I have never considered myself to be traditional or a purist, but I love Ashtanga yoga. Yoga is one of the oldest regimes for exercise and Ashtanga is perhaps the most traditional form that remains popular. Yes, there is an app!
Ashtanga practice follows a set series of postures, practiced in a definite order, according to set breath counts; the same series each time. While there are six series in total, not many people practice beyond the primary series, and a lot like me are happy completing about half the primary series, which takes approximately an hour and fifteen minutes.
The regimented nature of Ashtanga appeals to me because it enhances certain aspects of yoga that I value. First of all, practicing the same series repeatedly builds strength in those particular postures (“asanas”). Yoga strength is the ultimate in “functional strength” because the physical practice explores and expands the body’s range of motion, and builds strength across that range. Screw ab crunches — yoga is way more fun and effective. Seriously, everyone is doing plank now. However, progress can be hard to track and yogis advise we measure it in millimetres and years — patience can be part of what one learns. Progress is easier to experience in Ashtanga because the postures don’t vary from one practice to the next. Each time — though probably not every time, I can experience a little improvement, and that’s encouraging.
Breathing is central to yoga too. It helps to maintain focus, sometimes using specialized techniques, and keeps one’s attention in the body which helps prevent injury. In Ashtanga, breathing determines the length and pace of postures, which I found fosters the type of serenity that yoga famously promises.
Breath leads most strongly and serenity follows most readily, for me, in the most traditional — even – of Ashtanga teaching formats, named after the historical centre of Ashtanga style, Mysore, India. Mysore style classes are like open houses: one arrives and begins when one likes, so long as there is enough time for practice during the designated period. People practice alongside each other, but at different points in the series, and at different paces depending largely on their breath, coached individually by the instructor who moves from person to person as needed. Marking time by one’s own breath for over an hour creates an incredible sense of grounding and peace.
I most enjoy learning in the Mysore style, as I first did. At my very first lesson, I was guided through five Suryamaskara or “sun salutations” in version A and sent home. Next time, I did the same plus five in the longer version B, and then I was sent home. Each time a new piece was added to the series, but only so long as I practiced three times per week. Otherwise, I remained where I’d been. Led classes can be part of Ashtanga too, and they can be fun, but I really like Mysore practice, and I follow the rule of not going past Marichyasana D, because I can’t bind my hands in it.
So I’m more a traditionalist than I ever imagined! I was aghast when I visited an Ashtanga studio in another city to find them violating some of the rules. Everyone had blocks and straps – common in other styles but virtually banned in my Ashtanga experience. I did a triple take. Was I in the right place? Sure, for an introductory class, props can help, I thought… but for everyone?! And then I noticed water bottles! WATER BOTTLES! They are contrary to the Ashtanga principle of building up internal heat. That’s not my favourite aspect of the practice. I don’t buy the line about detoxification: sweating is good for the body and one way we excrete, but I sweat plenty, thanks. Still, the rule is clear, and I hydrate thoroughly the rest of the day.
That class class experience reminded me how at eighteen and I was shocked attending Easter service in a “high Anglican” church that people lined up to kiss the crucifix. To me that was sacrilegious idol worship. Apparently, Ashtanga is my new orthodoxy.
For that class, I got a strap and blocks like everyone else, but I felt like a cheater the whole time. When I told my instructor at home about the water, she gasped in astonishment! I still feel like I’m getting away with something when I succumb to temptation (in a led class) and try a posture from the latter half of the series. I may get over that, but for now the orthodoxy suits me, and that’s what matters.