“I cannot tell you how many people I know that won’t do primary series because they are intimidated. I look forward to your post for beginners...”
When I started I did not dare go to a half-led class or a Mysore-style class until I “thought” I “knew” at least half of the series. I felt embarrassed, out of place, scared. But if I was starting all over again I wish I had a place with suggestions. So I wrote this article. Heck even wrote a book about it -which you can get for free (see my bio below)-.
I am aware there maybe a lot of other resources, pointers, suggestions, and that there are many ashtangis reading this. There is a readership eager to hear your suggestions.
1.- Do Your Practice, All is Coming
Know that Ashtanga is a life-time process not a “get rich quick” thing. Far from it, so it is good to take it one thing at the time. And that includes this post, you might want to print it and read it over days if not months.
|After asana practice with Sharath|
“Asana” is the practice of the poses of yoga. Start that practice, get on the mat, do what you can, get used to it. It might be only two or three times a week in the beginning. That is fine, most of us started that way and it takes a lot to commit to a daily routine.
I find that the daily practice (as in getting on the mat 6x-week) “happens” as we begin to notice the benefits of the practice and prefer them over our own old routines. We notice that we “feel better” on the days we practice and “not so good” on the days we do not and start to re-arranging our lives so that practice can take place. So do not worry, get on the mat, let all the rest come.
There is no need to push and get hurt, it is important to put the practice in front of the desire to rush, or “get” anywhere. After all there is no progress in being injured. And the mind is the biggest instrument we need to deal with, especially its desire to rush.
2.- Focus on just the Asana Practice
At least in the beginning. “The practice starts with asana because it is a strong body that will focus our mind and end the delusions“, said Sharath Jois—I’m paraphrasing—in a recent NYC conference, that is why the emphasis is completely on surrendering to, and achieving a daily pose —asana—practice.
The two branches that come before “asana”, yama and niyama, (or the do’s and don’ts) are difficult to master. So in the beginning you just think of “being ethical” as in telling the truth, not stealing, becoming a good person. A strong body and clear mind are needed to discriminate to an extent in which we might be able to reach these limbs of yoga, and be of good use to society. We start with asana practice, and to pay attention to our daily actions, all comes.
3.– It is a Breathing Practice
Make the breath the “first priority”, slow down and even take extras if you have to, just make sure to breathe deeply. When you think you are breathing deeply, think deeper.
The breathing is done in a very specific way called: “ujjayi breath“. It is best to learn the breathing from a teacher, or at least hear someone do it. What happens is that we contract the glottis so that the air is inhaled and exhaled in a much more controlled and slow way, there is also a sound associated with it -think Darth Vader of Star Wars-.
Recently someone who just started practicing reminded me of how in the beginning it is OK to add extra breaths, and aim to get the “flow” of the sequence right. Meaning, for example: on the very first sun salutation, inhaling with ujjayi breathing as we raise the arms up and look up, then exhaling as we fold down and place the hands on the floor, it might be that you need an extra breath. That is Fine.
And on the issue of ‘bringing the hands on the floor’, they may not quite go there at the start, and it is OK to give them time, but never push or force. See the tricks your mind will play. It will. It loves to play monkey and compare you with others. Observe.
4.- Learning the Primary Series slowly is a good way to begin.
|Warrior pose in the standing sequence|
The Primary Series is called Yoga Therapy—Chikitsa—for this reason, because it slowly sends air to parts of our body where it never reached before, it tones the body, and makes use of muscles we had no idea we had.
|Uttita Hasta Padangustasana|
When I first started practicing a studio in the area offered “Half-Primary Led Classes”, if you can find these, and the teacher “clicks with you”, then you are in luck, as these are short versions, not too daunting -usually going to Navasana or boat pose-, and even then you may need to stop before the twists (Marichasanas). That is OK, you would learn the count.
Bandhas are internal locks and the most important one is the mulabandha or root chakra lock. This is done by contracting the area of the perineum. Pattabhi Jois was known for saying that you should actually contract this area of the body all day long, not just during practice.
Bandhas are used to prevent leaks of energy. When we lock the root portion of the body we ensure that the base of our energy is active and connected. There is a second Bandha called “Uddyana badha” in the area of the navel. The idea is that once the energy is harnessed from the root it is sent upwards.
