Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Ashtanga Primer

One of my goals for this year is to hit the yoga mat 300 days with a focus on Ashtanga yoga.  There are two confusing things called Ashtanga yoga:  Patanjali's Ashtanga yoga mantras, which is a text written in 300 BCE outlining eight (Ashta) limbs (tanga) that branch out to spiritual enlightenment, and the Ashtanga movement practice developed by Sri K. Patabi Jois through most of the last century.  Make no mistake about it, I'm a Christian not Hindu so I stick with the movement patterns.  Not that there isn't validity to the eight limbed approach.  You can still see a lot of influence in the Jois approach from the ancient texts. I think the same basic premises are still achieved.

The primary focus of an Ashtanga practice is to "get on the mat".  Students are supposed to practice 6 days a week, taking saturdays as a rest day.  Also we should rest on the day of the new moon and full moon each month, which in 2012 occurs 25 times.  It is acceptable on these weeks to practice on Saturday and take the moon day off instead. This is how I can still hit my 300 target.  52 saturdays plus 25 moon days of rest means less than 300 sessions for me.  It's also worth noting that women should not practice while on their periods. 

There is a defined set of movements for Ashtanga that are categorized as beginning, intermediate, and the advanced A, B, C & D series of movements.  There are only one or two people in the world that are actively practicing the advanced C & D series.  It's a slow practice to learn, and should take at least five years before getting into the intermediate series.  I bet most people get bored taking that long and either abandon the practice or move on anyway.  Patience is a virtue that has its own rewards here. 

For instance, one of the first poses is a standing forward fold, but you are supposed to be able to touch your head to your knees.  My head doesn't come anywhere close to my knees.  This will take some time to achieve, but once I get there the foundation is laid for the intermediate moves. 

Ashtanga's primary focus is on breathing and movement. Specifically this is known as yama and priyama, translated as "movement and rest" or "effort and relaxation".  So each pose in a sequence sets up the next pose, and we are supposed to find relaxation and resting in every pose once we get there.  I find that the breathing really helps this target.  You move to find a pose, then hold it for five breaths before moving to the next pose.  Take deep breaths in and out slowly breathing through the nose, and try to find relaxation in every pose.  If you can hold some of those for five breaths, you will be more relaxed.

What do I really like about this practice?  Tons.  The benefits are enormous.  Yes, in running flexibily is easy speed.  That's great.  But the practice should end with some deep breathing in corpse pose, which is just lying on your back and trying to relax as much as possible.  As long as the kids aren't throwing things at me or yelling while I'm trying to relax, this time is worth its weight in gold. 

Today is January 10th.  I rested on Saturday - no yoga just a 5k race.  And Sunday was the first full moon day of the year, so I took it off as well.  But after getting on the mat 8 out of 10 days so far this year, I feel like I have a more relaxed, and more focused approach to everything.  I'm finishing better projects for work.  It just feels like I have more clarity in my decision making.  I feel better most of the time, and the rest of my workouts seem to go smoother.  I'm really looking forward to see where the rest of this practice can take me.

Next Ashtanga post will be a book review about "21 Things to Know Before Starting an Ashtanga Yoga Practice".

8 comments:

Alisa said...

Interesting. I think in general I am a vinyasa person. I'm a huge fan of the flow and sun salutations. However, this is really interesting. I'll be interested in your book review. I guess without ironman training in the schedule for 2012 you'll have time for things like yoga =).

Heather @ Just a Colorado Gal said...

I've always wanted to try Ashtanga but never had the opportunity. Some of the poses look really cool! :)

Amber (Girl with the red hair) said...

Glad to hear you're having such success already. I love yoga so much! Can't wait to hear more about this.

Jess said...

6 days a week is quite the yoga-committment!

Lisa from Lisa's Yarns said...

Whoa, 6 days a week is a big commitment! But I know you can do it. I haven't done any yoga, really, so I can't say what is right for me until I try it. I'd like to try yoga, but dangit, the classes are so expensive!! And I am sure I could get some DVDs, but i feel like i need some direction on form, etc, before I can practice on my own...

Colleen said...

@Alisa - its full name is Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga and is older than the newer incarnations of vinyasa classes. Vinyasa--pairing movement with breath--is key to the Ashtanga system. What makes Ashtanga different, among other things, is its structure. Teachers and students don't have the ability to choose different poses and sequences. This structure works for people like me, but it doesn't work for everyone.

Wes said...

when you find something that interests you, you go all out, dontcha? I'm still trying to make it to the gym for a yoga class. I have no idea what they do there.

Sophie @ threetimesf said...

What a good goal! All sounds very interesting....I'd get so stressed out trying to keep track of what day it is and what I should be doing though! Despite working in a school, organisation is not my strongest point!