Ashtanga Yoga – What’s it all about? Can I be an Ashtangi even if I can’t get into crazy postures?
Yes. Absolutely you can. You can also be one even if you can’t get out of crazy postures (Kukkutasana anyone?).
If you are interested in what this system of breathing/rhythmic movement/meditation is all about, and you have a little time, less than an hour to spare, then certainly. I believe that you can practice Ashtanga vinyasa yoga your entire life with a nice daily practice and never even confront “crazy postures”. And if a crazy posture happens to greet you, simply reciprocate the greeting with a warm welcome, do something with it while honoring ahimsa, and be sure to give it a nice farewell (You take care now, Tittibhasana-and-jump-back-into-chaturanga dandasana, until next time!). What you may be doing instead might not look so crazy. It may not even be recognizable as anything remotely related to the posture in its textbook form. But is this really important? Who is judging you, yourself? Does it really matter on your yoga journey and self-realization path that you can’t do contortionist-like yoga moves? If it does matter, keep practicing, and hopefully this journey will lead you to the realization that it does not matter.
As an Ashtanga vinyasa yoga practitioner, one might also pose the question, “ Can I be an Ashtangi even if I can’t go from one posture to the next in the manner prescribed? After all, I’m just trying to get from Point A to Point B. Why the circuitous, wild ride on the way?” I once wrote a song addressing this issue called “The jump back, jump through blues”. Perhaps this leads to another topic, but I answer absolutely the same.
As “Ashtangis”, or any hatha yoga practitioner, whether we practice crazy postures, crazy transitions between postures, or we don’t, we are all working with the practice of yoga, grappling with inner dialogue simultaneously while moving our body physically. Someone new to the Ashtanga vinyasa method may be thinking five minutes into the practice during Sun Salutation B, “Are we in a hurry here? I rushed to yoga class to slow down, not take it up another notch.” Or a newcomer may feel as though they came to a Circus audition rather than a yoga class. You probably will be among Circus-qualified contortionists in an Ashtanga yoga class, but you are far from being at a Circus. Trust that, and start the rhythm of your yoga practice, whatever it may be, and enjoy.
I have been practicing yoga for about nine years, Ashtanga vinyasa yoga for the last eight, practicing the full primary series, modifying my way through second series on occasion, and dabbling with postures in the more advanced series. I affirmed that I was an “Ashtangi” the day I first heard the term and was asked if I was one. I don’t know how long I’d been practicing, but I knew that I loved and embraced this system. So after pondering the question a moment, I answered, “Yes, I am”.
What is an “Ashtangi” anyway? One who is devoted to the Ashtanga vinyasa yoga method and practices no other? One who chants daily “Give me Ashtanga yoga or give me death! ”? Or perhaps one who simply enjoys the method, approaches it at their own pace, and embraces it as part of their life?
Blooming from a practice that has consisted over the years of a beautiful myriad of consistent, vigorous 2 hour/day, 6-day/week practices to less than that, to complete sabbaticals from the traditional Ashtanga yoga practice, to torturous re-entry, and to repeat similar patterns, I have learned that yoga, Ashtanga vinyasa yoga, is so much more than the postures in the series. It’s not about the 1st, 2nd, and will-I- ever- get- to- the-other series anymore. ASHTANGA VINYASA YOGA IS SO MUCH MORE THAN THE POSTURES IN THE SERIES.
I feel the Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga practice is unique. The uninterrupted, rhythmic, and challenging method appeals to me. It’s a magical journey. But since the sequences are to be memorized, done with correct timing, and can be difficult physically, learning this process and paying attention to the physical details alone can keep one occupied, day in and day out.
One can get lost in this process if the focus is always there and only there. But once you memorize the postures you will do, you don’t have to think much during your yoga practice. Your body knows what to do and moves accordingly. I believe this is the time to trust your body’s movement and further shift the focus to the mind. I notice my noisy mind seems louder when my body is silently, smoothly, but diligently moving on autopilot. For me, this practice serves its purpose well. It brings the inner chaos to my attention, and the techniques employed (focused breathing with sound, steady rhythm...) slow it down. And sometimes, my mind begins to fall in sync with the body, entering some silent, groovy space. Having this sweet, new, roomy space does allow for new noise to enter, but in these moments it is not noise that comes, it is music.
And now, to succinctly answer the question posed after taking you all on a circuitous route:
I think that if you feel like an Ashtangi, you are one. If you breathe like an Ashtangi, you are one. If you quack like an Ashtangi, you definitely are one. And if you bend, balance, float and fly, you’re a flamingo (Well, okay, or you are David Swenson).
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