March 14, 2017

The West’s Love Affair with Ashtanga Yoga.

Why I believe Ashtanga yoga has become so popular in the West.

It’s interesting to me, this recent obsession in the West with Ashtanga yoga, largely spurred on by our favourite green-juice-drinking, handstand-walking, Instagramming yogi-superstars.

It’s interesting to me because I’m married to an Indian, and I’ve spent quite a lot of time in the vast sub-continent—a land drenched in prayer and spiritual devotion, and home to the city of Mysore, the birth-place of Ashtanga yoga. And yet few, if any, of the Indians I know rollout a mat and practice a vigorous asana (yoga posture) routine each day.

What gives?!

Here’s my theory: We Westerners, with our jittery minds and stiff bodies, need something really strong to capture our flighty attention; where is attention deficit disorder more prevalent than America, king of the West?

Simply sitting still and trying to watch the breath in meditation is incredibly hard for many of us, but Ashtanga yoga is so intense it demands concentration. The strenuous physical practice gets the mind to stop swinging wildly through its jungle of thoughts (at least for a while).

In addition to this, the founding teacher of Ashtanga yoga, Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, outlined the exact drishti (gazing points) for every single pose, thereby not allowing our eyes to flit here and there during practice. Keeping the eyes focused on one particular point during each posture exerts a powerful, calming influence on our state of mind.

But the vital essence of the practice is, in fact, learning to work with the ujjayi breath (commonly called victorious or oceanic breathing, it’s a method of channeling the breath by slightly constricting the back of the throat, thus creating the soft oceanic sound while also increasing internal body heat).

Why is the breath so important? Develop strong, quiet, and powerful breathing and you’ll develop a strong, quiet, and powerful mind. Do it in the midst of a phenomenally challenging practice and watch how you really begin to rewire your entire nervous system.

These are the big three: the asanas, the drishti, and the ujjayi breath. But I believe there is also one other important reason as to why traditional Mysore-style Ashtanga yoga (where the student practices one of several set series at their own pace, always following a set order of poses) is so good for us Westerners.

A large part of our flighty, jittery mindsets arises from our inability to settle on any one thing. We constantly want something new, something different—heck, I can barely handle too many days of sunshine without craving some clouds or rain, just for a change!

I’ve noticed that Indians, on the other hand, can generally be content while performing the most mundane and monotonous of activities, day in and day out, remaining happy and satisfied even as they wish for change. In my personal experience, I certainly do not.

That’s not to say that we Westerners should settle for a boring daily routine, nor that all Indians are perfectly happy, satisfied people. Rather it’s that consistently getting on our mat and doing the same routine, as in the traditional Ashtanga primary series (the first set sequence), whether we’re in the mood for it or not, or whether it’s easy or difficult, trains our restless minds to become more accepting and at ease with the present moment.

In the space between settling for a life lacking joy and inspiration and anxiously changing the next big dream, as the mind quiets and the breath moves deeply through the body, pose after pose, we need to find a way to surrender to the moment, all the while nurturing that spark of change and forward movement so vibrant in the West.

It’s interesting to me, this obsession with Ashtanga yoga in the West, our attraction to this physically demanding yoga routine that’s so different to the prayerful devotional yoga most Indians practice. Interesting yes, but not surprising!




Author: Liz O’Brien

Image: Flickr/Amy

Editor: Travis May

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Liz O'Brien