Tag Archives: ashtanga

Ooops, I’m in the Wrong Class

Once upon a time, I was sitting in a University class and the professor walks in. He is known to be a stern teacher and not all that personable. He doesn’t even acknowledge us and starts writing on the board what appears to be very basic chemistry. He is writing about molarity and Avagadro’s number. The problem is, everyone in the class had signed up for something a lot more complex. Someone finally spoke up and asked, “Isn’t this supposed to by Physical Chemistry?” For those in the know, its likely the most difficult class you can take in the sciences. He kind of scoffed and looked angrily at us and began wiping off the board. Next thing you know, up go the differential equations and formulas for understanding the geometrics of a water molecule.

Kind of a different slant on this is when a beginner yogi walks into my Rocket Yoga classes. It happens almost once a week. The information sheet and website describe the classes, but I don’t think people usually read the descriptions. I mean, yoga is yoga right? [Wrong!] The description says that Rocket is a mish-mash of Ashtanga from all 6 series. And to the right column says it is “High Intensity”. So you think people would ask around.

We start out with 5 sun saluation A’s and 4-5 sun B’s. Chair pose and wide leg forward folds. Once we get into splits, they are already fully invested in the class. But then we start into much more difficult poses not to mention throwing in some forearm stands and handstands.

Now is when they say “What have I done?!!!”

But its too late to back out now. I can tell by even the most basic poses that they’ve never had an Ashtanga class. Even more accomplished yogis who are strong and flexible who haven’t been taught the style of Ashtanga show their different experiences. Its not wrong, its just not how we do it in Ashtanga.

And you know what? All of this is OK. They didn’t stumble into the wrong class. I tell everyone, do what you can do. If you need child’s pose, then by all means take it whenever you want. If you want to sit and watch when arm balances come up, go ahead. But please try if you can. I tell them to keep coming back. Maybe take some Ashtanga and other more intense classes to build strength and breath. Anyone can try Rocket and is welcome to come. I try my best to speak to every new face I see after class. Most often they don’t come back, but I’m hopeful they will try again. That’s all we can do is try our best.

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Rocket Delight!

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I taught a Rocket Yoga class last night and it was big fun! I love teaching the 3rd sequence, Rocket 3, because we can explore and have fun with different poses. I had a few new people in class too, which is also interesting.

Someone asked about one particular pose, chin stand. Like “what’s up with chin stand?” I guess you could ask that about any pose from a rhetorical standpoint. Why do we do this? Or even existentially, why are we here anyway?

You realize that sometimes in your teaching you need to back-up now and then and explain yourself. It’s so easy to assume that everyone feels the same way, enjoys strength and flexibility, and is emotionally in a good place. But you never know when students come to class where they are in life. And for their yoga journey, you can only speculate.

So back to the question: why chin stand? Chin stand, or viparita salabhasana, is an advanced asana from Ashtanga Yoga. Imagine salabhasana A, or locust pose, where you lay on your belly while lifting head, chest, arms, and legs. Now, press your arms flat on the ground with arms straight along your body and lift only your legs off the ground. Then, imagine lifting your legs so high that your legs are above your head. That is the pinnacle of locust post, which is chin stand (actually, you could go further and take your feet toward your head, touch your head, or place your feet alongside your ears). But for most of the normal world of yogis, this would be a great achievement.

Rocket Yoga is considered an advanced level class. It takes you to a different level of fun since it is not only physically challenging, it also challenges your mind, breath, and takes you to advanced poses. Not everyone has to do the advanced poses, but its always an option. I’ve been to Baptiste Power classes that are very challenging, but mostly physically and not from a technical aspect. I enjoyed it a lot. I’ve been to more Iyengar styled classes that are technically, and somewhat physically, challenging. Those are fun too. I teach a hot yoga class that is very physical, but I don’t offer advanced poses or strength options like in Rocket. We also don’t study the breath, bandhas, and drishti. That’s what makes Ashtanga different.

