The first time I did Mysore style Ashtanga yoga, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I had never even heard of it. I read the description online and though to myself, “Ummm, okay?” It was the only class offered at 6 a.m., which, at that time, fit my wacky schedule. The teacher asked me if I had ever done Ashtanga before and I sheepishly replied, “No.”
He shrugged and said, “OK, let’s get started.”
I barely made it through Sun Salutation A and B. It was awful. I went home and cried. It was so friggin' hard. Everything hurt. I was so out of shape. I was embarrassed. Here were all these other other advanced yogis in the room, so much further along than me, and I couldn’t even do a push-up. I was mortified. Back then, it wasn’t funny, but I am now at a point where I can laugh at the experience and what some of my initial thoughts were. Case in point: Yoga is serious business!
I think that when you’re faced with a challenge, you have a big choice to make—to face that challenge head on or run like hell for the hills. After I cried, I committed. I’m so glad I did. My practice has taken many turns—injury both to my body and my ego, sheer laziness, exploring other styles of yoga, pushing, and finally surrendering—and it has taught me so many things about myself and the world around me.
Here are eight lessons that I’ve learned from this beautiful practice:
It has taken me a long time to accept that my practice is unique and blooms in its own time. As I mentioned earlier, when I first started a consistent Mysore style practice, I could not even do a push-up—it would bum me out every single time I came to Chaturanga. As you might know, there are a million Chaturangas in the primary series. I had to reframe my mindset: “I may not get it this time around, but I will literally be doing this a million times today, a million times tomorrow, and for the rest of my life. I’m gonna get it.” And I did!
I don’t take for granted my Chaturanga because I remember what it took to get me there. That has been my mindset for every asana in the primary series. For someone new to the practice, consistently practicing the same set of asanas in the same sequence may seem boring and less productive than jumping around to explore. I would argue that never have any one of my practices felt the same or looked the same. I would also note that it takes consistent practice to see results. If you’re new to the practice, commit to 90 days of practice (with a minimum of three times a week). You deserve to see what your body is capable of. It is only with the fire of discipline that you burn away everything that keeps you from stepping fully into your own power.
I’m in this for the long haul. I believe Guruji, the founder of Ashtanga yoga, when he said: “Practice and all is coming."
Self-care is so important in a Mysore style Ashtanga practice. This practice is demanding, active, and invigorating. Six days a week, with Saturdays, new moons, full moons, and "lady’s holiday" off. That’s a lot of asana. It is easy to get swept up in the desire of mastery. I had a back spasm on my mat because I was too eager and I refused to listen to my body. I injured my right knee because I was so eager to check off asanas on my list. For years, I felt like I was at war with my body on the mat—my mind moving me forward, but my body stubbornly staying in place. Turns out, my body’s wisdom is much greater than I was giving it credit for.
Injury is an opportunity to examine your approach and the thoughts you’re thinking. Take care of yourself on the mat. Learn your “edge” in your practice. Your edge is outside of your comfort zone, but not inside of the danger zone. Learning what that means for your body is a game changer.
Working with an authorized teacher who has a direct connection to the source is crucial. In Ashtanga, the concept of “parampara,” the passing of knowledge from teacher to student, is a source of inspiration, motivation, and knowledge. Your teacher learns your body and can guide you through the practice. Allow your teacher to add on to your practice, instead of forging ahead. Let each asana be a beautiful pearl that comes to grace your heart at the right time.
Flexibility and strength come with time and dedication. Believe it or not, your breath gives you access to both of those things. Ujjayi breath is the gateway to victory. It grounds you in the present moment and it comforts you in those asanas that make you feel like the floor is giving way underneath you because at first they’re so scary. Find your breath in every asana. Guruji always said: “Ashtanga yoga is a breath practice; the rest is just bending.”
Every single day practitioners of all levels step on their mat in a Mysore style class. It is so easy to compare yourself to the people around you. Newsflash: No one is giving out a grade at the end of the class. For those yogis who are more advanced than you, thank them—they show you what’s possible for you. What you are witnessing is the result of years of dedicated practice, falling, failing, and trying again. What I love about Ashtanga is right when you think you’ve gotten somewhere, there’s more to learn and practice. So even advanced yogis are beginners every step of the way.
As you deepen your practice and you begin to see progress, you may realize that you don’t want to do anything (both on and off your mat) that would keep you from moving forward. This includes how you nourish your body and the rest you give your body. This may mean altering your eating schedule, so that you’re not eating heavy meals the night before an early morning practice. Believe me, it is not fun twisting and jumping with what feels like a five-pound bowling ball in your belly. It may also mean steering away from foods that take a lot out of you to digest, particularly meat, and opting for more leafy greens. It’s an opportunity to learn your body and to give yourself your best chance.
I know myself—I am miserable if I sleep less than seven hours a night. So if I’m waking up at 5:00 a.m. to step on my mat at 6:00 a.m., this means that I can’t stay up until midnight every night. It’s an adjustment that I’ve had to make.
I would love nothing more than to reach the sixth series someday. I’m not saying that it’s not a possibility. What I am saying is that, instead of focusing on what I don’t have and where I’m not, I want to fully commit to where I am right now. I have committed to stepping onto my mat and fully accepting and cherishing where I’m at. Right now.
I love it when Kino talks about feeling like a sack of potatoes some days. It really is true. Some days you feel like you’re finally getting it—you’re in the flow. Other days, not so much. Each day that you step on the mat, let everything that happens teach you something. If you’ve learned something on your mat, you have not failed. Do your best. Breathe. Let go of the expectation, the desire, the pushing. Sit with what is.
Most people think of asana when they hear the word yoga, but it is just one-eighth of the Ashtanga yoga system. The Ashtanga yoga method is a way of life and is so much more than getting on your mat and twisting like a pretzel. Sure, that’s part of it. A lot of people gain access to the other seven limbs by starting with an asana practice. Learn the code and live it faithfully.
My dream is to make the journey to Mysore and study with Sharath and Saraswati. I’m totally speaking it into existence. For now, I am content with being an Ashtanga yoga student because each day I learn more about me—my inner dialogue, my body, and my place in the universe.