The Ashtanga Primary series is a set sequence of postures, topped and tailed with sun salutations and classic closing postures.
It’s strong, dynamic, and traditionally a self-led, individual practice, (“Mysore style”) which can take up to two hours to complete, often under the stern eye and firm assists of a teacher. I practiced it a LOT for five years. Here are five of the many things it taught me…
Breathe. Always. Especially when things get hard.
Ashtanga is a breathing practice; each movement is led by breath, each posture is held with breath.
The quality of breath is a practice in itself – ujjayi – and whilst it flows steadily, it calms the central nervous system, stabilises the heartbeat, strengthens the cardiovascular system, keeps the mind focused within the present moment and delivers us to a divine state of higher consciousness… GREAT, right?!
Yeah, until we forget to breathe, which, when your nose is on the backs of your knees and your eyes are full of your own sweat, can happen. Ashtanga taught me that the best way to get through a sticky situation, on or off the mat, is simply to breathe – steadily, continually, gratefully
The same things are never actually the same.
The Ashtanga primary series is a set sequence, which means you’re practicing the same postures in the same order every time you get to the mat.
You might think that’d get boring, yeah? Trust me, it doesn’t.
Ashtanga made me appreciate how different we are every single day: physically, emotionally, energetically, (spiritually, probably) we are in a new place every time we come to the mat, and so the same postures will feel and act VERY differently within us. Developing awareness of these unpredictable shifts and balances, and learning to adjust my intentions and perspective to deal with them, became more the practice than the shapes I was making.
Then, realising that this extended to life beyond the Mysore room was eye-opening, to say the least.
Yoga will work its magic even if you don’t ask it to.
I got into Ashtanga by mistake. I didn’t even know it was a type of yoga – I just thought it was a name for the retreat I’d booked onto..
I continued to go to Ashtanga initially because it made me sweat, I felt like I’d worked hard, and my body felt strong, lean and supple. And that mattered to me – probably a little too much. But it soon became obvious there was more going on with me with each practice… wandering home in some subtle bliss bubble, with a quiet sense that everything was going to be alright if I just carried on being me, doing what I do… and I seemed to know what that all meant right in that moment.
I didn’t think too much at the time but now, years on, and a few teacher trainings down the line, I see how important those unconscious moments of self-connection were in steering me further from the aesthetic and onto a decent path of sanity and self-worth.
Practice, but not necessarily ALL will be coming
After all those years of working my body into the the primary series, some postures have deepened and others are still nowhere near where they ‘should’ be.
It’s made me accept that, unless I re-set some joints or break some bones, there are some things my body will probably NEVER do. Like Janu Sirsasana C on my left side: anatomically, not gonna happen. And the best part: accepting that that is just fine.
It’s good to do something other than Ashtanga, if you feel like it.
I feel like I might get lynched by a lot of hard-core Ashtanga devotees for saying this, but for me, Ashtanga is not a complete enough practice to keep me healthy and happy.
Without a doubt, it laid the firm foundations of my practice and teaching style, and I go back to it sometimes for the flow of familiarity and the uncomplicated discipline it demands, but it doesn’t satisfy some of the softer, creative stuff I now know every part of me asks for. However, would I have that self-awareness of self if it weren’t for Ashtanga? Probably not!
Written by: Kate Lister