A few more thoughts on ‘traditional’ Ashtanga and holding students back

We heard “off line” — in this case meaning via email and on the Facebook — from a greater-than-usual number of readers that they enjoyed the discussions and comments on our posts about holding students back and what’s “Ashtanga enough.”

That’s very satisfying. Among our goals, providing a space for people to discuss Ashtanga and Ashtanga-related matters is high on the list. Posts are far richer if they include multiple perspectives.

At the risk of beating this topic more — and making all those nice folks who contacted us say, “Enough already!” — here are a few more thoughts on these matters after attending the backbending workshop Bobbie posted about over the weekend.

The importance of the Ashtanga sequence

Going through the backbending workshop helped illuminate a few more ideas around the “Ashtanga enough” topic. When I wrote that, it had been a while since I’d done a not very straight-forward Ashtanga practice. (Tim Miller’s improv class doesn’t count because when I practice with Tim, one of my “essential elements” for a practice to be Ashtanga is there in overdrive: tapasya. I’m working so hard under Tim’s eye that I could be playing Beer Pong and it would still work up Sacred Fire and be, in my mind, Ashtanga.) The backbending workshop, while based on Ashtanga principles, moved away from the usual vinyasa sequence.

Ushtrasana, via Ashtangayoga.info

I understand why some commenters were intent on the sequence — First, Second, vinyasas in between poses — being a core part of Ashtanga. Doing several poses all on one side felt very different, very un-Ashtanga.

But, in the end, the exact sequence still doesn’t make my “fundamental” list because the workshop also illustrated that what’s happening with the practice is happening inside me. (I talked in my earlier post about how I thought I was speaking about things beneath our first kosha.) With the right intention, married to the right breathing, focus on bandhas, clear dristi — the Tristana, I guess it’s called in some circles — I think you’re doing Ashtanga regardless of the sequence of poses you move through. That said, you have to have learned Ashtanga Vinyasas as we all think of it, so the parampara or tradition of it is critical.

I think, though, that I could walk into any yoga class and focus my intention and “do Ashtanga,” if that makes sense. (Also: Did your pomposity alarm go off?) It isn’t those particular poses, but it is what I’ve learned (and continue to learn) from those poses that’s important. (And so in that sense, it is those particular poses…)

The value of play

Another aspect to our recent discussions has been the importance of adhering to the Ashtanga sequence. Having just tried some advanced backbends — with varying degree of success, but, I hope, not a varying degree of effort — I’m more convinced that there is value to exploring at least occasionally other poses.

One analogy I can think of is being a high school student who is thinking about college. It makes sense to let that student visit a college, including sitting in on a college class. The class might be way beyond the student’s knowledge or experience, but getting that taste will leave a (hopefully positive) mark. And who knows what might slip in and remains. That student shouldn’t just suddenly spend all his or her time in those classes; the mental soil needs to be tilled. But getting a taste can inspire and it can help improve the work or thinking that student is doing in high school.

Or to a specific pose: backbend. (Makes sense out of a backbending workshop, right?) I think a key argument against keeping students stuck in First Series is the emphasis on forward folding. As we discussed, constantly flexing the front of the body helps build those muscles but, while stretching the backside, it doesn’t do anything to strenghtened the muscles. Adding in some Second Series poses is a nice counter.

There’s a good argument to be made that the updogs of First Series should be enough of a counter. I’m highly sympathetic to this, but as I suggested I think the problem is that updogs still lack the muscle building needed to be a true counter to all those forward folds. Yes, you are doing a backbend, but the movement is being led by the arms, shoulders and chest that push you up. If someone could really fold up into updog, it would be a better counter pose. But how many of us manage that?

I don’t mean toss everything out

In suggesting there’s value to expanding and exploring other aspects to Ashtanga, I don’t mean everyone should just be their own guide. As I suggested above, I think I could walk into a basic flow or power yoga class and bring my Ashtanga fundamentals with me and get much of Ashtanga’s benefits thanks to doing the poses and sequences so many times now. (Imagine the benefits from years or decades more of Ashtanga!) Ashtanga as we “know” it clearly should be the vast, vast, vast part of one’s practice, I think. And if that practice can be under a trusted teacher’s eye, all the better. And if they have a lead you can follow — say, an improv class a week or something like that — it might be worth following.

Posted by Steve

Published by


Two Ashtangis write about their practice and their teachers.

9 thoughts on “A few more thoughts on ‘traditional’ Ashtanga and holding students back”

  1. Food for thought here for sure. I read your last post about this as well, and I have since been thinking about what “doing Ashtanga” actually means in my little world. Is it bad that I hadn’t thought too much outside the box on this topic before? I’m still not entirely sure what my answer is. There is definitely something to be said for not being married to the sequence precisely as the definition of what makes the practice. That is also one of the joys of being part of a living tradition, it is still changing. The days that my breathing is crap and my attention and drishti wander, I still think of myself as having done my “Ashtanga practice” and I guess I’m basing that on the series of asanas I’ve done. When I go to another style of class, I know I’m doing “yoga” but I don’t think of myself as doing “Ashtanga” in that case. Maybe at heart I’m just a really crap ashtangi? Who knows.

