I was recently at an event with folks from all over the globe when I ran into a girl that was from Philly (where I first started practicing yoga), had taught yoga and taken classes with my first yoga teacher, and knew all of my subsequent Philly area teachers. Talk about small world, huh?
We got to talking about the practice, and I invited her to come and practice with me and several other folks from the studio out at my current teacher’s place in Encinitas, Ca this Feb. She looked at me and said, “Oh no! I couldn’t do that! I can barely finish the Primary Series! 😲
I took several minutes to explain to her that her ability to do the primary series in all or in part was not indicative if she should practice with Manju (my teacher)-it was her desire to learn from the closest link to Ashtanga Yoga that we have here in the states.
She was dubious. More than a little.
Then it dawned on me. That’s because I’m a Terrible Ashtangi…..
If you subscribe to the current popular beliefs about Ashtanga Yoga
I don’t think you should either.
I started practicing yoga about 10 years ago. You can read my bio here. To sum it up, I hurt my back, got super depressed, didn’t want surgery, and found this magical exercise that made my back feel better. I was hooked from day one.
I originally trained in the Baptiste Style Power Yoga–which is HOT, slow, powerful, and INTENSE. It goes without saying that I’m a pretty physically intense person, so that style really resonated with me. I found Ashtanga about 2 years into my practice and bam–it was like I had found my long lost love.
My first Ashtanga workshop was with Manju Jois, when he traveled to what became my teacher’s farm in Pa. I had practiced Ashtanga about 2 months–tops..and only when I couldn’t get into a heated power class. I saw this workshop was happening, emailed the host, and luckily for me, a spot had just opened up.
I had NO idea what I was doing.
I showed up with a printed piece of paper. (actually, it was two pieces I taped together back to back.) –I still have that.
Apparently, this was an UTTER FAUX PAS
I didn’t know that, and no one told me that either. In fact, at that training, no one told me I was doing anything wrong–they just told me how I Was doing everything right by showing up and practicing.
I met some amazing students and teachers on that trip, all of which I still practice with to this day.
In my first training with Manju, we were demoing something (I honestly can’t remember) and he looked over at me and said, Hey, Jennifer, “You can do this.” (It was Eka Pada Rajakapotasana) Basically splits where you are grabbing the rear foot while doing an awesome backbend.
Ignorance is bliss.
I was young, flexible, and didn’t know what I didn’t know.
Manju saw that I was open enough for it, so he suggested I demo this pose.
Then, he had to explain what it was. 🤦
Why is this a big deal?
Honestly, I’m not sure.
I have continued to train with Manju nearly every year since then and he recently blessed me with his Authorization to Teach Ashtanga Yoga and Ashtanga Yoga Chikitsa
In the years since that first training with Manju, I have learned how incredibly unusual this first interaction was.
In fact, I have come to learn that my entire Ashtanga Education is “unusual” in the popular sense of the word because there are VERY DIFFERENT ways to practice Ashtanga Yoga.
Again, Ignorance is bliss.
When I first started practicing Yoga, and then Ashtanga yoga, I had a back injury and I was working 12 hour swing shifts where I sat, literally SAT for 12 hrs straight.
That’s a recipe for back injury if ever there was one.
Yoga helped to fix my back, but not just any yoga–the yoga that focused on back strengthening.
Did you know that I couldn’t tell you all the names of the primary series postures before my teacher, the late Donna Feiner (authorized by Manju Jois), recognized the weakness in my core and back muscles and she stopped me from “just doing primary” and insisted I work on the second series–at least through the twists, because my back needed the bending, my psoas needed the stretching, and my body didn’t need that many forward folds and twists (as are in the primary series).
I didn’t know this was sacrilegious for typical Ashtangis–so I just did as I was told, and my back continued to improve.
Fast forward about 5 years, a new baby, a job layoff, move across country –or at the very least, back down to “god’s country,” south of the Mason – Dixon line. I picked up my practice again, this time at a local studio practicing “REAL Ashtanga” and BAM. Low back pain like I had never experienced before in my life was B.A.C.K.
It was miserable.
Here I was fighting to practice every single day (something I had NEVER known), then visiting the chiropractor 3 times a week, and limping, taking Tylenol, the whole gamut. It was agony.
I was literally practicing Ashtanga 6 days a week in a studio, getting worse and worse.
I was only practicing primary series.
I was nursing a baby round the clock, trying to re-find my core muscles (in yoga that
I wasn’t LISTENING to what my body needed, I was DOING what I was being TOLD my Body SHOULD DO.
Something happened about 6 months into this daily agony of me trying to “work through the pain” and having my husband push and pull my body into what he called “pretzel” yoga because I was doing what I was told
(since in this school you didn’t do the second series until you could bind in Marichiiiasana D and drop back)
It was literally the worst thing on the planet I could have done for myself.
One random afternoon, I was texting with an old Ashtanga training friend from my very first workshop with Manju, and my friend asked how my practice was. I told her I was considering giving it up because I hurt so bad. Of course, she asked what I was doing. I told her practicing every day. She asked, “are you doing any second series?”
I said, “no.”
She asked, “Why not?!” With all, that nursing and lactation and baby holding and stress, girl, she said, “you need some backbends.”
That next day, I did the second series –what I could do of it, I played with poses I used to think were so easy before childbirth and life. I explored alignment and breath in ways I hadn’t done for almost a year.
I finished my practice (at home that day) and felt completely exhausted, and for the first time, pain-free.
