For the past few weeks, we have been trying out a new yoga format that I am calling Ashtanga Light. In a nutshell, it is a condensed form of Ashtanga yoga: shrunk to fit inside a 60 minute yoga class and modified to be more approachable for beginners.
I have been trying for a while to figure out how to teach Ashtanga to beginners. The practice is very intimidating at first - even the first series has some very challenging poses, which I think is off-putting for a lot of people who are new to yoga. I have a big heart for beginners. I remember walking into my first yoga class and being afraid that I was going to stick out like a sore thumb since I wasn't very flexible yet. I remember feeling like everyone was watching me and laughing when I screwed up. Of course, that wasn't happening and I learned pretty quickly that was NOT what yoga was about. But it doesn't stop you from thinking those things in your moments of uncertainty.
Whenever people learn that I am a yoga teacher, they almost automatically say something like, "I haven't stretched in forever, I am the least flexible person in the world." As if I might somehow judge them for it. As if everyone who first tried yoga was already flexible. No one walks into my class able to do everything and it makes me sad when people use that as an excuse not to try. It also makes me sad when people leave thinking that the class was too hard - that is not my goal at all. My goal is simply to challenge you to push your own limits. I offer a lot of modifications throughout the class and I trust you to listen to your body when it tells you to back off. I silently applaud students when I see them heed those cues. It is important to me to create an environment where my students feel like they can push their limits safely, and yet still feel okay if they need to take a break.
For these reasons, I came up with the Ashtanga Light format. The goal is to create a class where beginners can get to know the Ashtanga practice in an non-intimidating way. The basic outline of the class is similar to traditional Primary Series Ashtanga. We do Sun Salutations, Standing Postures, Primary Series Seated Postures, and Finishing Postures. In order to save time, we skip over some of the standing postures (I rotate them every week, so that we are sure to hit them all eventually). We do only the basics among the Seated Postures, leaving the more challenging poses for another day. And we only do one vinyasa per pose, instead of taking a vinyasa every time we switch sides. I hope these modifications will make Ashtanga more approachable for people who are new to yoga.
Some of the reasons why I love Ashtanga:
- It is "no nonsense." Nothing fancy, just the poses, the breath, and the bandhas. Although many Ashtanga yogis, including myself, also dig into chakras, chanting, sanskrit, ayurveda, vegan/vegetarian lifestyle, etc., most of that develops naturally through their own curiosity, and it happens outside of class. The practice is simply the practice, where we can all bring our own individual beliefs and ideas and enjoy the same space for a little while.
- The lack of music makes it easier to focus on your breath. When you go to an Ashtanga class, everyone is breathing the ujjayi breath very loudly and it produces a meditative state for the entire class. It is nice to have a break from all the noise that we experience throughout the day. Silence is golden.
- It is consistently challenging. Primary Series is difficult on its own, and when you've spent a couple years mastering it, there is Second, Third, Fourth, Fifth, and I think there's even a Sixth Series. There is always something new to learn, always some crazy posture that you are working on achieving. The work is never done.
- This is the Real Deal. Ashtanga comes from India, taught by a direct student of Krishnamacharya, the father of almost all yoga in the West. Sri K. Pattabhi Jois came up with this system, in consultation with Krishnamacharya, and taught it for over 70 years. After his death, he passed the torch to his son, Manju Jois, and his grandson, Sharath Jois, who both continue to teach this style in the U.S. and India.
- Ashtanga yoga has been tested for many years. Someone once told me that the best way to choose a yoga style is to look at the students who have practiced it for a while. If you like what you see, if you want to be like these people, that's a pretty good indicator that you should follow the path that they did. Since Ashtanga has such a long lineage, you can look at people who started practicing this system of yoga in the 1970's and see what it has created in their lives. I highly respect all of the Ashtanga teachers I have met so far. They seem to be well balanced, grounded, spiritually secure people. They also appear to be very healthy, so we know that the practice is safe and effective.