In Defence (but not completely) of Ashtanga Yoga

I practise Ashtanga yoga and have done for around eight years. The majority of my yoga peers are not ashtangis, and my love for the practice is often met with negativity – whether supressed or overt – and sometimes with a knowing twinkle in the eye that seems to say: ashtanga is something you will grow out of and move past, as you mature and learn to recognise the unhealthier aspects of its rigorous and physically demanding structure.

Before writing this piece, I asked many of my fellow yoga practitioners for their opinion on Ashtanga. Everybody I asked mentioned its unforgiving rigidity, the temptation that its progression-based linear system poses to their inner perfectionists, serious injuries, and psychologically dubious teacher-student relationships. But many also spoke of a deep love for the practice, the uniquely still and calming waters of its meditative flow, and admitted that, now and then, it is something they return to.

For many years, I have wondered whether leaving Ashtanga behind is the sign of a well-balanced mind. I see warm and gentle practices supporting the lives of all the brilliant yogis I know, and I see obsessive and brittle practices wreaking injury and exhaustion on many of the ashtangis I read about.

Despite this, I believe that at its heart, Ashtanga has the capacity to be a potent, healing, many-layered, enduring, kind and compassionate (yes, really) spiritual practice. It threads together an intense combination of discipline, devotion, breath, meditation, intimidating physicality, and emotional depth. I believe it can erase perfectionism, introduce us to moderation, help us to foster self-acceptance, to challenge our tendency towards attachment, and to teach us how to be kind to ourselves. But as I have examined my relationship with Ashtanga, I have noticed that in order to embrace its curative and compassionate aspects, I have regrettably had to hold the Ashtanga community at arm’s length. I have frequently felt it necessary to separate myself from other practitioners and teachers, in order to avoid injury, upset, and fatigue.

There is an unavoidable distinction between the practice of Ashtanga yoga and those who practice it. I have written this piece for those who have fallen in love with Ashtanga, but fallen out of love with much of its surrounding energy, and the competitive way it often seems to be manifested in community. It is possible to carve your own path through it, and to benefit from the unparalleled beauty and power within this delicate eight-limbed practice.

Early Days

Having dipped into yoga on and off for over a decade, at the age of 23 I discovered a very special yoga studio – Yoga on the Lane – and a very special yoga teacher – Naomi Annand – and I fell head over heels in love. I engaged with this five-thousand-year-old philosophy at its roots for the very first time, and felt its far-reaching wonder begin steadily to simplify the relentless complexity of modern life, bring me into close and loving relationship with the centre of myself, and help me to understand better those around me.

In that first year of daily practice, I stumbled across Stu Girling’s YouTube channel Love Yoga Anatomy, and devoured hours of teacher interviews: Mark Darcy on forward folding, Laruga Glaser on backbending, Matthew Sweeney on modifications, Joey Miles on hamstring flexibility, John Scott on the moon. I was drawn to this group of teachers, to the forensic detail with which this beautiful philosophy was being examined, and to the fascinating translation I saw taking place as ancient Indian thought was reorganised in contemporary dialogue.

I didn’t know it at the time, but everybody I was hearing speak, was an Ashtanga practitioner. I wasn’t actually sure what Ashtanga was, but in Love Yoga Anatomy I had tapped into one of the most comprehensive repositories for its discourse and study in the world. It is perhaps more common to discover Ashtanga on the mat; mine was a more academic introduction, delving deep into the philosophy and theory behind the practice, before I had once entered the quiet of a mysore room, or been led through a counted surya namaskar.

As my interest in Ashtanga grew, I was suffering with repeated niggles in my hips and hamstrings which I suspected could be the result of how my body leant into the asymmetrical hip-opening, back-bending, spiralling style of Vinyasa. I ‘suited’ Vinyasa; I could flop my flexible way through humble warriors and pigeon poses and bind my pipe-cleaner arms without much effort. Ashtanga, on the other hand, required a rigorous muscular containment, a relentless demand for upper body strength that I didn’t yet have, the explosive movements of jumping through and back, and the knowledge that every practice would finish with a headstand – which I was terrified of.

In typical ‘me’ fashion – more on this and how it relates to Ashtanga later – I decided to practise primary series every morning for two months and see what happened. I bought David Swenson’s manual, and got cracking. I think I even wrote a date next to each pose in the series for when I expected to have ‘achieved’ it. (Could you get any more Type A?)

I felt an immediate and delightful shift towards physical balance. Ashtanga is an unavoidably strong practice; I felt my joints stabilise, my hips stop hurting, and my hamstrings release and lengthen. I discovered a newfound strength which made daily life feel less tiring, accompanied by a deep and profound sense of calm. It was a macro version of a micro practice experience: that savasana sensation of the heartbeat slowing, the breath falling away, the mind finding clarity and focus. But on a huge scale across my entire life. And so I carried on, for many years.