I went back to the studio the next day, did primary series per usual, and spent the rest of that day in pain.
That 3rd day, I stayed home and did the Standing Series, first two poses of primary, and switched to second. I added more core work, made sure to work on my backbends and shoulder strengtheners and wouldn’t you know it?!?! I didn’t hurt!
I started to stay home in the mornings and practice on my own.
I took over Yoga East (now Thrive Yoga and Wellness) and started practicing Ashtanga Yoga, “MY WAY.”
Can I say that my back never hurts anymore? Oh gosh no. I have a herniated disc–that never REALLY goes away. Plus, I had another baby, gained a bunch of weight again and nursed again, and held a little fatty thing for hours on end again,and that set my back off.
Only this time, I knew what to do.
I listened to my body. I didn’t just forward fold my way through the primary series. (and please don’t say upward dogs are backbends.) You and I both know that Yes, it is a backbend. However, give me a Shalabhasana (locust pose) any day over Upward Facing dog) and I will show you a way to strengthen those back muscles.
Why does listening to my body make me a terrible Ashtangi?
Well, technically, it doesn’t. Not REALLY.
UNLESS, you subscribe to If You Can’t Do THIS POSE, THEN YOU MUST STOP.
Manju has often said, if your teacher says you can’t do a pose, go find a new teacher.
Clearly, I’m not much for authority, since if anyone ever told me to stop doing what I wanted, I would’ve just left them.
However, Let’s stop and think about this for JUST ONE MINUTE.
If the son of the man that brought Ashtanga Yoga to the U.S. The guy that actually CREATED the system that thousands of people know and love today–if that guy didn’t stop people, why should someone else–far further removed, stop you?
That just doesn’t resonate with me.
I hope it doesn’t resonate with you.
And Please, don’t give me, “this person knows my body better than I know my self.” OR
“The system works, just trust it.” OR
“You have to work through things to DESERVE a new pose.
Listen friend, had I only been given the primary at the very beginning, I don’t know if I’d still be practicing today. It clearly wasn’t the best thing for my body. When, hopefully, if you like Ashtanga, then you know that yoga is great for your body.
Being told to stop in a personal practice just goes against my very core.
My freedom to practice –It’s like an American trait- this sense of I can do what I think it best for me.
Now, if that means, I want to walk up and down stairs on my hands (Manju talks about a story where he did do this even after his father said he was gonna break his back–and Manju actually thought for a minute that he did break his back when he finally did fall)–then by golly, I make that choice (just like Manju did) and I suffer the consequences.
Let’s be honest with ourselves.
If you approach your Ashtanga yoga practice with curiosity, gentleness, without any expectation–do you really think that you’ll get into a pose that you really can’t?
I know the ONLY time I have hurt myself in any practice or exercise is when I pushed myself harder than my body really wanted to go–when I wasn’t being gentle or kind to myself. When I was in my “ego.” –which is a discussion for another blog post on another day.
I was listening to a podcast today where the participant said something rather profound. He said, if you push anything or anyone to extremes, if you’re hard on any machine or person for too long, you’re gonna break it.
Yup, if you’re too hard on your body, you’re gonna break your body!
That can happen in an Ashtanga practice when you focus on pose after pose, conquest after conquest, following a sequence that doesn’t take into account your personal body’s needs for a given season or time, and you just keep pushing and pushing.
I’d rather be a terrible Ashtangi, have fun, explore postures that I may or may not be ready for on any given day, laugh, breathe, sing, dance (maybe a little after I stick the balance poses like a rock star…I’d rather have FUN in the practice with a gentle spirit, and be able to do this practice when I’m 85 than master the Advanced A & B series. (although I love exploring the postures that are within my grasp!)
I hope you’ll come and experience an Ashtanga Yoga Practice with me someday very soon. You’ll find me at Thrive Yoga and Wellness every Tuesday evening at 6:30 leading a class–it may be primary series, it may be the second series–heck, we may even explore Advanced A postures! It isn’t the series of poses that are important, it’s the energy, the breathing, the movement that we all find in that classroom as we move together playfully.
I’m not gonna stop you if you want to walk around the room on your hands clucking like a chicken (well, I may laugh at you). I will do my best to guide you in what you can do, and I want to be a positive influence on you so you can know Ashtanga Yoga isn’t scary, or “hard” or “strict.”
Yes, it can be scary, hard and strict, if you let it–but that’s your personal choice.
For me? I’d rather be a Terrible Ashtangi and have fun, move with glee and gentleness and keep on laughing through the poses right through my 90s.
IF you’re not in the Chattanooga Area and you’re looking for a fun approach to yoga as wellness, definitely come check us out at Thrive Online. It’s the best way to get your playful, fun, life-changing practice from the comfort of your home. You can sign up to take part in live, private classes or group classes, or you can just take the classes we have loaded up online. It’s a fantastic way to start or end your day, and I promise you will feel better with a regular yoga practice.
Jennifer Dixon ERYT 500 and Authorized Ashtanga Yoga Teacher is the owner of Thrive Yoga and Wellness in Chattanooga, TN. She is also the CEO of The Thrive Foundation. She loves Jesus, her husband and kids, her dogs and of course, Yoga. Her classes are physical because she’s physical, but you often can leave with a bit of the “softer stuff” if you are really paying attention. She loves teaching, talking, eating, and being outside. The best compliment to Jennifer is a completely still room during Savasana. That means, she’s done her job, because the entire room can be still, if even for a moment.