Ashtanga Yoga for Everybody

by Joanna D.

I appreciate structure. In fact, I tend to thrive when structures and parameters are in place. Making lists, devising plans, following maps. I appreciate these things not because I am a fan of conformity or rigidity or being told what to do (because I’m truly not), but rather because structure provides a place from which I can explore, diverge, and when I need it, return. It’s like this: coloring outside the lines would not be possible if there were no lines to begin with.

That is something I deeply appreciate about the structure of ashtanga yoga, yet it wasn’t always like that for me.

At the beginning, I rather disliked ashtanga. It felt utilitarian, rigid, and unrelenting. It wasn’t until I started to experience the structure in different ways (through various depths of physical tasks, observing my patterns and somehow gaining ability to alter them) that I began to see and utilize it as a map from which to unearth a level of strength and endurance I had never experienced. Which was really amazing to me as I never saw myself as someone who could do half of the things I was doing. Not to mention the mental shifts that began to emerge. Pealing back the layers, as they say. Finding a voice, a charge, a desire to get to know myself better. To explore my inner world meant to push myself to the limit. Though I practiced daily, devoted my time, energy and resources, sacrificed comforts and indulgences, I was continually faced with challenges that inhibited my ability to excel and advance. I was consistently filled with a sense of defeat, envy, and a desire to be someone or something that I wasn’t. This realization did not come easily, or quickly, but eventually it lead me to discover that my limits were not the same as those around me.

Over the years, I have learned a great deal from this. The injuries my body sustained when I was young and reckless (or simply accident prone), my self image, my inherent tamasic nature, these have all been real life obstacles for me. Old injuries have a way of sticking around or creeping back up when you think they’ve been sorted. Old habits and beliefs lurking in the shadows. Because of this I had to get creative, devise ways to find symmetry within the asymmetry inside my person. It meant modifications and prop use. It meant doing less and digging it. And I had to come to understand that the path of ashtanga yoga does not have the same trajectory, look, or feel for all that choose to explore it. That the practice will emerge differently from each and every person who yearns to yield its benefits and harness its secrets because we are individuals.

This leaves us to consider what it is like to live in a human body surrounded by human circumstances within a society made of humans. We are most certainly a group who would benefit from having discussions concerning yoga asana that embrace the glorious concepts of individualization, prop use, and consent to touch, rather than completely missing it, minimalizing it, or utterly abandoning it all together. After all, what does it mean to individualize a practice that is traditionally taught as a rigorous structure of rules and restrictions to which one is meant to conform? It means we have to change.

The structure/sequences of ashtanga yoga is a brilliant container from which to hold a daily physical practice. A place and means of deep study into the foundational aspects of the asanas, and the discovery of their sweet essence. The practice will continue to blossom in multiple ways and when nurtured properly provide lifelong access to discovery in yoga asana and beyond.

A three part workshop series dedicated to this very topic starts this Sunday, July 26. Find out more here.