I have a confession to make: I think I am an Ashtanga rebel.
Perhaps this is not a very good quality for a yoga teacher? All of my life I have been known to push limits and boundaries. I question most things. I tend to challenge the comfort levels of others as well as myself. I personally believe that it is the challenging experiences and people in life that propel us forward. I tend to do everything the hard way.
So why would I be any different with my yoga practice?
From the age of 16 I have practiced varying types of yoga. None of them ever stuck as my primary source of inspiration. My practice became a mash up of styles depending on my mood and my physical needs. I finally became certified in Vinyasa when training became available to me at just the right time in my life.
Then I discovered Ashtanga.
In merely a month, I began practicing the full primary series; I became obsessed.
What started as a crush turned into a deep passion for the sequence. Ashtanga became my wonderwall. The intensity of the practice was a welcome challenge. I was humbled by the obstacles that my body and mind provided. My ego was quickly subdued. I dove right into practicing six days per week sometimes with an evening practice to work on areas of my body that need more attention. I also began practicing with another Ashtangi and I began reading as much literature as I possibly could. I also practiced with videos.
The truth is that Ashtanga is not readily accessible to me.
I live in a small mountain town with three studios (one of which is my own) and two gyms that offer yoga. Currently there is no one offering Ashtanga. The closest studio is an hour and a half away. As a single mother working three jobs it is difficult, if not impossible, for me to get out of town to catch a Mysore class at 6 a.m. I swear I am not just making excuses!
I have decided to break the rules. I am an Ashtanga rebel. (Shhhhh, don’t tell the” Ashtanga Police!!”)
Really, I am not as badass as all of that. I just love Ashtanga so much that I have had to adapt it to my lifestyle. For now I have had to adjust the rules a bit so that I can pursue my passion.
I decided that if I can’t get to Ashtanga practices, I would bring them to me.
I began to host an informal “group Ashtanga practice” at my studio. I usually practice with the students and sometimes we take the time to discuss poses. Occasionally we will follow a podcast or I will guide them through the primary series. With only eight months of experience under my belt this is somewhat frowned upon in the Ashtanga community.
It is not a lack of respect on my part of the beliefs of this ancient practice. It is the lack of availability of a respectable teacher, really tight funds, minimal free time as a single mom and an eagerness to spread the Ashtanga love.
It is known in the community that there is “no official Ashtanga Teacher Training.”
You must receive “authorization” or “certification” by going to Mysore classes (this class is not “led” as a whole but rather all instruction is one-on-one within the group class setting) and studying with Sharath. (Sharath was born in Mysore, India to Saraswathi Rangaswamy, daughter of Ashtanga master Sri K. Pattabhi Jois.)
Krishna Pattabhi Jois was an Indian yoga teacher and taught at his school, the Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute, in Mysore, India. Pattabhi Jois is widely acknowledged as this generation’s master of Ashtanga yoga.
I have been told find an immersion and begin studying with other revered and well known teachers (David Swenson, Tim Miller, Richard Freeman). Other experienced teachers in the community feel it is most important to study with someone for years and years before receiving the teachers blessing to move forward with new poses and to teach. This was all discouraging for me to hear. I have decided to do things my way until something else becomes available.
I suppose to some that makes me a rebel; I like to think that I am being resourceful.
My Ashtanga class is simply a bunch of us practicing together. I am not teaching by any means. We are all learning and exploring together in a light hearted atmosphere.
I have even begun to incorporate some of the second series poses into my practice. I don’t even do them in order as suggested! A pose like Bakasana (crow or crane pose) is simply fun and I can do it, so why the heck not?!
I also practice Vinyasa sometimes (oh no, I am breaking all the rules).
I find that an intelligent Vinyasa sequence enhances my Ashtanga practice by opening my body through poses not offered in the primary series. Eka Pada Raja Kapotasana (half pigeon pose) is my friend when it comes to opening my hips to deepen Padmasana (lotus) or Virabhadrasana A (warrior one). To tell you the truth, it is nice to return to something more familiar sometimes, it gives me a sense of accomplishment.
Ashtanga has helped me overcome fears that arise in poses that I tend to avoid. Ardha Chandrasana (half moon pose) has finally come to me with ease!
I teach Vinyasa, so when I am planning classes for the next day I will practice the sequence to make sure it flows together. This part is fun for me because it is a creative process. It tends to be different every time. Ashtanga has positively influenced my teaching by giving my classes more depth and spice which has pleasantly surprised and challenged my students.
I find that practicing both Ashtanga and Vinyasa offer balance for my mind, body and spirit.
Practicing and teaching both Ashtanga and Vinyasa have offered me the balance between the masculine and feminine, not only physically, but emotionally and mentally. They both offer me healing, strength, flexibility and confidence. I could not choose between one and the other. I feel complete with both in my life. They are yoga personified.
I would say that Vinyasa is a feminine form of yoga. It flows with grace and beauty. If offers creativity. It gently opens me up and feels nurturing and soft. It embraces me in its mothering arms.
Ashtanga, on the other hand, feels very masculine to me. It is very goal driven. It is powerful and dynamic. I seem to sweat like a man while building strength and perseverance. It nudges me forward with a firm fatherly hand.
So perhaps I am a rebel by breaking the rules of a strict Ashtanga foundation, but I prefer to see it as enriching my life and the lives of my students. And if that is frowned upon, so be it! I stand strong and firm in my choice and I will continue to practice and teach both methods, allowing for expansion and evolution in both of my practices and my teachings. I will continue to bridge the gap that seems to exist by making Ashtanga more accessible to people who are otherwise intimidated by it.
Perhaps one day I will be able to practice Ashtanga in the purest sense of the form.
I’ll do the 4:30 a.m. risings, early dinners, daily oil rubs, adhering to the suggested format, practice six days a week, moon cycle rest days. I would love to fully immerse myself in its teachings to see where it takes me.
But until that day comes, most likely when my daughter is grown, I will continue to stretch the rules. I will continue to allow for adaptations and whimsy. I will continue to be a playful rebel.
Nichole Gould is the founder of Barefoot Warrior Yoga in The White Mountains of New Hampshire. As a Student of life, yogini, yoga teacher, landscape gardener, single mother, organic pizza waitress and lover of all board sports, she considers herself a jack of much and a master of none. She can also be found dabbling with guitar playing, singing off key, reading from her many stacks of books or writing poetry. Feel feel to peruse her Facebook page or contact her via her website for more insight into her ever curious mind.
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