Beyond Ashtanga

Every yoga practitioner will be faced some day with the question of how to modify a physical yoga practice to accommodate changing circumstances. It’s not a question of “if” but “when.” Everything changes, including your body, your athletic ability, your family commitments, your work, and your interests. Some changes are slow and incremental; others are rapid and sudden. To continue to practice a crystalized set sequence such as Ashtanga, despite these inevitable changes, speaks to a certain unwillingness on the practitioner’s part to accept change and to adapt.

I speak from experience. I have spent nearly 18 years practicing Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga. I learned and practiced complete versions of Primary Series, Intermediate, and Advanced A, in the traditional format of one posture at a time, working one-on-one with a teacher. I learned how to drop back, how to stand up from a backbend, and how to perform handstand drop-overs and tic-tacs. I jumped back between each side, even when I didn’t want to or when I was too tired. I practiced as early as possible every morning for five to six days a week, taking rest on moon days and Saturdays, as per the tradition.

On paper, my practice checked all the boxes. However, in the few years leading up to turning 40 this year, I became more acutely aware of physical changes, and I wondered whether my practice was helping me or hurting me, on a variety of levels. Jump backs got a little bit harder. Backbends started to feel less rubbery. Little injuries took longer to heal. I became more aware of joint discomfort, especially in the more exotic postures like scorpion or pigeon pose. Small injuries were accumulating into a kaleidoscope of chronic pain and fatigue.

A few major injuries forced me to start giving up postures, one at a time. A sickening pop in my right knee one morning practice made it seem unwise to continue to practice Janu Sirsasana C and Viranchyasana B, where the foot is strongly dorsiflexed and the shin is externally rotated. A lower back/hip strain made practicing leg-behind-the-head (LGBH) postures painful and limited for a time. When I tried re-introducing them a few months later, something just didn’t feel right anymore. I stopped doing handstand dropovers and dropbacks from standing because I just didn’t feel good after practice ended.

More importantly, these physical injuries served as the backdrop for an investigation into why I was practicing in the first place. In particular, leg-behind-the-head postures were emblematic of my physical struggles. Intermediate Series has 3 leg-behind-head poses; Advanced A has 6 leg-behind-head poses. For years, I never had a problem with these postures. When I injured my hip and lower back, that changed. What seemed as easy as walking was now difficult and restricted. I questioned why I was putting my leg behind my head. (To non-Ashtangis, putting your leg behind your head may not even occur to you as a worthy goal, and possibly for good reason.). What value is there in being able to do that, aside from being able to practice Ashtanga as dictated by the current lineage holders? Doing LGBH poses never made me a better person. It didn’t make me stronger. It didn’t make me more useful to others. It didn’t make me kinder. Putting your leg behind your head isn’t exactly a very practical action, compared to being able to squat or pick up a heavy object, to be generous and compassionate to people who hurt us, or to remain calm and centered in a world seemingly gone mad.

I also fell out of love with the culture of Ashtanga Yoga in recent years. I was distressed to hear about the allegations of sexual misconduct by the late guru, Sri K. Pattabhi Jois. I was disillusioned with the guru worship of the late guru and of the new head of the school, his grandson Sharath Rangaswami Jois. I disliked the extreme centralization of power and authority in only one individual in one particular city – a sure recipe for exploitation. I grew tired of the elitist undertones of most Ashtanga teachers (including myself at one point!) and the notion that the Series were complete in and of themselves. I felt it was not compassionate for most students to only ever practice Primary Series or to be stuck at postures for years at a time, waiting for the teacher to descend and bestow the next posture when the teacher deemed the student “ready” for it.

Truthfully, Ashtanga Yoga is not (and has never been) a system that can be practiced by everyone. Such a statement may be heresy to the traditional Ashtanga teachers and seem elitist to the general public, but a moment of reflection will force you to consider what it means to “practice Ashtanga” to realize that the definition is somewhat porous and arbitrary. If you practice only half of Primary Series, is that “true” Ashtanga? If you omit a posture from practice, does this mean you are not practicing the “full” sequence, and as a result you will not get the “benefit” of the postures? If you suffer an injury and cannot practice the traditional sequence, are you supposed to just wait, do no yoga whatsoever, and then start practicing once you are healed? If you cannot bind your hands in Marichyasana D, does this mean you will not get the “full benefit” of the posture? After all, what would a “partial benefit” of a posture look like?

You can make the case that the Ashtanga method of teaching postures is universal – learn one posture at a time, practice consistently, and be diligent in what you are doing (pay attention!). This is reasonable but it doesn’t treat the larger issues of accessibility in Ashtanga. The sequences in Ashtanga, in their most complete and concretized form, are not for every body – pure and simple – for the simple reason that some people will have the physical constitution, light body frame, and athletic ability to practice each Series in its “purest” form, while others – including myself – may find some, if not most (or all), of a sequence to be inaccessible or inappropriate at some time or another.

This is not discourage anyone from learning the Ashtanga Yoga Series if that is where their interest lies. I have certainly benefited from learning Primary, Intermediate and Advanced A and from my contact with some of its senior teachers. Each series taught me something different about progression, sequencing, and technique. Each series also taught me a lot about my emotional and mental patterns, positive and negative – perseverance, stubbornness, diligence, avoidance, pain tolerance, surrender, and psychological flow. Some of my best friends are people I met in the shala. And I enjoyed learning and practicing each sequence at the time, surrounded by other interested students and dedicated teachers in small studios around the world.

However, change is inevitable, and at some point, now or later, Ashtanga Yoga Series may not be possible or appropriate for you. It is not for me right now. And I think it is better to know when the appropriate time to shift practices and priorities is and to act with clarity and conviction, than to persevere in a practice causing pain just because our identity is bound up with the practice.

So, at the beginning of this month, I decided to stop practicing all Ashtanga Yoga sequences for a while and to focus instead on practicing the Vinyasa Krama sequences designed by Matthew Sweeney. Vinyasa Krama means “moving by the numbers” and refers to practicing yoga asana in a fluid sequence with coordinated breathing and focused attention. The three fundamental Vinyasa Krama sequences are Chandra (Moon), Simha (Lion), and Atapa (Sunshine). Each sequence can be adapted to the capabilities of the student; it can be scaled up (more difficult) or scaled down (less challenging). Each sequence is modular in that certain sections are essential while others can be included depending on the circumstances (more vs less time, more vs less energy, more vs less limitations). Less emphasis is given to “being right” and more is placed on what the student needs.

In the new year, I will be revising the descriptions on this website to be in line with my current teaching philosophy.

For those interested in an articulate investigation into the evolution of Ashtanga Yoga, I strongly recommend reading the following two articles by my teacher, Matthew Sweeney. The first article treats in detail the tension between adhering to a traditional Ashtanga practice and adapting the principles of Ashtanga to your changing circumstances. Matthew also discusses the unique aspects of the practice while elaborating on its deficiencies.

The second article is also written by Matthew Sweeney. It focuses on what makes up the yoga tradition and how an individual relates to their particular physical/mental/emotional/spiritual dimensions to the larger structure of the Ashtanga “tradition.”

You can find the articles at the following links:

Evolution of Ashtanga Yoga, Part 1

Evolution of Ashtanga Yoga, Part 2

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to all!