By Jennifer Dixon MBA ERYT 500 –
As part of my ongoing training, I regularly travel to train with my teacher, Manju Jois, to learn more of my favorite practice, Ashtanga Vinyasa Method. More specifically, I am most interested in the approach that he calls, “Ashtanga Yoga Therapy.” In January of 2019, Manju gave me his blessing to teach, and I am honored to do so, carrying on his message to the next generation.
Manju’s father, Pattabhi Jois, is the man responsible for bringing Ashtanga Vinyasa to the States back in the early 70s. This particular style is credited with being the first super physical practice, linking movement with breath. The practice, marrying the breath with the pose, becomes a sort of moving meditation. The benefits, besides the obvious physical exercise of vigorous movement in the poses, also include the practice controlling your breath, thoughts, emotions, you name it.
Over the years, like any oral tradition, the way folks have learned Ashtanga Vinyasa and therefore shared their knowledge has changed. Many people that gravitate towards yoga (at least here in the west) enjoy the physicality of the practice—dare I say, the exercise aspects of the practice, and totally don’t think about / aren’t taught how this very same practice can actually help you in other ways.
Manju makes it his mission to ensure that the Therapeutic benefits of the practice are shared with his students as well as the practice of pranayama and chanting. This is the main reason he created the European Academy of Ashtanga Yoga Therapy (even offering specific training therein). In today’s post, I will share a sequence that Manju teaches his students in the Ashtanga Yoga Therapy Teacher Training.
What is Ashtanga Yoga Therapy?
The basic premise behind Ashtanga Yoga Therapy training is that you modify the practice based on your individual needs. For example, when I first started practicing with Manju and his student (my teacher) Donna, I was working rotating 12 hr shifts. These shifts were in front of 8-10 computer monitors, where I sat for hours (literally) on end. Let’s think about that from an anatomical standpoint. For over 10 years, I spent ½ of any given day seated. What happened to my body? The muscles on the front of my body started to shorten while the muscles on the back started rounding and lengthening forward. Because I was sitting, my stomach wasn’t engaged, so those muscles began to atrophy, which left my back muscles picking up the slack. My shoulders were rounding forward because I was perpetually leaning over the screens.
I wasn’t a complete sloth, I did exercise regularly, but it was mostly very high impact (like running or HIIT (high impact interval training), and weightlifting. However, because my muscles were not being lengthened in the front, the gravity and pounding of the rounding back muscles just led to a LOT of pain in my back. (I’m not sure if anyone else can identify with this.)
In order to “fix” me, I was giving a “prescription” of poses—those poses were the second series backbends. Yup, even though I was brand new to the Ashtanga Yoga Method, I was not told to exclusively practice the primary series, which is mostly forward folds, but to do the standing sequence, and then move straight into the second series to help strengthen my back and lengthen out my front side body.
The results were nothing short of miraculous. People started asking what I was doing. I got questions about what diet I was on (I hadn’t lost any weight, and frankly, I HATE diets), someone even asked me if I was growing. I wasn’t. I was merely learning how to make my body healthier, which led to me standing up straighter and be in less pain, which gave the illusion of weight loss. (hey, I’ll take it!)
Of course, not everyone can get their very own prescription of poses from Manju, so he has developed a sequence of poses that takes poses out of the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd series of the Ashtanga Vinyasa Method that he says will be great for everybody because it focuses on helping to build strength and flexibility forward and backward (and side to side!).
I enjoy throwing in this sequence when I have been doing the same thing for a while. It’s great to just mix things up a bit, and I swear to you, it helps me when I go back to the primary or second series to practice. Let me say this one more time. I was not limited to what poses to practice when I first got into Ashtanga. I wasn’t told to stop at any point. I was actually told to go into the second series simply to help fix some issues I had been a desk person.
If you would like to see the sequence (as I can practice it), check out the YouTube video I shot live in my living room. I shot this video about 5 months postpartum with my second child.
If you are familiar with the Ashtanga Yoga Sequence, then you will recognize that the first part of this sequence is the exact same you would practice if you were going to practice any of the Ashtanga sequences (these are called the standing postures of Ashtanga). This entire sequence assumes that there is a medium level of yoga practice, and I didn’t complete the full series because I was still coming back from pregnancy and childbirth. Of course, this sequence would be modified tremendously based on the level of practitioner. If you are stronger, then you could add a few more poses if you weren’t quite this strong, then you would stop where you needed and modify what you could do.
Taking the Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga practice, and changing up the sequence of poses is nothing short of sacrilege to some of the good folks that practice Ashtanga Yoga. As I understand it (and keep in mind, I have practiced almost exclusively with Manju Jois or his students), Pattabhi taught the sequence to people as their bodies could handle it. Manju likes to tell the story of how when he started practicing yoga, he was only interested in learning the arm balances (this was even before Instagram!). His father didn’t stop him. Manju says that his father said, here is the pose, do it! One day, he was doing a sequence of arm balances (from the 3rd series) and his father asked him if he could touch his toes. Manju couldn’t. It was at that point that he started practicing the primary series 1 or 2 times a week. The rest of the time, he practiced the poses he wanted to practice. Manju still says he thinks the primary series is boring! (this always makes me giggle because I have more than once thought that!!)
