Ashtanga for AllJun 12, 2020
There’s something Tim Miller said to me once at a training that’s stuck with me ever since: It’s much easier to adapt the posture for the body than it is to adapt the body for the posture. Although people might think this is unusual in Ashtanga, I’ve seen Tim pass out blankets and grab straps for his students, and props were always welcome in his room, and the same is true for other teachers I’ve worked with - David Garrigues recently said that everyone in his Mysore group had implicitly agreed to use blankets for shoulder stand just by signing up for his class. Richard and Mary use blankets, blocks, and straps in their teaching regularly.
So why is it that Ashtanga continues to have a reputation as being inaccessible? And how can that reputation be changed to reflect the practice that I know and love, the style that I teach?
I started thinking a while ago about this question - how can Ashtanga be made more accessible to more people? How can we make the perception of Ashtanga less intimidating and more inviting? I’ve heard potential students say they don’t even want to try Ashtanga because they’ve heard that it’s hard or that people get hurt. After my own experience with Ashtanga and all I’ve gained from it, I just find this heartbreaking.
As a teacher, I know it’s my job to reach a variety of different people, and that means it’s my job to make the practice accessible to them. Let’s be honest - Primary Series is a high bar. You can’t expect someone who has spent the last ten years sitting at a desk to come into the Ashtanga room and be able to do Primary Series, get every bind, and do it on vinyasa count right off the bat. Some will, sure. But many more will not be able to. Some won’t even be able to do down dog. But that’s fine. That has to be fine. That has to be expected.
For Ashtanga to appeal to a larger number of people, it has to be more accessible. Maybe this means allowing for passes on certain postures or vinyasas, allowing more modifications, and encouraging use of props. Maybe it means re-envisioning the posture and letting go of ideas of what it’s “supposed” to look like. Because the truth is there is no “supposed to” in what these postures look like - each individual body is supposed to look different.
The fact is, the primary focus of an Ashtanga practice isn’t even intended to be on the body. We should be focused on embodying the energetic essence of a pose and extracting what the posture is trying to accomplish without busting a knee. This doesn’t mean that the teachings will be watered down - it means that the teachers are going to be able to reach more people.
So, how do we make Ashtanga more accessible? How do we change our own perception to accomplish this?
- It starts with stretching the mind. There’s so much focus on making space in our bodies for tight binds and deep folds, but a lot of the valuable work is making space in our minds. We work so hard to lose rigidity in our bodies, but it’s a crucial lesson of Ashtanga that it’s rigidity of the mind that holds us back the most. Rigidity is a symptom of fear. If you are too rigid, you limit yourself, you limit your students, and you limit what this beautiful practice is capable of bringing into people’s lives.
- Reimagine what you think a posture “should” look like. Use props to make space, to take it away, to find better alignment. Go back to the fundamentals. There’s so much to gain from the fundamentals - not only at the beginning of the practice, but through every posture in every series. The fundamentals are crucial to Ashtanga for All.
- If a student can find their way into the fundamentals, they can find their way into a life-changing practice. If someone can do Ashtanga standing in samasthihi, it’s accessible. If someone can do a sun salutation using blocks, it’s accessible. Ashtanga is much more than hard postures like Marciyasana D - it can be found in embodying the fundamentals, which are not only useful but also accessible. If we as teachers reframe our thinking so that Ashtanga yoga is embodied in samasthihi and not only in postures like Maricyasana D, then we are opening up the practice to more people.
- Get creative in your practice and in your teaching. Try to look at Ashtanga from every angle you can, from every perspective. Troubleshoot, look for new solutions, teach to the real student standing in front of you, work with the body you have, and allow yourself the grace to fall, fail, modify, explore, experiment, and try again.
- Focus on the steps. I’m fond of saying that there are a hundred steps between not doing a kapotasana and catching your heels in it. And this is true of every posture. Sure, sometimes the right move is to skip it, but more often there are many approaches you can take to get yourself closer to the full posture.
- I personally love that so many studios are zooming Ashtanga right now. It’s bringing classes to students who otherwise wouldn’t be able to reliably get to a studio for all the millions of reasons life throws at us. On top of that, it takes away some of the fear. Without the friction of reasons not to do something, it’s so much easier to take that first step on a new journey.
To me, Ashtanga has always been about people - not poses. That means that I look at the person in front of me, and teach to that singular person. If a teacher is dogmatic in their approach, they’re not only doing a disservice to the the student, but they’re doing a disservice to yoga. If more people are able to practice, there will be a ripple effect. The more barriers we are able to remove, the better.
Ashtanga for All is a straightforward mission. It doesn’t mean for all who look a certain way, who are capable of certain things, who have a certain schedule or lifestyle or body. All means All. It’s something I believe in, and I think it’s something we can get a whole new generation of students to believe in. The power of Ashtanga for All is the power of believing in yourself - and that’s something I think we all need sometimes.
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