yoga should be adapted to the individual - and not the other way around.

Now that's not to say that your sequencing isn't beautiful, Ashtanga, because it truly is. But there are things that my body is missing, and I need to look elsewhere to find them. Lunges, for example - deep stretches into the psoas and hip flexors. So important for my back!  Piriformis stretches for keeping that pesky sciatica at bay - achieved when your leg crosses to the other side of the body, in easy twist for example - missing until ardha matsyendrasana in second series, and even that doesn't really isolate the muscle.

I could go on, but see, that is just me, and everybody's body is different. The point is, Ashtanga, that I spent a few years believing what I was taught - that Ashtanga is a complete system, that it is a system for anybody and everybody, that "practice [Ashtanga] and all is coming", and to practice other types of yoga would just be messing with the results. That, say, a Land Rover Defender might be robust, but a Ferrari is better. That with Ashtanga, there is really no need to practice anything else.

Well, for me, for my body, that just isn't working anymore. And so, Ashtanga, while I will probably still visit often, I am seeing other Yogas. And it feels good!



Readers - what are your experiences with yoga systems? ;)


  1. Same here!!!!
    I have tried to comment along the same lines on many (Astanga vinyasa) yoga posts and was often met with disapproving silence.
    My first yoga system was Patthabi Jois' but with more practice and experience (and years on my shoulders) I have come to understand that really really we need different vinyasas at different times.
    Now I practice and teach in the Desikachar tradition (what is called viniyoga in the US) and feel that it is perfect. And as my reacher says, if somebody complains that it is too easy, get them to do 50 uttanasanas and we'll talk later...
    Why shoudl different doshas be all catered for with ONE system I wonder. Granted, on dull tamasic days the primary series is still the best remedy, but not on the days where I feel really tense. The only result then is getting me even more agitated.
    Thanksnfor speaking out loud!!!

  2. very interesting post, i also suffer form right hips right now so i had to slow down a little and try more others things in yoga

  3. sssshhhhhh, but every once in a while I omit asanas and add in others, and even practice Jivamiukti sometimes on my own! Great post, Thank u:)

  4. I think it is a free world and you can do ashtanga or you can defect and do other types of yoga, and then go back or never go back or sometimes, on your own do ashtanga differently. do whatever works for you life is too short to obsess over my yoga is better than yours. by the way, that yoga teacher? you shure s/he was one? I once met a hatha yoga teacher who called ashtanga the areobics of yoga. there's all that and everything else, too, out there. keep practicing whatver it is.

  5. yep... definitely get that impression from the ashtangis that have attended my coffee and yoga meet ups. It's ashtanga or bust.
    For myself, I did start out in ashtanga, but it didn't take long (i think year 3 in my 7 year practice so far) to find something that suited my body a bit better :)

    I think balance is a very healthy and perfect approach- congratulations!

  6. I can totally relate. I am trained in Kundalini yoga, have been teaching for 4 years. I love Kundalini Yoga... It's got tons of variety, so repetitive stress injury is not an issue. It's both physical and spiritual, meant to be a complete yoga system. But... over the years my love for "plain old" Hatha yoga has been growing and growing. I just love how my body feels when it does asana. Kundalini Yoga will make you high, sure. It's powerful, it's transformative-- if Ashtanga is the Ferrari of yogas, Kundalini is the Rocketship! ;) But Hatha makes me feel grounded and sane. In my own practice, some mornings I need some Kundalini, some mornings I need Hatha. That's what's great about having your own practice, you can customize it to your needs. As a teacher, I am more and more mystified as to how one teaches a roomful of students-- some need more fire, more solar energy; others need more relaxation, more lunar. Some need to move more quickly, some more slowly. Some need more movement, some need more meditation. It makes sense that in ancient times yoga was always taught one-on-one!
    All this to say, yes. I think it's natural and healthy to be a "polyyogist".

  7. I get the feeling that Ashtanga is the best thing for me right now as I'm only just beginning my practice, so the structure is a big positive: it helps develop the habits, discipline and commitment you need. Also, I'm still a healthy young in shape person; an open road if you would. I look forward to broadening my practice once I've established a solid base.

  8. While I agree that Ashtanga is not necessarily for everyone, it is untrue that the system does not change or has not evolved. There have been a variety of modifications to the Primary series, made at the discretion of Pattabhi Jois himself as he observed the effects of the practice on his students over the course of many years. In addition, what used to be known as the "Advanced Series" has been split into what is now known as 3rd and 4th series. These are just a few examples of the evolution of Ashtanga. There are more.

