5 essential ways to learning Ashtanga Yoga faster

Learning yoga is like learning how to cook.  You are presented with a cookbook, and you get excited about all of the different recipes you could try.  You start to thumb through thecookbook-stack pages, looking at what you can make for breakfast, for lunch, for that weird phenomenon called brunch, or what to make for dinner or dessert.  The possibilities seem endless!

But eagerness can soon be replaced by a feeling of being overwhelmed with too many options.  Where to start?  Which recipe should you try first?

Similarly, students feel the same way about yoga.  Because yoga practice has become more popular and more commercialized, the options have exploded.  You have hot yoga, power yoga, gentle yoga.  This person’s yoga vs this other yoga celebrity’s yoga.  Flying yoga, yoga with silk suspension cords, yoga with weights.  The buffet can be overpowering, and before you know it, your ambitions to start a yoga practice sit on the shelf like the cookbook you have yet to use.

This is why Ashtanga Yoga is so appealing compared to other forms.  It is a set sequence of postures, arranged in a particular, well-recognized order, that never varies (well, it has varied and continues to vary but that is for a different blogpost!).  You know that when you practice Ashtanga Yoga, you will be doing these postures in this order, every single time.  You don’t have to worry about what comes next.

So how can you set yourself up to learn Ashtanga Yoga faster than normal?

Here are five easy-to-apply methods to turbo-charge your memorization of the sequence:

  1. Seek out a teacher who has been practicing the Series for at least ten years and who lives close.  The teacher may or may not be certified or authorized by the K. Pattabhi Jois Ashtanga Yoga Institute in Mysore.  These certified and authorized teachers will have taken multiple trips to Mysore over several years of study to earn these credentials.  However, there are many teachers who either have not been to Mysore in a long time or who have never gone to Mysore, yet they maintain daily practice and study the method of Ashtanga.  I happen to be one of the latter.  cropped-rexx-assists-marina-3.jpgI have studied with senior students of Sri K Pattabhi Jois over the years, and I have committed myself to learning the subtleties of the system from two teachers in particular, Matthew Sweeney and Richard Freeman.  I have also maintained a daily practice for over 15 years.  Lastly, it is best to learn the Ashtanga Series from a teacher directly, as it will minimize any mistakes in learning the postures, the order or the vinyasa.  Stick with one teacher for at least six months so that you focus on establishing the habit of practicing in the morning, of memorizing the sequence, and of getting to know the teacher.
  2. Practice your Surya Namaskar A and B, regularly! These two sequences are the bedrock of the Ashtanga series.  They are also the first series of postures you will learn, and they will teach you how to link  your breathing with your movement.  The Salutations are also the first opportunity for you to taste what it is like to practice yoga by yourself, at your own pace, rather than being guided through the series.  The Salutations also contain within them the seeds for more complicated movements, like jumpbacks, jumpthroughs, backbends and balancing postures.  So, even if you can only make it to Mysore practice a few times a week, do the Surya Namaskar A and B at home by yourself, 5 rounds of each.  Make sure to hold downward facing dog in A and the third downward dog in B for five breaths each.
  3. Right-side first!  You step your right foot forward first in Surya B. You pivot and step to the right for all of the standing postures.  You place your right leg into the folded position for all of the seated positions.  Your right leg moves into lotus first.  Just remember Right Side First and you will have already solved a few of your potential pitfalls.
  4. Practice patience.  Ashtanga is taught one posture at a time.  You will, at maximum, learn one to two postures a day if you make it a habit to attend class three to five days a week.  You will not learn the entire sequence from the get-go.  Led classes can teach you the entire sequence so you can have a grasp of the overarching structure of the Primary Series, but it is one thing to be led through a sequence, and quite another to do that sequence by yourself.
  5. Take a little time every night to review a chart of the postures you have learned.  Learn the names of each posture as you learn it.  I recommend Matthew Sweeney’s ashtanga yoga as it is cover photobook, Ashtanga Yoga As It Is (third edition) because it has a very thorough introduction and has easy-to-read charts of each sequence (Primary, Intermediate and Advanced) as well as of the subsequences (Surya Namaskar, Standing Postures, backbends, and finishing postures).  It’s really easier than you think.  Because you are learning the postures one at a time, you will only have to learn one posture name at a time.  Day by day, week after week, you will memorize more of the sequence, without having to strain.  It’s like learning a poem by memorizing one line every week.  If the poem is 20 stanzas long, you will have learned the entire poem within 20 weeks.

These five strategies are guaranteed to help you learn the Ashtanga system faster than normal.  You will always learn a system faster if you approach it methodically, with interest, enthusiasm and patience.

Let me know in the comments section if you have any other suggestions.