By Dikla Kakfa
It’s funny; most people see Astanga as a very rigid style of yoga. Well, everyone but Astangis.
My first Astanga experience was different. Back in the day, I was a journalist at a big Israeli newspaper working around the clock, already with one kid in my pocket. I practiced Iyengar and Sivananda two to three times a week in the evening and wanted to switch to morning class. Not knowing what to expect other than an early AM start time, I went unwittingly into a Mysore style Astanga class. Sometimes no matter how much you study one style of yoga, sometimes you find yourself unprepared for another.
Entering the room 15 minutes late, it looked like chaos, a “free style” yoga, or just a big mess. The teacher didn’t say anything and just did big adjustments on individuals who did whatever they wanted. To the naïve outsider,that was at least what I thought was going on.
After a few minutes awkwardly standing there, the teacher finally approached me, explaining it’s not a led class by design. I remember saying in my very Israeli direct style “are you kidding me? I woke 5am in the morning for that???” He smiled and asked if I could do Sun Salutations? I nodded yes, so he said,
“Do five Surya Namaskara, then sit and meditate and come back tomorrow.” I am not sure why, but without question I just did as he asked and silently left. The next day I added Surya Namaskara B, and after a few weeks I could do the all standing sequence (but not the full primary yet).
Astanga is rigid only in a way that we have a set of poses to follow (at least for most of us, who will never be able to go to the intermediate series), but it’s a full, intelligence, lack-nothing kind of sequence that everyone can find challenge in and grow with for the rest of their lives.
Some people will never be able to do Supta Kurmasana (in the primary series), but they will work closely with their teacher in order to get there (lots to say about teacher-student relationship in the Astanga method), and it will sometimes even involve blocks, straps and the wall for assistance or staying longer than the traditional five breaths.
In the Astanga method, the teacher can definitely tell you: “you are not ready to Marichiyasana D, keep working your Lotus in Ardha Buddha Padma Paschimottanasana”. I want to emphasize that because in the Vinyasa world, at least the way it has been taught at most studios teachers rarely tell someone he is not ready for a pose. We might suggest to lower to the knees but we won’t tap on anyone’s shoulder and say: “no more Chaturanga for you”. Astanga teachers will because it’s the kind of relationship where you can use words as respect, loyalty and trust.
It’s an authentic tradition that operates very differently from the Groupon method.
Then is also something to be said about the daily practice that many always wouldn’t speak to. Honestly, I don’t think I would recommend that from “healthy lifestyle” perspective, but there are definitely benefits from the spiritual-journey perspective. The amount of commitment you need to have for this practice is huge. “For better or worse, in sickness and in health…” you wake up early mornings and show up on your mat and this requires true dedication. It’s not a fun practice led by cool teacher with his favorite music. It’s the kind of practice you have to clear your mind for and truly study the self. There is no fluff and certainly no extras and that is where the magic begins.