Why The Ashtanga Sequence Works
Anyone who was mesmerised by the recent, stunning Netflix documentary “My Octopus Teacher” might remember Craig Foster, the free diver who wrote and directed the film, explaining how he got to know the behavioural patterns of the octopus who so entranced him. People seemed puzzled, he said, by his habit of diving to exactly the same spot in the water, every single day, for months on end, in an effort to get to know the creature. When they asked him why he did it, he replied: “Because that’s how you get to know the subtle differences, that’s when you get to know the wild”.
It struck me as being a perfect analogy for the Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga practice. One of the criticisms sometimes levelled at the system is that it’s too repetitive. If you’re a long-time practitioner, you’ll probably be weary of hearing the naysayers remark that Ashtanga seems tedious because it’s all about doing the same thing every time.
A word to the sceptics: this is precisely where the magic lies.
Sure, if you practise Ashtanga, you work your way through the same sequence of asana (postures), at least to begin with. But no two experiences on the mat are the same. One day, you flow through your practice, light as a feather and full of energy. That bind you’ve been reaching for comes easily; connecting breath to movement seems effortless, your gaze is soft and steady, and your breath is smooth, even and deep. Afterwards, you lie in Shavasana undisturbed by anxious thoughts, the need to fidget or the impulse to jump up and get on with the rest of your day.
On another day, you feel like an entirely different person on the mat. You’ve probably dragged yourself there in the first place, and when you do, nothing comes easily (least of all, your ability to accept that nothing is coming easily).
This, according to yoga philosophy, is all down to the interplay of the gunas, the three forces of energy that govern the universe and everything in it. Each has its own qualities: Sattva (calmness, harmony, lightness), Raja (passion, activity, movement), and Tamas (stability, inertia, heaviness). Think of them as tendencies: the habitual way you respond to what’s happening. The gunas are constantly interacting, with one more prominent as you react to what you are experiencing. You’ll know rajas has taken over, for example, when you yell at the driver who’s cut you off in traffic. If you find yourself smiling indulgently as your toddler throws a tantrum, you’ll know you’re having a sattvic kind of day. And if you shut down completely when someone raises a difficult subject with you, tamas has taken the reins.
It’s because your practice is committed to memory that all of this become apparent over time. As you move through the sequence from memory, your mind is free to step away from thinking. You don’t have to worry about what to do next or listen to a teacher tell you what to do. Your body knows where it’s going. So, you can focus on your breath, bandhas and gaze, the three pillars of the Ashtanga practice known as the Tristana method, which turns the practice into a deeply meditative, ultimately transformative, flow.
You find yourself fascinated or irritated, depending on your mood, that one day you can easily bind your hands behind your back in Supta Kurmasana (tortoise pose) or push up easily into Urdvha Dhanurasana (wheel pose). The very next day, you feel your arms must have shrunk overnight because you can barely make your fingers touch in Supta, let alone bind your hands together. You wonder how you could have gained that weight overnight because, pushing up into a backbend, you feel like a sack of potatoes. Gradually, you start to notice how you react to the way things are going. Some days, you’re accepting, even amused. On other days, you’re just plain pissed off and angry with yourself (or your partner, the cat – maybe even the world at large). Practice after practice, as you face whatever physical obstacles repeatedly arise on the mat, the patterns of the mind start to reveal themselves. You begin to pay more and more attention to them. What feelings are emerging? Where were they hiding? How are you responding? What’s that all about?
This is the transformative power of the practice at work. Every time you step on the mat, you take that journey inwards and meet yourself, exactly as you are. One of my favourite explanations of the system comes from US teacher Devorah Sacks, who wrote: “The real value of the Ashtanga Method is how it cleanses the lens through which we see ourselves and shows us who we really are.”
The fact that the asana are prescribed in a set sequence also means there’s no escaping your physical and mental limitations. You can’t just pick and choose the poses you’re good at – the ones that make you feel great. And it’s your least favourite poses that are your greatest teachers. Every practitioner will have a stumbling block, no matter how strong and bendy they may be or where they are in any given series. There’s always something to stop you in your tracks. And once you’ve met one nemesis head-on, another appears somewhere down the road. Uncomfortable as that may feel, it’s how the practice works. The poses that you have to stay with for a long time teach patience, acceptance and humility. Sometimes, you have to accept that your body isn’t made to create the expression of the asana you might have had in mind. After a while, you begin to understand that this really doesn’t matter at all. You’re perfectly happy with the version of the asana that’s right for you. It’s the time spent exploring the pose and coming to that conclusion that’s important.
Once you’ve developed the discipline to practise regularly and commit the sequence to memory, the healing power of The Primary Series (Yoga Chikista) will have liberally sprinkled its fairy dust, bringing strength and flexibility to your body and clarity and calm to your mind. The rewards of the practice become ever more apparent over time, and it’s all that repetition that makes it happen.
Cultivating the ability to observe your reaction to your experience is incredibly powerful. Slowly, it starts to translate into life off the mat, helping you find that moment of pause before you respond to whatever the day throws at you. Letting go comes more easily. The mind seems calmer. A sitting practice seems possible. David Swenson talks about how your morning asana practice is like putting a protective forcefield of energy around you that bats away the stresses of the day before they get a chance to hit home. Anyone who practises regularly knows this to be true.
If you want to explore Ashtanga, find a teacher who encourages you to have autonomy and agency over your practice. There should be no place for rigid thinking, dogma or a one-size-fits-all approach. It’s essential to modify and adapt according to your body and stage of life to develop a practice that you can maintain.
Perhaps you’ll decide that Ashtanga is not your thing, in which case, there are many other beautiful, authentic yoga styles to choose from. Indeed, in a world that’s so polarised, maybe we can all enjoy the yoga we love without dissing the alternatives.
But if you do stick with Ashtanga, you’ll discover, just like the freediver who learned so much from his octopus friend, that it’s the very act of going to the same place every time that makes the magic happen.
Patsy ENELOW COHEN
2 September 2021 @ 9:13 am
Reading your post I’m reminded how after a few years into learning the primary series I said to my teacher, a practice is like a mirror. Since then I realized that it takes courage to confront oneself every day.
Thank you for another beautiful post.
2 September 2021 @ 12:04 pm
Thank you so much for your lovely feedback Patsy. So true – facing that mirror every day take courage! (But so worth it!)