Why I Had To Break-Up With Ashtanga Yoga

Sarah Ezrin

Why I had to Break-Up with Ashtanga Yoga

I had to break up with Ashtanga yoga. We were in an unhealthily relationship for nearly ten years. I was obsessed.  Slinking out of the house in the darkness before first light.  Turning down dinners and gatherings with my friends and family. Watching what I ate, because Ashtanga did not like it when I indulged. And if one night I did let loose, the next morning it would be cold, rigid, unwelcoming.  Ashtanga didn’t talk much. We communicated with my body.  And in the beginning, it felt so good. I loved it’s strictness, it’s clear-cut rules, it’s tradition. I loved that it pushed me to keep going.  Yes, sometimes it would hurt. And sometimes I would cry, but that’s normal, right? Aren’t all relationships filled with ups and downs? In the beginning, Ashtanga was incredibly generous. We moved fast. The more poses it gave me, the more addicted I got. I tended to move fast in the beginning of my relationships and this was no exception. But then we got stuck. The same poses. The same routine. I didn’t mind the monotony. In fact, it fed right into my over-achiever tendencies. I was determined to stick with it no matter what.  To win one day. To make it work.  Regardless of it pulling me away from my life and my loved ones. Regardless of the physical pain it sometimes caused. Regardless of how small my life had become.

What is Ashtanga Yoga?

Ashtanga Yoga was codified and brought to the West by Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, a star student of Tirumalai Krishnamarchaya.  From Krishnamarchya’s lineage came many well-known styles of Hatha Yoga, including Iyengar and Vini Yoga.  He is commonly referred to as the “Father of Modern Yoga”. Ashtanga is the parent-style of Vinyasa Flow. It has a reputation for being one of the more athletic styles of yoga. A place where the focus is deep and the hands-on-adjustments firm. It can be intimidating for those unfamiliar.  I drank the Kool-Aid after my very first practice in 2008 and became a staunch supporter of the style.  For nearly a decade, I was a devotee.  I fully believed that you did not need anything else in your fitness repertoire. That if you practiced Ashtanga it would provide everything from flexibility, to strength, to stamina and fitness. There is a famous quote by Sri. K. Pattabhi Jois that said, “only lazy people can’t do Ashtanga yoga”.  As I aged and my body changed, the veil of illusion wore away and I began to realize that this was not entirely true.

Ashtanga Yoga is a memorized system, with 6 sequences in total.  In a Mysore-style Ashtanga Room, students are taught one-on-one, learning one to a few poses at a time. Although there can be 20 students in the Mysore room, everyone is at their own place in the series.  There are people practicing 3rd series, meaning the 3rd sequence, alongside someone who is just beginning to learn the fundamentals. This unique teaching method means that there is very little talking other than when a student is being taught the “next pose”. It also means that Ashtanga teachers mostly instruct using their hands and bodies.  I have been in Mysore rooms around the world from India to Argentina to London to Bali. It is beautiful not needing to communicate verbally with the teachers. The tradition itself a universal language.

When one first walks into a Mysore room they are hit by the Shakti like a gust of wind and it is natural for first-timers to feel disoriented and out of place. Even though it has been a few years since I have practiced in one, I still believe there is nothing more beautiful than a Mysore room. These quiet rooms of determined practitioners all breathing and moving like a symphony, each body flowing uniquely to choreographed sets. Some harmonize together, making identical shapes at individual speeds. While others perform operatic solos as they fly through superhuman sequences, like tick-tocking back and forth from handstand to Urdhva Dhanurasana (Upward Bow), a pendulum of strength and agility.  One must see it for themselves, as there are really no words to describe it.

A common question from intrigued novices to the style is often, “Do you need to know the sequence before you arrive?”. No, the teacher will start you at square one, even if you have decades of yoga under your belt. Some teachers start students by doing multiple Surya Namaskara A’s and B’s.  Traditionally, ashtangis begin every practice with five Sun Salute A’s and five Sun Salute B’s.  However, a brand-new student could end up doing upwards of ten of each, before the teacher begins to teach the next section, the Fundamentals, or Standing Poses. We start people this way to break them, like wild horses.  Moving through the Sun Salutations allows the teachers to observe the three most important elements to an Ashtanga practice: the student’s focus via their gaze (drishti), their breath (ujjayi), and how they move energetically (bandhas).