Unfortunately, finding Rocket classes abroad is not always easy. There are very few teachers and its not often accepted among traditional Ashtangis. Many embrace the repetitive nature of traditional Ashtanga and what it does for minds and bodies. I love that aspect too. So its hard to break that mold into a more free-form style like Rocket. It has quite a niche—but fortunately for me, its a niche that many love…a lot!!!

99% Practice, 1% Theory

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Pattabhi Jois “Guruji” often said “Practice and all is coming”. If you keep up your yoga practice, or really any skill you are developing in life, you’ll eventually find mastery and delight in what you do. You will never find accomplishment if you sit on the sidelines and never play.

The same is true when Guruji would say “99% Practice, 1% Theory”. But I’m of the opinion that this is only true as you begin your journey.  When I was a Drill Sergeant in the Army, we don’t often let trainees question why we have them do something. We just have them do things by repetition and eventually they realize why they are doing it. It may not come until years later when they are leaders themselves that they truly understand. In Rocket Yoga, we usually go to handstand after every navasana (boat pose). So I say:

Roll forward and go to handstand…don’t think about it, just do it!

A lot of times, if you are doing something skilled, it needs to flow naturally. If you overthink something difficult, you’ll often fail because your brain gets in the way. You’ve let the vritti, or chaos, enter into your mind clouding what your body should do.

This is what I think about 99% practice, 1% theory. If your body continues to practice something, the movement becomes more natural and instinctual. If you are running 3 miles a day and it is difficult, eventually the 3 miles is not enough. Your mind starts to drift to other things in life. The running becomes natural and your mind is allowed to think. At first, in Ashtanga or Rocket, you struggle just to do the pose. But with practice, you find your breath, your drishti is more focused, you find yourself more grounded in bandhas, and the real practice of yoga begins.

If you read the book “Guruji”, testimonials from students of Pattabhi Jois, you’ll find you are learning less about Ashtanga poses and more about the philosophy of Ashtanga yoga. The book becomes 95% theory and 5% practice. They’ve answered in their minds the “Why?” They’ve found mastery in their practice.

Guruji always said “You Do”. This was many years before Nike’s moniker of “Just Do It”. “You Do” and all will come to you. If you lift weights, run, read philosophy, whatever,…the more you do it, the more light bulbs of revelation go off and you find the deeper meaning in life.

Hmmm Mysore Ashtanga?

I’ve been teaching Rocket Yoga for a while. It includes playful sequences incorporating many poses from all 6 Ashtanga series. Most Ashtangis never leave the first (primary) series for whatever reason and if that is something that fulfills their life, then they should continue doing the practice.

With recent schedule changes at the studio, I’ve been thinking about getting back into Ashtanga myself. I’ve thought a lot about going to Mysore style classes again. But the thought of someone saying, “you can’t do this pose, so you stop here and go to the finishing sequence” doesn’t appeal to me one bit. Maybe its my ego or hard head that can’t take that kind of criticism anymore. In every yoga class I teach, I don’t tell people to stop or to not modify a pose. So its difficult for me to think of stopping because I can’t do one particular pose and never having the opportunity to go on unless that’s accomplished. What if I had disfunction in a joint or a rod in my back? Then, by those criteria, I wouldn’t be able to practice Ashtanga.

The Primary Series is called the healing series. Everyone should be able to do it and enjoy its benefits. I think that’s where Rocket Yoga makes Ashtanga more accessible. It provides an atmosphere where you can play and enjoy and not be as strict. That is where I like to be. There was a time when I enjoyed a stricter form of practice. I did traditional martial arts for years where you were strongly chastised for straying from what was right. There is a time and place for that kind of body movement. But I suppose I’m not in that time or place anymore.

