Stepping into Ashtanga Yoga

I began my yoga journey on September 2018, when ClassPass first launched their business in Singapore, offering two-month worth of free fitness classes for any new sign-ups. Prior to yoga, I was a runner, running about three times a week, completing three full marathons. However, as I turned 30 years old, I was searching for a physical activity that is less strenuous on the knees and yet able to provide a full body workout. During the two-month promotion, I tried Pilates and all kinds of yoga classes at various studios all around Singapore. Being an ex-runner, initially I enjoyed cardio-intensive activities such as hot Pilates, hot/Bikram yoga and Vinyasa flow classes. At the same time, I was also looking into improving my yoga alignment, thus I attended a few Iyengar classes initially. To improve my flexibility, I attended Bikram classes for about 6 months. It was only after 7 months of exploration that I decided to commit myself to Ashtanga Yoga.

It was October 2018 when I attended my first Ashtanga class, which was taught by a kind-hearted and patience teacher by the name of Jasmine Yeo. Although Ashtanga is a tough class, I always found myself looking forward to the closing sequence – a feeling I cannot acquire from other kinds of yoga. I fell in love with Ashtanga yoga quickly as I was searching for a practice which could be done at home. Or perhaps I enjoyed the rigid sequencing of postures, which related well to my obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Or simply because I can manage most of the postures in the Primary Series within a short time (satisfying my inner ego). Since November 2018, I began to practise the full Ashtanga primary series with Master Sree at Tirisula, whom motivated me to pursue Ashtanga on a more regular basis. When I started to practise Ashtanga more regularly, I noticed that running was hindering my progression in Ashtanga. I decided to stop running completely, and devoted myself to Ashtanga. Over a few months, my 2-times-a-week practice slowly progressed to 3-times-, 4-times-, 5-times-, 6-times-a-week practice. Since August 2019, I began my weekly Mysore practice with Ann Lee at Yoga In Common, slowly advancing to the intermediate series while adhering to the Ashtanga method.  At the same time, I also began my own research to find out more about the Ashtanga method, uncovering people like Sri Patanjali, Pattabhi Jois, Sharath Jois, Kino MacGregor, and classic texts like the Yoga Sutra and Bhagavad Gita. Over time, my practice is no longer a physical workout, but a physical, mental, and spiritual lifestyle, enabling me to progress on the inward journey of yoga. Below are some of the rules from the Ashtanga method which I would like to share to explain my commitment towards the method:

Tristhana is a method used in Ashtanga Yoga to teach practitioners how to focus their attention using the breath (Ujjayi pranayama), the gaze (Drishti) and the physical posture (Asana and Bandha). By employing the Tristhana, the physical body can be purified, Nadis are cleansed, and the mind and nervous system are stimulated.

·       Personal comment: While it is difficult for most people to focus and concentrate properly with so many distractions going on at every single moment, the Tristhana method taught me how to keep my mind steady, entering into a meditative state. When the mind is steady, the breath is steady, the posture is steady, and the practice will become effortless over time. I was able to achieve inner peace through years of practice by applying the Tristhana method.

Same sequence in series
Ashtanga always perform the exact same poses in the exact same order in a particular series without modification.

·       Personal comment: By memorizing the order of sequence, this allows the practitioner to free his/her mind, entering into a meditative state. There is no feeling of anticipation, excitement, or resentment towards new/challenging poses, or boring/repetitive poses. Practitioners are trained to overcome their mind and body to embrace the difficulties in any postures, however their bodies. It is impossible for any practitioner to be good in everything, which is also why there are six series in the Ashtanga method, allowing practitioners to work on their weakness, challeng their strength, and commit to the practice using their entire life time.

Mysore style practice

·       Mysore style
The “Mysore style” is a practice where practitioners follow their own breath and movement, not under the direct instructions of a teacher. “Mysore style” is named after the Mysore city in southern India where the Guru of Ashtanga Yoga, K. Pattabhi Jois, lived and taught for his entire life. This method is believed to be the safest and best ways for students to practice.

o   Personal comment: In this “free-style” method, practitioners will be trained to divert their attention inwards to themselves, instead of being guided by teacher or distracted by other students. By listening to their own breathing, practitioners can set their own pace and progression, taking more time for more challenging postures for them to go deeper, or taking less time for them to be gentle on their bodies. This creates a sense of awareness, inward and outward, to practitioners, allowing them to focus on themselves.

·       One new pose at a time
The order of sequence in the Ashtanga series is designed in such a way to prepare the physical body for the next posture. Hence, it is not allowed to skip any posture that is not achievable by the practitioner.

o   Personal comment: Although many practitioners have different views regarding the order of the sequencing, one has to remember that Asana is not the only goal of Yoga. We must not allow ourselves to be attached to the postures and be defined by our progression in Asanas. Practitioners are trained to overcome their mind and body to embrace the difficulties in any postures, step by step. Whether it is a physical challenge, mental challenge, or anatomical challenge, all practitioners are trained to keep practising. The Ashtanga practice is a life-long journey, hence it is not necessary to rush our body or fuel our ego to achieve more advance Asanas. In fact, after some time, many practitioners may face the inner challenge to stay in their comfort zone rather than advancing.

·       Commitment and consistency
The Ashtanga method requires practitioners to practise six days a week, except for moon days, menstruation days and sick days.

o   Personal comment: There are multiple studies showing the disadvantage of performing the same physical activities over time, and also the undesired sense of attachment that comes with such a regimental practice, which are heatedly debated among Yoga practitioners today. However, it is also true that regular and consistent practice can also prevents injuries, by training yourself to listen to your body, knowing when you can push a little harder or taking a step back, thus cultivating a greater sense of internal awareness. It is not necessary to practice at tip-top condition 6-days-a-week all year long. Eventually, the Ashtanga method demands the practitioners to be physically and mentally aware to adjust his/her practice.

Do your practice and all is coming – Pattabhi Jois