My Ashtanga Yoga Experience

Starting this year I decided to let go of capoeira while I “sit down and write” (ha, ha).  Slowly it turned out to be a disaster: I was not eating properly, always tired, and goes on these “write 2 hours, sleep 2 hours” routine.  One day I tried kicking a quexada, when my now-tight hamstrings pulled me up in the air… and I decided I need some structure in my life.  After looking around I settled on trying Ashtanga yoga.

This is the second time I’ve given yoga a serious go.  After injuring my wrists last summer, I sought to augment my flexibility with Bikram hot yoga (I really want to be able to a macaco).  After a solid 6 weeks of almost every day practice, I decided that it just wasn’t for me.  Part of it was the environment: I have never understood what the “hot” bit was useful for.

The Omniscient Internet seems to suggest the theoretical benefit is either (i) you become more stretchy than you could practicing under other conditions (a state function), or (ii) you become flexible more quickly than otherwise (a path function), or (iii) you “detoxify”.  (i) had no use for me: other yoga practitioners are as flexible as I would ever hope for.  (ii) holds no appeal to me: I see yoga as a 5/10 year plan, and short-cuts seem unnecessary.  (iii) is nonsense to me.  I am a chemist and I don’t believe the picture where under heat, bad chemicals (and only bad chemicals) oozes out from your pores.

The heat may have no theoretical basis, but it certainly had practical implications.  If I slept poorly, ate poorly, or drank coffee/tea before the practice, I’m in for some serious suffering.  On these days (about a third of the time) I get dizzy halfway through, and for the remaining part meekly pretend to be in an asana with no actual efforts exerted (I was trying to stay alive).  Once I thought I was blacking out, and had to leave the room to throw up.

Besides that, the teacher training must have been in the style of Ming dynasty scholarship (i.e., by rote).  Every instructor recites the same script: “British bulldog determination”, “no air or light between…”, “Bengal tiger strength”.  Why keep talking about “Japanese ham sandwich” when most of your class have no schema for that cultural reference?  To add insult to injury, Google Images only gave me Bikram yoga poses when I tried to look it up.

At the end, it was too commercial for my taste.  Being in an artificially heated/ventilated room with another 30 bodies led by someone who is not themselves skilled in the art*; how are you supposed to cultivate spirituality from this?  This is far from what I expected out of yoga.

With that experience, I was responsibly cautious this time around.  After lots of consultation with YouTube and the Omniscient Internet, I settled on Ashtanga for its dynamic grace.  It also seems to be very structured and disciplined, and the gravity-defying acts looks like something I can grow into (rather than growing out of).  There are two schools that formally teaches Ashtanga in town, and I went with focused classes and pedigree**.  (I have this reverence thing for good teachers, and it extends to the students they trained.)  So for the first 5 weeks I’ve been studying under the tutelage of Michele/Nikki/Sachiko until the regular teachers Jeff and Harmony Lichty were back from Mysore.

The first thing that made a big difference was the “Mysore style” of teaching.  Unlike a led class (and I thought all classes were led!), here each student practices what they can do at their own pace and the teachers watch, correct, and teach what you need to know when you are ready for it.  A major consequence is that I feel responsible in learning the sequence, knowing that there is no one to follow the next day.

On the bodily, fleshy bits, I find myself working hard in Ashtanga yoga.  With a long torso and short legs (*sniff*), I have historically cruised through all “bend and reach” business and no one seemed to be wiser.  It’s much, much harder when done the right way that the teachers insists on (spine straight, shoulders unshrugged, bending by a sorta isolation from the hip flexors).  After 6 weeks of 5-6 times a week practice, I feel the major difference in my day-to-day posture (spread shoulders and constantly engaged lower abs).  I don’t feel more flexible than before, but I can now hold my toes in Baddha Padmasana!***

On the down side, my left wrist hurts, and at the end of the weeks I feel growing aches in my back.  I can’t quite describe what it is, but it doesn’t feel like muscle aches.  In my imagination, my spine is adjusting itself.  The practice goes well with my twice a week of lifting (squats, military presses), though it’s quite a bitch to get up next morning at 6.

Speaking of which, the practice also put great focus on the non-bodily bits.  Classes starts with a chant, and throughout the practice there are gazing points (drishti) and much attention is paid to breathing.  I had my reservations to chants, but the content is sufficient secular that I don’t feel it being cultish.  I find the drishti and ujjaji useful in keeping my mind from wandering.

I like and trust the teachers.  (That said, students are in general good evaluator for “how much the teachers care” but not so much for “how good teachers they are”, so this should be taken with a grain of salt.)  My sense is that to be an Ashtanga practitioner/teacher requires discipline, determination, and care that does not commensurate with earthly rewards, and people focused on the latter tends to drift to something easier.

Since everyone comes and goes on their own time, (and I don’t make small talk,) there isn’t much by way of socializing.  It is pretty cool to see what other folks can do, and amazingly how normal their bodies look.  I’m used to seeing sinewy men doing the hand balances, but some of the ladies in the class, with womanly hips/arms, are doing the same incredible things with grace. That means…

I guess that means there’s no excuses for me!

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* One of the teachers was practicing in a different class.  The gentleman could barely touch his toes.  For all the recognition that a good practitioner is not necessary a good teacher (and vice versa), certainly there is a minimum degree of proficiency and commitment one needs to make before becoming qualified to teach?

** It inspires confidence to see a non-chic/designer website, particularly when it’s the same style as that for the broader “Ashtanga Canada” website.

*** Sit in lotus; cross arms behind back; hold toes.  It’s part of Ashtanga’s closing sequence, and you learn it on the first day.  I thought Michele was being funny when she said, “Hold your toes”.  On the first day, I had a full 8 inches gap between fingers and toes that no amount of wriggling gets you closer.  Didn’t stop me from trying though 🙂

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