Ashtanga, the Gym and Me.

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.




18 thoughts on “Ashtanga, the Gym and Me.

  1. I want to check out Pure Barre! I do Pilates in addition to Ashtanga and I try to throw in an Iyengar-based class when I can.

    BTW, I was a total clod as a kid. Never was an athlete.

    • Hi Kim,
      Definitely check out Pure Barre. It’s much more satisfying than Pilates if you are looking for a stronger workout, imo…and I really think the emphasis in the pelvis and low ab engagement can inform one’s Mulbandha and more in Ashtanga.

  2. Hi Frances:) It’s funny you know? as women we are bombarded with unreal images of what we should be or look like, sometimes even in Ashtanga, with too much emphasis on the physical. Good on ya for trying to take the excercise focus away from the practice and really delve deep into what it really is, a spiritual journey. That being said, we do need to take our bodies with us on this road, and a healthy, fit one at that. I used to walk, run and lift weights and practice,ugh, sorry folks Bikram(not to offend). I was stiff, sore and nasty all the time. Over time, I quit the athletics and focused on Kundalini and Vinyasa Flow which totally changed my perspective! I used the Kundalini for my spiritual practice and the vinyasa for my physical practice…you see where I’m going with this….then I found Ashtanga, and for me and most practitioners it is the perfect balance of both, if we allow it to be. At present, my only physical excercise is Ashtanga and my spiritual practice is Ashtanga. One in the same. I am not prepared, nor do I care to engage in any other type of activity, save for a lovely stroll with the husband, a swim in the ocean or a lovely bike ride:) Be well Frances:)

    • Hi Joy,
      Thanks for your comment! We share a similar story it seems with our introductions and orientations towards different yoga styles. Like you, what amazed me most about Ashtanga when I first started was how it could be both so physical and simultaneously so emotional and spiritual…in a different way than Kundalini, but also in a very complimentary fashion. I have so much love for the practice of Ashtanga 🙂
      No, I don’t want to be a slave to the gym or to working out……it’s so not my style and it doesn’t bring me joy but like you I love being active…I like to walk with FY and be able to go on long hikes or ride my bike for fun. Exercise is so important for being healthy but it can turn into an obsession and that can be unhealthy. I appreciate your support…we will see how this all goes…but I’m feeling pretty excited about ditching the gym workout, sticking with the barre classes and reapproaching my Ashtanga practice in a new light.

  3. Good questions Frances ~ I was pretty athletic up till 14 or 15 when I abruptly stopped all competitive sports. I made sincere attempts to remain regularly physically active, but until I found Ashtanga 9 months ago I had been very neglectful of myself for 28 years. Because I had been a competitive swimmer I still had upper body strength that came back fast. My lack of flexibility is my main weakness, though strength too, in some areas. So far for me I haven’t felt a separation between the spiritual dimension and the physical dimension in the ashtanga practice….which for me means a sigh of relief. Because we practice with such deep listening and awareness, you could even say reverence, the physical body is seen in a new light. Continuing daily practice with an injury or an illness means respecting the body even more so that no further damage is done. So I’d say as long as you bring that same awareness and respect to whatever physical acitivity you are doing then all is good. Especially if it makes you happy 🙂

  4. Hello Frances,

    This is a very interesting topic for me, and I enjoyed your post. I was an athlete my whole life, a serious and competitive volleyball player and softball pitcher, who also has played nearly every sport there is at some point in my life.
    I’ve practice yoga on and off for over ten years and in the past couple years my yoga practice has become very dedicated. I’ve been on retreat and will be training with YogaWorks in 2013. I want to try Ashtanga very much! I worked at a gym for six years and it is an environment I find stifling. That being said, I went with a girlfriend to a butt-kicking Pilates Fusion class in a gym yesterday…so I’m not opposed to going to some classes sometimes and I love taking my Vinyasa classes here and there (my practice is primarily home-based), and I try to lift some weights now and then…I ride my bike a lot and walk very much within my own active lifestyle and so I feel that my practice is a total package when it comes to the exercise part 🙂

    • Hi there,
      Thanks for your comment! Glad you enjoyed the post. I’m not a huge fan of the gym either….since I wrote this post I’ve mostly been going to Pure Barre and occasional Pilates-based dance- condititioning classes…I’m just not able to get into lifting or gym-cardio. Like you, I think it’s best to get my “exercise” just by living – by walking, playing, riding bikes and being active.
      Because you’re so active, I’m sure you would love Ashtanga – it’s powerful and strenuous and really gets you into your body. Best of luck on your training. Are you in LA? If so, you have some great options for Ashtanga…and Tim Miller is not too far away in Encinitas.
      Stay in touch!

