One reason not to do Ashtanga

A couple of weeks ago, I recounted a conversation I had in Mt. Shasta that boiled down to: “Here’s a reason to try Ashtanga.”

The reason? Most simply put, the physical benefits. (Do those benefits pay off as well as Bikram? I don’t know.)

Now, I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with first coming to yoga with an emphasis on the physical payoff. After all, the point of asana practice is to get our bodies healthy enough and capable to sit in meditation on our way to Samadhi. And is anyone really going to argue that a healthy body is a bad thing?

I doubt it. Where I’m sure there is argument — justifiably so, in my opinion — is when yoga, or Ashtanga, feeds an ego trip. I’m sure we all can think of someone we believe is getting more attached to their yoga body, rather than less, as they practice.

I’m also sure that if we all are honest, we’d have to admit to having our egos fed by the practice. I’m working hard, for instance, on my pull backs — I want to be able to do them without touching the ground until I’m in my Chaturanga.

But as David Swenson would say: “Will I be happier when I can do that?” (My ego-filled answer: Of course! But, upon more reflection: Right, exactly what kind of happiness am I seeking?)

This struggle with the ego is ongoing. But, as I say, when you start yoga or Ashtanga, I think it is totally understandable that the ego is strong, is in charge.

But here’s the catch, and here’s the reason not to do Ashtanga: That ego of yours is going to get broken down.

When I explained on the Shasta retreat all the physical benefits I’d discovered from Ashtanga, I didn’t mention the — how best to put it? — subtle body changes. You know what I’m talking about:

  • The desire to avoid eating meat.
  • The growing interest in the other seven limbs of Ashtanga, especially the yamas and niyamas.
  • Perhaps a toning down of the Type A personality you’ve been fighting all your life.
  • A curiosity about that Ram, Sita or Krishna person you keep hearing about.
  • A rising desire to visit India.

I’m sure there are others, and I won’t admit that I have any first-hand experience with any of the above.

But I will warn that there can be unforeseen consequences of an Ashtanga practice. Why exactly? Who knows. My own best guess, which I think only partially explains things — and I think this is true of Ashtanga but not flow classes, Bikram or most other Hatha styles — is that Ashtanga boils down to being a meditative practice. There’s next to no sound other than people’s breathing, your focusing your gaze on fixed points and you are alone with yourself for 75 minutes, 90 minutes, maybe 120 minutes?

Sort of sounds like meditation, right?

My understanding is Guruji didn’t teach people to meditate. (I know I’ve heard tales of this, but I can’t remember details. Apologies!) I wonder if he didn’t do so because he knew he already was teaching them. And then it was up to them to move deeper and let it work.

Be careful. Enter at your risk. Because work it definitely does.

Post by Steve

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Two Ashtangis write about their practice and their teachers.

10 thoughts on “One reason not to do Ashtanga”

  1. Great post. I agree with you that many people get into yoga for the physical aspects, and the ego can most definitely get in the way there (have you seen the “Asana Championships”? Seems kind of against the point there). However, it’s wonderful when folks can move beyond the simple phsyical asanas and move into the meditative power that you commented on above. Asana practice is a chance to unplug and just be with yourself. It’s like a timeout from responsibilities to the outside world while you fulfill responsibilities to yourself. Responsibilities may even be too strong a word; it’s more like a gift to yourself. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    1. Thanks for the comment. I’ve definitely found Ashtanga to be the set asanas that help me move into the more meditative part of the practice.

      I’m not sure I’d tell the guys who are just looking for a workout that might happen to them, though! 🙂


  2. My teacher Lino Miele always says that when you practice (Ashtanga) yoga with all that it entails – asana, pranayama and dristi – you are already meditating. meditation in motion. and that has been my experience for the past 7 years. namaste.

  3. I very much enjoyed your post and found it quite meaningful to my experience with Ashtanga. Another perspective on the ego . . . even though Ashtanga will build and break an ego, it’s helped me build up a more positive ego. I have a habit of negative self-talk and even though it might not be the point, being able to bind in Marichyasana D brings up a sense of pride and helps to quiet that negative voice. Nirodha-ing my chitta vrittis is hard for me, but Ashtanga makes that more accessible.

  4. I can vouch for everything that you said in your post. I started practising Ashtanga, purely because of the ego thing. The “need” to do that float and lift, and the “want” to get their toned physique. Throughout the years I have been practising, I have done all that you mentioned, toning down of the type A personality, the growing interests in the other limbs (this has now turned into an obsession), a curiosity in many of the Vedic figures, learning the scriptures etc etc. When, how and why the change, I really cannot put my figure on it. But I am pretty sure it’s the meditative nature of the practice. Hey when I started yoga, I swore I wouldn’t do the “meditative” type of yoga, and what do I relish doing now? Meditation. Breaking down the ego is a good thing. I thought I was happy and content when I started Yoga, now I am very very happy and content.

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