November 30, 2010

21 Things I wish someone told me before I started practicing Ashtanga yoga.

I was completely intrigued by Ashtanga at first sight, starting with its brutal schedule, its lack of poetry (no “feel the earth’s energy flow through you” ever heard in a class) and mythological superstition, as in:  no new poses to be taught on Tuesdays because it is ruled by Mars which is the God of war.

Finally!,  I thought to myself, a very specific approach which, in spite of having a lot in common with all other styles, has one single element that makes it stand out: it is done as a self-practice where each student arrives in their own time and does his or her practice while the teacher comes around to adjust individually. Known as the Mysore style (due to its birth-place in India), I ventured into it with an open heart one April fool’s day.  Looking back there are a few things I wish someone had whispered in my ear as I embarked on such a colossal journey, these are 21 of the most notorious:

1. – It is a breathing practice

Breathing is the most important and relevant thing within the practice.  As one embarks on the primary series (there are six that grow in difficulty) the first curious thing is that there is no pause, one keeps breathing and flowing from one asana to the next and the body is constantly moving while riding the breath.  It is not uncommon to go out of breath in the beginning or to turn into a “respirator” by loudly forcing it.  I have myself been in both extremes and either breathed loudly trying to catch up with the movement or not breathed at all in days where I wanted to be numb and avoid it all. It is a practice for that reason; we aim towards the middle balance.  The Ujjayi breath (the Dark Vader sounding breath) of the Mysore practice is as important as it is difficult to understand.  The amount of push and sound need be only as much as is required to generate heat, focus, and reach the edge of each asana, then transcend it.

2.- Hot and hard

Mysore classes can get really hot, especially when the rooms are crowded, it is summer, or you are in a tropical place. Sweat is profuse when the practice starts to get deep and the purification process of the first series starts.  It is also hard, the poses are not easy and there is nothing poetic about it, it is what it is, and one deals with it.  Perspiration goes hand in hand with daily practice and it is best to make peace with it, and do some research on good deodorants.

3.-Weight release happens

Coming into the practice I noticed how most advanced practitioners had beautiful and balanced bodies, and I wanted that.  I learned eventually that the practice might not turn me into a model much to my dismay, but that instead it would return my body to its original blue-print, which it did because of the intensity of the asana and as soon as a momentum was reached.  For example: I learned very quickly that to do the deep twists in the middle of the first series (Marichasanas) I needed an empty stomach, a very empty one, and so having the last meal before 7 PM became an easy routine. Through the health momentum of yoga I actually released 30 pounds myself.

4.-“Ladies holidays”, and: do I shower before practice? After?  Or both?

Ladies holidays are a topic in itself; I have seen women who never take rest and women who take 2 or even 3 days off.  In the end it is a very personal choice.  In India the suggestion is to take three full days of rest but I have found that practitioners in the west seem to have a very different opinion.  Most women pay no attention to these special days and practice anyway; they make some adjustments (like no inversions) but do not stop.   In my own case I learned that it is best to take rest and I do, I also welcome it.

As per the showering, the tacit agreement is that everyone showers both before and after. I used to think that if I was going to “exercise and sweat” then what was the point of pre-showering anyway?  That is, until I happened to practice next to a fellow practitioner that smelled, that changed everything.  Now I shower before and after, even if I practice alone.  Also, showering pre-practice prepares the body and can at times help loosen it.

5.-Should you forget a pose in the sequence…

About 5 months into my own practice one day I skipped a pose, did not notice, forgot, and kept going.  The teacher came over and had me go back and repeat from where I had skipped about 7 poses earlier. Ouch.  I learned the lesson. On the other hand I also started to become “shala smart” and  hide my mistakes if they ever happened again, which they did, and to pay more and more attention every day, until the practice became a bit automatic, which is in itself another danger.  Not all teachers make people go back and repeat, but I feel it was a very good learning experience for me.

6.-Pose advancement anxiety

I did not anticipate when I started that I would crave and have internal battles over wanting more poses, reaching second series, advancing, moving.  My explosive intent to keep growing, show off, be better is one that my Westerner mind has very ingrained.  Then I noticed that the desire would go in cycles, sometimes I would want more sometimes I would not want anything.  I would not say I am completely surrendered to the process by now, but at least I am laughing at it a bit more.

