Thorsten Zöller

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On Ashtanga Yoga

2019-02-09

I practice Ashtanga Yoga, a method for purifying body and mind. It is a style of Yoga developed mostly by T. Krishnamacharya and Sri K. Pattabhi Jois in the last century in southern India, and its history is closely linked with the city of Mysore. There is a story about its origins which I will not recount here (it can be found in any book on Ashtanga Yoga and on many websites); you can make up your own mind if you believe it or not. Actually, it is not very important whether it is true.

Ashtanga Yoga is very different from most other styles of Hatha Yoga (by which I mean styles emphasizing the practice of asana, i.e. body postures). In Ashtanga Yoga, there is no choosing of which postures you practice; instead, there is a number of series consisting of a fixed sequence of postures which are to be practiced successively. Everybody starts with the first posture, then does every following posture in the sequence up to the first one he is unable to perform correctly, and ends his practice with another fixed sequence of finishing postures.

Boring, one might imagine—​the same postures day in and day out? Where is all the fun about that? I do not think that Ashtanga Yoga is about fun. In fact, it is very monotonous and repetitive, and you need to love this monotony and repetitiveness[1]. In Ashtanga Yoga, you don’t ever get anywhere. Even the most advanced practitioner starts each and every practice with the sun salutations and finishes with ut plutih, and that he has in common with a first-time Ashtanga Yoga practicioner as well as with every other Ashtanga Yoga practicioner in the world.

In fact, the fixed sequence of postures is very important. In other Yoga styles, you can choose to practice whatever posture you like. You can avoid those you cannot do or don’t like, and instead focus on doing just the ones you are good at or that make you feel well. In Ashtanga Yoga, you cannot do that; you do the same postures every single day. You cannot avoid the postures you don’t like, and you cannot just do the hard ones because you feel the easy ones are below your standard. Also, you cannot run away from hard postures; you will be faced with them again and again, with no chance to skip them.

Although it is common to practice Asthtanga Yoga in classes together with other practicioners, just like with other styles of Yoga, many Ashtangis practice at home alone, just like I do. I love practicing in solitude. I enjoy the energy present when practicing among a bunch of dedicated practicioners, but first and foremost, I like to practice on my own, in silence, and be completely with myself.

Ashtanga Yoga is not fun, and it certainly is not easy (which is only in a small part due to the many difficult postures). I cannot even say that I like practicing it; in fact, getting up in the early morning is a tough fight every single day. Usually, I am not inspired or even motivated to do my practice. I don’t want to practice; actually, there is nothing I want more than to stay in my warm bed, covered in my blankets, to hide from the world outside, from all the problems I will likely be assailed by on any given day. But I do get up, and I do get on my mat. I think about how nice it would be to already be done, to rest after the strenuous practice, to close my eyes again if only for a couple of minutes. But then I start practicing anyway, because I feel that I have to. I need to win the fight against myself, against my lethargy, my dullness, my fear. I do not think that it is necessary to enjoy the practice; rather, I would say it is necessary to enjoy the discipline to practice.

My practice is not beautiful, elegant, or light. Rather, it is clumsy and a constant struggle; often, my body feels heavy and awry. But that does not matter. I used to think that it must get easier over time, but I was wrong, or rather mislead. It is not the point that the practice gets easier as you make progress. In fact, there is no progress, at least not from a purely physical perspective. It will never get easier; that is the whole point of all the different, increasingly difficult postures. It is a constant struggle, and it will always be.

It is remarkable how different the body can feel during practice, and often in a very counterintuitive way. Often, my body feels strong and flexible when I would least expect it, and heavy and tired when there is no obvious reason for it. But that is fine; there is nothing like a good practice or a bad practice. In particular, practice is not better simply because I feel better. The only important thing is to practice; that is all that counts.[2]

It can be very hard to overcome or even only to restrain ones ambitions; it certainly was (and sometimes still is) for me. There was a time when I was unhappy even when the jump from a standing to a sitting position during one of the many vinyasas was not as nice as I expected of myself, and I might even have uttered a short swear, if only to signal the other practicioners in the room (at that time I was exclusively practicing in classes) that I can usually do it better.

I do not practice many postures, only about the first half of the primary series. My body simply does not allow me to do more. This might change sometime, or not—​the latter being much more likely. And that is fine, too. I don’t care if I will ever be able to do more postures than I do now. I used to be very ambitious, with the result that the inner meniscuses in both my knees are heavily torn, and I even had surgery in my right knee. I often feel pain during practice, and I need to be very careful not to overstrain my knees. My left knee tends to lock up when it is bent too much or there is too much pressure on the inner meniscus. This is the result of my obsession with certain postures, of badly wanting to be able to do them. That is not the right way of practicing Ashtanga Yoga. One must always be humble and remember that the only goal of the practice is the practice itself. Ambition is not a good attitude for practicing Ashtanga; rather, one must practice in a state of ishvarapranidhana, which is often translated as committing oneself to god or some supreme being, but in fact simply means to not expect any result from ones practice. I must constantly remind myself of this. I used to be angry and disappointed when one of my knees once again locked up. Nowadays, I try to see my injured knees as another opportunity to practice—​to practice being gentle towards myself, which I still often find difficult.

There is certainly a wealth Ashtanga Yoga can teach you if you engage in practicing it diligently (and I am very well aware that I am only touching the surface with my own practice). One thing is for sure though: It needs to be practiced, to be experienced.

And when I am finished with my practice for the day, I know that I will have done at least one good thing on that day, no matter what will happen during the rest of the day.


2. See also the nice article What is sufficient?