It took almost three years of practicing the Ashtanga Primary Series for it to feel fluid. For me to actually even begin to understand appreciate and experience the Vinyasa system in all its brilliance. Before now, practice was hard. Now don’t get me wrong, it still is difficult. But the challenge feels fluid. I am suddenly able to still my mind (briefly) and settle into one pose at a time, rather than struggle through one pose at a time while simultaneously dreading the next. I feel as if I’m dancing through breaths. On a good day I can almost watch myself creating a mala of movement; threading the beads that are the asanas along this thread of breath.
I came to yoga, as many do, for the physical (nothing unique here). I remember though, something else always intrigued me about this particular type of eastern practice. I heard a quote once, and forgive me, I cannot remember who said it or in what context (perhaps it was Guruji, Sri K Patthabi Jois), but essentially the idea was that we are drawn to yoga in this life because we have practiced it in a past life. I really do believe this. In high school and college I played around with Classical Hatha, Bikram, Vinyasa Flow, and Ashtanga, eventually settling on an Ashtanga based teacher-training program at a small shala, or yoga school, in Orlando, Florida. At twenty years old, I think I may have been the youngest in the training program. I struggled and excelled, and after a summer of cramming Sanskrit names into my brain and learning effective and initially terrifying asana adjustments, I left Florida to return to New York with a 200-hour Yoga Alliance Certification.
Looking back almost four years later, I’m still one of the youngest yoga teachers I know. I have a lot to learn about teaching. And I cannot wait. I teach full time at a Pilates and movement studio (also picked up a Pilates teaching skill set along the way) in New York and consider every class I lead to be continuing education. In April 2011, I attended two weeks of workshops with Sharath R in New York on the Ashtanga Primary Series. And this November (right this second, actually...) I’m making my first journey to Mysore, India to study with Sharath R. the grandson of the late Sri K Pattabhi Jois, Guruji of Ashtanga Yoga.
I’m so excited I could explode. I’m also nervous. Most of all I’m trying to be open to the experience. I’m trying to be a witness to my yoga evolution. To be present to the changes and influences as they happen, rather than a passive passenger blind to the subtle changes over time.
If you’re not super familiar with Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga, let me offer some basic information that may help. (Please note: I am not a yoga scholar, I am a practitioner like all of you, so my information may need editing, and I am happy to take comments or corrections!) Ashtanga means “eight limbs,” and is the yoga described in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras.
Ashtanga Vinyasa is a particular type of asana yoga taught to Pattabhi Jois by his guru, Krishnamacharya in the 1930’s. It consists of a set of six specific series of movements all set to the ujyai breath. Thus, is a breath-centered, or vinyasa, practice. Some believe that the first series is enough to keep one occupied for one’s entire life. Once it is completed the second series is learned, and on and on. From what I’ve heard though, Sharath is the only living person practicing all six series. Traditionally the poses are taught to students Mysore-style, (named for the city in which this style was first taught to Guruji and where he established his shala). Mysore-style is what some of us call “guided self-practice.” Imagine a big group of people, all practicing the series from memory only to the point that their teacher has taught them so far. Mysore-style usually has a wide range of time, and practitioners can enter the room any time they want within that time. Since everyone is practicing at a personal pace, people are entering and leaving the room seamlessly for the entire time. New students practice right along with more experienced yogis, and one or two teachers and perhaps a few assistants guide and adjust practitioners. This style requires the same dedication as any led class, but with added personal responsibility and an added student-teacher connection. These days led classes are also common, where one teacher guides students (at the same time) through the primary series, or half of the primary series (this is more like a yoga class you might imagine).
So now I’m off to this city of self-practice. It’s not a luxurious yoga retreat (not that there’s anything wrong with that!) nor is it a live-in ashram (nobody will be ringing a gong to wake me up..) It’s a real city and a real practice. I’ve read a lot about Mysore “back in the day,” when the first western students were beginning to travel and learn from Guruji. I’ve heard it was intimate. I’ve heard it was intense. But I wasn’t around then. I can only experience Mysore now. I’ve heard the practice room is super crowded in the shala. I’ve heard that the five-breath per posture rule was created to expedite the practice time in order to accommodate the growing class sizes (can't remember where I read this thought...The Yoga Body? The Subtle Body? Either way, both books are a must read). I’ve heard that that the adjustments will be intense. I’ve heard the shala’s clock is set 15 minutes early. I’ve heard that everyone is warm and welcoming.
I’ve heard that India will change my practice, my life and my digestive tract (eek). But lets see what I find. My plane left JFK on November 1...I'm sitting in London's Heathrow airport waiting for my connecting flight as I type...