A rarity: Ashtanga in the news

Photo courtesy the Irish Times

If you read the New York Times regularly, you know that the nation’s paper of record (or so it once was) has a little crush on yoga.

A story on this yoga teacher or that yoga style pops up pretty regularly. (I do fear the love affair may be waning; it’s seemed a while since the last NYT story appeared.)

The Times’ interest reflects the mainstreaming of yoga, in general. As we all know, it isn’t that unusual to do yoga. On the west side of Los Angeles, you can’t wander half a block without running into a yoga studio.

That’s yoga, though. Ashtanga is different. It is still a bit unusual, a bit non-mainstream even for yogis.

So anytime Ashtanga is in a news story, I’m surprised.

Today, the Irish Times goes where few newspapers dare:

ON STAGE at the National Concert Hall, it’s important to stay focused on “being in the moment”, says Suzanne Brennan, a freelance clarinettist with the National Symphony Orchestra.

“I noticed that after my yoga practise I wasn’t shaking. Ashtanga has helped my performance nerves and my technique,” she says.

Playing the clarinet is her day job, but her new passion is Ashtanga yoga, which she took up in 2004. In seven years, she has gone from attending a twice-weekly class, to taking a yoga holiday in Crete and, more recently, spending five months in Mysore in India with her guru, Sharath Jois.

Now she is a recognised Ashtanga teacher herself, in Greystones, Co Wicklow. “I used to supplement my income from orchestra performances with clarinet lessons, but now I give yoga classes instead.”

Now, it’s confession time. I spent more than a decade as a journalist, so I have a bit of a sense of what this reporter was trying to accomplish with this piece. The main goal? Getting it done, of course.

But it’s more than that. As a journalist, you are called upon to become an expert on a topic, just for that day (or a few days), until the story is done. Then it is on to the next piece. As a result, you end up with descriptions like this:

This is active and not a series of passive postures like the kind of yoga most of us imagine. One movement rolls into the next, with breathing consciously focused and guided in the exercises.

“Downward facing dog”, “chadaranga”, “warrior pose”, are all phrases you will hear in a class. Focusing on breathing in a particular way in each movement is very important to getting it right.

There are six fundamental postures in Ashtanga yoga and together they are designed to strengthen bones and joints. “Because movements are continuous, the blood gets moving round the body and the exercises expand the lungs,” says Forde.

And it’s great for improving flexibility. “If you have a bad back though, you must be very careful with the teacher you choose,” he advises.


Some older people in her beginners’ class look as if they are playing Twister, unsure of where to put which limbs. But all persevere and go home with a warning to expect to feel like they’d been through a good workout next morning.

Now, that’s not to knock the reporter. That’s just the nature of the business. But I don’t want anyone to start up from their yoga mudra to complain.

In fact, I want to give the reporter kudos for closing with this: “Over time, yoga has brought other unexpected changes in Brennan’s life. “I am totally vegetarian now. My body no longer craves drink or crap food. I feel so much more alive, aware and lighter. Definitely lighter.””

Who hasn’t experienced that, right? (Confession No. 2. I have, and I still get angry about it. I want my French fries and chips and salsa!)

But the story doesn’t just leave me with a junk-food craving. The “six fundamental postures” idea sounds new to me, or I’m blanking on having heard it from any of my teachers. Is that familiar to anyone out there?

Posted by Steve

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Two Ashtangis write about their practice and their teachers.

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