There is a misconception out there that Ashtanga Yoga is only for athletes and young flexible people. Well, it just ain’t true. Case in point – yesterday at Woodley Park Yoga I saw a 70+ year old woman practicing Primary Series with incredible one-pointed focus, grace and stability – it was so inspiring. I wanted to go up and hug her…but you can’t really do that in the middle of mysore practice!
I, for one, am NOT an athlete and I love Ashtanga Yoga. I always hated gym class in school and I especially loathed team sports. I preferred to sing, play music, read and dance (though in truth, I was never a fabulous dancer since I have this interesting characteristic of being very graceful while simultaneously totally uncoordinated!). I tried to play Lacrosse in middle school but I always got too anxious and overwhelmed by the competitive pressure during games to be any good (I literally would run away from the ball!). During high school and college I would sometimes run or go to the gym, not because I liked it but only because I wanted to by super skinny like the models in the magazines I was reading.
Exercise for me was really just a form of self-imposed punishment. This is not to say that I didn’t enjoy being active because I love to ski and hike and have dance parties ….but I never really viewed those activities as “exercise” because they are about having fun and hanging out with your friends!
I didn’t approach yoga for exercise either. My initial love of yoga was driven by my desire for spiritual connection.
I loved the way that Kundalini Yoga made my head and heart feel; I loved the devotion that sprung up in me as a result of the kriyas and meditations; I loved the way it elevated my consciousness and lifted my spirits. It was only as I began to practice other types of yoga asana I fell in love with the “exercise”/physical side of it all as well. I came to yoga for spirit but as part of my journey I have been brought into a place to connect with the material – this vessel that my soul resides in – this little body of mine. That’s been a huge step for me in life because so much of my energy in the past has been spent trying to get out of the body and its limitations.
I naturally have loose ligaments so the flexibility part of yoga came easily to me, but it wasn’t until I found Ashtanga Yoga that I started to get strong! I have a small frame so I’ve always been relatively thin, but it wasn’t until I started practicing Ashtanga that I developed real muscle tone. My daily Ashtanga practice began around 21 months ago and in that time my body has been totally transformed. I actually have some visible muscle for the first time in my life! My waist has narrowed, as have my curvy hips. I’m more flexible and stronger than I’ve ever been and despite a lot of the growing pains inherent in learning the practice (oh hello 11 months of shooting lower back pain…which by the way just left earlier this year…hello easeful and fun deep backbends!) my body has never felt more light, easy and joyful to inhabit.
My practice has taught me to enjoy my body so much more! I feel more physically connected and grounded as a result of my practice. It makes me want to become even more active and to continue to get stronger and more physically adventurous.
Obviously the practice of Ashtanga Yoga is about WAY more than just the physical body, but that is the topic of this single post, so please excuse me if in any way you find that this piece today is a bit one-dimensional.
I’m loving the strength given to me by my practice, but following my teacher’s suggestion, I have begun to supplement my practice in order to develop even more strength and stability in my body and this in turn has benefited my practice immensely! I spoke a little about this in this piece here. Since I began home practice in April I have been going to the gym 3 to 5 times a week in addition to some occasional Pilates classes (which I find to be a bit of a snore compared to the dynamism of Ashtanga or Vinyasa yoga) and of course, all the walking we do as a result of our lifestyle. At the gym these days, I normally spend 10 minutes on the rowing machines and then 25 or 30 minutes of strength-training, generally this consists of both free weights and machines, Bosu ball balance/core work, push ups, crunches, maybe some dips and maybe some pull ups.
From the beginning, I’ve been afraid that working out at the gym would damage my Ashtanga practice (God forbid! Not my baby!). I try not to run (though occasionally I go on the elliptical for 15 to 25 minutes….booooring….) because I don’t want my hips/hamstrings to tighten up.
For the most part, working out has been great for my practice – even DG commented that my chaturangas are better and that I’m getting stronger and I credit a lot of that to building more core and upper body strength through my weight lifting and ball work at the gym. But occasionally I do something at the gym that ends up making practice extra challenging the next day. I’ve found that the abductor and adductor machines are supta kurmasana’s worst enemy! The other thing is that too much time on the elliptical or bike makes my legs and hips grumpy and stiff and I feel too dragged down to practice with enough bounce the next day. When I started lifting, I would be sore in my chest/back/shoulders etc., and that required me to modify my practice the next day as well. Those have been the setbacks for my practice, as you can see, fairly minor considering the positive gain of more strength.
But the real problem is that I don’t really like working out at the gym. All I like is the endorphin rush and being able to listen to loud girly music on my headphones (the kind of music I don’t really play anymore now that I live with my partner and I love him too much to submit him to that crap). I don’t really like the environment of a gym, even a really nice one like ours – the air conditioning, the TVs, the clinking metal and machines, the machismo and mindlessness. Plus I wouldn’t feel comfortable in a lot of the classes offered because although I want something challenging, I don’t want to be in a boot camp environment – not my style! I do go to a “lean conditioning” class which is Pilates and dance-based but that’s not very intense and it’s only 45 minutes long but I still really like it because my friend Faith is the instructor.
When it comes down to it, I’ve been feeling a little blah about the whole gym situation recently. I want to work out and be in shape (remember, vain woman with a wedding in 3 months here!) but I don’t want to keep going and doing the same thing. Plus I haven’t been getting sore or really feeling any of my workouts recently. I know I need to step up the intensity but I haven’t known the right way to do it yet.
So, you can imagine my delight when I discovered a really powerful form of exercise that doesn’t seem to hinder my practice at all! PURE BARRE! A studio just opened in our town. I went on the first day they were open (Thursday) and I got immediately hooked. I’m already jonesing for another class. Seriously, I love it, even the bad music they play! It’s a killer workout and it’s really fun. They make no bones about it, the whole point of it is to have an awesomely toned and lean body and to get it fast. It’s not pretending to be anything more than that (which is a lot more than I can say for a lot of Vinyasa yoga classes out there!).
I am still a bit sore from my class on Thursday but not in a way that hindered my practice yesterday or today. In fact, the soreness I felt was similar to the kind of deep ache I get from something like a yoga workshop with DG – inner abs, glutes, quads, hamstrings, little hip flexors etc. Anyways, I’m in love Pure Barre and I think I’m going to cancel our gym membership sooner rather than later, even though we like to go to the occasional Ashtanga-ish class there just to be in a warm studio/group environment.
Yoga for me started as a very spiritual, emotional and devotional practice and it still is, although sometimes I fear that I stray away from that aim in my Ashtanga practice. So I like the idea of doing my asana practice without any thought in my mind that I’m doing it for exercise or to look good. I think it’s the right thing for me to separate Ashtanga from my exercise routine/needs.
I believe that if I eliminate the thought that I need to do my practice in order to get my “workout” in for the day (because I will be getting my workout elsewhere, thanks to Pure Barre) it will help me return to a more spiritually grounded orientation in my Ashtanga practice.
For all you other Ashtangis out there, is your practice your main form of “exercise” or do you supplement it? If so, how and why? Do your extracurricular activities help your practice or make it more challenging? I’d be interested to know your thoughts and stories.