However, while I attempted strictly to adhere to the poses, I gave very little thought to the ‘rest days’. Ashtanga asks that you practise six days a week, but that you take rest at the weekend, over new moon and full moon, and that women rest for a few days during menstruation. The ‘rest’ part of these instructions was a barely-registered blip in my peripheral vision. I was happy to be told to do; I was not willing to listen when I was told not to do. I believed being ‘good’ at the practice meant doing the series. It never occurred to me to place the same value in observing the rest – or even that perhaps, for me, it was in these rest days that I would find the heart of the practice.

Freedom From and Freedom To

Over time, my unbalanced approach meant that I became very tired. Despite the fatigue, I found it increasingly difficult not to get on my mat. If I had a wonderful morning practice, I would feel intense personal pressure to repeat the experience the next day, and the day after that, and so on. I have many memories of a particularly intense nine-month period of commitment to early morning mysore in Soho, but few of them are from class itself. Mostly, I remember being on the tube at 6am with a coffee, and feeling genuine fear at ‘having’ to go and practice for close to two hours, shower, and then go to work for the rest of the day. Instead of looking after myself, I berated myself for finding it hard to stick to six days a week, and I carried on.  

Ashtanga is difficult, and our relationship with that difficulty is in many ways the centre of the practice. The way in which we individually respond to its intensity often dictates a) whether or not we will choose to pursue the practice, but also b) whether or not we are vulnerable to its addictive qualities.

My response to the difficulty, was total seduction by the challenge. I wanted to become adept at this almost-impossible thing. I wanted to grow so accustomed to its shape and structure, that it would be effortless. I wanted to know what life would feel like, if I were able to jump through and back with ease. I wanted to get to the end of a deep two-hour-long practice and not even have broken a sweat. In pursuit of technical skill and physical challenge, that goal-orientated brain that I was coming to yoga to soften and release, simply reorganised itself around a new and exciting prize.

Mine was the typical emotional response of a self-critical, prisoner-to-my-own-willpower, ex-restrictive-eater, borderline anxious person. Hi. That’s me. And that my friends, is exactly the sort of person who shouldn’t be practising ashtanga…

…or is it?

A few years ago on a yoga retreat in Portugal, we were asked to use one word to describe what yoga meant to us. I chose ‘freedom’, but my answer was misinterpreted. The teacher assumed I had meant ‘freedom from’. In other words, that yoga provided me a space to find freedom from life, from the world, from the stresses and strains of daily existence. I didn’t correct him; I was ruminating over the difference between what I had actually meant and what he had heard.

When I said ‘freedom’, I meant ‘freedom to’: freedom to live my life, freedom to engage with the world, freedom to dive joyfully into the stresses and strains of daily existence without being beaten up by them. Freedom to enjoy my job, hold space for my family, spend time with my friends. Freedom to be in it, really in it, to sit at the centre of all the difficulty and the discomfort and say ‘I see it all and I am secure enough in who I am to come through it unscathed’.

For me, gentler forms of yoga felt a bit like ‘freedom from’; hatha yoga provided a calm bolthole of soft receptivity where I could shelter from the storm of my own perfectionism. (And we all need that from time to time.) Ashtanga submerged me head on in a tidal wave of my own utterly nonsensical rigour, my own intense daily willpower, my own meaningless addiction to achieving and being productive. Ashtanga’s power was that it took me right into the centre of all my mess. As I cultivated easy breath and calm focus through its difficulty, ashtanga offered me an opportunity to find ‘freedom to’.

Hatha said: take child’s pose if you need.

Ashtanga said: Practise six days a week. Push yourself. Don’t close your eyes; look at your big toe. Don’t take an extra breath. Don’t rest here. Don’t put your toes down on the way through. Breathe. Focus. Lift up. Jump back. Bind. Why are you feeling tired? You shouldn’t be feeling tired twenty minutes in. You could do this pose yesterday; what’s happened?

But was all of that actually ashtanga? As I practised, ashtanga’s set of instructions soaked up the punishing flavour of my own self-criticism, taking on a sense of morality, of worthiness, that didn’t come from the practice but from me. In the same way that sometimes the faults of others are more visible than your own, I found my own internal voice easier to recognise when it became external, reflected by, and embodied in, my approach to yoga. By meeting it as a separate entity, I was able to say, definitively: this is not a nice voice.

And I saw this brittle, competitive, self-punishing tone all around me in the ashtanga community. A few years ago I was filming with a sound recordist who had just started dating a woman who practised at the same shala as me. I told him to pass that on, and the next day as he arrived on set, he said: ‘She wants to know what pose you’re up to; can you drop back and hold onto your own knees yet?’ I was floored. That was her question?