7.-The addiction

The practice is addictive, or, perhaps a better expression is “habit forming”, once you start practicing you will crave it and will practice everywhere you go, in your brother’s terrace, an airborne plane (in the kitchen area until the kick you out), behind the airport counter or just all out in full display while waiting for the next plane out of Dubai, yes I did all of those.  It happens as you can see in the down dog picture by the Tower Bridge in London or the headstand in a Buenos Aires park.

8.-It is OK to say no to adjustments

Until trust is established with a teacher it is not only OK but also healthy to keep strong boundaries. In a good way, of course, no need to be rude.  It is important to always respect our bodies and what we know about them.  That being said, it is also good to be careful not to fall too much on the other side of that coin as adjustments are useful, and certain poses -I am pretty sure- are impossible without them, for example Supta Kurmasana, in which the legs attempt to go behind the neck, which takes not just one adjustment but years of them.

9.-Why rest on moon days?

The practice happens 6 times a week and this is a plus as it leaves very little room for laziness or hesitation.  The only days of rest are Saturdays, ladies holidays, and new/full moon days.  Why is that? There are many theories. One of them that makes the most sense to me is that our bodies are mostly water which in turn, just as the oceans are influenced by the ties and cycles of the moon.  A new moon is then compared to the end of a breathing cycle, the end of the exhale, where we normally pause and then breath in, while the full moon would be the equivalent of the top of the inhale when, with filled lungs, we briefly pause to start the cycle all over again. Another one would be to look at the spike in number of emergency room visits during full moon days.

10.-Conversations get technical

Some yogis are very much into the asana part, and you will encounter them, they are fascinating people to talk to because you start to get very precise about what happens and what is needed in a pose. I am grateful to have a few yogis in my life who love discussing every single detail.  You will notice that not only do you learn the Sanskrit words for the poses but you will also learn the names of the muscles you use in each of them (do you know where your psoas is?).  You might also being to talk quite a bit about your anus and the perineum. People listening in will wonder.

11.-Led classes are useful.  Fun? maybe not so much

Because the practice is self-directed the tradition provides one led (or guided) class per week.  Not all studios subscribe to this but more and more are catching on.  The good thing about it is that you get to learn the true count (no movement or breath is ever left to chance in Ashtnaga), and it helps with cleaning up any extra movements you may have “creatively” added, I know I do from time to time.   So they are useful, but for me not so much fun.  Once I got used to practicing on my own it became a little difficult to go back to a teacher led class, but then again, this provides a wonderful frame on which to work on detachment and surrendering, some of those “other” limbs of yoga.

12.-Cult accusations

Yes, you might be the target of accusations of having joined a cult, which is sweet really and partly true, as there are a few practitioners out there who can get very fanatic about it.  It is a challenge to maintain a sense of humor, an attitude of detachment, and to admit that hey!, other practices also work well.

13.-Castor oil baths

Early on a teacher suggested I do a “Saturday practice“.  Saturdays are the days of rest, however, it is also a day to take care of the body, enter: the oil bath!  The bathing is a bit messy as it includes rubbing the whole body and head (scalp included) with castor oil, a very thick and greasy substance, and then laying in corpse pose for a few minutes.  It is a powerful ritual, so much so that after one of them it is necessary to be very mindful on the next practice, because the body feels strong and supple and it is easy to go overboard with the stretching.


I am still not sure I will ever understand the full story behind bandhas.  They are basically internal locks which one engages during asana practice; one is in the area of the perineum (moola bandha), and: “Tighten the anus” is a phrase you need to be prepared to hear.  The other one is in the area of the navel (udhyana bandha). Their main purpose is to prevent energy from leaking out of the body and induce it to flow upwards through the chakras and eventually enlighten us.  All very interesting but a life time of work to understand at a visceral level.  By the way there is a third bandha (in the area of the throat) and an ongoing debate around weather it should be engaged during practice or not, but that is material for another post.