I assisted in the Ashtanga room of a well-known yoga studio in Los Angeles for over 3 years in the beginning of my teaching career. I would trail behind my teacher, her devoted shadow, mimicking her firm, masseuse-like adjustments and teaching new student’s the assigned poses in her abrupt, no-bullshit style. Ashtanga yoga is serious business.  People drop in and hope to call themselves an “ashtangi”, but that title is earned after years of daily practice under a teacher’s eagle eye.  This means that the people coming in just to try it, may not be worth the energy they require to start teaching them the sequence.  Perhaps, this is another reason to give them numerous Sun Salutations when they first arrive. To save our own energy as teachers.

As the sequences in Ashtanga are pre-determined, there are numerous stock adjustments that students receive, all to take someone “deeper” into the pose and therefore keep them moving forward toward the next part of the series. Adjustments that we thought were necessary to take students to the “next level”. Adjustments that students asked for, because the deep stretch felt good. Adjustments that we thought were safe, because our teachers taught them to us and their teachers to them.   Some of these adjustments are more benign than others. For example, pressing one’s inner thighs down in Baddha Konasana (Cobbler’s Pose) is less intensive than wrapping a student’s legs behind their head like a Christmas bow and sitting on their upper back in Supta Kurmasana (Reclined Turtle). I can speak from experience when I say that the assists in Ashtanga can be incredibly effective and I never get as physically deep on my own versus when a teacher is pressing me or pretzel-ing me into the desired shape. I also know of many Ashtanga teachers whose light adjustments are even more powerful than any push, because they help educate the student where and how to move.  But as I have gotten older and had to deal with one injury after another, I have learned that the less appropriate the shape for one’s build, the more the body will recoil back to its original shape, whether someone was pushed into it or pushed themselves. It is important to note about the recent backlash over the appropriateness of certain adjustments. It will be very interesting to see where the lineage goes in these powerful times where the student finally has a voice. Where we no longer do things because we need to go “deeper” or simply because we have been told.

Ashtanga and Me

Photo by Nir Livni

The first time I heard about Ashtanga Yoga was in my 200-hour teacher training almost 11 years ago. Two of the trainers were devoted ashtangis and they spoke of the style and their teacher with such reverence, it was as if there was a different tier of practice I had never been aware of. An elite club that only a few could join.  I had been doing Power Yoga and Vinyasa Flow, but those styles now felt like watered down facsimiles compared to this legendary tradition.  As a consummate over-achiever, I had to get into this “club”. I wanted the glow that emanated from their skin. The power I witnessed in their bodies when they demonstrated poses. I wanted that feeling of authority and accomplishment that seemed laced through their very being. Lucky for me my neighborhood studio not only offered the style, but was one of the best studios in all of Los Angeles. The founder Maty Ezraty, who I am now blessed to call one of my teachers, studied directly under Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, or “Guruji” as his devotees refer to him.  At that point, the Mysore Room had been going strong for nearly twenty years at the studio. Some of the practitioners having been there from the very beginning.  The years of energy filling the room as palpably as the student’s breath. I believe everything happens for a reason and I was put in that room in that time for a reason. What a blessing.

My very first day is burned into my brain.  I can still feel the steam from the bodies. I can still smell the damp wood of the old studio.  When looking on a studio schedule one will notice that Mysore-style Ashtanga is often blocked off for 2 upwards to 3 hours.  This means that the room is open and available for practitioners who are already in the series to come in and begin practice, well before the teacher arrives. For a newbie, this means the longest wait of one’s life as I sat on my mat observing people do poses I had never seen in a flow class like, folding themselves into lotus and roll around the floor (Garba Pindasana) or jumping forward and back five times in Chaturanga (Nakrasana, the crocodile)! The sound of the breath in the quiet room, intense, deep, symphonic and barely masking one’s own anticipatory heartbeat.