At a philosophy study weekend, I was chatting to a woman who lived in London but worked in Guildford. She got up at 4am every morning to go and practice, then she drove back home to shower and get ready for work, and then she drove to Guildford. When I asked why she didn’t practise some mornings at home, she explained she just couldn’t push herself unless she was in a class.

So what is happening here, at the centre of mine (and many others) relationship with difficulty? Why did I fail to engage with the clear boundaries of rest and recuperation that were built into the ashtanga system, instead casting them to the side and focussing only on the movement? And even when the rest days are observed, why is ashtanga still so fucking hard?

Difficulty and Discomfort

I have heard many ashtangis discuss the role of difficulty and discipline within the practice. At the risk of being insultingly reductive, these discussions often go a little like this: Why is the practice difficult? Because life is difficult. In other words, suck it up, it’s teaching you stuff.

Well. Sort of.

The ashtanga practice creates a framework of rigour and dedication. Multiple, physically demanding series of poses, practised almost every day. Ashtanga externalises the intensity of life’s demands, and as I’ve already discussed, in doing so externalises the internal voice that we each individually use to apply ourselves to those demands. It is true that life is often difficult and overwhelming, and it is a helpful practice to generate the tools of resilience and calm needed to deal with it. It’s also certainly helpful to develop a level of metacognition, or self-awareness, about how you personally process difficulty.

But if you get stuck there in ‘I have to do this hard thing because life is hard and so it’s good for me’ for decades and decades, you are simply burning off steam in some kind of ashtanga-themed hamster wheel, until you burn out or get injured. Life is hard. So I must do this hard thing, and then I will be better at doing that other hard thing. All we are really learning here is that it isall just really bloody hard.

I believe that Ashtanga’s intensity mirrors the felt intensity of life, in order to create an environment in which we can explore how we are currently living. For me, Ashtanga allowed me to spend time with my inner critic, to watch the relentless striving of my progress-hungry brain, and to decide that actually I didn’t want to live like that, and more importantly: I didn’t need to live like that. And this is why I say ‘the felt intensity of life’; instead of teaching me that life was difficult, Ashtanga taught me that actually, I might have been making life more difficult than it was, and that with a different approach, parts of life at least, could be blissfully blue-sky easy.

Over the course of a few years, I pushed myself far enough to see the ultimate futility of continuing to push myself. Suddenly those rest days came into focus. I started to take notice of the cycles of the moon, to spend some time in quiet contemplation on those days instead of moving. I noticed how shallow and charged my sleep often was at full moon, and how heavy and lethargic I often felt at new moon. I asked my mysore teacher at the time how long I should rest for when I had my period, and she told me to pay attention to the point in my cycle when I could no longer engage mula bandha (simply put: pelvic floor) and to rest from that day until I felt as if I could work with that part of my body again. For me, this turned out to be around five days, sometimes a week.

As I leant into this letting go, something interesting happened. My periods synced with the moon. Every month like clockwork I would ovulate at full moon, and bleed at new moon. Even more interesting, the intense fatigue that I usually felt before I started my period…disappeared. By resting when my body asked for it, rather than pushing through, and by holding a kind of sacred space for myself and my body while I was bleeding, instead of fighting the ‘inconvenience’ of menstruation, most of my pre-menstrual symptoms evaporated.

And then I became pregnant, and I found there within the practice, within this system that is so often slammed for being unforgiving, rigid, and demanding, all the tools I needed to soften and release. I was advised to stop practising in the first trimester (which felt right through the nausea and dizziness) to stop practising in the third trimester (which felt right with the dragging heaviness and quieting down of my energy) and to stop practising in the fourth trimester (which was essential).

Yes, the practice is the series, with all its complicated poses and counted breaths, inversions, and arm balances. But the rest, the contemplation, the letting go, is also all a part of Ashtanga.

The heart of the ashtanga practice, isn’t actually in our relationship to difficulty, as it might appear: it is in our relationship to ease. The reason that Ashtanga mirrors the difficulty of life isn’t to become a tail-chasing, circular confirmation of difficulty, it is because the strength of character required to earnestly cultivate softness within its structure, mirrors the strength of character required to find ease within our lives.

It takes immense commitment to say ‘I am done for today’; ‘I am tired’; ‘no more’. It is interesting to me that I, and I’m sure many others, often find it easier to express strength by ‘doing’ rather than ‘not doing’, when in fact the latter is infinitely harder. The day after a ‘good’ practice is an exercise in moderation. I often wake up feeling I should try and repeat it. I felt so good yesterday, so strong and calm and clear-headed for the rest of the day; I should do that again today. For my personality at least, it is no understatement to say that the moderation required to conserve my energy, has sent transformational ripples of rest into all areas of my life.

