7 Questions You Might Have About Ashtanga Yoga
By Elizabeth Halliday-Reynolds and Rachel Dyer
People often have questions about what it means to follow a particular “STYLE” of Yoga. Rachel and Zach Dyer teach and practice the Ashtanga style of yoga. Rachel and I started this discussion that captures some of the questions people ask. We thought you would enjoy the conversation.
What is Ashtanga Yoga to you?
“Ashtanga” is the method of yoga I practice. The word “ashtanga” can be broken down into the Sanskrit terms “astau,” which means eight, and “anga,” which translates to “limb.” So ashtanga yoga is eight-limbed yoga. The eight limbs are defined in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras: (1) yamas, or ethical guidelines for engaging in the world around us; (2) niyamas, being internal disciplines and guidelines for self-care; (3) asanas, aka postures; (4) prāṇāyāma, or breathing; (5) pratyahara, also referred to as sense withdrawal; (6) dhāraṇā, or concentration; (7) dhyāna, or meditation; and (8) samādhi, or absorption/union.
When you started practicing this Ashtanga sequence, what was the draw?
I was captivated from the first time I ever tried a traditional ashtanga yoga practice just a little over two years ago now, which was in my basement, by myself, watching an online video. The online video was a 77-minute led full primary featuring Kino MacGregor on Codyapp, now known as Alo Moves. It probably took me about 15 or 20 minutes to figure out that many of the Sanskrit words Kino was using were numbers. She was counting. This counting had a meditative quality to it, which is one reason why ashtanga yoga has been referred to as a form of moving meditation. I was also so inspired by these beautiful postures, yet I could not do half of them. I called Zach shortly after Kino did garbha pindasana, at which point I was just watching in awe, and said, “You have to see this…” I wanted to be able to do these postures.
After that, I started not only a dedicated posture practice but also reading a lot about ashtanga yoga. I learned that there are six set sequences, beginning with the primary series, and that practitioners ideally practice Mysore-style five days per week in the morning, and take a led/guided class one day per week. To practice Mysore-style, named after the city in south India, the practitioner memorizes the sequence and practices at his/her own pace. This allows for individualized instruction and practice.
Some people say they do not like ashtanga yoga because the sequences are set, but I consider it a gift of the practice that I can not only go at my own pace but also never really need to think about what is coming next. It makes my practice a meditation in motion.
Do you consider Ashtanga a “practice” or a “tradition”?
Ashtanga is often described as a “method” of yoga, but it also fits neatly within the meaning of both “practice” and “tradition.” A practice can be defined as “the actual application or use of an idea, belief, or method, as opposed to theories relating to it.” Pattabhi Jois, known for popularizing ashtanga yoga in the West, is often quoted as having said that yoga is “99% practice, 1% theory,” and, “Practice and all is coming.” There are various, in-depth interpretations of these quotes, but I think in simplest terms he meant that yoga is something that can only be learned and known through practice. As to tradition, the word tradition can be defined as “the transmission of customs or beliefs from generation to generation, or the fact of being passed on in this way.” Within the ashtanga method, there is great emphasis on the teacher-student relationship, and the practice is transmitted from generation to generation in that way, also known as parampara. This makes ashtanga yoga a tradition.
How does your practice give you roots to your daily life?
Having developed a dedicated practice sets the tone for each day of my life. I wake up at 4:30 a.m. five days per week to do my practice before work. In order to do this, as I previously mentioned, I make it a priority to eat health-promoting foods all day and get the requisite amount of sleep necessary to function well at that early hour and with a clear mind. I believe that all of this has improved my mood, lessened depression and anxiety, made me less reactive and attached to the external, among other things. And this is, after all, what Yoga Sutra 1.2 says yoga is: “The restraint of modifications of the mind-stuff is Yoga” (Satchidananda translation). It is a form of lifestyle medicine. In taking care of myself, I get the chance to possibly make a difference, even if it is slight, by making ethical decisions in my everyday life. I get the opportunity to share this practice, which many have gone even further to describe as “life-saving,” with others. There is something special about watching the benefits of this practice materialize in students and others.
How has this tradition changed your yoga practice?
Prior to practicing ashtanga, I practiced other styles or methods of yoga on the mat sporadically and basically whenever I felt like it. Through the ashtanga method, I cultivate a dedicated and disciplined practice on the mat and beyond. And as to the postures, now I practice the same postures daily, but the practice rarely feels the same as it did the day before. In practicing the same postures habitually I clearly see progress as well as setbacks.
What is Yoga to you? Is it a postures practice or a spiritual practice?
Yoga, for me, is a practice for optimal wellness – mental, emotional, and physical. And although yoga is a personal practice, yoga has become part of a special bond I share with husband, Zach, who is also a dedicated practitioner. Even though we each have our own practice, we often practice together to assist and inspire each other.
Although most of us begin the practice of yoga with postures, as the postures are the most tangible form of the practice, yoga is not just the practice of postures. While there is a lot to be said about the postures, as they are valuable in and of themselves, the practice of yoga postures can be so powerful as to also lead to examination and cultivation of other aspects of our lives.
For example, when I was playing college sports, prior to having ever practiced yoga, I was exercising on average 4-5 hours per day at the collegiate level. Up through that point in my life, I ate and drank whatever I wanted with no regard whatsoever to the damage I was doing to my health. I even took a little a pride in being able to eat anything yet still look fit. Although I appeared lean, and I am thankful for the immeasurable benefits that came from those sports and the wonderful people I am privileged to have gotten to know through them, I had not been making personal decisions with my wellness in mind.
Sometime after my career in those sports came to an end, I picked up yoga. Inspired by graceful and strong yoga teachers and practitioners, I started practicing the postures. In practicing the postures, I naturally became curious about the other limbs of yoga, as the postures are only one of eight limbs of yoga. In doing so, I sought education in and have gradually shifted towards a whole-food, plant-based diet, as advocated by the likes of Dr. Michael Greger, Dr. Neal Bernard, and Dr. T. Colin Campbell, among others. I also make sure I get the sleep I need at night to get up early and do a posture practice with a clear mind.
As such, I have not only advanced in some yoga postures, but also, more importantly, my overall physical health, emotional wellbeing, and mental state have improved. This is attributable, at least in part, to the practice of yoga, which began with the postures.
What has been the most surprising thing you have discovered in following the ashtanga tradition?
One thing I have discovered in practicing is that I am capable of more than I thought. To this point, I never quite understood how people advanced so well in their practices. Although it is not without struggle, the practice can unlock potential. And if I can do it, so can you. As Pattabhi Jois has said, “Anyone can practice…”