Summer is near and all I want to do is be outside. I think the yogis who usually attend my classes feel the same way.
Last night was a blessing in disguise. I had 3 people in Ashtanga for Beginners. They were two of my regulars and one fellow CrossFit’r. I usually thrive on larger classes, but then my one-on-one interaction decreases because I’m focusing on so many. With 3 people, they get all my attention.
I divide up the Ashtanga Primary Series into four “related” sections that we do over four weeks where poses build upon one another. I would say our peak pose was Bhujapidasana “shoulder-pressing pose”. We worked it from blocks learning to find our balance in the pose first. We moved on to Titthibasana “firefly pose”. I had them up on chairs for this one so they could feel it without falling backward. And then Kurmasana “tortoise pose” for the last one on top of bolsters. It was so much fun to share with this small group. We laughed and talked and asked questions.
With a little extra time left, we worked on Mayurasana “peacock pose” with a strap wrapped above our elbows. Everyone got different variations of the pose. Then we did Chakrasana “wheel pose” (where you roll from sitting backward to chaturanga). Nobody really got that one, but I think they have more confidence to practice. Following Chakrasana was Nakrasana “crocodile-hopping pose”.
Lastly, we did the closing sequences, which includes Padmasana “lotus pose”. A limiting element for me is tightness in my hip flexors. So projecting onto my students, I had them lay down with legs up the wall. Then, we slowly worked into half-lotus on each side. Its nice because you can find more depth when you are not resisting in the hip flexors. Then, I had them try Padmasana, and two of them did it without any problem. It was amazing!
To be honest, the greatest feeling for me as a yoga teacher is to get people to their “firsts” in anything. It could be headstand, lotus, or any other pose. And it is especially wonderful if it is because of something creative, innovative, or motivational on my part that got them to the next stage. It is the best feeling in the world! And sometimes, this happens when I get to spend a lot of time in smaller, more intimate settings. I really love it!
I taught the inaugural Ashtanga for Beginners class last night at Amara Yoga. Oh goodness was that fun! The yogis who participated were so responsive to everything. There were even a few seasoned Ashtangis in there, and I think they got something out of it too. But for the true beginners, it was likely the first time they heard many of the concepts I shared. My years of Yoga Fundamentals class with Linda, Ashtanga Immersion training with Kelsey, and everything I’ve learned from all my teachers came through. Several students even stayed after class to work through specific questions. It was so fulfilling as a teacher.
Here were 5 key points:
- Ashtanga is strict. But its your practice. We do what we do and that is perfectly fine! Don’t be afraid to join in on a class. If you are able, there is a right way to do the poses. But if you are still working on a pose, modifications are quite acceptable. Just do what you can do.
- Everything starts with the breath. Even though they were beginners, the Ujjayi or fierce breath was deafening. I mean, they really got into it. It goes away when their minds shift to the asanas, but they still need to keep their breath.
- Bandhas are not far behind. These root locks are held for the entire class until savasana. Mula bandha, uddiyana bandha, and jandalara bandha. The last is used less, but the other two are always engaged. They are the pelvic floor and transverse abdominus.
- Drishti is SO important for mental focus. Every pose has a drishti, your visual gaze, and this is emphasized in Ashtanga. It directs your energy and places your spine in the proper orientation. Concentration and inward focus are very real benefits of drishti.
- Props? Yeah, there was a rift way back when between yoga lineages. The Iyengar folks are masters of using props. They can be SO helpful in feeling what a pose is supposed to feel like. And it can make it safer for your body. Ashtanga insists on using your body as a prop and modifying as needed without external props. But I still say that if a block or a strap helps you to learn a pose, by all means, use them. Personally, I don’t use “props” in a class, but I do use a small hand towel to help with binds and such (since I get really sweaty even though wiping sweat is a no-no too). Ashtanga teachers may grin at your use of props, but don’t be afraid to bring what you need. A water bottle is considered a prop too since you don’t want to quench your inner fire, your Tapas, but do what you have to do. And if you find yourself trying to go prop-less, its fine to ask your teacher how to modify a pose. They will gladly help you.
The Tristhana method is key to Ashtanga: breath, bandhas, and drishti. If you focus on these 3 elements, everything else will fall into place. Never be afraid to try. Challenging yourself and trying shows your confidence and resolve to do better. Patthabi Jois, the founder of Ashtanga, always said “You Do!” And I would echo those words. You Do!
Practice and all is coming