That’s right. Manju says he wasn’t made to go through each pose in the primary series in order to practice the second series, and the third and so on. He was allowed to do whatever poses he wanted and when he hit a plateau, that’s when he went back to the primary series. Manju is sorta infamous for telling people in his workshops that if they have a teacher that “stops” them, go find another teacher.
Ashtanga Yoga Rebel
It wasn’t until I had been practicing Ashtanga for many years (with Donna and Manju) that I realized how downright unprecedented this was to the mainstream Ashtanga Yoga Community. In my very first yoga teacher training with Manju, he put me in a 3rd series pose rather easily, just because I could. I had no idea what I was doing, nor did I know this was not the “norm” for that community. I just knew that
I LOVED IT IMMEDIATELY!
Believe it or not, I don’t like rules boundaries or limitations. (go figure) I was the sort of kid that if the parent told me NOT to do something, then it was all I wanted to do. (which is why I absolutely loathe all things diet related.) That’s not to say I don’t like practicing the primary or second series daily (I TOTALLY DO) but I also know that had someone told me I couldn’t go on because I couldn’t do XYZ, I would’ve gotten mad and probably not ever gone back. Rather than limiting me, I was encouraged to go and do more than I thought I ever could, and then given the necessary tools to build up to the poses I couldn’t do.
HOW TO MAKE YOUR OWN ASHTANGA YOGA THERAPY
This is what makes a therapy “prescription” (as Manju calls it.) Based on my own physical condition, poses were suggested for me to practice and then off I went to practice them. You can do the exact same thing.
Here is an example. When I was postpartum, I moved away from my teacher Donna (who passed away recently), and I only had access to teachers around me that did not teach like Manju or Donna. I was in a school that followed a more strict approach where you did not move into another series until you had completed the prior series. I love practicing with other people, and I honestly needed assists because I was nursing so much that my back just did not want to loosen up, so I honored the school I was practicing in and did the primary series…Over and over and over.
For those of you that practice Ashtanga Vinyasa, you know the primary series is a LOT of forward folds. They are awesome! However, for a postpartum mama who was spending more time seated and nursing or standing and holding (basically rounding forward what felt like 20 hrs a day) the forward folds were not doing me ANY favors. Combine the forward folds with the deep twists, and my body revolted. I’m talking incredible back pain. Pain like I had not experienced since I first took up yoga.
I coughed it up to relaxins from pregnancy and breastfeeding, hormones, you name it. I was going to the chiropractor two times a week (a few times even more than that!) I refused hardcore pain meds because I was nursing, but I was seriously in a LOT of pain.
It wasn’t until I attended a workshop that covered second series that I remembered what Donna had always told me. I needed second series. Desperately.
After 6 weeks of bi-weekly chiropractic visits, I stopped practicing inside a studio space and started practicing the therapy that I knew at home. It felt lonely and sometimes slower to progress than I remembered because I didn’t have someone to assist me (although my husband did try numerous times and we created a handful of GOLDEN assists.) However, within a matter of a couple of weeks of practicing second series and Manju’s Therapy sequence, my sacrum started stabilizing. My low back pain started to lessen. Suddenly, I was back to loving my practice!
What’s the moral of this story? If you have practiced yoga and felt off, I’m sorry. If you have been told you can’t do something, I’m sorry. If you have tried Ashtanga Vinyasa and hated it because it was the same thing every day or because you thought it hurt, I’m sorry. I invite you to open up to the idea of a different training method. A method, that is more open to personal interpretation, more creative and fun and more independently beneficial to you depending on the day you are having. Ashtanga Vinyasa Method doesn’t have to be the scary, strict, non-forgiving practice folks make it out to be. It can be a beautiful, personally developed practice that fits your body and its unique needs.
If you would like to learn more about this particular type of yoga, or if you would like to practice with me regularly, I invite you to the Thrive Yoga and Wellness Online Membership Community, Thriving Mamas. You have the opportunity to purchase one or all of the tutorials and full length Cardio Yoga, HIIT sequences that’ll strengthen, tone, and build you up like you have never seen before. This online community is for you if you want to use Yoga to help you get stronger, gain more flexibility, and learn how to do it safely from the comfort of your home. Whether you are 6 weeks postpartum or 18 years, this community is for you. You get instant access to some amazing yoga sequences, detailed tutorials and ebooks, and weekly live videos with me where you can practice along side me. In addition, you have direct access to me in a private Facebook Group where you can ask me questions, get support, or just get to know other ladies just like you! I hope to see you in the community soon!