Wednesday, April 18, 2012

My First Ashtanga Primary Series

As part of my yoga teacher certification program the students are required to try out different styles of yoga and write reports about our experiences.

On Sunday morning, I walked into my very first Ashtanga class ever and I was instantly greeted with a bright smile from the woman at the desk. She gave my two fellow teacher trainees and I warm welcomes when she learned it was our first time at this studio. I felt instantly at ease. As an yoga studio employee I was reminded how it's so important to make nervous new students feel welcome when they first enter!

Anxiety set in, however, when the instructor, walked in and bombarded us with questions and warnings about the Ashtanga practice.

Instructor: “Have you ever done Ashtanga before?”

Nervous Teacher Trainees: “No, but we practice Power Yoga regularly and we hear there are some similarities.”

Instructor: “Well this class isn’t easy and it’s going to be a struggle for you to keep up. Most people do their own practice without a teacher present. Unfortunately the instructor who normally teaches this class isn’t here to teach you (he’s a celebrity) so you’re stuck with me.”


We were all sorts of confused walking into the class. How were we supposed to do a personal practice through the entire primary series when the poses aren’t even posted?! So we placed our mats down, crossed our fingers, and hoped for the best!

The class itself was 2 hours long. It turns out we were actually supposed to follow the teacher and the ‘by ourself’ kind was a style called Mysore. To be honest, I really liked the style. The series started out with Sun A’s and Sun B’s and moved into poses that I was mostly already familiar with. The poses weren’t too difficult but they did offer some variation to the tried and true poses that I’m super familiar with (for example: Janu Sirsasana A,B,C,D... l-m-n-o-p). I'm pushing the edge on a few of the Power Yoga postures, so it was cool to see how the poses could be deepened.

To be honest, I think I would have LOVED the practice but the teacher didn't really teach. She merely said the pose names in Sanskrit and expected us all to go directly into the pose even when us newbies had never seen or heard of that pose before. My friends and I looked at each other confused as we tried to copy the yogis on the mats facing us, which was extra confusing when deciphering lefts and rights. 

As I struggled to figure out what I was supposed to do, the instructor often approached me and said things like, “No. DON’T do that, do THIS” or “You’re doing it WRONG” or when I we were supposed to get in a super pretzely posture: “What’s wrong? Are you not flexible enough for Lotus?” - to which I replied, “I can do Lotus, I just don’t know where I’m supposed to put my feet and arms”. After I went into the pose, the instructor informed me that I was too flexible. It was all very strange.

I’m not saying all this to be hyper-critical of the Ashtanga instructor, but merely to illustrate that I experienced first-hand why teachers should act empowering and that certain words will tear the student to the ground! I felt my insides shrink whenever the instructor approached me with negativity and had to remind myself that I’m actually pretty good at doing yoga, I just haven’t memorized this sequence! I felt lucky that I practice Power Yoga 6 days/week, otherwise there would be no way I’d been able to keep up! There is no way a beginner could have survived in that class.

All in all it was a good experience! I could definitely see how Power Yoga has evolved from Ashtanga: begin with sun salutations, continue with other standing poses, and then to the floor. Other than the pose sequence there were more differences: Ashtanga begins and ends with chanting, the instructor spoke mostly in Sanskrit (not only the pose names but also counting and explaining the type of breath), and no props are allowed.

I’ll definitely try out Ashtanga again, but maybe next time with a different teacher...

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