After waiting some time, I began to mimic what I saw around me, flowing nervously through a few Sun Salutes, when the teacher walked in.  She was stunning. Her hair pulled into a tight bun.  A clear presence, almost felt through the door.  She called the room to order with a staccato “Samasthiti (som-ass-thit-teehee)” and the practitioners all abruptly stopped whatever they were doing to come to stand at the top of the mat.  I scrambled to the top of mine, bringing my hands into prayer and closing my eyes, occasionally peeking out of one lid to make sure I was doing it correctly.  As I briefly scanned the room that was so full of life just seconds before, now the collective stillness hung in the air, louder and more beautiful than any sound. We chanted the traditional Ashtanga invocation call and response, fumbling through words that were harder to pronounce than some postures are to do.  And as soon as we hit our final “om”, everyone went right back to what they were doing, one of the unspoken rules I ached to now learn.

I started up my flow again and the teacher came right towards me like a laser and asked me to step outside. Was I already in trouble? I did not even know the rules, yet apparently, I had broken them.  Once we stepped back into the lobby the cool air hit my face, the echoed silence felt empty and I could already feel myself jonesing to get back inside, to keep going. The teacher proceeded to explain the Mysore room to me.  She was brisk, yet eloquent.  Beautiful, yet strict.  Small, but strong. I found myself not only wanting to learn the poses, but in many ways wanting to be this woman.  She explained the rules of the system. It was a memorized sequence. I had to be “taken through”.  That it was a 6 day a week commitment. Could I commit to that? I fumbled anxiously, my mother was dying at home, I was in the middle of teacher training and had literally walked out of my high-intensity job the week prior. Before my brain could comprehend the scope of what I was agreeing to I said “yes, I can be here at least 4 times a week.” That seemed to satisfy her and she took me back in the room.

It began as curiosity, but quickly became an addiction.  The reward system feeding into my egoic need for approval and accolades. For the first couple of years of my practice, I was “given poses” quite regularly. Making my way quickly through the entire first series and almost 1/2 of second series, before the fateful day where I got stuck. The leg behind the head poses are introduced in second series and dominate much of third series.  While my hips are flexible in some directions, I struggled to slip my leg behind my back easily and was stopped at Foot Behind the Head (Eka Pada Sirsasana).  This pose is done seated. The practitioner taking their leg behind their head and around their upper shoulders, while working to keep upright, with the opposite leg straight out in front.  I may not have gotten stuck here if I had stayed consistently with the same teacher, as a few years in, I moved East and out of Westside of L.A.. Moving shalas, as well.  Or maybe I would have still gotten stuck and my ego needs to think that to feel better.

People would often ask me if I was sick of my program? Doing the same set of poses day in and day out, but even long after receiving new poses, my practice continued to morph daily. I switched from the afternoon to a morning sadhana.  From my hometown studio where props were permitted, to a much stricter and more traditional room.  A room where I was once asked to leave, because I had started my period and Ashtangi women are not allowed to practice for the first few days of their cycle. My practice increased from 4 to 5 days to a consistent 6 days a week, no matter what. This meant lugging my mat to every city I visited and confused family members when I was wrapping my legs behind my head in the foyer instead of joining them for breakfast. Ashtanga taught me discipline. It taught me the benefits of sticking with something. It taught me how to focus. To have singular attention. However, with my eyes fixed on the tip of my nose, I was blind to my world closing in around me.

