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A Belated Ashtanga Yoga Preparation

Yesterday morning I did something I hadn't done in exactly one year and one day: I attended an Ashtanga yoga class. For a number of reasons--chief among them the priority that marathon training took in my life, but also the lack of offering at my preferred studio--I stopped going to a regular Ashtanga class. But I often missed it. So I was very excited that "my" yoga studio, Bella Prana, announced last week that they'd be offering Ashtanga classes twice per week. Further, I'd taken my only Ashtanga classes with the two instructors who happened to be staffing the new classes, so I had two happy reunions to look forward to.

The Sunday class was taught by Eric Wheeler, who is special to me because he is the instructor who ignited in me a deeper interest in and appreciation for yoga. Way back in the days when he taught at the USF Rec Center (2005-06 or so), I would attend his class with the intention of getting a physical practice, but he helped open my mind to yoga as more than just a physical practice. Perhaps it was his Sanskrit pronunciations of poses, which I'd never heard prior to his class, or his focus on the breath and introduction of ujjayi breathing, or his soothing way of talking the class through tough poses, or a great many other things he did that I'd never been exposed to before. Eric eventually stopped teaching yoga at USF, so I tried to follow his classes in the community studios whenever possible. But this became difficult the more "in demand" Eric became, and I felt the need to find a home studio, which I happily found at Bella Prana a couple of years ago. Eric was not initially an instructor at Bella Prana, but since the merging of Bella Prana and what was formerly the Lotus Room, Eric was now on their schedule, and after a few months of a successful merger, so was Asthanga.

I learned that my good friend Kristin was also planning to attend the first Sunday morning Ashtanga class, but she wasn't familiar with the Ashtanga practice. In preparation for the class, I simply told her to look up the Ashtanga Primary Series poses so she'd have an idea of what the poses were like. In retrospect, I probably could have offered more advice. But then again, I walked into my first Ashtanga class completely blindly, and I survived. Perhaps the experience has more of an impact this way. But if I were to properly prep a newbie, I'd give this advice (in eight parts to parallel the eight limbs of yoga):

  1. Bring a towel, or two. You will sweat buckets--particularly in Eric's class, as he likes to bring the room temperature up a bit before practice, though not so much that the class is "heated." This is part of the cleansing/healing nature of the practice. Embrace it.
  2. Expect a fast-moving class, especially in the beginning. The sun salutations in the beginning of the series are designed to build heat in the body, and they are done quickly and in sync with the breath.
  3. Breathe through the poses, loudly (but correctly). Most poses are held for five breaths, so it is helpful to practice a steady, audible ujjayi breath. The more audible the breathing, the more likely the class is to fall into breath-sync and flow through the series together.
  4. Expect to hear the poses called out in Sanskrit, usually (but not always) with an English translation. Sanskrit is the traditional ancient language of this ancient practice, and in certain yoga styles, the language is preserved more than in others. Ashtanga, when taught traditionally, feels very much like you're performing a cultural ritual, because you are.
  5. Watch those around you who know what they're doing. Because of points 2 and 4, and the fact that the instructor often does not do demonstrate the poses, you can easily get lost in your first practice. Hopefully the instructor will point out the students in the class who are regular practitioners of Ashtanga, so you know whom to watch.
  6. Accept out of hand that you will not be able to do everything. I practiced somewhat regularly for over a year and still had not accomplished many poses. Do not be discouraged by this; Ashtanga is a set series that is meant to be done regularly and frequently for mastery over time. Lots of time. Being kind to your body is more important than "getting" a pose. But also note that, the more regular your practice is, the further you will be able to go in your poses.
  7. Do independent practice. If you like the Ashtanga practice and want to further your own practice, get a book or video that helps break down the poses so you can practice at home. Some established Ashtanga instructors/practitioners are David Swenson, Richard Freeman, and Kino MacGregor. Or ask your instructor about a specific pose after class, if he or she is available.
  8. Learn the Ashtanga Yoga mantra. I admit, I haven't done this myself, as it wasn't part of the class I had previously taken for a prolonged period of time. But Eric does include it in his class, and this reminded me to try to learn it. The mantra is chanted at the opening of class to give honor to Patanjali, the ancient man attributed with authoring the Yoga Sutras, or principles. (And that's the end of my Wikipedia research for today.)
So, sorry for this untimely information, Kristin--you did an awesome job without it ;-)

Come join me for one of Bella Prana's Ashtanga classes: Thursdays at 7:15 p.m. (taught by Sara Perez, another fabulous instructor), and Sundays at 9:00 a.m. (taught by Eric Wheeler).

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