At this point though, it starts to become a slightly slippery subject. When I say ‘softness within its structure’ I don’t mean gently breathing your way through chakrasana. I mean something much more radical: I mean stopping when you’re tired. I mean not practising if you know deep down it is emptying you of all your energy. I mean understanding that perhaps, for you, for your body, a full Ashtanga practice is at its most nourishing if done a few times a month.

The Ashtanga Paradox

Suggesting moderation, and modifications, to the structure of the Ashtanga system, is risky business; I only learnt the nuances of my own limits by living and breathing the practice for a long time. By doing it, I learnt what aspects of it didn’t work. And by obeying the teacher in front of me, I also learnt the value behind many of its instructions: It does feel different if you keep your eyes open and observe drishti; it roots you in the unavoidable, beautiful, everydayness of being just another body on the Earth. It does feel different if you hold your big toe; a closed energetic circuitry that connects all parts of you from tiptoe to fingertip. It does feel different to keep your hands flat to the ground in ardha uttanasana; the start of a deep core strength relationship between lower abdomen and shoulder girdle, and the firm foundation of your jump back to chaturanga. Over a long time, I learnt that there are some days where these movements aren’t appropriate; but I learnt that by doing them as instructed again and again and again and again and again.

It is true, that on the days where I come to my mat to move and breathe and be, to tune in to what my physical body needs and to stretch, to open or contain, to weave my way through intuitive poses and down to a deep savasana, I am listening. And it is also true that if I engage in this softer, body-led approach, I will rarely feel physically drawn to ninety minutes of primary series, or two hours of intermediate.

But Ashtanga asks for us to lend a different kind of ear. Once you have memorised the series, a whole world of mental activity falls away. I am not listening to an instruction, I am not deciding what pose to take next, and so my mind becomes completely and utterly silent. Inhale. Exhale. Inhale. Exhale. And in that exquisitely silent ritual, as the series unfolds around me, so familiar as to become invisible, so well-known as to transport me to a place of clear-sighted awareness, I am listening. In the differences between today and last week, in the relationship in this moment between my body and this pose I know so well, in the distinction between this practice and the last, this breath and the last, I am listening.

I don’t want to share too much negativity on other schools or lineages of yoga, but I would urge you to consider the environment in which you practice. Is the teacher doing handstands on their own mat when you arrive in class? How does that make you feel? Do they share their own version of yoga’s ‘philosophy’ with you while you move? Is that helpful? Is there music playing? Are they trying to imbue this class with their ‘vibe’? Does that make it easier or harder for you to meditate, for you to slow down, for you to discover your own practice?

Ashtanga may be a hard teacher, but the lessons it has taught me have saved me. It has taught me to cherish rest, to cultivate ease, to nurture the strength of character required to say ‘I am done. Now I rest.’. It has taught me how to hold onto my energy. It has taught me that how we treat our bodies in moments of tiredness can have a profound effect on how we feel throughout our life. It has taught me to respect and form a relationship with my menstrual cycle, and I feel lucky that as women, we receive a monthly reminder of the wonderful power of letting go. Within the framework of Ashtanga, I have been able to play out, at speed, the inevitable exhaustion and emptiness that results from never showing yourself love. I would not have learnt this from a softer teacher. That is perhaps one of my failings.

I often hear it said that if you are relaxed enough not to want to do ashtanga, or at least not to be able to ‘stick’ to the rules, you are the one who really needs the practice. I tend to disagree. If you are relaxed enough that Ashtanga holds little appeal, congratulations, you probably already know how to rest. If you naturally cling onto its structure and discipline for all you’re worth, you may need it most of all.

The essence of Ashtanga is confusing, that by engaging in a discipline that is at best unsustainable and at worst damaging, we learn how to break free from that structure. If the system didn’t hold firm, if we could all just practise whenever and however we liked, that essence would disintegrate. Armed only with today’s knowledge of myself and my life, I cannot imagine Ashtanga not being my practice. If embodied, explored, and fully given in to, it has the power to teach us how to respond to this world with wisdom, space, and love, instead of simply ploughing on through unnecessary hardship.

But this lesson has to be transferred through a complex and vulnerable mind and body – a teacher’s; your own – in order to be fully felt, and it is almost necessary for it to go off course, or cause some kind of harm or discomfort during this transmission, in order for you truly to benefit from rediscovering even ground, understanding rest, befriending moderation. This complexity is why personally, I am not sure I could ever take on the responsibility of teaching Ashtanga; it is also why I defend it as a practice, but not completely.

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