Ashtanga provided me real time feedback about the effects of what I ingested in my body and how I lived my life.  I stopped attending flow classes regularly and I slowly excised myself from the yoga communities where I had first started.  When I practiced other styles of yoga, I never got as deep. The music felt too loud. The sequences too hodge-podge.  When I ate poorly or drank alcohol, my practice the next day felt stiff or bulky.  Without consciously trying to I gave up meat and certain foods entirely. I had always been in and out of my vegetarianism, but I was also a recovering anorexic who loved to control her food.  Ashtanga gave me permission to restrict my eating.  Everything ashtangis do is for their practice, especially the foods they eat.  I remember meeting frutarians at a shala in Bali, incredibly envious of their skeletal frames, pushing aside the egg on my Nasi Goreng.   As fun as it was to spend time with people I love or meet new suitors, feeling good in the morning outweighed any dinner, gathering, or date I was asked to.

Ashtanga saw me through the best of times, like launching my yoga career off the ground. It was with me when I traveled the world.  Providing a built-in community and home, regardless if I spoke the language. I got to practice in rooms in Bali, India, Chile, Argentina, and London. Not counting the many monochrome hotels in indistinct cities where I would do a “home” practice.  It was with me at the beginning of new relationships.  Most of my boyfriends at the time getting indoctrinated in the style, whether they asked to or not.  Ashtanga also saw me through the worst of times, like the inevitable break-ups that followed.  Or when my dog (read, daughter) got sick.  It was there when I lost my Mum.  It provided a safe space where I knew what to expect. Where I could control where I was going and how fast and how much. Where I felt held and supported.

The dis-illusion

 Ashtanga Yoga teaches that everything is linked together.  Every single movement is assigned a breath, or vinyasa, including how we get in and out of postures.  Every asana, in a way, is the blue print or preparation for something else to come.  The continuous flow ashtangis seek when moving through their program is a symbol of the continuity of this life and the next.  That everything is inextricably tied together. This means that one misstep can upset the whole system.  Some teachers say that if you forget a pose in the sequence, you must start at the very beginning. Who would have known a chance encounter in 2015 would lead to a new beginning for me?

If you know me, you know that I am clumsy.  I think fast, I talk fast, I move fast and the Ashtanga system is incredibly swift-paced compared to other more scrupulous styles. For example, in Iyengar yoga it is not uncommon to spend 5 minutes in a pose, taking the time to find certain actions and set things up well.  In Ashtanga on the other hand, most poses are held for 5 breaths.  I do not blame the system for my injuries, but I think it is important to remember that when the lineage was originally taught, it was taught to 14-year-old Brahmin boys in India. Not a 30-something Jewish girl living on the Westside of Los Angeles, who sat more hours of the day than she walked. I do not blame the lineage for the adjustments I received. At the time, we did not know better as the teachers giving them and we definitely did not know that we could speak up as the students. There were unspoken rules to do things a certain way, including show up, shut up, and keep moving.  I should have said something when my inner thighs lit on fire during a push.  Instead, I took the pain as evidence that I was going “deeper”. But after tearing a hamstring, subluxating a disc in my spine, spraining my neck, and tweaking my knee, I was forced to find another way to practice.  I will say this here- maybe I could have stayed in Ashtanga. Sometimes I wished I had.  Especially when I see my colleagues on social media still able to perform great feats with their dedicated practice and lithe ashtangi bodies.  But some relationships bring out the worst in you and I believe that Ashtanga fed into my darker sides. I also strongly believe that everything happens for a reason and I had to step away from this practice that I loved so deeply, that I devoted much of my life to, to make space for something healthier, something bigger.

It started with different doctors suggesting I need to do something else. Chiropractors begging me to do weight training.  My G.P. insisting I incorporate cardio. The gynecologist begging me to eat more fats. Apparently, not having one’s period in their early 30’s was not healthy.  All of them collectively saying that “Ashtanga is not enough”. I remember being galled by this statement. I believed in my bones that Ashtanga was all anyone needed. It provided everything: cardio, strength, agility, flexibility, and breath. Read structure, control, austerity, discipline.  I knew something was not working, but I never imagined that it was Ashtanga that was hurting me.  I loved Ashtanga and I thought it loved me back.  It could never hurt me, could it? At first, I blamed myself. Thinking it was my fault. That it was my proclivities toward impatience and speed.  Of course, I tweaked my neck, but I was moving too quickly.  It was definitely not shoving my leg behind my head and trying to sit upright! Then, I blamed what was happening in my greater life. Of course, my lower back went out. It was a stressful time with work and I felt unsupported. It could not have dropping back into a backbend 5x and then folding forward like a pancake, my spine a credit card being bent back-and-worth. I was blinded by my love and each odd injury and set-back only made me that much more delusional.

