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Gentle, intense ashtanga yoga

Katja Kokko | 12.6.2015

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Our yoga school took over an entire street in Helsinki a while ago. I got chills thinking about a street filled with yoga mats, the air heavy with the sounds of mantras and breathing. This made me want to write about my thoughts on ashtanga yoga and the criticism on it – ashtanga is probably one of the most criticized forms of yoga.

Often you hear about it leading to injuries, and some people consider it too disciplined and militant. Often these critics have injured themselves, quit practicing ashtanga and moved on to pilates or another form of yoga. I’ve also met many former athletes who think ashtanga as a performance sport where you should be making constant progress.

Then there are long-time ashtanga yogis who, for one reason or another, have moved on to another form of yoga and think of ashtanga as too achievement-oriented and shallow. I believe all of these opinions are based on negative personal experiences, as well as a certain need to limit and define things. There are so many ways to do things, and ashtanga yoga is no different in that sense.

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I have studied with the leader of the Ashtanga Yoga Institute, guruji Sharath Jois – grandson of Pattabhi Jois – only once, when he visited Finland. I don’t know how he teaches ashtanga nowadays, but sometimes I read notes from his conferences.

However, what I do remember from his visit to Finland is a question one of the students asked: aren’t there a terrible amount of restrictions in ashtanga yoga based on the yoga sutras?

Sharath answered: “Who sets the restrictions? In the end, you set your own limits and choose how to interpret them.” The question wasn’t about asana practice per se, but I think the same is true for that also. We all choose how we practice.

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My personal yoga path has been quite colorful. As I have mentioned before, ashtanga yoga activated an old back pain of mine. There were many reasons. Certain muscles were not strong enough and my progress in the practice had been too fast. I was lacking in proper instruction, and nobody was watching over the small things that could have helped me avoid injury. Had I been doing the practice right from the beginning, I would have been more aware of certain muscles and the practice would have been safer (although I feel grateful, because without the injury I might never have learned everything I know now).

Another reason for my injury was my own desire to progress and build strength, because ashtanga was the first exercise since horseback riding that I truly found myself enjoying. However, my attitude towards ashtanga was very superficial compared to how I feel about it now. Even though I was always interested in the tradition and philosophy of yoga, my interest was purely theoretical. What was happening on the mat was completely different than now. It was a performance, taking too much of my energy.

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My severe back injury was the first turning point on my yoga path. I had to stop the practice and modify it in order to rehabilitate my back, strengthen the right muscles and find the right alignments. I didn’t know nor believe I would ever do another dropback, but it didn’t really matter: I was happy I could lift my arms without feeling pain.

I would sometimes look at a fellow student doing the Dhanurasana and wistfully remember how good it felt on my rib cage, while I was simply learning how to do the downward facing dog again. Step by step my back started to get better and I got in touch with muscles I didn’t even know existed before. My rib cage and upper back started to finally open up and all the muscles in the front started to get stronger and more flexible.

I kept learning new things until I realized I had a completely new back! I was able to do things I thought I would never do again. My teacher had told me right after my injury that I was in a situation where nine out of ten students quit ashtanga and find something else to do – and probably tell friends that ashtanga is dangerous. Based on my own experiences, I can say it’s all up to you.

You can, and must, modify the practice to suit different needs. You must take pain and injuries seriously. By modifying the practice, you can heal whatever was causing the problems in the first place. It does take time, patience and the right kind of instruction, though.

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Another turning point was my burnout. I had neither physical nor mental strength. Getting out of bed before ten was a cause for applause. I couldn’t have cared less about getting on my yoga mat at the crack of dawn – or any other time of the day, for that matter.

Everyone who has exercised regularly knows how your body feels just after a couple of weeks of not exercising. You’re on edge, snappy and there’s no energy flowing through your body or your mind. An all-around block is probably the best way to describe the feeling. When you don’t even have enough energy to think, you have to let go of everything and not force yourself to return to the yoga mat.

During the last year I have learned to listen to myself in a whole new way. Actually I could say I have truly learned to listen to myself. I’m immensely grateful for my body and I no longer want to force it to do anything. I don’t care at all how far I’ll progress with ashtanga yoga.

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The only logic or rule I follow with my practice is listening to my body and my energy level. Sometimes I might do a long practice, and do all the asanas I’ve been given. Sometimes I might spend weeks doing much shorter practices.

There might be days where I only do the sun salutations and some yin yoga. Some days I do a very slow practice and sometimes I skip all the lift ups and jump throughs in between asanas. Sometimes my breaths are deep and long, sometimes the entire practice is light and fast, with light breathing. Sometimes I stay at home and sleep instead.

Had I not taken this path, I don’t know if I’d ever learnt to ration the energy I use for my practice or to feel what kind of practice is good for me right now. I’ve thought about this a lot now that I also instruct ashtanga yoga, because I want to share what I’ve learned about a safe practice that feels good. I think it’s easier to modify your practice once you have enough strength and awareness of your body.

For beginners learning the breathing, simply doing the sun salutations can be tough, which makes rationing tough but still important. Many people will huff and puff through the exercise without concentrating on what really matters.

The fault, then, is not in ashtanga yoga but between the ears of the student. Many people forget the very essence of the practice: concentrating on the breathing. The meaning of yoga is to quieten the mind, which happens through concentrating on the breathing.

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Unfortunately, you see and hear a lot of yogis whose breathing is very fast throughout the practice and who are very restless while twisting themselves to the different asanas. Of course this happens to all of us sometimes, especially with the more difficult asanas, but I’m talking about the all around energy that is present throughout the practice.

Of course, all of us experience the practice in our own way and an outsider can’t tell how anyone else is feeling. Still, it’s important for everyone to sometimes stop and think about their practice. Is there something I could be doing differently? Do I really need to do the same, long and intense practice every day?

Especially if you are in pain or feel irritated or tired after practice, it’s time to change something. During his Easter workshop, Petri Räisänen recommended doing the asanas with about 70 – 80 % intensity. For example, you can take eight breaths instead of five, or do five breaths with 70 – 80 % intensity instead of always going for 100 %. This is an excellent tip, one that I’m giving out a lot nowadays.

I also had a wonderful realization a month ago during my teacher Magnus Appelberg‘s workshop about the anatomy of silence. The class was about psoas, which Magnus has dubbed the soul muscle, as well as breathing and the right kind of bandha activating. Taking these three things into account is the essence of quieting the mind, and they give you space to ration the intensity of your practice. Magnus gave words to what I’ve started to experience during the last year.

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Ashtanga yoga is an immensely interesting practice. You constantly learn new things about energy and your body. Sometimes you get mind-blowing epiphanies, sometimes things just flow easily – until you notice you’ve once again come a long way.

For me, ashtanga yoga is simultaneously gentle, intense, energizing, calming, strength- and flexibility-building, but experiencing this requires moving away from the sense of achieving and instead exploring your body more deeply.

How do you feel about ashtanga yoga? What is your practice like? Do you follow a strict routine or go with the flow? 

Rock om!

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Yoga pants, top and knit courtesy of Wellicious

Translation Eeva Kolu

Pictures Mikko Rasila

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  1. Lovely thoughts on this beautiful practice and an article that needed to be written!

    Namasté!