How To Start An Ashtanga Yoga Practice – 32 Helpful Suggestions

by admin on May 23, 2013

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How To Start An Ashtanga Yoga Practice – 32 Helpful Suggestions

 

Back when I started I did not dare go to a half-led class or a Mysore-style class until I “thought” I “knew” at least half of the series.  I felt embarrassed, out of place even. But if I was starting all over again I wish I had a place with suggestions.  So I wrote this article about how to start an ashtanga yoga practice.

 

1. Do Your Practice, All is Coming

Know that Ashtanga is a life-time process not a “get rich quick” thing.  Far from it, so it is good to take it one thing at the time. And that includes this post, you might want to print it and read it over days if not months.

“Asana” is the practice of the poses of yoga. Start that practice, get on the mat, do what you can, get used to it. It might be only two or three times a week in the beginning. That is fine, most of us started that way and it takes a lot to commit to a daily routine.

I find that the daily practice (as in getting on the mat 6x-week) “happens” as we begin to notice the benefits of the practice and prefer them over our own old routines. We notice that we “feel better” on the days we practice and “not so good” on the days we do not and start to re-arranging our lives so that practice can take place. So do not worry, get on the mat, let all the rest come.

There is no need to push and get hurt, it is important to put the practice in front of the desire to rush, or “get” anywhere. After all there is no progress in being injured.

 

2. Focus on just the Asana Practice

At least in the beginning.   “The practice starts with asana because it is a strong body that will focus our mind and end the delusions“, said Sharath Jois -I’m paraphrasing- in a recent NYC conference, that is why the emphasis is completely on surrendering to, and achieving a daily pose -asana- practice.

The two branches that come before “asana”, yama and niyama(or the observances of private and public actions)  are difficult to master. So in the beginning you just think of “being ethical” as in telling the truth, not stealing, becoming a good person.  A strong body and clear mind are needed to discriminate to an extent in which we might be able to reach these limbs of yoga, and be of good use to society.  We start with asana practice, and to pay attention to our daily actions, all comes.

how to start an ashtanga yoga practice

 

3. It is a Breathing Practice

Make the breath the “first priority”, slow down and even take extras if you have to, just make sure to breathe deeply.  When you think you are breathing deeply, think deeper.

The breathing is done in a very specific way called: “ujjayi breath“.  It is best to learn the breathing from a teacher, or at least hear someone do it.  What happens is that we contract the glottis so that the air is inhaled and exhaled in a much more controlled and slow way, there is also a sound associated with it -think Darth Vader of Star Wars-.

I was just talking to someone who just started practicing and was reminded of how in the beginning it is OK to add extra breaths, and aim to get the “flow” of the sequence right.  Meaning, for example: on the very first sun salutation, inhaling with ujjayi breathing as we raise the arms up and look up, then exhaling as we fold down and place the hands on the floor.  Which brings me to the “hands on the floor”, they may not quite go there at the start, and it is OK to give them time, but never push or force.

 

4. Learning the Primary Series slowly is a good way to begin

The Primary Series is called Yoga Teraphy -Chikitsa- for this reason, because it slowly sends air to parts of our body where it never reached before, it tones the body, and makes use of muscles we had no idea we had.

When I first started practicing a studio in the area offered “Half-Primary Led Classes”, if you can find these, and the teacher “clicks with you”, then you are in luck, as these are short versions, not too daunting -usually going to Navasana-, and even then you may need to stop before the twists (Marichasanas).  That is OK, you would learn the count.

 

5. Bandhas
Bandhas are internal locks and the most important one is the mulabandha or root chakra lock.  This is done by contracting the area of the perineum.  Pattabhi Jois was known for saying that you should actually contract this area of the body all day long, not just during practice.

Bandhas are used to prevent leaks of energy.  When we lock the root portion of the body we ensure that the base of our energy is active and connected.  There is a second Bandha called “Uddyana badha” in the area of the navel.  The idea is that once the energy is harnessed from the root it is sent upwards.

I would not worry too much about bandhas other than to keep remembering whenever possible to engage the root bandha, to “tighten your anus”, that famous expression that made ashtanga famous.

 

5. Dhristi

Is the focus point, and each pose has one, either we look at the hand or the left or the right or the nose (alongside the nose) etc.  Your teacher will point to you which way to look.  Do not worry too much in the beginning, just be aware of it.  Slowly it will all come together like the pieces of a puzzle, and over years of practice.