And then as the universe often does, it made the decision for me.  I got injured so badly from a slip and fall (I told you I moved fast) that the bursa in my knee got infected.  Cue nearly 3 weeks of doctor’s visits, hospital stays, and taking antiobiotics the size of my thumb in handfuls.  My diagnosis was a deep contusion on the femur from the fall and a Strep infection that had made its way through the cut into the bursa on the front of the knee. It was lethal and I had to watch the infection and my activity-level like a hawk. I drew a rim around the widening red blotch like a cartographer, mapping it’s spread.  As they were reading my diagnosis, I was in denial and kept asking, “when can I get back on the mat” When can I get back to Ashtanga? I remember the doctor laughing as if I were being funny.  I was not laughing.

Although my leg was to be elevated most of the day, I tried to do some semblance of a practice, but the infection continued to spread and forced me to abstain. This injury was symbolic on many levels. The knee represents balance and I had none in my life.  But without my Ashtanga, who was I? Without my teaching, who was I?  The universe by way of this injury gave me no choice, but to stop moving and sit with myself. It forced me to ask, what is really important when we get sick? Is waking up at the crack of dawn to practice for 2 hours and restricting to the point where one loses their menstruation for nearly 5 years important? Or was it just an excuse for my eating disorder to spread? Was turning down dates and convincing myself I was happy alone, so I could be left to do my rituals and practice really what I wanted? Or was it just a safe way to maintain control of my life, not putting myself out there, and not risking getting hurt.

And then one day, it happened. Thanks to this fluke illness/injury, I had my feet on the ground long enough and I met someone. Someone who I loved so much that for the first time in a very long time, I was willing to skip my practice for extra time with him. When I did, no Ashtanga police came banging on our door. I was not kicked out of the “club”. I had actually started to loosen my grip a few months before, starting to incorporate other non-yogic practices that felt great in my body, like going to Soul Cycle. Soul Cycle felt like cheating at first, but I of course made sure to do my Ashtanga program before I rode. When I started spinning an ashtangi friend was horrified and asked, “but, what about your leg behind your heads”?

Photo by Chelsea Heller

When Ben came into my life, it came alongside the greater lesson that balance is possible, if you are willing to work for it. It will not be easy, but it is possible. Before I knew it, years passed, filled with big moves, big injuries, and big love and every time I tried to go back to my old lover Ashtanga, something happened to remind me that not all partnerships are positive and not all honeymoon periods last.  A friend’s mom used to say, “there’s a lid for every pot” and trying to make Ashtanga work in the later years felt like I was shoving a giant lid down into a teeny-tiny, never-ending pot.  But with Ben, it was the exact opposite. We fit in every single way. Our music, our speed, our temperament, our humor, our bodies and for the first time in my entire life I felt full.  The hole that I wanted Ashtanga to fill only contracted me further, reducing my life to the size of a pin.  Love filled me up. It expanded me.

I now consider myself a “recovering Ashtangi”, literally recovering from certain injuries that have slowed my return (if not completely removed the possibility), but still craving the discipline and power of the style and the strength of the adjustments, like a junkie who has gone without her fix. The other day, I revisited my “ex” for the first time since shoulder reconstruction.  It was bittersweet.  Some of it flowed easily. Other things felt awkward and incongruent.  I really hope Ashtanga and I can still be friends. Maybe one day I will even introduce my husband to it, but until then, I will sit in all that feeling of familiarity, sadness, longing, and pangs that you feel when you run into an old lover and wonder “what if?”. And then I will look at the beautiful man before me, who polishes my light and helps my shine, and I will know in my bones that I made the right choice.