Many who write about Ashtanga and ageing, often critics of Ashtanga generally, fail to understand that while many do take a somewhat aggressive, energetic, approach to their Ashtanga practice it is also possible to practice Ashtanga in a relaxed, generally safe, non striving way.Yoga and Ageing ( with particular reference to Ashtanga). A personal perspective.
Yoga and ageing is in the air at the moment it seems, in reference to Ashtanga in particular.
I imagine it may be assumed, by some, that my own moving away from Ashtanga has been partly to do with growing older, I'm not sure that's the case.
I was, what, forty-three when I started practicing yoga and I started with Ashtanga. In the beginning it was very much a struggle. I was overweight, I wasn't flexible in the slightest but with daily practice and a switch to a vegetarian diet I quickly began to lose weight, becoming stronger and more flexible. I was practicing full primary within a year, Intermediate after two, and within three I had practiced all of 3rd and 4th series, although the later series corresponded with my move away from straight Ashtanga and if I'm honest were still pretty shabby.
I used to have a full on, dynamic, approach to practice, my practice room was hot (as was and occasionally still is fashionable - why for heaven sake). I would throw in Kino half handstand jump through's between every posture, mostly jumping straight in and out of a posture.
I remember that at one point I was losing 2 kilo in sweat each practice. I turned down the heat after getting Kidney stones. I was eating a lot of raw spinach at the time in green smoothies and though drinking a lot of water before practice it was sweated straight out rather than passing through the kidneys.
I was obsessed with asana and it was that which drew my attention to Ramaswami's 'Complete book of Vinyasa Yoga', it had A LOT of asana in it. Turns out though that although there was a lot of asana, some variations I hadn't come across in Ashtanga, the approach to practice was much slower.
So I started to practice Vinyasa Krama alongside my Ashtanga practice, Ashtanga in the morning, Vinyasa Krama in the evening. Later I sold a Saxophone and attended Ramaswami's five week Vinyasa Krama Teacher training in LA. For the first week or two I would get up at four am and do my Ashtanga in a stairwell, grab a coffee then go and practice three hours of Vinyasa Krama with Ramaswami. By the third week we had gotten on to the Vinyasa Krama Triangle and On one leg sequences, these were pretty tough so I stopped practicing my stairwell Ashtanga.
Two things in particular, relevant to this post, struck me while practicing with Ramaswami. One was that there was no restriction on which asana you could or couldn't practice, no 'next' asana or 'next' series to strive after, if you could practice asana you practiced it, if not there were other asana that worked towards it, this pretty much undermined the asana chase and I seem to remember my course essay was on overcoming asana madness. The second revelation was the calm relaxed approach to practice and how ultimately our asana practice led up to pranayama and meditation practice.
When I came back from Ramaswami's course I sought a more relaxed Vinyasa Krama approach my Ashtanga practice.
I mention the above because I began to notice, that after practicing Vinyasa Krama my Ashtanga became more relaxed, more.... energy efficient. I remember switching from Kino's half handstand Jump through to Sharath's energy efficient little hop. I had been practicing long enough that I already had the technique down, I would ease myself into postures, a rushed led practice seemed ever more ridiculous, it still does, a miss step however much of a money tree for Sharath.
And then I ended up focussing on Krishnamachrya's early Mysore texts, Yoga Makaranda and Yogasanagalu, again a slower more meditative practice where pranayama was very much a part of every asana, kumbhaka throughout the practice, conserving energy, staying calm with a slow steady heat rate anda composed breath became ever more important.
That said, Ashtanga CAN be a dangerous practice, we can dive right in, practice without any common sense, push ourselves too hard, trust and rely on a teacher with more dogma than common sense, allow ourselves to be adjusted by somebody who shouldn't be adjusting and certianly not as forcefully, we can race to keep up in a Led class or try to keep up with our peers, we can fail to listen to our own bodies, our own inner 'guru' if you like. However, practiced calmly, humbly, modestly, with less striving, listening to our body, preparing ourselves appropriately for each posture and how we approach it that day, how we approach our whole practice, perhaps with an experienced non dogmatic and supportive teacher..., then I tend to believe that Ashtanga is not significantly more dangerous than any other physical practice. You can twist, even break an ankle, a leg even, just walking your dog in the park.
Leaning towards a slower practice and less concerned with advanced asana, I began to practice less and less asana, pretty much settling on the ten asana I mention in my 'Proficient primary series of posts, it seemed sufficient. I still considered it Ashtanga and Ashtanga a Vinyasa Krama. I practiced less not because I was ageing but because I found spending more time in fewer asana more interesting, more rewarding, how flexible do I need to be, how strong? Was that a more mature outlook? Perhaps but I was still forty-three when I started Ashtanga, it wasn't as if I was in my twenties. Still, after getting to the leg behind head postures in Second series I do remember being stunned that my forty year old body could actually do such things.
At some point, I became more and more interested in Simon Borg-Olivier's Spinal active movements, himself coming out of the Krishnamachrya traditions, of Iyengar and Jois and Shandor Remete, I would practice the movements as a warm-up to standing postures at first but then, gradually, in place of Ashtanga Standing. I noticed that I dropped down to eight seated asana and this week I noticed that I had dropped down to three, my whole ninety minute practice becoming Simon's standing Spinal movements and my own inverted version of the same.
The above video is from a little while ago, more and more I'm questioning binds altogether, trying to keep my movements ever more simple.
I moved away from Ashtanga, disassociated myself with Ashtanga, not because I was ageing, not because I felt it was an inappropriate practice for my age, I think it's perfectly possible to maintain a calm, steady, appropriate Ashtanga Vinyasa practice whatever your age, but rather because I believed Pattabhi Jois' behaviour, his abuse of his students, was inappropriate and damn right criminal. And almost, worse, the ongoing silence in the present community ( and yes, I do understand that many are still struggling with this). The Silence from Sharath on this when so vocal on other more banal matters, the silence from teachers I had looked up to, the enablers and apologists, the defenders, and those who attack and insult those who suffered Jois' abuse, often employing Trumpian arguments. I moved away from Ashtanga not because I was getting older, nor because of the abuse in the past but the silence of the present and because frankly, I found an approach to practice I currently find more rewarding.