 

6. Tristasana

Eventually, with a lot of practice it all comes together and the poses, the breathing and the drishti  happen. That is Tristasana which means all three aspects are coming together, then a meditative state is induced even as we practice asana.  It could take years for this to happen.

When someone asked Sharath how come “bandha” was not included in Tristasana he repeated what Pattabhi Jois said, that bandha should be “on” or “engaged” all day long.

 

7. Get Comfortable Sweating

If the breathing is done correctly, then the sweating will break pretty soon unless you are practicing in a very cold area of the planet.  If you do not sweat at all then it is likely you are not breathing and pushing yourself towards your “edge” in every asana and vinyasa (movements and breathings done to get into and out of each asana).  If you are sweating too much you may be over-exerting, which brings me to…

 

8. The Issue of Finding a teacher

This might be the most challenging part of having your practice stick.  An experienced teacher has done his or her practice for many years and hence knows not only the counts, the proper breathing, the right alignment, but also the energetics of the pose.

If you are lucky enough to have studios in your area visit them and ask them for a “trial membership”. Make sure the ashtanga teacher will be in the room on those days (as many teachers travel quite a bit, visit Mysore etc).  See what your gut feeling is about the teacher, can you trust him? Does she talk to you?

If you can find a teacher that clicks with you, then consider yourself blessed, and try to stick to it.  Pretty soon you may find yourself wanting to go to Mysore, that is a great idea!, for more on that see the last 5 points.

Many people cannot practice alone, but some can, so if you cannot find a teacher there are still some other ways to get started.

List of authorized and certified ashtanga teachers from around the world: here.  It takes a while for new teachers to appear in the list, so check the listings of your local ashtanga studios.  It is not critical that a teacher be certified or authorized wither.  There are lots of teachers that follow Manju Jois -son of P.Jois- tradition and receive a different authorization so they many not be listed there, but still be very good teachers.

The resources below are directed towards those without access to a good teacher OR those who would like to build a little bit of a practice and sweat before hitting the studio. I know this might be the case as this was my case, I did not start attending led classes until I thought I knew half of the primary series.

 

9. It is vital to keep a good sense of humor, about the whole thing

Yes, that deserves a whole point on itself, that is how important it is.

 

10. Read the 21 Things I wish someone told me before I started practicing Ashtanga Yoga

For a laugh, for some info, for inspiration.  Also this post contains some useful pointers like “shower before and after”, “studio etiquette”, what to do in “ladies holidays” etc.

 

11. Always shower before getting on the mat

Especially as you begin the practice, the purification will start releasing some toxins you did not even know you had inside.  You may smell in a way you are not used to, especially if you did not shower before.  Also, showering relaxes the body and prepares it for practice.  Pattabhi Jois said that it is important to shower afterwards too.

 

12. Quotes that help keep us going

  • Anyone can practice yoga, old, young, sick, very old. Only one person cannot practice: the lazy!
  • No Coffee no prana – Sharath is very fond of sharing how he has been drinking a cup of coffee before practice every day since he can remember.  He says that is the only “preparation” he uses before getting on the mat
  • 99% practice 1% theory.  Yeap! as in: let’s get on the mat

 

13. How to learn the chants

 

  •     Here is Pattabhi Jois singing the opening chant, you can also read it and see what it means. And here is the closing prayer.
  •     Manju Jois has a CD that includes the opening and closing mantras.
  •     Also, visit www.kpjayi.org for the history of Ashtanga, pictures, bios etc.

 

14. Richard Freeman: Ashtanga Yoga Introduction, and also of course, The Primary Series. 

Richard has been practicing yoga for over 40 years, and his principal teacher was Pattabhi Jois.  I have used his DVD on the Primary Series.  He mostly goes through the count and explains a few things here and there.  It is useful.

For example, on Prasarita Padotanasana A he says “turn on the lights of the pose” and I always remember that metaphor when I get into the pose.

 

15. Kino MacGregor Introduction to Ashtanga:  

The good thing about this DVD is that it includes a talk on breathing (by Tim Feldmann) and one on the philosophy side (by Greg Nardi). And then of course there is Kino and Greg going through primary with modifications up to Janu A.

 

16. Mark Darby Ashtanga Yoga Primary Series DVD.

This DVD means a lot to me because it is the one I started practicing to.  If you speak French, this is the one to get, as you can have it play in English or An Francaise… oui.

Specifically I like that Mark does the primary series at a very “advanced leve”, you know? like he can hold his leg really straight an up in Uttita Hasta Padangustasana, while Nicole (the assistant teacher who speaks French) does the “modifications”.

