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How I have progressed from modified Ashtanga, as taught by It’s Yoga, towards traditional Ashtanga as taught by Shri. K Pattabhi Jois

March 15, 2018

 

When I properly began my journey, I began with ashtanga. Traditional ashtanga. The challenges were very welcome. I made it to a class every day in the Notting Hill Life Centre and usually to the same teacher each time. I even got myself into the intermediate class after convincing the receptionist that I knew the sequence enough to follow, which I think I really did. I will always remember that intermediate class, I went in with some baggy H&M harem pants made from cheap jersey and a pink tank top with Garfield faces all over. I had no idea at that point that what I had been going to before this class was truly a beginner class, that there really was a big difference between the pace of the beginner class and the intermediate class. So, there I was feeling all cosy in my harem pants and tank top until about halfway through suryanamaskar B when the sweating properly started. Did I mention the harem pants were light grey? The sweating didn’t stop until savasana and my light grey harem pants proved to be the worst choice of clothing (not to mention the poor things were much more of a dark grey at the end)! Sticking to my skin like plastic wrap to the kitchen counter and they were so warm! They were also the kind of fabric that stretched out of shape and didn’t go back so these semi baggy harem pants grew about two sizes over the course of 90 minutes! I remember being that student who looks around at everyone else. I remember trying so hard to push through with my chaturangas and my downward dog was so narrow because my arms just weren’t having it, and it was the best class I had ever been to. I was sold. I continued practicing in the Life Center until I flew to Finland to the last month before my teacher training was due to begin.

 

 

During my prep time in Helsinki, I began my first ever Mysore ashtanga classes. Now, remember when I mentioned my discussion with the receptionist in the studio in London? That time when I said I knew the poses? Well I felt I did and in that led intermediate class I really did keep up! But… when it came to Mysore, I realized I hadn’t actually been paying enough attention because I didn’t remember at all. And for some strange reason I thought I could get away with “making it up”. See at this point it still hadn’t fully clicked with me that ashtanga was always the same sequence in the same order. I guess this was because I went between beginner and intermediate classes and I suppose the beginner classes felt somehow different (can you tell I really did my research before deciding to become an ashtanga teacher? Haha nope). So, there I am in this studio I was unfamiliar with in Helsinki, surrounded by yogis with their feet behind their heads from every direction you can imagine, yogis twisted into poses I hadn’t ever even pictured in my wildest dreams. I had read online that it was a silent practice where you come, and you roll out your mat and you practice. I came, I rolled out my mat and I started suryanamaskar A and B with no problems, those sequences I remembered by heart, then it came to the standing poses and I remembered padangustasana and padahastasana… and then? Blank. So, I started to make it up scared that if I just stopped people would notice. To my horror the teacher came over and said, in I guess her softest voice but in a silent room like that there wasn’t such a thing as soft enough, “I don’t recognize the sequence you’re practicing. This is an Ashtanga self-practice class. If you don’t want to learn ashtanga I can recommend you other classes to go to, or if you want to learn I’ll teach you day by day as you come to this class.” At this point I can’t imagine why, but I felt so embarrassed and suddenly in need to show her that I was serious about the practice, I just hadn’t ever really thought to memorize the sequence before. So there began my journey to memorize the standing sequence of Ashtanga yoga. I went to her classes daily, her name was Pia, she was an authorized Mysore teacher, and she was my very first real teacher. I learned over the month practicing with her that each time I practiced my mind moved slowly away from trying to impress her with my progress and ability to memorize and towards the feeling in my body as I went through the poses with more and more stability and focus. Then there was the one class when she came over to me in marichyasana D and twisted me into the pose when I didn’t feel ready for it and it hurt in every possible way. I could hardly breathe, and I felt so nervous and unsure. Now in hind sight I can see what that moment really was, a chance for a breakthrough, a defining moment in my ashtanga yoga journey, an invitation to surrender to the practice and to the knowledge of this experienced and devoted teacher. But at that time with my fresh new yogi eyes all I saw was “ouch” and “no” and “I don’t want to” because I wasn’t ready to surrender. This is when I started to back away and decided I wanted to let it be for the last days leading to my teacher training.