For me, my yoga practice gives a feeling of wanting to strengthen my mind and body. As I get older, I know I’m not going to get much more pliable. And as I’m building strength outside of yoga, I know that breaking down muscle and building it stronger than before is going to interfere with the depth of my yoga. But its something I’ve come to accept in my life because I choose to enjoy building strength by other means. Having that strength is different from yoga strength. And it is all good. Its just that I find fulfillment in other endeavors as well.

So maybe Ashtanga Mysore classes will have to continue to wait for me. I respect those who want to follow the system. I think it is good for your bodies. But its not good for mine. At least not for now.

3 Beginner Tips for Diving into Ashtanga Yoga

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Someone once said “Yoga is for everyone, but Ashtanga might not be for everyone.”

There may be a little truth in that, but I mostly disagree. Ashtanga CAN be for everyone.

We are in a modern age of yoga. There was a time when you had to qualify or apply to study with a yoga teacher. The dynamics are a bit different today. If you want to practice yoga, you can. It is completely up to you. And I’m not just talking about beginner or gentle yoga classes. I’m talking about Iyengar, Ashtanga, or some other seemingly advanced practice. You just have to try and give it a chance. Here are my 3 tips for venturing into Ashtanga Yoga:

  1. It’s YOUR Practice
    For most yoga studios, we want you to practice with us. We aren’t going to push you away. We love that you try your best. Teachers love nothing more than to see progress. YOU make the choice to come to class and allow the teacher to guide you. Yes, Ashtanga, Iyengar, Kundalini,… are specific yoga styles with nuances specific to their practice. We are going to show you the style of THIS practice. But it is still YOUR practice. We facilitate and you do what your body says you can do. Eventually, you’ll find WHY we say to do things a certain way. But you should follow your own path to finding what works for you.
  2. Modify Everything!
    I have been practicing yoga for a while now and teaching for several years. But there is still a lot I can’t do and may never do. But I get the same benefits from the practice whether I modify a pose or not. So if you are new to yoga or to Ashtanga, your body will not be used to certain positions. But don’t judge yourself or be discontent about your place in your journey. You do what you do and all is fine. Nobody will judge you. A yoga teacher never judges you if you can’t touch your toes or bind yourself like a pretzel. They’ll help you wherever you are. Modify every single pose if need be. Just do what you can and have fun.
  3. Make It Enjoyable!
    I used to run track in high school and 5K/10K races since I was in the 6th grade. I knew exactly what to do, what to wear, and how to train. But when I began running ultra marathons later in life, everything changed. It seemed what I knew for 20 years was only about 10% similar to ultra marathons. It blew my mind. Ashtanga might blow your mind too. Ashtanga Yoga is different from anything you’ve ever done before. It is a very different culture. The “breath” is the first thing that jumps out at you. But as you delve into it, you realize how important it is. There are so many things that by your 5th or 50th class, a little light goes off and you say “Oh, that’s why!” But you find your way in your own time. Meanwhile, have fun. Be amazed by what your fellow yogis can do and don’t let it bother you if you aren’t there yet. I’m the last person who will get frustrated by not putting my feet behind my head. My body is different and that’s OK. What matters is that I’m growing in both mind and body.

Please don’t be afraid to go to Ashtanga and make it your own practice. You don’t have to do everything. Try out the poses and have fun. Ask the teacher for modifications or find something that works for your body. If you need to take child’s pose or just sit for a few breaths, do that. Soak up the experience and have fun. Its ok to laugh and feel the moment. You came to class and that’s what matters.

Historical Note: In the early days in Mysore, India, ayurvedic doctors would send people with debilitating diseases to Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, the founder of Ashtanga Yoga. The Primary Series, or “Yoga Chikitsa”, is called the healing series. If someone had a disease where they could barely move, he would help them into a pose and then have them breathe. That was their practice.If you are sickly, overweight, are weak, have scoliosis or diabetes,..then Ashtanga IS for you. Ashtanga wasn’t made for elite, uber qualified yogis only. It IS for everyone. It often healed them; and it may heal you too.

