What is Ashtanga (to/for you) ?

It’s always a bit of a shock to find I am  more traditional than I thought when it comes to Ashtanga vinyasa, not in all ways but in several.

Note: In this post I’m using ‘Ashtanga’ to refer to the Ashtanga Vinyasa popularised by Pattabhi Jois and others. ‘Ashtanga vinyasa’ doesn’t have the same cadence.

Recently I was asked to be involved in an Ashtanga project but declined as I wasn’t sure that what I was currently practicing was actually ‘Ashtanga’.

Personal Ashtanga dogma # 1. 
Those who teach Ashtanga should be practicing Ashtanga

Personal Ashtanga dogma # 2. 

2. To teach ashtanga you should have passed through the process of mostly learning your yoga through Ashtanga, gone through that struggle over a significant number of years to build and maintain a daily discipline in this challenging practice.

I gave a friend who had come to Ashtanga relatively recently a bit of a hard time for daring to teach Ashtanga for these very reasons.


Number 1. is interesting I think because it begs the question ‘What is Ashtanga’ and is the main point of this post.

I dropped the ‘What is Ashtanga?’ question a while back as no longer being that interesting, preferring instead a ‘HOW do we practice Ashtanga?’

I’ve argued in the past that Vinyasa Krama is Ashtanga receiving a lot of criticism for a time until Sharath began to refer to Ashtanga Vinyasa as a Vinyasa Krama.

I’ve argued that we can cut and adapt the sequences and that this is grounded in Pattabhi Jois’ own book Yoga Mala.

The suggestion being that if the movements follow the breath, if the asana begin and end, even by implication, at samastithi and are linked to each other via these related organising movements, the vinyasa, then it’s Ashtanga.

What is or isn’t Ashtanga FOR ME is the practice of linking asana on the breath. Not the tristana, not visiting Mysore, not devotion, not hatha, not ideas of lineage or tradition but purely….. the practice.

Why then is it, that some mornings, there is the feeling that I didn’t practice Ashtanga, that it was more Vinyasa Krama or perhaps something else altogether.
We have an idea I think of what is or isn’t Ashtanga FOR US.
I can adapt my practice but at some point it no longer FEELS like Ashtanga.
Mess with the sequence too much, introduce too many variations, too many long stays, slow the breath too far and it no longer FEELS Ashtanga TO ME.
Practice later in the morning, practice in a room that is just a little too cool, sweat less, find it too easy, too comfortable and it no longer FEELS Ashtanga TO ME.
I have this idea of what Ashtanga is from how I learned to practice it,, how I practiced it for the longest time. I know it’s nonsense because I’ve dismissed the dogma of others, but what I feel, what I truly believe this practice is, exists it seems in the marrow of my bones or at least in some synaptic pattern in my brain.
If I’m no longer practicing to that model then the feeling is strong that I have no business teaching something called Ashtanga, I would be teaching my own, personal ‘post-Ashtanga’.
It’s nonsensical but I think perhaps it explains how passionate others are about what is or isn’t Ashtanga TO THEM.
I see the coverage of Sharath’s tour on social media currently (so hard to avoid) and am both bemused and indifferent, such a tour has no relevance too me.
Practicing with a teacher has no relevance to me.
Practicing with others has no relevance to me
For that matter Pattabhi Jois has little relevance to me.
What IS relevant, all that is relevant,  is my practice, that daily stepping on the mat, each breath I take, each connected movement I make.
But of course if you began or developed your practice in a shala, if the idea of Mysore, of devotion was instilled in you early on in your practice, then those aspects are perhaps what constitute the practice FOR YOU, it’s truth.
Have the tristana stressed and THAT is the practice.
Have the idea of progression in Ashtanga (yoga) being characterised by receiving the next asana then THAT too is Ashtanga for you (where this idea comes from and is perpetuated and why is another post altogether), stop progressing and you may feel you are no longer practicing Ashtanga, no longer part of the game. Decide to settle on Primary series and you cease to believe you are practicing Ashtanga.
How often do we hear the ‘I am not progressing’ refrain in relation to Ashtanga.
Not progressing in Yoga?
If we finally see that our yoga is not about the asana, not even about the breath but about being present and leading to inner inquiry, whatever form our practice may take then I would argue that we are very much progressing.
Perhaps, when we feel strongly that we didn’t practice Ashtanga that morning we might come to the conclusion too that we might just have been practicing yoga.
Ashtanga, our ideas of what Ashtanga is or isn’t (and Sharath for instance has his own personal view of what that is or isn’t (devotion perhaps for Sharath) just as Manju does (freedom), just as Pattabhi Jois perhaps did and that was no doubt other than his teacher Krishnamacharya’s) can perhaps get in the way of our practice, in the way of our Yoga.
Likewise teachers, fellow practitioners, self-promoters, who seek to influence/dictate what Ashtanga is or isn’t to us, can get in the way of our practice.
After a time we know what the practice is I suspect, what practice is FOR US, we know at some point when we are forcing ourselves into another’s idea of what constitutes the practice FOR THEM rather than allowing our practice to be what it is or will be, given the chance, for us, we begin to discern, on a good day, if our practice has integrity, if it is authentic.
Integrity and discernment smiles the guru at us from within.
Do I practice Ashtanga?
At times it feels a little more like I remember it, at other times less so,…. mostly these days it just feels like practice.
I’m prepared to share my practice but teach ‘Ashtanga’ probably not.
You’d like to practice Ashtanga? My recommendation is still to pick up David Swenson’s Ashtanga manual and Mark Darby’s Ashtanga DVD, just as I did but go to Youtube and look for how to practice each asana safely videos and then just practice and listen to your practice, daily, for years.
Or go to a modest Shala
or good studio
or however is most appropriate for your present circumstance
and just practice as regularly as possible.

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