Yoga Bliss! and concerns…and musings about Asthanga for the new Yogi

My favourite teacher taught half-primary last night. It was so awesome…especially because the two other students were also experienced with Ashtanga so Mark was able to keep up the counts and I was able to follow the class the way I like to. Since I have started at this new studio, I have never really fully followed one of the Ashtanga classes. They have always had new students and had to slow down and modify down too much for me…so I have basically been doing my own practice, usually in the corner. I don’t really mind that, because I know it is to my benefit for Ashtanga to take off and be popular there and for that to happen the new students need the attention. I am already hooked! Also, since I have a Mysore background, practicing on my own is what I’m used to and doesn’t bother me at all. But it was still nice to follow a class, especially because I got lots of direction and assists. When I’m doing my own thing…the teacher is (rightfully) focusing on the students that are following the class, and I am left completely on my own without any cues or assistance unless I ask for it, which I’m hesitant to do because asking for a teacher to leave the class and help me with a pose that that other students haven’t even seen makes me feel like a show off. That said, my practice has grown pretty amazingly considering I’ve been getting very little help with it since the summer! My teacher yesterday commented many times that he can see I have been practicing! One thing I am particularly proud of is my Chakrasana. Although I have been doing it for a long time, I have recently really started using my upper body and core strength to flip me over. In the past, I was basically using momentum, so it was kind of like a child’s backwards somersault. Mark noticed right away!

It’s kind of weird, even though I am obviously happy that two out of the three nighttime yoga classes they have are Ashtanga, I don’t really understand why it is. The studio’s students are almost all new to yoga, and I don’t think this is the best practice for people new to yoga. Not that people new to yoga cannot do Ashtanga and learn to love it…but I think they have to be really motivated to stick with it. I started a Ashtanga when I already had been practicing yoga for over a year and had a decent practice so when I attended my first Ashtanga class, the familiar poses with deeper variations and how fast-paced it was (with a good teacher)…I saw this as a challenge. I think new students see Ashtanga very differently. I think (based on listening to and talking to the new students) they see it as a weird combination of too easy, too hard, and boring.

Too easy: I think for a student new to yoga and Ashtanga, if they are fit and accustomed to strength or cardio workouts, they will not experience what a intense workout it is (and not give it the time to get there). This is because until you are doing all the Sun Salutations and Vinyasas, jumping back-and-forth through them, and holding the poses with pretty good form…it does not really feel like much of a work out unless you are coming from a very low level of fitness. For me, by the time I am done the opening sun salutations, my heart rate is up and I am sweating and that does not go away. Back when I first started Ashtanga practice, I used to jump through only half my opening sun salutations…so that I would not get too sweaty to do the twists later on. That is how sweaty they make me…that stepping instead of jumping through half of them actually makes me noticeably drier. But new students are not jumping back-and-forth through the sun salutations, and generally are not encouraged to do many of the Vinyasas in the floor series. That keeps the heart rate and sweat level much lower than it is for someone that is doing the full practice, so it feels like much less of a “workout”. Also, until you have pretty decent form in the poses, they do not feel like hard work. For me, simply holding a simple Warrior with good form for 5 breaths has my heart-rate rising and me starting to feel sweaty. Keeping all my joints and muscles the way they are supposed to be is hard work. It is similar to the way a plank is hard work if you are holding good form, even though you are not moving. But someone new is not using that kind of form yet. So between not using that kind of form in the poses, and not using the same kind of energy in the sun salutations and vinyasas as a more experienced practitioner would…it doesn’t feel like much of a workout. I always feel a bit offended when people say yoga (Ashtanga in particular) is not intense, because even though I am very fit it is very intense for me-as intense as anything else that I do except running or spinning if it as a particularly intense run or spin (a moderately intense run or spin is on par with Ashtanga)! I have to remind myself that it is a very different practice for me, and if I followed the class the way a beginner would…I would also feel like I did not get a good workout. As a matter fact, I tried the first class or two that I went to at the studio…and that is exactly why I started doing my own thing, as otherwise I was bored and not challenged and did not feel it was worth the time and money I devote to yoga and fitness.

