Yoga Practice

Why yogis are scared of ashtanga


I’ve often compared my ashtanga “upbringing” to my classical training as a pianist. There’s a particular posture when seated at the piano. Wrists are always up. A specific technique in how you stroke the keys. I took music theory classes. I started every lesson and practice with scales and arpeggios. It was a very structured environment. One of my old teachers used to write, “Cut your fingernails” at the top of my music if I let them grow even a millimeter too long. That was what I was used to.

When I talk to friends who do other forms of yoga, there seems to be this giant fear of ashtanga. I never really understood it since this is just what I know. Considering that ashtanga is the foundation for other forms of yoga (vinyasa, flow, power yoga, etc.), it didn’t make sense to me why so many people run away from it.

And then I thought about the Ashtanga Police. These are the more traditional ashtangis who tsk tsk at less rigid ashtangis. There are quite a few rules that ashtangis are asked to follow, and the practice itself is incredibly demanding.

  • Fairly rigid set of postures in each series
  • Specific number of breaths for each posture
  • Maintain ujjayi breathing through every challenging posture until savasana
  • Hold all the bandhas through every challenging posture until savasana
  • Specific drishti for each posture
  • Precision in vinyasas (no lazy chaturangas!)
  • Pointed vs. flexed feet
  • Perception of inflexibility in the order and modifications of postures
  • Practice 6 days a week
  • No practice on moon days
  • Feels sexist – not supposed to practice on “flow” days
  • Expected to learn about all 8 limbs
  • It’s hard! 90 minutes of continuous vinyasas
  • Each series gets more pretzel-y and requires more strength and flexibility
  • Often times seen as an all or nothing practice

When I put it in list form… ok… yeah, I get it. It’s hard. But it’s meant to be hard. What’s the fun of yoga if you’re not challenged by it? No one stays at the beginner level forever if they feel comfortable with basic postures.

At the same time, it’s so challenging that it’s humbling. Some people grow big egos by how far into each series they can get. And for others, it’s a reminder to be thankful for what your body can do on that day and in that moment. As long as you respect your body, I feel like ashtanga always gives more back than what you put in, whether it’s a stronger body, a more flexible body, a calmer mind, keeping chronic disease under control or whatever your benefit of choice is that comes with a rigorous practice.

I’ve mentioned before that ashtanga has been disappearing in Austin. I don’t know how to reverse the trend, but I wanted to put it out there that I get it. I understand why it’s not everyone’s favorite style. But if you’ve never tried it before because you’re been intimidated before, I encourage you to give it a try. At least the room isn’t cranked up to 105 while you’re working hard. 😉

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  1. Tammy says

    Athough I understand that your list is of common perceptions, it doesn’t have to be as rigid as all that. Actually, all Hatha yoga is Ashtanga Yoga – it all follows the 8 limbed path; there are different theorys on how to approach it. I love what you said about it being challenging to the point of being humbling. I recently heard a senior teacher mention the same thing and how that brings us to our real yoga practice! This teacher also stressed that we practice “mindfully” and not rigidly… 🙂

    • Terri says

      i’m glad you mentioned that all hatha yoga is ashtanga in that it follows the 8 limbed path. they don’t talk about any of the other limbs in those classes though. i wonder if it’s because people only want all the other aspects of that from a class labeled ashtanga and would then be turned off if it was taught in a standard hatha class?

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