 

17. On Anatomy. David Keil Yoga DVDs on Anatomy. 

I have not seen these DVDs yet, but have them on order and will be reviewing them soon.

Books to Read

Why so many?  Different books speak to different people and personalities.  It might be a good idea to get one or two and see how they feel.  I wrote a tiny bit about each one I know about.  For example, I have yet to read the Lino Miele one, which I have on order, so I have not even read some of them… remember this is to be investigated over a long period of time.

 

18. Yoga Mala is the only book written by the guru of Ashtanga Yoga, Sri K.Pattabhi Jois

Yoga Mala means “A garland of Yoga”.

This from the publisher: … He outlines the ethical principles and philosophy underlying the discipline, explains important terms and concepts, and guides the reader through Asntahga’s Sun Salutations and the subsequent primary sequence of forty two asanas, or poses, precisely describing how to execute each position and what benefits each provides…”

 

19. Guruji. A great book with stories from students of the Guru from the early stages, people who have been with him.

I love the stories that Saraswatti -his daughter- tells, for example when she remembers how the Guru would do demonstrations and he would go into kurmasana while he stood up on top of her for an hour!  not to be tried at home but definitelly a good read.

I also enjoyed the part when a student asked him why he would not teach him “meditation” and Guruji replied: “mad-attention”.  Can certainly identify.

 

20. Gregor Maehle’s book is almost like a bible of ashtanga.

It not only contains the primary series with lovely images, full descriptions and anatomy discussions, it also talks to us about being careful and preventing injuries.

The critical thing about this book is that it also introduces the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, which are not discussed at lenght on this pose as we are focusing on “starting with asana”, but that eventually get to be on the radar of any practitioner.

Mahele has done his homework and read many of the sacred texts, he has a gift for bringing it all together in a frank, easy to understand way.

 

21.David Swenson

This book from a devoted practitioner is a great read and it has photographs with modifications for each of the poses.

He also has a laminated card, which I used when I began to remember the poses.

A great resource.

22. John Scott was the book I used in the beginning. 

Even though many things have changed in the primary series, and it continues to evolve, I find this a great resource

 

23. Lino Miele.

I confess I have not read this book yet, but I read the story behind it when Lino talks about his relationship with Guruji in the book above.  So I am curious and I have it on order.

 

24. Richard Freeman

I find that Richard Freeman’s The Mirror of Yoga is a book to wrestle with, read and re-read, there is a LOT of information there.

 

25. Matthew Sweeney has this great resource in booklet form. 

I love how you can see all the pictures of all the series -to fourth-.  It inspires me just to look at, and it is also a great detailed map of the vinyasas.

 

26. Articles about Ashtanga Yoga abound, read the blog roll on the blog and also see other articles at ashtanga yoga.

 

27. Namarupa is a privately published magazine run by Eddie Stern -a senior teacher and certified student-, a very interesting read with great pictures.

Visiting Mysore

You may be curious after you start your practice about Msyore in South India.  If you are lucky you may have Sharath come on tour to a city near you, and that is an experience not to be missed.  Then, Mysore is really it, a place of wonder, another planet, and also a great treat to focus on your practice.

I find that it might be better to visit when your practice is “not so advanced” because you have less attachments to it.

Another good reason to visit is that the primary series tends to change from time to time and it is good to travel to the source and see where things are at.

 

28. TAKE IT FROM A BEGINNER

The first time James came with me he was almost a complete beginner. He had been practicing Ashtanga for only about 6 months, and felt a little out of sorts, so he wrote the post: I have been completely humiliated by yoga.

That post is very indicative of how one might feel on a first trip being a beginner, it is also funny and we can all relate, no matter what level.  As a matter of fact an advanced yogi who is about to start attending the led intermediate classes once told me she felt exactly like James, and that she would be writing a post on that.  So there! you get these feelings at every level.
29. James also attended Sharath on tour in NYC with me and felt humiliated by yoga, again!

 

30. Tips to travel safe  when you finally book that plane ticket to Bangalore (or Mysore… who knows? they just opened an airport).

 

31. Packing List.

 

32. Guide to Mysore. Click on the title to see the free guide and article.

Bonus: Here are 7 reasons why Ashtanga yoga is really not that hard… but rather the “hardness” is in the mind of the beholder.

 

(Article source: earthyogi.blogspot.com/2011/04/32-suggestions-how-to-start-ashtanga.html)

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