Mis-Reading Yoga Energy

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As a yoga teacher, some days are better than others. Most of the time, we are able to read, and feel, the energy given from the students in our classes. Honestly, I think the overall mood of the class depends a lot on the weather. One day, there was a big weather front coming in and the air was thick with humidity. I think the low atmospheric pressure was affecting moods and energy. I was personally not ready to practice yoga that day. So I started out very slowly for a class that is supposed to be high intensity. We eased into the high intensity part just so it wouldn’t be as uncomfortable.

The moon also affects our energy. It is one reason why Ashtanga yoga prescribes “Moon Days”, which occur during full and new moons. You don’t practice those days since its when we can feel the greatest gravitational pull. Mula Bandha can only do so much for us (haha!). Maybe its more psychological, but I definitely feel it on those days.

So last week, I taught a moderate intensity class meant for beginner-intermediate yogis. I felt a little off and didn’t think I was connecting very well with my class. I try my best to be playful and offer easier and harder modifications for many poses. I also play upbeat music that helps energize students. I do all I can to create an atmosphere that helps yogis find their flow. As we went along, I saw a lot of blank stares in their eyes. I heard groans and sensed lethargy as they transitioned into poses. When I offered advanced poses, I saw frustration and many not even attempting the harder variations. I was ready to write that class off as lost.

To my amazement, I got a huge response after the class. Several asked me about other classes I teach, like Rocket Yoga, and asked if they should try them. Others said they like my style and my yoga teaching voice. I heard some go on and on about my music playlist saying that it lifted them up when they were struggling. Others asked me more specifically about getting into a certain pose or how to overcome obstacles. I was so pleasantly surprised.

You can’t always judge a yoga class by the feel during class. I know when I was running a trail ultramarathon or in the midst of a hard CrossFit workout, I looked like death warmed over. But afterward, I was often ecstatic for having accomplished what I just did. I was proud of the hardships and wallowed in bliss. But you couldn’t tell that during the event. Ahimsa applies to yoga teachers too! The quality of non-judgement should be applied at all times. And I’m not looking for praise. But when it comes and we can celebrate together, then everyone is happy.

Its a Good Day!

hasta uttanasana

I always feel so good after teaching yoga. I taught Rocket Yoga last night and it left me feeling like I had practiced myself.

Patthabi Jois said “99% practice, 1% theory”. Yet, he was a Sanskrit scholar, an educator,  well respected for his knowledge of the ancient texts. He taught these other aspects tangentially through the practice of Ashtanga Yoga. What is interesting is that only with his most advanced students who he felt could go deeper, he taught Pranayama. Long after the Asana practice, they would be working on their breathing. It is the next “physical” practice that leads you to higher limbs of yoga.

No, I don’t equate myself with Guruji. But I feel Rocket is an advanced level class. I sometimes forget that and assume a lot about my students. When a beginner or intermediate yogi, or even a non-Ashtangi, attends my class, it all comes to light again how special this practice is. When someone comes in and can’t even do sun salutations on their own. When they don’t even know about Ujjayi breath, a central pillar of the Tristhana method of Ashtanga yoga. I quickly remember how unique we are.

In the closing sequence, following Yoga Mudra, we usually take some time in Padmasana for Pranayama. Last night, we did Kumbhaka Pranayama, or breath-retention practice. I was counting so I wasn’t doing it myself, but I felt the effect of it. It put me deeply into Samadhi. Usually, when I put them to rest into Savasana, I’m not super focused. I’m counting students, thinking of temperature and sounds, I’m watching the time. Last night, I got into Virasana with Dhyana Mudra, which is normal for me, and I zoned out. I lost track of time. My Pratyahara was so strong. I was inwardly focused in a meditative state. It completely changed my evening. I sensed my students were feeling similar effects.

Yogas Citta Vrtti Nirodhah. The Purpose of Yoga is the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind. If you’ve done that, you’ve done Yoga.