    I think this idea that Ashtanga is a flashy, fast moving form of yoga is a mistaken perception, admittedly propagated by many within the Ashtanga community.

    First, the Ashtanga that I've been taught is far from flashy -- it's a minimalist practice, stripped of flourish or "panache." Moreover, Ashtanga, like life, is what you make of it. You may practice as quickly or as slowly as the breath takes you on any given day. You may practice only the first few postures of standing and the last few of finishing and it's still "ashtanga." The key is for one to remain honest with oneself and to be creative so that one may practice in a way that serves one best while remaining within the constructive boundaries of the system.

    Thanks for the provocative post.

    1. Beautifully put, I was thinking all of this myself. I love the article and applaud anyone who listens to their own body and follows their intuition (bravo!) but it was like reading about a different Ashtanga than what I practice. For me, and my very inflexible man, it's such a fluid, adaptable, welcoming system. I do know about the ego of some of the "community" but I also love that the practice is very much solo and introspective so that's easily avoided. I also relate to the Kundalini yogini above, that was my focus for almost 10 years and I taught as well, and I did various Hatha forms from high school on...but Ashtanga has been most versatile and kind to me. I find it very loving. But every yogi and yogini must follow their own marvelously winding road with trust and joy!

  9. I could have written this post myself! Including the sciatica that I deal with daily and needing deep psoas stretches. I still practice the Primary Series often, but I do mix it up and do things specifically to help with my low back and sciatic pain from sitting in a chair 9 hours a day.

    Great post and honest. Exactly what the practice is supposed to help us with; finding our own path.

  10. Whenever I feel the need for a little variation, I skip a Mysore class and do some freestyle Yoga at home instead. Wouldn't alter the practice by skipping anything or adding something new, but just allow fo a totally different practice every now and then.

  11. At one time in my life, perhaps last week, I may have been afflicted with "Ashtanga OCD." I am one of the "Ashtanga or bust" people from ecoyogini's coffee groups. That said, this ostensible smug self-righteousness provides an unfair representation of the Ashtanga yoga system. A good Ashtanga teacher will teach to the individual and although the sequence may not change radically, there is certainly adaptation and evolution within the method. I have witnessed this "flexibility" during my four years practicing with certified teachers Mark and Joanne Darby. "Darby" (Mark) in particular, was and is constantly exploring and re-evaluating how to approach and transmit many aspects of the practice-both subtle and gross. He has become very focused on the energetic components of the practice, rather than the outward manifestation of a pose, such as binding at the wrist in forward folds and twists, or getting the hands flat in sun sun salutations or standing postures. Last time I went back to practice at Darby's, he even suggested that I stand in Samastitihi with my feet hip width apart. Toes not even touching! Revolutionary isn't it? While many Ashtangis, myself included, may have been drawn to the system due to its set structure and "rules," I hope that with sincere and mindful practice, the black-and-white dichotomy between "correct" and "incorrect" method will eventually die out for all of us. Thank you for your honest and thought-provoking post. I am grateful for the opportunity to challenge and explore my own perspectives. And all my love to your psoas and hip flexors! Sincerely, Erica.

    1. Hiya,
      Just to clarify Erica- "Ashtanga or bust" was typed with affection. :)
      It has been quite interesting listening to you talk about Ashtanga in our groups- i was honestly never quite clear on just how passionate Ashtangis can be. (written word isn't good at portraying emotion,intent)
      xo Lisa

  12. Can't say I've ever been so attached to a style, but certainly have felt I was cheating on teachers, and have tended to take the cowardly slip-out-the-back-Jack route when deciding to move on...

  13. Thanks everyone for the outpouring of replies! Especially for all those of you who have never commented before, thanks for commenting and great to 'meet' you all!

    @Chiara: I have recently been introduced to Viniyoga/Svastayoga too and am completely smitten! It seems so 'simple' but allows me to isolate and work my muscles in a way that totally blew me away. I completely agree about different Vinyasas at different times - I think it's wonderful to be able to practice this way, in tune with your body every day!

    @Lila: Good for you! It's important to listen to what your body needs and adapt your practice to make sure it is the best thing for you in this moment!

