This month concludes two years of daily Mysore style ashtanga yoga practice and I am grateful to have found this place of refuge in my life.
Ashtanga is an ancient system of yoga in which a set, progressive series of postures are coordinated with breath (ujjayi pranayama) and focused gaze (drishti). It is flowing and intense, producing internal heat and encouraging single pointed concentration and mindfulness. Mysore style practice is not led by the teacher. Instead, students practice together at their own pace and the teacher assists each individually, according to ability level and particular needs. I wrote a blog post a while back called, “Why Mysore?”, discussing why a person might choose Mysore style practice over led classes.
I took my first ashtanga class in 2013, an abbreviated led primary series, at a studio that offered it once weekly on Sunday mornings. Although I had been practicing yoga for several years before that, something about this particular practice resonated powerfully within me. I began searching for more opportunities. Slowly but surely, my practice became almost exclusively led ashtanga classes at various studios. I read books and watched videos to deepen my understanding. Then, with the gentle encouragement of a teacher, I took the plunge into daily Mysore style self-practice. Two years on, these are my observations of some of the fruits of the practice.
On a gross level, changes continue to happen in the body. Strength and endurance are still growing. I am learning not to rely so much on habitual use of the strongest muscles and I am developing those that don’t get much attention off the mat. Proprioception is also improving as I continue to learn to sense the body in space and isolate and utilize neglected parts. I have gained much more flexibility in the hips which has been mutually beneficial with my sitting meditation practice. Twists and forward folds are deeper. Even the breath continues to evolve as I learn to breathe more smoothly and evenly into the chest and side ribs, keeping the belly still.
On a subtler level, the practice is like peeling away the layers of an onion. Previously hidden fears, biases, blocks and obstacles are uncovered. Courage is cultivated in learning the difference between discomfort and pain, finding again and again that discomfort is temporary and often followed by growth. Experimenting with a willingness to float head and face first into space, balancing only on “cat hands” or balls of the feet, brings a level of trust that can only be developed through experience. Patience and self-compassion on the mat become more reliable, having developed a kindly curiosity about the workings of this body and mind that is no longer interrupted by moments of frustration or self-censure. Occasionally, I connect with the elusive bandhas and tap into the energy waiting to be cultivated and harnessed there. A burning passion is mellowing into a sustaining love and appreciation for the peaceful sanctuary of ashtanga yoga and its lessons.
Although the fruits of practice have been invaluable, I can see that it is only the tip of the iceberg. Ashtanga yoga is system that offers six increasingly subtle and challenging series as well as pranayama practice. One could spend an entire lifetime devoted to the system and never run out of territory to explore. I find this to be intriguing and motivating rather than discouraging – the endless possibilities!
It is my observation that ashtanga yoga is an especially useful practice for those of us who tend to be intense and restless in body and mind. The system channels and burns away excess energies, softening and opening the body and mind to the possibility of stillness. It also exercises the “muscles” of attention and concentration, reducing distractibility and increasing focus. I suspect it may be equally useful for those who tend toward inertia or lassitude, in that over time it stokes the inner fire to an optimal level, cultivating a better balance of drive, discipline and endurance.
I give thanks to my teachers and the gurus that came before them for this healing practice. Thanks as well to fellow ashtangis that breathe life into the practice room every day, wordlessly encouraging and inspiring one another. And finally – thanks for the warm, welcoming, and sacred space where we gather every morning to meet our true “selves“.
Tracy Ochester, PsyD, RYT is a psychologist, Certified Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy Teacher, and registered yoga teacher who occasionally teaches ashtanga yoga classes and workshops in the Kansas City community. Please visit the events calendar to learn about upcoming offerings.