I’m sat on the floor, legs straight out in front, and I’m reaching forward to hold my feet and develop a good stretch in the back of my legs, when the yoga teacher slowly lies down on top of me and forces my face much closer towards my legs and I’m thinking to myself “This is a yoga class?”
Personally speaking, the intensity of the practice is a key feature of Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga (Ashtanga). A class starts gently with the group breathing together, using a form of yogic breath known as Ujjayi Breath to help you to focus on the practice. After 10 breaths the physical practice begins and doesn’t stop for (usually) at least an hour. During that hour practitioners perform numerous physically demanding poses, flowing through Downward Dog, Chaturanga Dandasana and Upward Facing Dog into various standing, seated and twisting poses. It is physically demanding and, at times such as when your instructor is lying on top of you pushing you into a deep forward bend, intense.
You may be familiar with the idea of “runner’s high”, which can be described as “a feeling of euphoria coupled with reduced anxiety and a reduced ability to feel pain”. Although this response to exercise is not yet fully understood it is known to occur during long-duration rhythmic exercise, which is a fitting description of an Ashtanga class. I certainly experience moments of joy, usually when I’m having to push myself to continue rather than sit back on the mat and take a rest.
The physical contact between student and teacher is another key feature of Ashtanga and one that surprised me at first. My background is mostly in Iyengar Yoga, so I’m used to getting hands-on corrections from teachers, but not like an Ashtanga correction. An Iyengar teacher might correct the placement of a limb in an asana such as Trikonasana, or pull your hips up and back to encourage a ‘good’ Downward Dog. But an Ashtanga teacher may well get much closer than that and push you to places that you perhaps couldn’t reach by yourself. Trust is very important.
From an historical perspective, the practice of Ashtanga developed at around the same time as Iyengar. The person who originally codified Ashtanga, K. Pattahbi Jois and the originator of Iyengar yoga, B.K.S Iyengar, where both students of Krishnamacarya in the early 20th Century. Whereas Iyengar, who suffered with ill-health through much of his early life, developed a style focused on the precise practice of asana supported by the use of props, Jois developed the flowing vinyasa style which he eventually called Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga.
If there is a criticism to be made of Ashtanga, it is perhaps that it often overlooks the ‘proper’ form of an asana. However, I should make it clear that I’ve practiced Iyengar yoga for nearly 20 years and simple believe that there is a right and wrong way to do poses. Seek out a good Ashtanga teacher and you should still receive instruction about how to do your standing poses, just don’t expect to hold them for 3-4 minutes at a time. It may be the case that Ashtanga yoga is focused on ‘doing’ yoga, whereas Iyengar yoga is focused on ‘learning’.
Ashtanga is a great style of yoga to practice if you’re looking for a physical challenge and a way to improve your strength, flexibility and cardio-vascular fitness. It would be very challenging to start a class with no previous experience in yoga, but a good teacher will take into account different levels of ability (not simply related to experience) and support the development of your yoga practice. I consider myself incredibly lucky to have found such a good teacher (Christine at Bristol Yoga Centre) who helps make the practice of Ashtanga such a joyful experience.