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Ashtanga Myths: Debunked and Explained
Posted on: by Alistair

The practice of Ashtanga yoga contains a great deal of myth and secrecy – to such an extent that I recall an early teacher of mine mentioning that, in sixth series, one is expected to be able to “stop their heart”. Is this true? Well, Sri T. Krishnamacharya was renowned for demonstrating such feats for the benefits of Western scientists…

But often we are told that we lose the benefit of the practice if we don’t follow the regimented practice in the manner in which it is taught in Mysore, India. While the video accurately depicts how dogmatic practitioners can be, I’d like to dispel certain myths and provide insight as to why other advice is to be heeded.

  • Don’t drink the water
    First timers in an Ashtanga class are often surprised to be chided for drinking water at any point during their practice. Many supposed reasons for this exist (keep the stomach empty, it’s distracting, etc) but it is in fact a simple case of maintaining a single direction of movement.

    The practice of Ashtanga creates an internal movement from the thick structures (organs, bones, etc) to the hollow structures (blood vessels, digestive tract). This movement is to carry away the Ama (toxins) and Mala (wastes) that have become trapped in the body.

    By drinking water during practice you are encouraging physiological confusion because hydration occurs in the opposite direction – from hollow structures to thick structures. So leave the water until after savasana to ensure efficient “detoxing” through practice.

    Incidentally, this shows the difference between exercise and yoga – exercise makes you thirsty because it promotes a movement that is contrary to what is found in the practice of yoga. If you are getting thirsty during your practice, have your teacher look more closely at how you are practicing and a trip to an experienced healer might be appropriate.

  • Don’t incessantly towel off
    There’s no mystical reason for keeping your towel at arm’s length, as Nancy Gilgoff succintly puts it:

    wiping down after every pose breaks the flow of the practice.

    A degree of towelling off is necessary if the studio is toasty and you’re generating a fair amount of perspiration but be aware of developing an unconscious tic whereby you reach for your towel after each vinyasa.

  • Don’t skip the final pose
    For many people with busy schedules there doesn’t seem to be much benefit from lying around for 10 minutes at the end of practice. We all need to be somewhere after practice, don’t we?

    David Williams teaches intelligently that during savasana

    the prana created during the practice is absorbed.

    I think that’s reason enough to chill on your mat for a little longer than you intend to. As a guide, you can rest assured (har, har) that when the sweat on your body has dried, you can move on to your next intention.

  • This is how it’s done in Mysore
    Buddha eschewed the written word for fear of dogma over experience.

    Rely on your teacher for experience in the beginning, but after a decade of practice go inside and you may find that stepping 3 feet apart is be the norm in Mysore but you need another 6 inches to properly open up.

  • Be a veggie
    All the talk of non-harming would have you believe that it’s a yogi requirement to become a vegetarian the moment you step outside first yoga class. But dietary habits, like everything else in the practice, is a part of a larger process.

    The longer you practice the more you feel the effects of your environment – internal and external. Everything will change organically and several years later you will surprise yourself by mentioning “energy” in an abstract sense.

  • Pitta/Vata is the best type
    Pitta types tend to be the most determined and Vata’s the most flexible and through their personalities are often leading the charge in the Ashtanga world. Unfortunately, they are also often first in the queue for repair after an over-enthusiastic asana.

    Kapha types, on the other hand, due to their tremendous joint stability and strength find they rarely injure or strain. Yes, their progress is stereotypically slow… but we know it’s not the hare that wins the race.

    In the end, all types need to practice with awareness to reap the most benefit from this healing practice.

  • Patanjali has the answers
    Baghavad Gita and Patanjali’s sutras – if you’ve been to a teacher training then you’ve read, recited and decoded them. There is a magic to these texts but it doesn’t mean that a yogi born in Minnesota and raised Catholic is going to see past the illusion.

    Study the text that gives you goosebumps, brings you to tears or makes you laugh at your own absurd nature. Be it the Quran, Bible, Torah or any uplifting work of wonder.

    I chose the Toa. It shook me the first time I heard a reference to it but I had to reject it for another 9 years before I would submit to it’s infinite wisdom.

  • Think about your bum, but don’t obsess
    No amount of explaining is going to help someone understand the subtlety of mula bandha and yet I hear teachers going on and on about what/how/where to find it.

    All the long-time practitioners emphasise its importance but rarely will they spend an hour labouring on how to find it. It seems mula bandha just showed up one day during their practice, long after they gave up searching, and I don’t think it was where they had been told to look.

  • Skip practice when you’re cycling
    Many women feel that the wisdom of abstaining from practice when they are having their period is outdated and ill conceived advice. This lack of faith is possibly because the reason often given for avoiding practice is to not “interrupt” the flow by doing inversions (eh, gravity?).

    For one, mula bandha – even if you haven’t found it, is going to interfere with Apana Vayu’s job of eliminating a natural waste from the body. Many women have developed amenorrhea by not honouring their cycle. Add to this, Nancy Gilgoff’s suggestion to relieve amenorrhea is to

    pick three days a month where you don’t practice. As if you were on your cycle. This can help to regulate the natural rhythm of your body.

    If you’re not convinced, then consider that stopping the flow can be the least of your worries. During your menstrual cycle there is a natural increase in Pitta and, coupled with the heating practice of Ashtanga, can lead to debilitating health problems (as I’ve detailed).

Ultimately, the experience of the practice will teach you far more than any advice (including mine) can offer. Perhaps we should stop talking about the practice and heed the wisdom from Guruji himself:

Ashtanga yoga is 99% practice, 1% theory.

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