I would not worry too much about bandhas—at least at the start—other than to keep remembering whenever possible to engage the root bandha, to “tighten your anus”, that famous expression that makes ashtanga famous.
Is the focus point, and each pose has one, either we look at the hand or the left or the right or the nose (alongside the nose) etc. Your teacher will point to you which way to look. Do not worry too much in the beginning, just be aware of it. Slowly it will all come together like the pieces of a puzzle, and over years of practice.
Eventually, with a lot of practice it all comes together and the poses, the breathing and the drishti happen. That is Tristasana which means all three aspects are coming together, then a meditative state is induced even as we practice asana. It could take years for this to happen.
When someone asked Sharath (Grandson of Jois and current holder of the lineage) how come “bandha” was not included in Tristasana he repeated what Pattabhi Jois said, that bandha should be “on” or “engaged” all day long.
8.- Get Comfortable Sweating
If the breathing is done correctly, then the sweating will break pretty soon unless you are practicing in a very cold area of the planet. If you do not sweat at all then it is likely you are not breathing and pushing yourself towards your “edge” in every asana and vinyasa (movements and breathings done to get into and out of each asana). If you are sweating too much you may be over-exerting, which brings me to…
9.- The Issue of Finding a teacher
This might be the most challenging part of having your practice stick. An experienced teacher has done his or her practice for many years and hence knows not only the counts, the proper breathing, the right alignment, but also the energetics of the pose.
If you are lucky enough to have studios in your area visit them and ask them for a “trial membership”. Make sure the ashtanga teacher will be in the room on those days (as many teachers travel quite a bit, visit Mysore etc). See what your gut feeling is about the teacher, can you trust him? Does she talk to you?
If you can find a teacher that clicks with you, then consider yourself blessed, and try to stick to it. Pretty soon you may find yourself wanting to go to Mysore, that is a great idea! For more on that see the last 5 points.
Many people cannot practice alone, but some can, so if you cannot find a teacher there are still some other ways to get started.
A list of authorized and certified ashtanga teachers from around the world can be found here.
It takes a while for new teachers to appear in the list, so check the listings of your local ashtanga studios.
Also, it is not critical that a teacher be certified or authorized wither. There are lots of teachers that follow Manju Jois -son of P.Jois- tradition and receive a different authorization so they many not be listed there, but still be very good teachers.
The resources below are directed towards those without access to a good teacher OR those who would like to build a little bit of a practice and sweat before hitting the studio. I know this might be the case as it is how I felt.
11.- Read the 21 Things I Wish I Knew Before Starting the Practice, for a laugh.
12.- Shower Before and After. As you begin the practice, the purification will start releasing some toxins you did not even know you had. You may smell in a way you are not used to, especially if you did not shower before. Also, showering relaxes the body and prepares it for practice. Pattabhi Jois said that it is important to shower afterwards too to remove the toxins that come out of the body during practice.
13.- Quotes that help keep us going
- Anyone can practice yoga, old, young, sick, very old. Only one person cannot practice: the lazy! P.Jois
- No Coffee no prana – Sharath is very fond of sharing how he has been drinking a cup of coffee before practice every day since he can remember. He says that is the only “preparation” he uses before getting on the mat
- 99% practice 1% theory. Yeap! as in: let’s get on the mat!
- Here are 32 unusual yoga quotes that jolt me back into center -not all from ashtanga though-
14.- How to learn the chants
- Here is Pattabhi Jois singing the opening chant, you can also read it and see what it means. And here is the closing prayer.
- Manju Jois has a CD that includes the opening and closing mantras.
- Also, visit www.kpjayi.org for the history of Ashtanga, pictures, bios etc.
Suggested DVDs to Start
15.- Richard Freeman: Ashtanga Yoga Introduction, and also of course, The Primary Series. Richard has been practicing yoga for over 40 years, and his principal teacher was Pattabhi Jois. I have used his DVD on the Primary Series. He mostly goes through the count and explains a few things here and there. It is useful.
|“Turning ON the lights of the pose in Prasaritta Padotanassana A”|
For example, on Prasarita Padotanasana A he says “turn on the lights of the pose” and I always remember that metaphor when I get into the pose.
