Ashtanga vs. traditional exercise: Yes, you can have both

Note: In response to the question implicit in the NY Times article from this week, whether Ashtanga or a personal trainer is the way to bodily happiness, our Mt. Shasta friend Jennifer Pilotti, offered to provide her take on things.

We’ve posted thoughts from her before. As a reminder, Jennifer has a degree in exercise physiology and is a Health Fitness Instructor via the American College of Sports Medicine. You can find out more about her here.

Here’s what Jennifer sent us:


I came to Ashtanga when I was 24.  I was a short course triathlete who spent time in the weight room, but hated flexibility training.  It was boring.  Who wants to lie around and stretch for 10 or 15 minutes at the end of a workout?  I admired the fluidity of people who practiced yoga- they moved with a sense of grace and ease I envied.  After dabbling in different styles (including Bikram), I stumbled into a beginner’s Ashtanga class and never looked back.

Ashtanga has done amazing things for me, both physically and mentally.  It helped heal and old upper back injury, and was key in regaining ankle proprioception after a sprain.  It gave me an inner focus I lacked and increased my body awareness exponentially.  It often feels like an old friend; after seven years, if I haven’t visited in a while, we pick right back up where we left off.  I love the primary series, the ujjayi breath, the rigidity of the practice.  I look forward to the three times a week I get on my mat.

Image from Be Well Personal Training

As a personal trainer, corrective exercise specialist, and endurance athlete, I often find myself butting heads with the Ashtanga tradition.  I firmly believe exercise should be individualized, based on a person’s posture, movement patterns, and pain patterns.  I think cardiovascular exercise is good, and I think exercising outdoors (away from traffic) can be very meditative.  I also believe it is important for people to vary their physical activity.  Our ancestors were physically active most of the day.  Repetitive motion injuries were uncommon because nothing about their days, weeks, and months was repetitive.  They didn’t sit at a computer, run mile upon mile daily on asphalt, or perform the same physical sequence of asana six days a week.

Early on in my Ashtanga practice, I came across a couple of individuals who believed that if one wanted to be an Ashtanga practitioner, one must only practice Ashtanga.  Running was frowned upon, and strength training was completely shunned.  I have since come to learn that these two people are not representative of the Ashtanga community as a whole.  In fact, it seems as though in recent years, Ashtanga practitioners are realizing yoga can have a positive impact on other physical endeavors, including running, cycling, and strength training.  I don’t believe these things need to be mutually exclusive, and I think from purely a physical standpoint, it’s important to listen to your body.  To truly practice ahimsa, sometimes it is necessary to step back from the practice, analyze the chronic ache that won’t go away, and strengthen the appropriate area.  While running hasn’t exactly helped my practice, Ashtanga has certainly helped my running.  And I have learned to do work in the weight room that not only keeps me balanced, but also helps my practice (you would be amazed at what proper squatting technique does to backbends).  Ashtanga yoga is an excellent tool for building strength, flexibility, reducing anxiety, and keeping a person fit.  Sometimes to prevent or treat injury it is necessary to step away from the practice or include alternative forms of exercise.  Fortunately, the practice always seems to be there when you are ready to return to it.


Thanks Jennifer for taking the time to put your thoughts down on (virtual) paper. We’ll forgive you the time in Bikram!

Posted by Steve

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Two Ashtangis write about their practice and their teachers.

8 thoughts on “Ashtanga vs. traditional exercise: Yes, you can have both”

  1. Do you have a sample of your schedule? I’m trying to figure out how to balance ashtanga yoga, running and weightlifting.thank you!

  2. Calo,
    My typical weekly schedule is as follows: Ashtanga primary (with some second and arm balances thrown in) T, Th, Saturday, run 5-7 miles T, Th, Sunday (I usually run in the early AM and then practice on my lunch break. I am self-employed, so despite the fact I regularly work 10 hour days, I always take a 2 hour lunch for movement), 30-45 minutes of strength training M,W,F (I use solely functional, multi-joint movements and regularly incorporate things like crawling, manipulating my body up and over bars, single leg squat variations, etc.), bike M, W, F, and hike Saturday. I clearly love to move and variety keeps me both sane and injury free. I hope this helps, and please feel free to contact me with any other questions!

    1. I’ll have to see what Jennifer is up to.

      And I can’t for the life of me remember that NYT story. I think it was by a woman who made Ashtanga out to be not as good a workout as other stuff. But I’m blanking… I know our friend Loren Russo was mentioned in it. Maybe a search for Loren and Ashtanga on the NYT site would uncover it?


  3. Hmmm… For me doing only ashtanga makes sense. I do a lot of non- repetitive movement during the day. Or i should say ‘varied’ movement bc walking, running, climbing stairs, shooting with a bow, reaching to gather 🙂 all seem repetitive to me. In grad school i studied native american skeletons and there was ALOT of wear and tear on those bones! Alot of arthritis esp in the spine (and on young adults mainly female) and a lot of other acute injury (i suppose from accidents). This would indicate a lifestyle that was not necessarily as healthy as we might suspect and also dangerous.
    I am a teacher so sitting all day is not something i have to deal with. Maybe if i did i would feel differently but for now 6 days a week, primary series and some second has me feeling great.

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