      • I was happy to read a post that hit home for me. I’ve certainly felt the oh-so-common demon of “exercise addiction” creeping into the edges of my mind and questioning my daily yoga practice. To which I calmly reply, yoga is a discipline. A daily practice is ideal. That does not mean, however, a daily sweat-session of butt-kicking Vinyasa (or Ashtanga) is necessary. I do adore that most days, but I want my body to be able to practice yoga for my entire life, not for the duration of my twenties because I was too hard on it and developed injuries. Do you know what I mean? One of my teachers recently said, “You can do ‘cool looking yoga’ for a decade or so, or you can do personally-modified, ‘listen to your own body’ yoga for your entire life.” It really hit home with me. My knees have been bothering me and yet I was still doing ankle-to-knee pose and dreaming of lotus. Not the right time! I’ve learned, especially in the past few weeks, that while exercise is a vital component of health, balance is as well. Stressing about where each day’s exercise will come from is sort of like chasing our tails. Gyms seem unnatural to me (I’m talking treadmill, stair master, weight machines, etc.), though I totally have worked out in a gym for many years, and I realize they are ideal for many people. To me, though, exercise ought to come naturally to us as human beings…walking, like you said, carrying groceries home, a dedicated and physical asana practice, perhaps some 5 or 10lb weights to lift (as women I think it’s very helpful to do a little weight training with low weight). I realize I’ve gone off on a HUGE tangent so it’s okay if you’ve stopped reading by now… 🙂 I just feel grateful that you’ve said what a lot of people WON’T say…that even a yoga practice can become an addicting form of “exercise” if we don’t keep our minds and bodies in balance!
        I am going to be more mindful from now on, and I’d love to keep in touch. I’m in Northern California but am planning a road trip to SoCal to take some of Jennifer Pastiloff, Ashley Turner and Kathryn Budig’s classes, so I’d love to check out Ashtanga while I’m there. Are you in the LA area? I know a gal who teaches The Daily Method which I believe is sort of like Pure Barre that you mentioned…anywho, thanks for keeping me mindful and stirring up an interesting concept that we all ought to remain mindful of! I appreciate your insight. Peace to you and many, many blessings ❤

      • Hi!
        Very happy that this post interested you and encouraged more mindfulness in your approach to practice.
        I totally agree with what your teacher said about a sustainable practice. One thing that’s been helpful for me in this light is practicing yoga in a mysore or self-led setting. This has allowed me the flexibility to adjust my practice to my needs on that particular day without feeling pressure from a group or a fast-paced advanced class in a studio setting. Over the past year, working with injuries and really being more mindful of honoring my moon cycle has also offered me an opportunity to appropriately scale-back and modify my practice when necessary. Good lessons to learn. Very grateful for this time of transition in my practice.
        I am not in the LA area. Actually currently in VA, but moving back out to CO in a few months…can’t wait. FY and I go to Bhakti Fest every year in Joshua Tree and practice with lots of the popular Santa Monica/La teachers there….can’t say I’ve been hugely impressed with all of them, but I’m kind of a traditionalist 🙂 I definitely would like to try Kathryn B’s class sometime though…she seems like she has great energy.

      • I too am working through an injury that I find hinders many of my favorite postures, at the moment, and it’s shedding light on the side of me that does rely on my practice for exercise. It is also warming even further the side of my practice that is purely internal, though, and it’s a nice dichotomy to be able to recognize, observe, and work towards hybridizing.
        I have a friend at work, also a yoga teacher, who is interested in trying Ashtanga primary series with me. I look forward to it.
        I was intrigued by what you said about honoring your moon cycle, I’ve read a lot about it and have made steps towards appropriately modifying in my own practice when need be. I’d love to read a moon cycle post though 🙂
        Oh I LOVE Colorado! I have a lot of family out there. Have you ever been to the Castle Rock Ren Fest? My absolute favorite.
        Hopefully I’ll have the pleasure of seeing you at Bhakti Fest someday, I’ve never been but, as I mentioned, I’m itching to get my feet wet in the yoga scene of other areas. And I love Joshua Tree.
        I understand what you mean about being a traditionalist, I have certainly experienced yoga teachers, especially southern california based, who have westernized yoga beyond even being able to call it a discipline. It’s disappointing how much of a “workout” some have adapted it to be, and marketed it as such. Though a part of me is glad that it allows people who might never have practiced yoga to find yoga…assuming that they are intrigued by the concept and delve deeper into traditional asana and philosophy. KB’s classes are very energetic and fun, and she’s an original Ashtangi!
        Hope this finds you well, blessings to you,


