October 30, 2013

The Truth about Ashtanga Yoga. ~ Jessica Blanchard

I recently read a funny and well-written article on Elephant Journal, entitled Are You in the Ashtanga Cult? 

The article unleashed a slew of reflections on many of the preconceptions and misconceptions that people have about Ashtanga yoga.

Now that yoga has ballooned in popularity, practitioners often place themselves in one group or another. We want to feel like our yoga group is better, and we may construct a whole reality around how we must act to be a part of that group.

Like any social circle, in yoga there can be pressures to conform to the norms of the group.

Since starting yoga in 1999, I’ve practiced Ashtanga in Ireland, France, Thailand, India, and recently New Orleans.  In each place the local culture influences how the Ashtanga community sees itself and I’ve noticed social pressures in each place.

Reflecting back, the biggest pressures came during my many trips to the epicenter of Ashtanga in India.

The level of yoga talk there is unbelievable, and on all subjects. There are whispers about who had been given a new posture, started on Intermediate or Advanced A Series, ate dinner in the evenings, pigged out on ice cream and cakes after practice, smoked pot and came to class stoned—(although this may be the same person who pigged out).

We would also have long conversations about pooping habits, and which naughty students were studying another philosophy, against Guruji’s wishes.

So, what are some of the preconceptions around Ashtanga yoga?

1. If you’ve been a “serious” or “dedicated” practitioner you’ve experience some type of injury in years of practice.

I beg to differ. I hate to say this, but Ashtanga is often badly taught.

Students are encouraged to push themselves through pain or to see pain as some type of spiritual awakening.

Give me a break. Pain hurts, and we should not continue to do something that hurts us. This seems like common sense. I have not had any injuries from yoga—seriously. And I’ve gone pretty far in my practice.

If we begin the study of yoga with the first limbs of yoga, we learn two concepts Ghandi adopted and spread: non-violence and truthfulness.

Non-violence (ahimsa) is the first yama of the eight limbs, and in Sanskrit writing the most important. Being violent to oneself goes against an extremely important concept of yoga. The second yama, truthfulness (satya), helps us to see and be honest with ourselves about what we are doing.

If trying to achieve lotus is hurting your knee, rather than let your ego take charge and continue to hurt yourself, maybe you should step away.

This is how one really progresses at yoga—not by pushing through the pain.

2. Dedicated ashtangis don’t eat dinner; at least, they don’t eat after 6:00 P.M.

I tried this one. I tried having warm milk for dinner. I tried to fool myself into thinking I wasn’t hungry in the evenings. It wasn’t true.

I ended up compensating by eating more at breakfast and dinner and not feeling very good, and my weight was also more when I tried to restrict myself unnaturally.

I do not eat big meals in the evenings, especially if I’m waking early, but I usually have something. If I don’t, I wake up starving and have trouble getting through practice.

Also, so many social engagements are in the evenings and I don’t think it’s healthy to exclude a whole time period of socializing due to a silly rule.

I would often ask Tiwariji, my pranayama and philosophy teacher, what I should be doing with food, as I was looking for strict guidelines. He would laugh and reply with a great line from the Hathapradipika, “Remember Jessica, too much insistence on the rules is a hindrance to the yogi.”

Over the years I’ve noticed strange eating behaviors around yoga, and some could be eating disorders masquerading as rules around practice.

It seems sensible to eat when you are hungry and stop when you’ve had enough!

3. When you get serious about this practice, you must become a hermit.

When I started Ashtanga I was a corporate junkie who worked crazy hours and drank a ton. Practicing yoga prompted reflections on how my partying could be destroying my body, and it created a bit of a chasm with my boyfriend and social circle.

Slowly I began to meet others who were not as obsessed with partying and I began to study Ayurveda, (yoga’s sister science), and I quit the corporate job.

But I still find that socializing in the evening is a healthy part of life. We do not need to give it up to be serious about yoga. A more balanced approach might be to try balancing having a social life with managing a yoga practice.

4. Ashtangis are obsessed, or at least pre-occupied with their looks.

While I don’t care enough about my looks to get surgery or to dye my hair, I think most people care to some degree about their looks.

Unfortunately, many Westernized styles of yoga put a lot of emphasis on the “body beautiful.” Many people practice yoga to have a nice rounded, firm, derriere in their Lululemon yoga pants.

I would find it hard to believe that Ashtangis are any worse than others.

I would argue that Westerners in general are much more obsessed with looks. Visiting Ashrams in India, one might find people who are wearing baggy pants and covering themselves with shawls. And these people are probably less-obsessed, or at least pretending to be, than we are. So there.