    1. Two responses:

      1. I think the living tradition idea is key (a perfect way to put it). It is still changing and evolving, both broadly — i.e. for everyone — and, I think, individually. That’s part of its strength.

      2. I’m trying to think of the best place for us to start the “anti-Mysore” for really crap ashtangis. Vegas? There might be a market for it…


  2. I’ve also heard Tristana described as the breath, dristi and asana/alignment, as some say the bandhas should always be engaged and are part of asana…

  3. While I totally get where you’re coming from, both regarding exploring the intermediate sequence and occasionally throwing in an improv class here and there, I can’t help thinking your definitions of Ashtanga may be hard to sell if you throw out the sequences and the vinyasa we are currently using (I’m loath to say traditional after the recent discussions)
    Let me explain.
    When I first started practicing yoga, it was along to a power yoga video which was so heavily based on Ashtanga that both ujjayi breathing and drishti were emphasized (bandha was admittedly a bit fuzzy) and the sequence was clearly a modified half primary series, but it didn’t claim to be Ashtanga. According to your definitions, maybe it was.
    You could argue now that you were practicing Ashtanga in an Iyengar, Bikram, or Anusara class because you were using ujjayi breath and focusing on bandha and drishti while practicing and also experiencing a lot of tapas. Now you have made quite open your position on some of these styles. Isn’t this just a way of saying………’okay, I want to explore, change things up a bit, maybe even try a bit of other styles which I disapprove of in principle, buuuuut its okay. As long as I use ujjayi breath, concentrate on bandhas and drishti and put in enough effort to make me sweat, I’m not really practicing Sivananda (even though everyone around me is), I’m actually practicing Ashtanga!! I’m an Ashtangi…….the rest of you are just face yogis or whatever! So I can delve into other things without feeling like I’m selling out! So then it becomes more about the practitioner than the yoga? Incidentally, I realise this may actually be true, but surely there needs to be some accepted boundaries and reference points to define the style otherwise it just becomes too ephemeral and then I can say, ‘hey look, I’m concentrating on my breath, bandhas and drishti while effortfully typing here, so I must be practicing Ashtanga!!!
    Please take this as all very tongue in cheek; I’m just trying to provoke thought, not cause offence, but do you see where I’m coming from?

    1. I do see where you’re coming from. Your mistake is thinking that I’m going to be anything near consistent with early thoughts. 🙂

      (It also was why I rang the pomposity alert; now I’ve established I can be an Ashtangi doing anything. I’m not even an Ashtangi when doing a Led class with a Certified teacher.)

      I think saw the direction you headed, too. But I’m not looking to placate myself so I can go hang out with a bunch of women doing Anusara or Kundalini. (I have a stereotype of those being mostly women… but I guess that’s a pretty good stereotype of yoga in the West.) That may be hard to believe. I’m no planning on dabbling, beyond perhaps augmenting my Ashtanga practice at home in ways that bring in some poses I find beneficial that, in the strictest sense, perhaps I shouldn’t be doing.

      I also agree that there’s no way to “sell” what I’ve been talking about lately as Ashtanga. Frankly, I was expecting more push back. Maybe people who wanted to push back chose to stay silent. I was ultimately trying, I suppose, to see if there are a few “essential elements” to Ashtanga that everyone agrees upon. And to see if those are strictly tied to being in an annointed Ashtanga environment.

      In the end, like you, I’m just trying to provoke thought — as I also try to work my way ahead in the practice, which may mean writing some (a lot of) stupid things.

      If I end up at a Anusara class, I will admit it publicly, I promise.


  4. Essential elements of Ashtanga – OK, I’ll bite, Steve!

    -the breath
    -Vinyasa count – i.e. specific breath-linked movements in, and between, postures
    -daily sadhana
    -A set series of asana designed as maintenance for the body (and mind?), that serve as a guide to be followed over a long period of time – i.e. decades/one’s lifetime*

    The Ashtanga practice constitutes a continuous, reverent, long term refinement of the physical self, which in turn manifests in a refinement of the mind, greater mental clarity…..higher consciousness. The physical practice – sadhana – cultivates and “weeds the garden” so that the mind becomes clear, sattvic. The sadhana helps remove the obstacles, helping to bring the student closer and closer to our greatest potential as human beings.

    A potential that is not physical, I might add.

    “From this practice, the true Self is revealed and all obstacles are removed. (sutra 1.29 tatra pratyakcetana adhigamo py’antara abhavas-ca)”

    *the postures and/or the sequence may need to be modified intelligently and compassionately, accounting for the age, fitness, anatomy, health/injury, strength, flexibility – and psyche – of each particular student. Eventually, students who age, who become “seasoned” practitioners, do less asana and more pranayama, more meditation.



    In related news, I have a student who is going to Mysore this January. He’s going to be studying the “pedagogy and origins” of Ashtanga while he’s there – kind of like “field study” – for a comparative dissertation on Ashtanga as it’s taught now in Mysore, here in the US by an authorized teacher, and finally, US “Ashtanga” as it’s taught by a non-authorized teacher. He’s working to get a Fellowship from his college to do it – wouldn’t that be nice, Mysore on scholarship! I’m really interested to see what he discovers.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s