Many people wonder if they have the ability to practice Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga, which starts with what’s called the primary series. It seems there is an impression out there that Ashtanga is somewhat exclusive as it has gained a reputation, perhaps a little unfairly, for only being suitable for type A personalities or athletic types. While Ashtanga may not work for certain people with major restrictions, in my experience, the practice can and must be modified to suit individual body types and is, in fact, available to a wide variety of people for that very reason. What’s rare is someone who can start the practice without any difficulty. It is a more challenging practice, yes, but just how challenging depends on how you approach it.
The Ashtanga Vinyasa method is a systematic practice and the way to approach it is to realize that it’s never “one size fits all.” The beauty of the Mysore, self-practice style in Ashtanga is that each posture is taught one at a time, so you build your practice gradually and work according to your abilities. You start with sun salutations, move into to the standing then seated sequence and close with finishing poses and finally savasana or corpse pose to wind down. Each sun salutation in itself is like a complete practice, and then you simply add on. Modifying as needed, slowly adding on the standing postures, one at a time, each time working with the teacher, improving, adjusting and building a little more, and adding on to the closing sequence at the end. So by building the start and adding on at the end means you always have a complete practice from day one, whether it’s simply 15 minutes of sun salutations and sitting, or the whole primary series.
Whether one ever completes the entire primary series or how long it may take is irrelevant. Mysore style is designed so the practitioner’s individuality can be weighed in designing the practice; age, diet, lifestyle, ability, restrictions and history of injuries are considered. Basically, anything you’ve done with your body up until the day you start will have an impact on how the practice feels. So it simply can’t be the same practice for everyone, or the same experience. Although Ashtanga has always been a physical challenge for me, with the help of good teachers I learned to accept what I thought were limitations – stance too stiff, arms too short, body too curvy – and see them for just being the reality of my body and learning to work with what I had. The key is not to worry about what’s difficult for you but rather that you do the best you can without struggle or frustration. It can often be more of a practice of the mind than the body! Once I accepted that certain postures would always be a challenge, I was able to let go of the struggle and progress with the practice naturally for my own body type and benefit just as much as someone who could put their leg behind their head after just a few classes.
Individual body types will present different challenges but the practice can be adjusted to help and also to bring balance. Slower moving, stockier or kapha body types with the benefit of more stamina can use the practice to create more heat and sweat, melting kapha and helping keep their body in shape. Fast moving vata types who are constantly running around in life can use the practice to ground themselves by bringing their energy more into their legs and feet, moving and breathing slower. Fiery, ambitious, pitta types that might be tempted to power through practice can also do with slowing down and focusing on the breath to bring balance to their practice and lives. Ashtanga mainly attracts pitta types (type A personalities / athletes), hence it’s reputation, or vata types with long slender limbs that get easily into postures (but may lack strength). That doesn’t mean kapha’s can’t enjoy it, in fact they can very much benefit from it – speaking from experience as a kapha with just the right amount of pitta to get me on the mat!
But importantly, what matters most is not the external look of the practice and how many postures you end up doing, rather the internal experience of it. The primary series is also known as yoga chikitsa (therapy) and it definitely can be a healing and transformative practice. To achieve this a key concept to understand is that of tristhana or the three focal points, which are: the breath, the postures and bandhas / energy locks, and the drishti / gazing points. If the breath is good and if quality breathing remains the main focus of your practice then the deepness of the postures simply doesn’t matter. Correct breathing is what purifies the system and brings about the calmness experienced at the end of practice. The postures or asanas certainly help to detox and strengthen the body and gain flexibility. The bandhas or energy locks can be learned in addition to help create internal heat and space in the abdomen, creating lightness in the practice. This however can take time so correct breathing along with learning the postures in sequence is a good place to start. Then by also focusing your gaze on the dristhis or particular gazing points in each posture, your practice can also become more like a moving meditation and helps you not get distracted or frustrated by what’s going on with others in the room. Dristhi helps focus and therefore calm the mind. So however many postures you do you can always decide to work on these three elements, and then physical limitations become much less important. The breath will guide you as to how far you should go. Tip: anything less than a smooth even breath means it’s too much! Let the breath dictate what’s right, keeping it as even and smooth as possible to gain the full benefit of the practice.
And recognize that the aim is not to be perfect. Nobody starts perfectly, and perfect is not the goal. It’s about doing what’s appropriate for you, for that particular day, that stage in your life and allowing the practice to be a support for your life that will naturally move and change with the passing of days, seasons, years and life stages. You can use the practice intelligently to develop an insight into what your body needs that will help let go of attachment to results or how you want things to be. If you can do that, guaranteed it will be a much more enjoyable and beneficial practice than if you compare, compete, push too hard and eventually break yourself. This happens all too often in Ashtanga. Surely no yoga practice was ever designed to have that result! So I would fully encourage anyone who is curious to give it a shot, try the Ashtanga Primary Series in particular in a Mysore style setting, but give it a good amount of time, learn how to develop your own self practice and try to practice without too many expectations knowing that it’s ok to modify. Most of all try to practice with a sense of joy and that’s hopefully what you’ll get back. Enjoy!