My relationship with Ashtanga yoga used to ride on a thin line between love and hate.
Some days the practice would make me feel capable of anything. Other days, I would feel totally defeated. It would also depend where I took my practice. I typically practiced at home, but if I practiced elsewhere like an Ashtanga studio, I was doomed. You see, I’m unable to get into Padmasana (lotus). Teachers have told me, “You can’t get your legs into lotus, yet!” As they give me smile and a little wink.
No, seriously, the head of my femur bone doesn’t externally rotate in the hip joint enough to actually get into the position. The rotation would have to come from the knee joint and that’s just bad juju. So, instead of giving the anatomical breakdown to the teacher, I smile and wink back, “Yep, maybe next lifetime” as I slowly move away before I become an injured experiment.
In the different Ashtanga studios I’ve been to on the East Coast, I would say many of them would allow me to finish the practice with my own modifications. And that doomed feeling? Yeah, that’s from my wandering drishti floating towards the perfect lotus across from me. My mind starts to wonder, “Maybe if I just squeeze my mula bandha a little tighter…”
And then there’s the other breed of studios. I could probably get through ardha baddha padma paschimottanasana, fumble with marichyasana B and get to marichyasana D before I was sent packing.
WTF? Trust me, no amount of “acclimatizing” into the sequence is going to get my femur’s “angle of inclination” to accommodate lotus. So, I did what any reasonable Ashtangi would do, I flew to Europe and took Manju P. Jois’ teacher training. He wasn’t going to be offering any training in the United States that wasn’t completely sold out, so why not? I had some questions about this practice that I wanted to hear from the horse’s mouth. He was the closest I could come to the real deal without having to worry about dysentery.
The worst case scenario? That I was going to have to sit out of the practice after the first pose in half lotus. The best case scenario? My gut feeling was right. The Ashtanga practice isn’t about the pose, but your awareness within the pose.
I walked into the studio. The walls were white and bare, the floors were made out of bamboo and the room had the faint smell of sweat. After we all placed our mats down and said the opening invocation, we all went through the Ashtanga primary series Mysore style. I wasn’t told to leave…actually, I was given a few assists to deepen into poses that I could comfortably do. I was in an Ashtanga Studio in front of Manju P. Jois and nobody cared that I wasn’t doing lotus.
Over the course of 14 days, we had opportunities for discussion and the inevitable question came up, “Do we have to stop the practice if we can’t do the pose?” Manju smiled at this question and said “of course not, this is a made up rule.” I enjoyed Manju’s acceptance for everyone in the practice and reassuring his students that Ashtanga yoga can be tailored to suit anyone.
Less than a year later, I’m in the presence of another great Ashtangi, David Williams. During his workshop, he told us to “Follow the feel good and yoga shouldn’t hurt.” We didn’t do one sarvangasana (shoulder stand), sirsasana (headstand) or chakrasana (roll over summersault) during the entire workshop due to safety concerns with the cervical spine.
During marichyasana D, we were asked to stop and look around the room. David Williams said in loud booming voice, “How many of you have a bind? Less than 20%, so should the rest of you get up and leave? Hell no!” I smiled to myself, this dude is freakin’ awesome.
Hell no is right. Taking another quote from David Williams,” yoga is not about the pose, but about what’s goin’ on between the ears while you’re in the pose.” A student in a modified marichyasana D with a mind focusing on the bandhas and breath is doing more yoga than a student in full marichyasana D wondering where they’re going for dinner after class.
To those Ashtangis that haven’t mastered their particular asana, remember that yoga is from within, not without—you may master the pose or you may not. In the words of Manju P. Jois, “there’s always next lifetime.”
Read more: Off the Uniform, into the Practice.
Editor: Tanya L. Markul