15-Change in social habits and in life

Not everyone enjoys going out at night with a deadline of “I need to be asleep by 9”.  Waking up at 5 on a consistent basis changes things.  There is always the possibility of Mysore practice in the afternoon, but for me it has always been better to practice in the morning, because that way I get the feeling that something was accomplished even before 8 AM.

But perhaps the most fantastic part of Ashtanga yoga is the changes it produces in life, the positive ones. Sri K. Patthabi Jois, the guru of Ashtanga yoga, said: “Do you practice and all is coming“, and he is right, all is coming. It is difficult to put in words how the magic happens, but the chain goes something like this: practicing every day makes me notice my body, which in turn makes me notice what I eat and helps me with elimination, which in turns guides me to eat more healthy and sleep earlier and rest when I notice I need to, which also aids my posture and the way I present myself, which leads to better attention when I am doing chores and better discrimination in the choices I make every day.  More discriminated choices lead to better results and manifestations, which lead to a general better quality of life.  I have witnessed miracles in my life through the practice.

16.-Going to Mysore is highly recommended

Mysore (yes as in “my-sore”) in Southern India is the Mecca of Ashtanga and a place of wonder. It feels like another planet, mostly because it is, yet there is so much to see and learn there. There are countless blogs that talk about the Mysore experience and it is indeed something to live through, even if only once. I myself will be returning soon.

17.-Learning Sanskrit happens

There is no way out, it starts with learning the names of those asanas (poses), with wanting to understand what others are talking about, with asking what is fill-in-the-blank-asana? Followed someone mimicking a pose in the bathroom for a response, it just happens.  The beautiful thing is that it gets deeper when we realize that in the sound of Sanskrit there is more than just noise, there is magic, power. Sanskrit  happens, the sooner the better. Besides, it’s pretty cool.

18.-The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali are a part of the deal

The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali are the other side of the coin.  The front side is the asana, but without the sutras and after a while they begin to feel empty. Patanjali wrote 196 short sentences which need de-coding, throw them into the mix and it all becomes a matrix of wisdom, the Indiana Jones journey of yoga begins.   The sutras clearly identify in a scientific way the 8 limbs of yoga that lead to happiness or liberation (that is what ashtanga means ashto: eight anga: limbs)

19.-Indian Mythology and its powerful symbols

There are fantastic stories in Indian Mythology,  so many that you probably won’t hear them all unless you go all out and get a P.H.D.  One for example is that of Hanuman (who has a pose named after him (the split)), and how he jumped with split legs from the tip of India to the island of Shri Lanka .  Another one is that of Shiva and how he drunk the poison that was threatening the world but did not swallow it, just kept it in his throat, and that is the reason why his neck is blue. Another one is about why Ganesh (the God that removes obstacles) is a man with an elephant head.  The most fascinating thing about these stories is that they can be thought of as metaphors for daily living.

20.-Curiosity for the other limbs (branches) will be awakened

The eight limbs are marks along the territory. The last four have always intrigued me, what is up with pranayama? (breath extension) How exactly does one do pratyahara (sense withdrawal)? What about dharana (concentration), dhyana (meditation), samadhi (absolute peace and happiness)? There is a deeper reality happening as we speak, a timeless wisdom and intelligence manifesting itself, perhaps attracting us to the depths of yoga as we speak. It is difficult to see this because we are so burdened with daily life and our minds fall into intense chatter, the aim of yoga is to get in touch with the vastness, with what Rumi calls “the beloved”. The upper limbs contain a map towards it.

21.-You’ll go down the rabbit hole

At some point we just do, maybe we visit Mysore or we come across a very good teacher that encourages scripture reading, and we read the Yoga Sutras, or the Gita, or the Upanishads, and all of a sudden we find ourselves in a whole new world where the possibilities opened by yoga go far deeper than we ever dreamed of.  Coincidences start to happen, we begin to be in the right place at the right time, life becomes a thread of wellbeing, and we find ourselves on the path to infinite peace, curious about all limbs, suddenly transformed and in a world of wonder.

If you are thinking about starting a yoga practice but need a little bit of a sense of humor kick to get you started check out these lame excuses that keep people away from yoga. Also you make sure to read the 32 Unusual Benefits of Yoga


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