In the mid-1990s my sister discovered yoga. My parents, concerned that she might be joining a cult, decided to investigate and got hooked, too. A few years later I was dragged in as well. (Surprised it took that long?)
My first class was at a studio in an art district in Sarasota. I was leaving a job, a relationship, and the state of Florida, and wandered into a Hatha partner class, solo. A few years later back in Michigan, I followed a friend to an Ashtanga class. After the first few flows of sun salutations, I simply sat down and laughed at myself. The teacher, a long-limbed pretzel in his early 20s, was taking poses as if he was an acrobat. I was the elephant at his circus. Unfortunate.
I kept up running until my body started to pay for it. After moving to Milwaukee in 2000, I found my way back to Hatha with a new friend. Eventually, I discovered a Vinyasa studio in a quaint, little town 20 minutes north. It felt like a gift to myself. It was there that I finally drank the Kool-Aid. When our youngest was two I registered for a 200-hour teacher training. “Mommy, that lady can do a headstand but you can’t” said my son (in unison with the voice in my head). The real learning began.
What I didn’t know then was that the asanas, or postures, are only one part of the path that is yoga. Yama (moral codes), Niyama (self-discipline), Pranayama (breath control), Pratyahara (sense withdrawal), Dharana (concentration), Dhyana (meditation), and Samadhi (oneness with the self), comprise the other 7 “limbs”. (I think that this is probably why I always struggled with “gym yoga” as, in my experience, it seemed to focus mostly on the physical aspect of the practice.
In all honesty, I eventually became tired of the Vinyasa (flow) style as well. My short-term memory struggles to keep up with the choreography and I lose the concentration necessary to stay focused while on my mat. I picked up Bikram (hot yoga with a set of 26 poses and two breathing exercises) and found that I thrived on the intensity of it. I left with headaches due to dehydration no matter how much water I drank (pre-Kangen*, obviously)!
Eventually, I came full circle and was invited to an Ashtanga shala (studio) by another friend, and have found that my body and mind respond best to this daily practice.
What is the purpose of Ashtanga?
According to Yoga Basics, the intensive physical processes in Ashtanga are all about pushing through mental blocks, and emotional baggage to cultivate mental clarity, mindful breathing, physical strength, flexibility, and endurance. The design in structure and frequency of the practice helps you quickly improve your body and overall wellness. The set sequence of postures creates a strong framework that allows one to focus on the inner limbs of the yoga sutras.
Furthermore, the benefits of Ashtanga yoga are numerous. Although strenuous, is great for athletes and people that are looking for a good workout. Like most styles of hatha yoga, Ashtanga focuses on breath, poses, and meditation. Regular yoga practice can improve your flexibility, breathing, and balance. It can increase your stamina, bone density, and muscle strength, control your body weight, lower your blood pressure, and relieve stress. The benefits of Ashtanga yoga are not limited to physical factors. It also helps mentally and spiritually by boosting mental clarity, creating mental calmness, and developing better concentration in daily life.
To Be Continued…
What I know to be true from my own experience is that what I practice on my mat is a clear indication of where my body and mind are at on any given day–and that it changes. Daily. So I have learned to approach my mat with curiosity rather than expectation, take the cues (hmmm, my balance is off, maybe I need to recognize that in other contexts), continue to breathe (because if I can do it in the postures there, I can do it when I my patience with others later wains), and know that as soon as I master the pose I am working on there will be another, and another, and another. Just like life.