The Dynamic Vigor of Ashtanga YogaJul 01, 2023 06:00AM ● By David Penn
Ashtanga yoga is a dynamic, challenging form of hatha yoga. It is a rigorous style that has a specific set of sequences, with each movement building on the previous posture. It also involves a focus on synchronizing the breath with each movement. Practitioners develop flexibility, strength, balance and purification of the body and mind.
Timothy Burgin, the founder and executive director of
YogaBasics.com, a respected online yoga resource, writes, “The intensive
physical processes in Ashtanga are all about pushing through mental blocks and
emotional baggage to cultivate mental clarity, mindful breathing, physical
strength, flexibility, and endurance.”
Atlanta Ashtangi Brice Elizabeth Watson has been practicing Ashtanga yoga for 12 years. “I was always a seeker, even as a child,” she says. “With Ashtanga, I felt, ‘This is truth.’ You’re forced to free yourself. This practice breaks you down for you to know who you are. You’re made to do hard things. What you thought was impossible becomes possible.”
With descriptions like “dynamic,” “challenging” and “rigorous,” it might seem as though Ashtanga is only for athletes, CrossFit types, or those that get bored in restorative yoga classes. The conclusion is understandable but might be shortsighted.
K. Pattabhi Jois (1915-2009) is the yoga guru credited with systematizing Ashtanga yoga as it is practiced today. Jois’ specific guidance about who can practice Ashtanga yoga is often quoted: “Anyone can practice. Young man can practice. Old man can practice. Very old man can practice. Man who is sick—he can practice. Man who doesn’t have strength can practice. Except lazy people. Lazy people can’t practice Ashtanga yoga.”
Risks and Rewards
Considering that it is an intense practice, it’s important to step carefully into the practice of Ashtanga yoga. Glenn Black has been studying yoga, movement and therapeutic bodywork for 50 years. He is known in the yoga community as a master teacher, and he consulted with William Broad for Broad’s book, The Science of Yoga: The Risks and Rewards. In this New York Times bestseller, Broad reviews the often neglected potential dangers that exist on the yoga mat. Using research and data, he argues that it’s naive to assume yoga can only heal and never harm and explains why it’s important to be aware of your body and your limitations. “Asana is not a panacea or a cure-all,” he writes. “In fact, if you do it with ego or obsession, you’ll end up causing problems. A lot of people don’t like to hear that.”
Yoga instructor Rusty Wells explained the importance of safety in his Yoga Journal article, “Creating a Safe Space.” “I work to communicate what’s crucial in the foundation of the posture and then allow them to explore while honoring their edge. I ask them not to force their bodies to be as they were in the past and then remind them that if they can’t perform a more advanced state of any posture, they can still be a happy and healthy person.”
To avoid injury in Ashtanga, speak with the studio offering the class, and chat with the instructor. Individuals should find an instructor that addresses their unique needs, limitations and concerns.
While Ashtanga is a vigorous and challenging practice, the ways in which a practitioner assumes each pose can be adapted to their needs. Props, such as blocks, blankets and straps are at hand, and beginners can modify poses to make them more accessible. Modifications to make poses acceptable to beginners are available. As with all yoga classes, students need to listen to their bodies and not go beyond what their body tells them that day for that class. Being in tune and empathetic with oneself, along with finding the right instructor, can yield an interesting journey into this intense practice.
Ashtanga in Atlanta
Ashtanga Yoga Atlanta is a destination for Ashtanga students around the world to practice and visit. Owner and founder of Ashtanga Yoga Atlanta, Todd Roderick is the most experienced Ashtanga yoga teacher in the Southeastern United States. Starting in 1997, Roderick spent more than a year—on multiple trips—studying at the Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute in Mysore, India. During his time there, Roderick studied directly with Sri K. Pattabhi Jois at a time when classes were limited to just 12 students. In 1998, Sri K. Pattabhi Jois gave Roderick direct permission to teach the Ashtanga yoga system.
Roderick explains why he chose Ashtanga over other styles of yoga. “The intensity of Ashtanga is what drew me to it. That and the fact that it was a traditional yoga practice. It’s connected to this long line of teachers that stay true to a traditional lineage.”
Another studio, Mysore Yoga Atlanta, is an authentic Ashtanga yoga studio dedicated to preserving the essence of yoga and teaching it in its original form. Owner Giorgi (“Sava”) Savaneli has the rare distinction of being certified by the Sri K. Pattabhi Jois Ashtanga Institute, also known as KPJAYI. He continues to travel to Mysore, India, to study with Sharath Jois, the lineage holder of Ashtanga.
“I consider this practice to be life-changing,” says Savaneli. “This is a re-wiring of the brain. Deleting the whole programming. If you’re not flexible, you may have a better experience. If you’re tight, you’re going to have the best experience. You have something to work with; you have something to overcome. In asana practice, having that tightness as a focusing point of something to overcome, initially, can help train and focus the mind.”
As with all styles of yoga, benefits build over time. “With sustained diligence and dedication, the heat generated burns away the poisons of desire, anger delusion, greed, envy, and sloth,” says Savaneli, “and the light of our inner nature shines forth.” ❧
David Penn, E-RYT 200, founded Sun Dragon Yoga studio in 2015. He offers private instruction at homes and businesses throughout metro Atlanta and offers classes online. Contact him at 313-303-0096.