I knew Ashtanga was going to be a challenge. I knew because I had already tried and failed not that long ago, at a time where I wasn’t mentally prepared. One thing you may not know about me, if you aren’t so close to me or haven’t been a reader of many years, is that the last three years were the most difficult of my life. A heartbreak lead me first to great heights, with a powerful adrenaline rush that propelled me from Kuala Lumpur to Berlin by bicycle on almost a single breath. But arriving in Berlin was an entirely different story. I fell from high up into the depth of a depression, something I hadn’t before experienced and that I have been a little shy of discussing here.
Through this, yoga has been instrumental in helping me swim against the rock that was sinking me down. Except Ashtanga wasn’t. Two years ago, at the depth of it all, trying to learn the Ashtanga Primary Series sank me even deeper.
So wasn’t it a bit crazy that I wanted to give it another try, in the middle of a trip to Thailand where I had gone to put a lid on the last few years, right where it all began (or ended)? Well, yeah. Maybe. But I’m so glad I did.
It was no easier this time around. But I was ready to face myself and all the things I had repressed over the years that I didn’t want to see. I needed to go there. I found Mannu Yoga in Koh Phangan and learned to trust him. He held a safe container for me to breathe into and start this very intense journey of self-exploration.
So what is this Ashtanga Primary Series, I hear you say?
Let me try to explain.
Whereas most of you will commonly know yoga as a class where you go and follow the direction of a teacher, there is no such thing in Ashtanga. There is a teacher (and a weekly led class), but they will only be there to offer assistance, alignment, and in my case a lot of comforting. Ashtanga is a method where the sequence is memorized by the student. This way, you have to be your own guide, which is where I failed at first, since I was so lost. And since the sequence is the same every day, it is in many regards a meditation. Each movement follows a breath and has a specific focal point. It requires great concentration and a looooot of detachment. At 7am, your body doesn’t always want to do what it is told and you have to listen – and cannot hope for a result. You have to be present, breath, accept and observe.
Ashtanga is also a great tradition, developed by the late K. Pattabhi Jois in the 1950s. It is very closely tied with the Yoga Sutras of the philosopher Patanjali, likely the most important document on yoga philosophy. Most, if not all Ashtanga yoga teachers, are issued from the Jois lineage and there is something extremely appealing to me in how classical and intact the tradition has remained. Studying Ashtanga, for most people, also includes studies of the Sutras. And there is so much wisdom and applicable life advice I have found through my readings – something that was merely brushed upon in all those years of “regular”, more mainstream yoga practice.
Ashtanga primary series… And then what?
There are six Ashtanga series, of which I am about three-quarters of the way into the first one. Saying that it is challenging is rather the understatement. In time, when your teacher feels you are physically and mentally prepared, they will advance you onto the next posture in the sequence, so anyone can start Ashtanga and learn at their own pace. You just show up in the morning and begin when you are ready, everyone at their own pace. The teacher will come and guide you whenever needed.
There is no music but the sound of deep breathing and beads of sweat hitting the floor. And a lot of internal chatter to control.
There is something extremely confronting with all this. In Ashtanga, you are faced with your deep naked self and your mind, much like in Vipassana meditation. For me, it was important to find a teacher with whom I felt safe because I knew there was going to be much unraveling happening before I could find peace. And there was. It wasn’t pretty. There were tears. There still are at times.
I spent a month learning and practicing Ashtanga at Jangalika with my teacher Mannu and barely just scratched the surface of a practice that has been more transformative than any other form of yoga I have ever done. I am at loss for words to try and explain more.
I realize I may have lost some of you over traditions and dogmas. Yes, Ashtanga can come across as a little dogmatic, and that’s an extra challenge for me, because I personally like order and rules — I know, go figure. It appeals to my addictive personality, tames my chaos, makes me want to push myself. And because of that, it’s easy for me to lose sight of making Ashtanga a long, sustainable practice rather than a short, intense, passionate thing where there’s a great potential to crash and burn.
Rethinking the concepts of “less” and “more” is currently at the heart of my self-reflection through my Ashtanga practice where “less” is burning out after 3 months, and “more” is taking the time to explore the poses in depth, making friends with them, and practicing for decades. Patanjali discusses establishing a practice with firm foundation, lovingly, with attention and devotion in the Sutras 1.13 and 1.14. The key points: lovingly, firm foundation, long period of time. Not “Ashtanga is going balls-to-the-wall in short flameouts,” which unfortunately tends to be my style.
The Ashtanga postures and sequences have no point in and of themselves: they’re “marked by the sign of emptiness.” They are mental constructions, serving as learning tools. “Doing” them is not more… More is learning from them. A yoga practice exists to serve the student, illuminate certain particular phenomena, and modify the relationships between mental structures. A pattern I’m trying to break is how I can cause myself harm indirectly, through being so vividly intense with any endeavor. There’s this key concept in yoga called Ahimsa, which translates to non-violence and compassion. It is often regarded as being for the outside world, but it very much starts with oneself.
In fact, Ahimsa is one of the very few aspects of the Ashtanga practice that is singled out as completely non-negotiable. Of course, it’s helpful to have a teacher who can help you find a healthy and effective expression of practice. Ultimately, however, that responsibility must be yours.
There’s something different for everyone to learn in Ashtanga. I could go on and on and on, as little nuggets of wisdom unfold in front of me slowly each day. What it is teaching me right now it to do less each day so I can sustain a daily practice. Stop trying so hard that I hurt myself, close up and shrivel back. Practice smart. Find balance. Breathe deeply. Soften. This, I would say, applies a lot less to the asana movement than it does to my actual life.
And that, truly, is the magic of yoga.