by Nicole Horne
When I first started thinking about why I choose to practice Ashtanga, I had gone to my first non-Ashtanga yoga class since starting the practice with Melanie and Robert last summer. I had been officially “practicing” yoga for around three years at that time. In reality, though, those years consisted of me taking advantage of the new student specials at nearly every studio in New Orleans. I always left each place for a different reason: sometimes it was the class schedule; sometimes it was the location (to be fair, I didn’t have a car); and sometimes I just didn’t “like” the studio. The truth is, however, I kept leaving because I was looking for a place to begin “my” practice.
Many of the instructors I had would often preface certain postures in their sequences with: “If such and such is part of your practice then…”, and I’d be left somewhat confused, thinking to myself: “Wait, what? But isn’t my practice coming here…?” I even completed a five-week workshop on yoga philosophy and deepening the practice, thinking it would help me find what I was looking for. I remember asking one of the leaders of the workshop for advice regarding starting a home practice. Her response (and I’m paraphrasing): “Pick a spot in your house that you love and roll out your mat and just flow, just do what feels right.” I had no idea what that even meant. In theory, it sounded nice, but even after all the classes I’d taken up until that point, I’d spend so much of my time either thinking about what I was going do next, or practicing one difficult posture over and over again, that there was very little flowing or yoga happening at all.
The word “Ashtanga” was thrown around here and there during those three years, mostly referring to the “eight limbs” of yoga, but it wasn’t until I learned what “Mysore style” meant that I actively sought it out. It is the traditional method by which Ashtanga is taught, named after the city in India where it originated. There are plenty of places online to find explanations of the method as well as discuss in more detail the philosophy behind it, even YouTube videos of what the classes look like. What is important for me to tell you, however, is that it was the means to cultivating the truly personal and sustainable practice I was looking for.
In Mysore style, there is no teacher calling out postures and no question (except perhaps during the first few days) about what posture is coming next and how long you should hold it and where you should be looking, etc. The room is mostly silent, except for the sound of deep breathing, because students show up to do their practice; everyone learns and moves at their own pace (for real at their own pace – not the polite “this is your practice, feel free to take child’s pose at any moment” pace), getting individualized instruction from a teacher who is gradually picking up on the nuances of your body just as you are becoming aware of them yourself.
During my first Mysore class at the Yoga Room I remember feeling awe-struck. Melanie was hosting a teacher training at the time, so the room was filled with practitioners of all ages and “levels.” As can be expected, I was drawn to the advanced students. What attracted me to them, however, was not what they were doing with their bodies (which was amazing nonetheless), but the fact that I could see how dedicated they were to their practice: they had committed to doing this day in, and day out, many of them for years on end, and it showed.
On paper, Ashtanga is intimidating: students traditionally practice six days a week, usually waking up early in the morning to do so and practicing the same series of postures over and over (and over) again. Since it’s become such a central part of my life, I’ve taken to explaining it to a lot of people. My friends still seem shocked when I tell them I [try to] practice yoga every morning. “Every morning?!” Yes, every morning. And after I explain to them the concept of Ashtanga, of Mysore style, of repeating the sequence, they’re usually wondering if I get bored. In my opinion, however, this is where the power of the practice lies. Ashtanga is not an event: it’s not just something you do from time to time to stay healthy or break routine; on the contrary, it is meant to become an integral part of your daily life: “You wake up, brush your teeth, wash your face, do your practice.”
Learning yogic postures in this tradition gave me the tools to enter the space of the practice and slowly open myself up to transformation. No two days are ever the same: as your physical and mental states alter, so too does the information you receive from the practice, because it is a reflection of the deepest (and, for that matter, most superficial) parts of you. The importance of committing the series to memory so that it becomes second nature, and the focus on linking breath with movement, all make it so that it becomes a sort of moving meditation, allowing you to reach a deep state of concentration and cultivate an awareness of the subtlest physical and mental aspects of your being. By the same token, the many principles and concepts found in the yogic texts (for example, related to prana, apana, concentration, etc.) are not simply explained to you but are slowly revealed through the experience of committed, daily practice.
I’ve begun to understand and appreciate how special Ashtanga is, and how important it is to my life, since I left home a couple of months ago to live abroad for the year. I was settled in my life before, and now I feel uprooted; and there are times it’s been difficult to adjust to all of the changes. Yet one thing has remained consistent: my practice. Of course, it’s not entirely the same at the new studio as it is back home (it’s much more French here), but I’d go as far as to say that Ashtanga is an international language. It’s amazing the bond that forges amongst practitioners, regardless of language or cultural background: day in and day out, you brave the cold, dark hours of the early winter mornings to practice next to one another, often struggling but staying committed to doing it nevertheless. In this way, Ashtanga has offered me a “home” away from home.
I can honestly say that it wasn’t until coming to AshtangaYoga Room that my yoga practice truly began. It’s interesting, too, because in the years leading up to that, I never once asked myself why I kept going to all these yoga classes. For me, it was self-explanatory: to be healthy, to feel good, to feel peaceful, and so on. But Ashtanga was a game-changer. It’s a practice that’s hard. It requires real commitment and sacrifice, and, as many practitioners will confirm, it will “ruin” your life. But when you’re dedicating so much of your time and energy to something, it’s normal – and even necessary – to question it, to reflect on your choices. After all, is this not part of the path to consciousness that yoga is meant to teach us?