    @JayaKrishna: Jivamukti?! You rebel, you! :D :D :D

    @Gabrielle: Totally agree - there is no need to be 'rajasic' or, as another commenter put it, "OCD" about yoga. I do really think it is meant to be an individualised practice.

    @Eco: I guess there are those types in every stream of yoga, too. It's often been commented that Ashtanga seems to attract more of the "Type A" personalities who gravitate to the rigorous system and who can tend to apply that same Type A-ness to their yoga as to the rest of their lives!

    @Alegria: I love the term 'polyyogist'! As a teacher, I couldn't agree more - the more systems I learn, the better I will be able to guide my students and respond to their individualised needs. Which as you say is hard to do in group classes, but I think it is possible to show different variations and create a space where people can try new things and adapt their practices even in a group setting.

    @CJ: That's great that you are starting a yoga practice! Ashtanga is a beautiful, wonderful and transformative asana system and the benefits you describe: habit, discipline and committment are definitely some of the things that drew me to the practice 3 years ago, after having practiced other forms of yoga for nearly 6 years.

    @Megan: Thanks for pointing that out - Jois did make changes over the years, and there are many variations of Ashtanga being taught today as a result! It will be interesting to watch the evolution of the system now that he is no longer there to provide that guidance. And thanks for also pointing out that, as with any type of yoga, you can practice in any way you like, adapting the practice to your energy in that particular moment. I will definitely continue to practice Ashtanga, but I am also enjoying an exploration at the moment into Krishnamacharya's later teachings like Vinyasa Krama and Svasta Yoga, which are allowing me to work my body in a much more isoated and therapeutic level. This in turn is very complimentary to my Ashtanga practice and also allows me to bring more diversity into my teaching!

    @MissMaddyG: Wow, it sounds like you had wonderful, flexible teachers! Funnily, my partner also loves Ashtanga - until I introduced Ashtanga to her, she never got the yoga 'bug'. Interesting that you mention 'inflexible' - I think the dynamism of Ashtanga is part of that appeal to 'inflexible' people, as it gives them a great practice without focusing too much on individual asanas.

    @SouthernYogini - Yep, the psoas is currently ruling my asana practice! Long live the psoas... or, let the psoas live long? Hahaha... I'd love to hear more about what you do for your sciatica and your back!

    @Annina - I think this is the best way to go, too! When I do practice Primary, I am now adding lunges to my sun salutations, but other than that I keep the series as is, and practice other yoga on other days.

    @YogaEcstaticAdventures: "Ashtanga OCD" - brilliant turn of phrase!! It is wonderful when you find teachers with both the deep knowledge of a yoga system, and the ability to see you as a unique body and adapt the system to your needs.

    @DrJay: Infidelity: Cheating on my Yoga Teacher - a book title perhaps? ;)

  14. Thank You! Thank You! Thank You!
    I didn't know how to say it, until your post said it.
    Thank You!

  15. @Daryl - I am only speaking for myself... but you're welcome!

  16. I have to agree with Megan here that Ashtanga is not inherently flashy yoga. In my experience most vinyasa, prana flow etc. people are way more into showing off the fun, cool looking poses, handstands etc.,. In fact, in Ashtanga, it's fair to say that many of the more challenging and most essential poses are not "cool" looking at all (pasasana, supta vajrasana, laghu vajrasana, the marichis and more). Instead these are poses that build strength and flexibility and patience! Ashtanga has some stupid human tricks involved (jumpbacks in particular) but everything in the entire system is adaptable! I've even seen my teacher (David Garrigues, one of the 30 odd certified ones) teach someone with a wrist injury how to do Surya Namaskars completely standing up. Mysore practice lends itself to adaptability and responsible personalization of yoga practice...something you don't really find in a Vinyasa class. As to your psoas comment, when I felt like my quads and hip flexors needed a little more loving I started going way deeper in my warrior ones and rooting more through my back foot and that made a huge difference. In addition I was given the suggestion by an authorized teacher for a quad stretch based on ustrasana to practice before my backbends and that also was very helpful. The "rigid" system of which you speak perhaps is being taught in some places, but it is unlike any of the yoga that has been shared with me by legitimate teachers in the lineage. I understand that AY is tough and sometimes you might want a break from it (I practice Kundalini meditation daily as well as mysore and sometimes I enjoy a Dharma Mittra or Jivamukti class on the side) but your post in many ways just perpetuates the negative and inaccurate stereotypes about the system of Ashtanga and that's kind of a bummer.