Too hard: Even though it does not necessarily feel like a difficult workout intensity wise for someone that is fit, I think Ashtanga still seems like a difficult yoga practice. Especially if you have a teacher that is really pushing you in terms of form, which is important and makes the work harder, but at the beginning and also makes it seem almost impossible. Sun Salutations are so much harder when you’re using proper form (especially in Chatturanga), also poses like triangle and Warriors…pretty well every pose is. Just a simple direction like “pull your shoulders away from your ears” can make it seem so much harder. Good Ashtanga teachers give a lot of these kind of directions and will come around and actually try to physical insist that students follow them as best as they can…which I think make students feel reprimanded and forced to do something that is harder than the body can do. Which is ironic…because that same student may not feel like the class is intense enough. If they were following those hard directions and learning from them, the class would feel a lot more intense…but you just have to be at the right place in one’s practice to get there, and a new student is often just not in a place where it feels possible to hold a a warrior with her knee at a 90° angle, or Chaturranga with their back straight and their elbows at a 90° angle, or fully open third heart in a side angle or triangle pose. These things seem impossible at that time, and it seems pushy and annoying for the teacher to keep directing it. There are still things that feel that way to me! Wheel for example. I hate when teachers keep coming around and forcing me to straighten my legs more and push my chest higher…it is hard enough for me as I do it! Also, if a beginner is in a class that has more advanced practitioners or where the teacher shows the full poses…it can probably be pretty overwhelming to see some of the intense twists and lifts. Again, because I already had a pretty strong practice when I started Ashtanga and was doing a lot of things that months before I could not do…I saw these things as a challenge. But if I was completely new to yoga, I would possibly just wonder what I was doing in this place where people were wrapping their legs around their neck and lifting their body like that, and wrapping their arms around their knees in ways that I was pretty sure arms were not meant to bend. Also, for someone who is looking to Yoga as a “relaxing alternative” to strength and cardio classes…Ashtanga, while not a “workout” for many new students, is still too vigorous to be relaxing. 

Boring: I think a lot of people find yoga in general boring, and Ashtanga in particular boring; the counting, the lack of variety, and how slow it can seem when you’re waiting for the counts to finish. I think some people would probably always find it boring…and there are certainly times that I have felt like I needed a change. I don’t think I could ever be a committed Ashtangi and do it six days a week…I like doing a couple times a week and then doing yoga with more variety (or entirely other workouts) other days. But both yoga and Ashtanga does get less boring the more you do it. Once you get really invested in it, and have some idea about what you are really trying to do with the poses…the challenge of getting them the way you want to them to be (and in only five counts if it is Ashtanga…5 breaths suddenly seems very fast when you are struggling to find your edge and get into the pose at a slightly more advanced level than is easy for you) occupies your mind. At the same time, as you get more used to the practice, it becomes somewhat of a moving meditation and you can go into yourself a little bit more…because you’re not constantly listening to the teacher to know what to do next, you already know what to do next. Although, like running, I suspect some people will never stop being bored of yoga, and others will find the sweet spot I have.

So for these reasons, I am really starting to worry about my studio’s choice to have a Ashtanga yoga two nights a week. Even though it is my preferred practice and makes me very happy (especially with good teachers, which they now have)…I am worried that it is not going to pull the students in and then the studio is not going to not only drop Ashtanga, but is going to drop yoga entirely as maybe new students are being turned off from yoga as well. As much as I love Ashtanga, I would rather a high-quality Vinyasa or Hatha class (which are generally more appealing to beginners than Ashtanga since they are less rigid) than to not do yoga at all.

This said, even if they do drop all the yoga there, as long as they replaced it with good spin or Barre or other kind of class I enjoy (step? Body pump?)…I don’t think I will leave. I have devoted over half of my fitness time to yoga for the past three years or so…and it has been an incredible and life-changing journey. I am not ready to give it up, but I also really like the other things I’m doing there, and I definitely like this place more than I like the offerings at the other yoga studios in the area. So even if the Yoga does not last I will continue classes there, stay very fit, and practice yoga at home when I can. I’m trying to be very Zen about it and remind myself that I will be okay no matter what happens…but listening to everybody complain about the Ashtanga, or going to classes where there is nobody but me and maybe one other person…is definitely making me anxious that my currently perfect place won’t stay that way!

My current workout schedule:
Monday: Vinyasa class and/or Cardio at home.

Tuesday: Ashtanga.

Wednesday: Cardio at home (usually spinning, running when weather allows).

Thursday: Ashtanga.

Friday: Rest day. Unless I’m off work…then something.

Saturday: Usually Cardio at home, occasionally Barre instead if I can get out in time.

Sunday: Barre.

It is the PERFECT schedule for me, a great combination of Ashtanga (which I consider Yoga, Strength and Cardio all in one), strength and cardio…and currently I like all the classes, times and teachers! I really hope it lasts.


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