16.- Kino MacGregor Introduction to Ashtanga: The good thing about this DVD is that it includes a talk on breathing (by Tim Feldmann) and one on the philosophy side (by Greg Nardi). And then of course there is Kino and Greg going through primary with modifications up to Janu A. See my review here. She also has a CD with the full primary series.
17.-Mark Darby ‘Ashtanga Yoga Primary Series‘. This DVD means a lot to me because it is the one I started practicing to. If you speak French, this is the one to get, as you can have it play in English or An Francaise… oui.
Specifically I like that Mark does the primary series at a very “advanced level”, you know? like he can hold his leg really straight and up in Uttita Hasta Padangustasana, while Nicole (the assistant teacher who speaks French) does the “modifications”.
On the early days of my own practice I remember how relieved I was when the DVD got to the laying down part. It is quite a long practice, but remember to do it up until where you can. It does get easier with time!
- Sharath Jois has a few DVDs of the Primary Series. In my opinion they are great because he does not talk at all, rather he just sticks to the count, and should you ever visit Mysore this is what a led class would look and feel like. Only thing is, Sharath is very advanced, he goes a little on the fast side, and there are no modifications. Is good to have but perhaps not so much to start with.
- Sri K Pattabhi Jois leading the primary and intermediate series in 1993 in Los Angeles.
- David Garrigues an introduction to the primary series DVD. He also has explanations on top of the counts, and you can either buy it from Amazon, or RENT IT!, that is new…
- Daydreamingmel, a blogger and reader, suggested the DVD by Basia Lipska, which is in English and Polish!, how cool is that? I have not seen it but my understanding is that it goes through the primary series and has modifications.
- Lino Miele, a very popular and senior teacher from Milan, also has a DVD on the primary series, I have not seen it and would welcome feedback and notes about it if you have. Is it in Italian too?
- Mysore Style Ashtanga Yoga Primary Series with Melanie Fawer. Melanie is a certified teacher of KPJ. I have not seen this DVD yet, have you? The “Mysore style” part in the title makes me curious, I wonder if she does not lead the class, or how it is structured.
For Fun: DVDs to admire
- Sri K. Pattabhi Jois Ashtanga Yoga, Encinitas, 3rd and 4th Series
- David Swenson Ashtanga Yoga 2nd and 3rd Series
18.- On Anatomy. David Keil Yoga DVDs on Anatomy. Is a two DVD set which attempts to explain in layman terms this complicated subject. Here is my review in case your curiosity has been awakened. Great to watch.
Books to Read
Why so many? Different books speak to different people and personalities. It might be a good idea to get one or two and see how they feel. I wrote a tiny bit about each one I know about. For example, I have yet to read the Lino Miele one, which I have on order, so I have not even read some of them… Remember this is to be investigated over a long period of time.
19.- Yoga Mala is one of only two books written by the guru of Ashtanga Yoga, Sri K.Pattabhi Jois. Yoga Mala means “A garland of Yoga”.
This from the publisher: “He outlines the ethical principles and philosophy underlying the discipline, explains important terms and concepts, and guides the reader through Asntahga’s Sun Salutations and the subsequent primary sequence of forty two asanas, or poses, precisely describing how to execute each position and what benefits each provides...”
20. Guruji. A great book with stories from students of the Pattabhi Jois, the Guru (lineage holder) from the early stages, from people who have been with him and studied under his tutelage for years and years, including his son, daughter, and grandson.
I love the stories that Saraswatti -his daughter- tells, for example when she remembers how Jois would do hour-long talks while standing on her, while she was in kurmasana. She loved it. I don’t think I would have, but she did, and you can tell, one look at her and you know she loves the practice and she loves to teach.
I also enjoyed the part when a student asked him why he would not teach him “meditation” and Guruji replied: “mad-attention?”. I Can certainly identify.
21.- Gregor Maehle‘s book: ‘Ashtanga Yoga Practice and Philosophy‘, is almost like a bible of ashtanga. It not only contains the primary series with lovely images, full descriptions and anatomy discussions, it also talks to us about being careful and preventing injuries.