    1. Hi Frances, thanks for stopping by and sharing your experience! I am not trying to make any statements about Ashtanga in general - and I do think it is a beautiful and powerful practice - I can only write from my own experience. It sounds like you have great teachers and have been very lucky getting the practice adapted to your needs - all those wanting to stay on the Ashtanga path, but looking for that little bit of adaptability - take heart!

    2. I have to say I agree with Frances. I've not encountered these kind of astanga teachers that encourage gymnastics.
      I've had 4 very experienced teachers over the years who spend their class time making comments to the contrary. 'Yoga is not about stretching, it's about the breath' was something I heard just this week in a class :) I guess yoga, like life is always from our own perspective and experience and a bad teacher can ruin something beautiful for people.
      After 30 years of practice, and embracing a number of different schools of yoga in that time, astanga seems as good a vehicle as any to wake up and become more conscious, more loving.

  17. there are ashtanga teachers who follow manju in adapting poses to accomodate individual limitations/needs and even throw in a few things out of sequence. there is a therapeutic, more flexible and gentler approach to ashtanga practiced by some who were the early students of ashtanga and their students. My teacher uses the sequence to help heal my injuries, but introduces later poses he thinks my help me, and lets me go through some poses in a modified way. still he works within the general framework, physical and spiritual, and the discipline and habits are great, pranayama helps everyone, as does meditation. Same idea as what you are doing, doesn't matter what you call it, whatever works for you. But it's my understading that Skpj even adapted the series a bit differently for nancy gilgoff and david williams when teaching them in the 70s. Nancy has a post on her website about ashtanga yoga as it was that is worth reading. just read frances's post after writing this. I have to agree. the sequence is a framework, but a good teacher will work with you.

    1. @Anonymous - thanks for commenting. :) It's great to hear experiences of people who have used Ashtanga in therapeutic ways - I personally know a dedicated student who practiced Ashtanga after a bad accident and attributes a lot of her speedy recovery to that practice. As you and others point out, a good teacher will work with the individual student - sounds like you are lucky enough to have a particularly wonderful teacher!

  18. Hello.. i am a hathayoga teacher in the tradition on Sivananda in Austria and until now i did always get back to the classical lesson called Rishikesh-Reihe. It was the right way for me so far and i guess i will always keep something of it, it stretches the body very well. But again and again i am getting interessted in trying some other style.. i would maybe like to get some flow. I feel i need more movement now.
    I have to find a solution for me as i live at least 1 hour from vienna and its quite a long way for just one yoga lesson if you dont do anything else there.. i will see.

    As far as i know there is a good reason to stay at one yoga path. Our masters said that you need to go deep and deeper on one way so you can overcome all the abstacles of the ego. If you switch to another system you stop your way and its a kind of avoiding some special step of evolution. Well, lets think about that.

    I find it true but same time i think that times have changed and not everything that was true for some time needs to be strictly followed nowadays.

    By the way, traditionally yoga was only taught individually, to teaching in groups is just a development adapted for western society.

    Om, Doris

    1. Hi Doris - thanks for visiting my blog! As you point out, traditionally yoga was taught one-on-one, and the practice always changed and evolved with the student. But as you say, times have changed, and most of us can no longer devote our lives to sitting at the feet of a guru. Personally I don't think that practicing other styles of asana is the same thing as "switching to another system". For me, the system is yoga, and asana is just one part of that, and a part that inevitably changes with time as your life progresses. Perhaps that might be the case if you switched to Tai Chi or Qigong. But that's just my personal perspective!

  19. Sorry to post on an old post, but I totally get your letter to Ashtanga. I have been contemplating that same letter for the past year. It is my psoas that keeps asking me to write the letter and move on, but I keep coming back and keep tweaking the same old lower back.

    The things is Ashtanga is so beautiful to watch. I love watching my two teachers, but I am coming to terms that my body just isn't made for a few of the asanas.

    Thanks, for saying in words what many others feel down deep.


    1. Hi Patrick - thanks for stopping by and commenting! I know what you mean about how beautiful Ashtanga is. But I think it's important to listen to your body and most especially, to avoid injuries. For you this might mean adding some targeted psoas stretches to your Ashtanga routine and modifying the poses that tweak your back - your teachers might be able to advise you on that... Or, it might mean exploring other types of yoga asana that work better for you. Either way, it's important to listen to your intuition and it sounds like you are doing just that!

  20. Love this post, thank youuu!!