Is Ashtanga a breath practice, a flexibility challenge, or something deeper?

During a recent practice, a person adjacent to me spent a lot — I mean, a lot — of time trying to bind in one of Ashtanga’s trickier poses.

By a lot, I mean I managed to do two sides of a seated pose while this student struggled with the pose. I don’t know how many breaths that works out to be, but it is certainly more than what Nancy Gilgoff suggests.

(I, of course, shouldn’t have noticed this, but it was tight quarters and so the struggle was happening mere inches from me, and right in my line of sight [pre-Dristi] as I moved through my pose.]


And so I wonder this basic question, or series of questions:

How long do you, should one, struggle to get into a “full expression” of a pose?

What should be the higher goal: a bind or the breath? Is it a breathing practice or a flexibility practice?

I’m tempted, immediately, to say “it’s a breathing practice” and suggest that after a certain amount of time — a few breaths at most — it’s time to give up and accept how far you are getting. Find your breath, find your bandhas, find your Dristi and then move on.

But that misses a certain crucial something about the practice, right? You have to push sometimes, take extra time getting beyond your body’s limit, to advance in the pure asana sense. Plus, there will be those times when a teacher is there, and the normal progress of breaths might be out the window.

And so, like so much else with the practice (and life — which is how it always works out, no?), there is a precious balance to be found, a balance that is never the same. It won’t always be four breaths, tops, and then move on. One day it might clearly be worth those few extra breaths when you can feel that it will do something to benefit you. Other days, it won’t.

And that brings us back to a core of yoga practice: knowing yourself. Which changes every day, or even more often.

Posted by Steve

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Two Ashtangis write about their practice and their teachers.

4 thoughts on “Is Ashtanga a breath practice, a flexibility challenge, or something deeper?”

  1. For me, there are two specific postures where I take extra breaths to get into the pose (Parivritta Parsvakonasa and Supta Kurmasana). But I break it down so that I retain the one movement : one breath ratio. For example, in PP:

    1. Step out and lunge = inhale
    2. Twist = exhale
    3. Outer left shoulder to outer right knee = inhale
    4. Touch the floor w/ left and extend the right arm up = exhale

    So four breaths instead of just the one to get into the posture, which my teacher has given at least her tacit approval because she doesn’t bust me when I do this. 🙂

    1. I often do the same thing — make sure to move with my breath, even if I’m adding breaths. Heck, I even do it sometimes in my first Surya Bs, give myself a breath to get lower and stretch things out with my legs and then the next breath lift the arms.

      That seems to me closer to what we’re supposed to be after… but what do I know?!


  2. For me, I take extra time getting into marychasana D. After a year of daily practise, I finally got the bind. I thought I could hear the angels singing when I finally did. Anyway, I think my teacher noticed I wanted to move through this difficult posture as quickly as possible without really trying it. This was definitely NOT okay. As a result, I now diligently practise getting into the bind even it if means taking extra breaths and time and really try to stay focused. This has taught me a lot about the posture and added to my awareness of myself when trying to execute this particular asana.

  3. Pattabhi used to say ‘Ashtanga practice is a breathing practice … the rest is just bending’. Ashtanga work on energetic level. Where is breath, there is life. Without breath, ashtanga would be just stretching. You breath, you experience … and all is coming 🙂

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