      • Sara,
        You should totally try to make it to Bhakti Fest! We go every year and it is such a treat. 4 days of total blissing out 🙂
        I will definitely write a post about moon-cycles and yoga soon….thanks for that suggestion…it is something I’ve thought a lot about so I would love to share with others my reflections and practices. It’s a personal topic, but definitely one that should be discussed more openly in our yoga community. I’m always kind of shocked when I go to a big class and we are all being led through inversions and the teacher doesn’t even mention once that women on their cycles should refrain from inverting!
        Thanks for your comments.
        Hope you have a lovely weekend!

      • I will definitely do that! I can’t turn down 4 days of blissing out!! 😛
        I’d love to read that post, I’ll stay tuned. Oftentimes the most revealing and personally reflective topics are what resonate with us most, I’ll look forward to your insight. I hope you are doing very well!

  5. I used to do triathlons but when I discovered ashtanga yoga I stopped all forms of exercises because ashtanga was challenging enough and logistically more easier. However, after a year plus I have sort of picked up cycling and running again just for the fun of it. Ashtanga remains as a ‘training’ workout – hones my discpline, focus and mental strength!

    • HI Nadia,
      Thanks for your comment. My first year of Ashtanga I couldn’t even imagine doing any other exercise just because it’s so tough! But like you, since a year has passed, I’ve been enjoying adding a little more dedicated exercise time now that I’m used to the intensity of the practice itself.
      Please be sure to like Lila on Facebook!

  6. Hello Lila,
    Thanks for sharing your experience, this line caught my eyes
    >>>oh hello 11 months of shooting lower back pain…which by the way just left earlier this year…hello easeful and fun deep backbends!)
    I have been practicing at home for about the same time as you are. I won’t call it back pain, but I am feeling something on my lower left back, it is on and off. I did not bother my daily life, but I wished it was not there, because I don’t feel it on the right side.
    It is not going away yet, though deep backbend will help. Did you ever find out what causes it?
    Also, can you share your experience on the spiritual aspect of Ashtanga? I don’t feel it.
    I used to jog, and skip ropes, but had stopped and doing exclusively ashtanga for about a year. Lately, I am doing some rope skipping because it helps my other sports, which is badminton.


    • Justin.
      So sorry for being slow in response. Somehow I lost track of your comment. WHoops!
      My back pain was just a part of the process of balancing my strength with flexibility. Before Ashtanga my back was rather weak, but quite bendy. As it strengthened, especially with dropbacks and those early Second Series poses, the muscles along my spine grew stronger, but this almost caused me to lose some flexibility and feel “stuck”. My spine is so much stronger, more flexible and yet more stable than before practice, but it really took a lot of persistence and patience to get here. I had to be conscious of my body’s need to take it easy and recover, but also balance this with sometimes pushing through the fear and discomfort.
      Occasionally my lower back/sacrum gets a little pinchy, but that is normally a result of a hard practice after taking too much time off from the deeper backbends. In general, my Ashtanga practice has done wonders for the lingering achy back I used to have. Even though it took pushing through pain to get to this point, it is worth it.
      Regarding the spiritual side of Ashtanga….I came to yoga specifically searching for spiritual connection. Guruji had a strong devotional practice and really believed that the asana was conditioning the body for realization. The practice is challenging on many levels so it requires faith and trust. Faith that there is a method in the madness, trust that your body will heal, grow and open, trust that the practice itself is good, smart and right. Sometimes it’s easy to fall into lots of Ashtanga naysaying when the practice is especially challenging. Many people give up. It requires faith to remain dedicated to it.
      On a practical level, I put a lot of devotional intention into the chanting of the invocation and closing prayers. I like to sit for a little while after practice in lotus, praying, breathing, feeling open and receptive to grace. Reading yoga guidebooks like the Sutras and Bhagavad Gita add more dimension to your understanding of the physical aspects. My partner says that whenever he does kapotasana he reminds himself of a verse from the BG about offering every austerity and action to Krishna, and in this way, he devotes his physical exertions to something beyond himself.
      Hope this helps a little.
      Stay in touch.

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