I knew many of the postures, since I’d practiced Ashtanga derivatives like Power Yoga and Vinyasa Flow, but I had never practiced the Ashtanga primary sequence. The night before the program began, my nerves (thank you, Vata dosha) had me stewing over what I thought practice would be like. A few days in I started realizing my preconceived expectations and worries were misguided and unnecessary. Here are some tips that helped my and my peers’ practice, and self-discovery, flourish:
Don’t be intimidated: Even when you consider the primary series alone (in Ashtanga, there are six series of postures), the practice can seem daunting. “They want me to do what with my legs? I’m not strong/flexible/advanced enough!” The point of practice is just that: practice. I showed up worried I’d somehow “fail” because I didn't know every asana, only to learn that many students spend years learning and perfecting the primary series. The sequence is designed to build on the strength, flexibility, and space created in the preceding postures. If you doubt you’ll ever touch your head to your toes, you're about to surprise yourself.
Don’t beat yourself up: The primary series is called Yoga Chikitsa, or yoga therapy, because it eliminates toxins and disease. Starting Ashtanga is a perfect time to jumpstart lifestyle changes you’ve been meaning to make. You can reduce or remove meat from your diet, as recommended when practicing Ashtanga, and take tips from Ayurveda on what foods support your body and practice. That doesn't mean, as I first thought, that you’re required to cut out every food you love, or feel guilty about indulging once in awhile. Self-criticism and extremism won’t help you into Supta Kurmasana (Reclining Tortoise Pose). Instead, consider your new practice an opportunity to examine your choices, make adjustments, and work on self-kindness.
Breathe: If you’ve practiced any kind of yoga, you know breath is integral. All postures in Ashtanga are linked by breath (vinyasa). When you’re smushed in a posture like Halasana (Plow Pose), breath might feel impossible, but keep it deep and steady. Breathing will bring you further into each posture and sustain you to Savasana (Corpse Pose).
Treat every Vinyasa as the first: By the 25th chaturanga, you might wonder why you started practicing at all. Until I began building arm and core strength, chaturanga kicked my butt. Other students shared my frustration and fatigue, and some took license to cheat in a few of the vinyasas. Then, one of our instructors told us to be sure we performed every vinyasa with equal effort; otherwise, we could get lazy and injure ourselves. If chaturangas are too demanding (or if you just need a break), place your knees on the mat before you lower down. You’ll still build strength without risking your shoulders, elbows, and wrists.
Do your practice (and all is coming): Thank Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, Ashtanga’s founder, for this piece of wisdom. I struggled through my first six-day week before learning the Ashtanga secret: just show up to the mat. When I didn’t feel like practicing, I practiced. When I stopped thinking about the demanding practice and schedule, my practice improved – almost like magic. If you stick with it, you soon might find yourself in a posture you never dreamed of attempting. You’ll notice muscles and range of motion you didn’t have the week before. Ashtanga’s eightfold path is long and multifaceted, but with a healthy body, calm mind, and developing practice, you’ll wind up further along than you anticipated.