5. We practice to be able to do hard poses.

Is this the goal of an Ashtanga practice?

Each person has a different goal. When I practice yoga regularly, I find that my mood is better, I’m more aware, and I am a much nicer person. A nice byproduct of consistent practice is increasing strength and flexibility; this is true, but not a bad thing.

Through years of practice, I’ve surprised myself. I remember practicing in London years ago and seeing someone do Pincha Mayurasana, thinking, “Wow, I’ll never be able to do that pose in a million years.”

A few months ago I was practicing this posture while pregnant.

Ashtanga has helped me to see past certain limitations that I put on myself—accomplished through the format of a yoga pose.

6. We lose our common sense and discernment when around yogis like Kino, Sharath, or Richard Freeman.

I have deep respect for all yogis, especially those who have paved the way for us younger generations—like Tim Miller, Richard Freeman, etc. I loved and still love Guruji with all my heart. This does not mean that I think they are beyond reproach. We are all humans living on earth, by default none of us is perfect.

Many people criticized Guruji for his love for money and the way he attended to women practitioners. He was not perfect but he was a special, wonderful teacher. The same goes for Sharath, Kino and Richard Freeman—none of them are perfect.

I love studying with the more experienced teachers, but I would not loose my common sense around them and I do not put these teachers on pedestals. When we do this we lose our sense of discernment and we’ve seen this a lot recently; in the sex scandals surfacing around yogis whose followers put them on a pedestal.

I urge yoga practitioners to question what their teachers say. I never want to be a Guru as a teacher and I expect my students to question me if I say stupid things.

7. Ashtangis dismiss other forms of yoga as fluffy.

This is a general tendency in many styles of so called “traditional” yoga.

I’ll admit that I have done this in the past, but the wise words of my teacher, Tiwari, come to mind; “Jessica, never ever condemn other styles of yoga. They may not be for you. So what? Worry about your own practices.”

He is so right.

8. We must wake at the crack of dawn to practice.

There are many ways to fit yoga practice into a day.

During many trips to Mysore I would wake up at 3:00 A.M. to prepare for the 4:00 A.M. practice start times. During my years working at Yoga Thailand, I would wake at 4:00 A.M. to practice pranayama and asana before teaching at 7:00 A.M.

I’ve tried that practicing before teaching approach, waking up at 4:00 A.M. to practice before a 6:30 A.M. Mysore class. I found that I was very tired all day and my brain turned to mush by 2:00 P.M.

Now that I have a husband, and more recently a baby, I’m a lot less rigid. I will practice after I teach, and sometimes in the afternoon.

I understand that practice in the morning is great, and I love to do it when I can, however a little practice any time of the day is better than none.

9. Ashtanga yoga is addictive.

Addiction according to Wikipedia:

“Addiction is the continued repetition of a behavior despite adverse consequences, or a neurological impairment leading to such behaviors,”

People can be rigid about their practice—prioritizing the need to practice every day over time with family.

I’m learning all about Karma yoga—having my baby boy puts everything into perspective.

I’ve often told students that yoga is practiced all the time, but only now do I really know what that means.

Addiction is a physical need for something. Generally, I don’t think that ashtanga has negative consequences from practicing, nor does it encourage neurological impairment. However it does encourage discipline.

Many people have difficulty with the discipline that it takes to drag our butts out of bed for yoga, and I did in the beginning. This changed after spending a weekend in Rome studying with Lino Miele.

We started at 6:00 A.M. (each morning)—yep, on a Saturdays in Rome—and I arrived to a packed room full of Italian yogis.

Upon returning to Ireland, I thought, “I guess I can drag my ass out of bed early in the morning to practice yoga,” because once you’ve done it a few times, it becomes easy.

And I realized how good I felt when I did yoga first thing in the morning.

This is not an addiction. It’s something awesome that I do for myself when I can.

10. No pain, no gain in Ashtanga yoga.

I beg to differ.

I covered this in point earlier. I think this approach comes from the ego rather than the smarter “buddhi,” intuitive self.

Pain is our body telling us that we are doing something we shouldn’t.  It means we need to re-examine our approach to the posture.

Part of yoga is learning to tell the difference between soreness from extending our muscles a little farther and soreness from working a little harder, to soreness from sharp pain and injury.

What are your conceptions around Ashtanga yoga?


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Assistant Ed: Kathryn Ashworth / Ed: Catherine Monkman

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