The important thing about this book is that it also introduces the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, which are not discussed at lenght on this post as we are focusing on “starting with asana”, but that eventually get to be on the radar of any practitioner.
Mahele has done his homework and read many of the old sacred texts, he has a gift for bringing it all together in a frank, easy to understand way.
22.–David Swenson Has a great book called ‘Ashtanga Yoga The Practice Manual‘ containing photographs with modifications for each of the poses. He also has a laminated card, which I used when I began to remember the poses. My brother has that laminate now, and after holding it for 3 years he is finally speaking of starting to practice. I’m quite happy.
22. John Scott‘s was the book I used in the beginning. It is called ‘Ashtanga Yoga The Definitive Step-by-Step Guide to Dynamic Yoga‘. Even though many things have changed in the primary series since its publication, and it continues to evolve, I find this book useful.
23.- Lino Miele‘s book was written in conjunction with Pattabhi Jois and with drawings from John Scott. It is simply called ‘Ashtanga Yoga’ and goes over both primary and intermediate series. Many practitioners love it. confess I have not read this book yet, but I read the story behind it when Lino talks about his relationship with Jois in the ‘Guruji’ book above. So I am curious and I have it on order.
24. Richard Freeman I find that Richard Freeman’s ‘The Mirror of Yoga‘ is a book to wrestle with, read and re-read, there is a LOT of information there. And it is a treat to read a chapter here and there, when there is some down time.
25.- Matthew Sweeney has a great resource in booklet form called ‘Ashtanga Yoga As It Is‘. I love how you can see all the pictures of all the series -to fourth-. It inspires me just to look at, and it is also a great detailed map of the vinyasas.
26.- Articles Elephant has amazing articles on Ashtanga, like this interview with D. Robson ‘Guaranteed Transformation if You Want It‘. Also see this wonderful article: ‘The Path of the Student‘, by Paul Dallaghan. Or: Kino Mac Gregor ‘Principles of Twisting‘. There is also a site called Ashtanga.com that keeps a journal of writtings by advanced practitioners and certified teachers. You can also follow me on Twitter.
27.–Namarupa is a privately published magazine run by Eddie Stern -a senior teacher and certified student-, a very interesting read with great pictures and stories from walking sages of our time both here and in India.
Visiting Mysore, in South India
You may be curious after you start your practice about Msyore. If you are lucky you may have Sharath, Saraswati, or Manju come on tour to a city near you, and that is an experience not to be missed. Then, Mysore is really it! A place of wonder, another planet, and also a great treat to focus on your practice.
I find that it might be better to visit when your practice is “not so advanced” because you have less attachments to it. Another good reason to visit is that the primary series tends to change from time to time and it is good to travel to the source and see where things are at.
28.- Take it from a Beginner: The first time James -my husband- came with me to Mysore (read: was dragged by me) he was almost a complete beginner. He had been practicing Ashtanga for only 6 months, and felt a little out of sorts, so he wrote the post: I have been completely humiliated by yoga. That had a lot of people laughing and identifying with him.
That post is very indicative of how one might feel on a first trip being a beginner, it is also funny and we can all relate, no matter what level. As a matter of fact an advanced yogi who is about to start attending the led ‘intermediate’ class (possible the hardest yoga class in the planet) in India, told me she felt exactly like James, (even after years of practice) and that she would be writing a post on that.
So there! We get these feelings at every level. Sense of humor… a must.
29.-Learning to be Humble James also attended (this time he dragged me) Sharath on tour in NYC last April, and felt humiliated by yoga again! I know, he is not allowed to use that title anymore. He knows.
30.-Tips to travel safe For when you finally book that plane ticket to Bangalore (or Mysore… who knows? they just opened an airport), use the link on the title to see tips for safe travels. Always remember that India has very different customs, and it is important to respect them.
|The Chai Shop, near the shala in Mysore|
32.-Guide to Mysore. MysorePedia dot com is a free resource. Very mom-and-pops. Very useful.
Bonus: Here are 7 reasons why Ashtanga yoga is really not that hard… but rather the “hardness” is in the mind of the beholder.
By all means, if you do start a practice or have more questions, write to me. You know I love hearing about it!
May you be happy no matter what practice you embark on!
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