As an Ashtanga yoga teacher, I know firsthand what a bad reputation my preferred style of yoga gets. Especially in an age when fitness is all about slowing down and taking care of yourself, when I mention that I taught Ashtanga for over 20 years, I often see people recoil in something resembling terror.
They may have witnessed pretzel-like postures, or perhaps they've heard about grueling, six-day-a-week practice or trips to South India for crowded 4 a.m. classes. Yes, Ashtanga yoga is an intense practice, and it tends to attract people who are somewhat…driven, to say the least.
But I’d like to clarify a few points because Ashtanga often gets an undeserved bad rap. Here are eight of the biggest Ashtanga myths out there:
1. You need to be young, fit, and flexible to practice Ashtanga.
This idea has always baffled me. Do I need to already know how to hit a tennis ball before I take tennis lessons? Of course not. Isn’t the point of a practice to learn? I certainly think so. You start where you are, then grow and transform along the way. If you can breathe, you can do Ashtanga yoga.
2. You must practice six days per week.
Yes, the protocol set by Pattabhi Jois, who created Ashtanga, was to practice six days a week, minus moon days. But the fact is, things get in the way. Life happens, relationships happen, people travel and get sick, and frankly, sometimes your body just needs a break. If it’s not possible for you to practice six days per week, you practice when and how you can. Be kind to your body.
3. Ashtanga is about purifying the body or getting physically fit.
I asked Pattabhi Jois years ago, "If Ashtanga is for purifying the body, how do we purify the mind?" He said, "Ashtanga yoga is for purifying mind." I wondered, if Ashtanga is about mind purification, then why do we emphasize the body so much?
So the next time I saw him, I asked, "Why so much emphasis on the body? Why don’t we teach the other seven limbs of Ashtanga yoga?" He replied, "Asana is door to discovering other limbs of yoga, as outlined in the yoga sutras. In other words, the physical postures are the convenient entryway into the path of yoga."
4. A flexible body or the ability to do a fancy yoga posture means you are more enlightened.
There is a misconception that physical prowess in Ashtanga means a more advanced view. Nothing could be further from the truth. The physical postures and focus on breathing in Ashtanga vinyasa yoga help clear the subtle channels so that the mind can rest.
While developing a healthy physical body can encourage this process, it is entirely possible to clear the subtle channels through other means. There are plenty of enlightened masters in India and Tibet who have never in their lives done a sun salutation. I’ve also seen fantastic feats performed at Cirque du Soleil. A beautiful body has nothing to do with spiritual enlightenment.
5. Ashtanga yoga is a substitute for a meditation practice.
While it is not a substitute, it is a fantastic preparation. In order to learn to settle the mind in meditation, it helps settle the subtle body by clearing away blockages in the subtle energy channels. This can be done through breathing exercises, specifically the ujjayi pranayama that is part of the Ashtanga yoga system.
In Sanskrit, Ashtanga means "eight limbs," and asana is just one of those limbs. Asana, or "posture," at least from the yoga sutra point of view, means the posture of meditation. Popularization of yoga in the West has expanded this term to include all the physical poses found in yoga studios these days. But essentially, yoga is about learning to meditate by preparing the system and then guiding the mind to stillness.
6. The best Ashtanga teachers are the ones who have the most advanced practices.
Teaching is an art, and it is important to find a teacher who resonates with you. A great teacher is empathetic, compassionate, and looks out for a student’s best interest while conveying their understanding of the practice. Just because someone is able to perform difficult physical postures does not necessarily make them a wise or kind human being. Kindness trumps knowledge any day, in my book.
7. You must practice early in the morning.
For the first few years, I practiced only in the evenings. I worked during the day, so evenings were when I could practice. Because I live in the mountains where mornings are cold, I still prefer practicing in the early evening. And that's just fine.
8. The harder you work, the better your results will be.
Yoga is about finding balance between opposite extremes in order to settle the mind in a state of equipoise. Approached with sensitivity and wisdom, Ashtanga yoga is such an incredibly powerful tool to help calm the mind and tune the body. But like anything, if we take things too literally or use too much force, there is a risk of becoming dogmatic and losing the essence of the teaching.
Ready to go for it? Ashtanga yoga is one of the best ways I know to help you develop a routine of self-discipline and eventually your own daily yoga and meditation practice. If you’ve been wondering about Ashtanga yoga, find an experienced teacher and give it a try.