 

The first day began with a led “MPS” class, Modified Primary Series as taught by Larry Schultz from It’s Yoga. It was the first class where I felt completely and utterly comfortable. I could relax, I could breathe, I felt so calm and centered and I was over the moon. I felt like I had really found myself in this modified practice and I couldn’t wait to learn how to teach it. For those of you who don’t know, MPS is a one hour class which brings you though three of each sun salutation, the standing poses modifying the majority of them, about half of the seated poses leading up to navasana (boat pose) which we do three times instead of five (if that) and then moving straight to baddha konasana and supta padangustasana to back bends and then closing sequence which was always usually one inversion and then yoga mudra, modified padmasana and savasana. If all that meant nothing to you then just know MPS takes sixty minutes and full primary takes between ninety and two hours, so you can then imagine how it’s modified. Now going back to the first practice, I felt so happy with myself and so lucky to have stumbled upon It’s Yoga, I still to this day totally believe that It’s Yoga found me and not the other way around! I was so in my element and felt so good in the poses that we practiced. Out of respect to the lineage of the practice we did go through full primary series each Sunday, modified Larry Schultz style, but all the poses still. We learned the full primary series, but the teaching and our own daily morning practice was centered around MPS and how to modify the poses to suit the general public and to feel comfortable in each moment of the practice. The true theme of the teacher training was how to modify and find ease in every pose and at the time that was exactly what I wanted and needed.

 

I came to yoga from a life centered around boxing, heavy gym training and Brazilian jiu jitsu. I came to these sports after returning to London having escaped a very unhealthy and abusive relationship. I’d gotten it into my head after returning to real life that I wanted people to take one look at me and see that I’m not weak and I thought the easiest way for that to happen would be to have muscles on show and a tough look about me. The tough look I don’t think ever worked considering my round face and pink cheeks. But the muscles came and a lot of them at one point. I thought I was so strong and the personal trainers in the gym where I worked would all tell me I’m looking stronger and stronger and I felt good because I felt physically powerful, finally. Then one of the PTs told me I should start yoga because I wasn’t flexible enough. Then my dad’s girlfriend said I should start yoga because it’s so calming and nice and she knew what I’d gone through with my ex and thought it could really help me. A lot of people started telling me to go to yoga, so I said ok fine let’s go. The first thing I realized after my first yoga class, which was a vinyasa flow class in the gym, was that I was not at all as strong as I thought I was. It was a different kind of strength I needed for yoga, an inner strength, a strength that came from somewhere so much deeper than visible muscles, a deep awareness and control of the body that I hadn’t found doing what I did. And I felt weak again, but I felt challenged and I wanted the challenge. It didn’t take many classes for me to get the hang of ujjayi breathing and along with it start to realize the benefits that went far beyond the physical. In the gym the classes weren’t very meditative, however, and I felt embarrassed about my interest in meditation. I didn’t want the class to be too spiritual and so when I had done enough classes to know I had found something I needed to pursue, I looked for trainings that didn’t have too much emphasis on the “la-la” stuff. Of course, I was kidding myself and everyone around me because I already knew what I was after and I had already experienced the mental side of yoga early on. I wanted ashtanga because I knew it was a challenge, I’d done classes and they’d been my favourite of all and when I stumbled on It’s Yoga I’ll admit I didn’t really research much more than the words “ashtanga” and “early-bird pricing” so I didn’t realize before I booked it that it was based on a modification of the practice. When I entered the training, the modifications were a very welcome surprise because they just made the practice so kind and loving. So soft and nurturing. And, for once, I actually felt like I was kind of good at it! It was what I needed because I was still in that push push push zone in my mind trying to constantly be so strong and hard and I had so much healing to do so the universe gave me this for a reason. And in three and a half weeks I can honestly say I felt healed, at least as healed as I needed to be to let go of the past and move on with more gentleness and a stronger clearer direction of where I wanted my energy to go.

 

MPS became my grounding practice, my home base, because following my 200h YTT I also competed a 50H Rocket intensive and that became what I was hooked on. That became what I mostly practiced and taught and so MPS was my go to for the times when I had a break in my practice and needed to come back. Or when I felt like I was flailing in life and I needed to come back to earth. For the next two years my practice and my teaching were based fully on modified versions of the ashtanga poses in the Rocket sequences as well as my own practice. I never reached for my toe or the floor in trikonasana. I bent my knees in padangustasana and padahastasana. I folded half way in janu sirsasanas and I never went for the bind in marichyasana. My knees were bent in navasana and padmasana was always a no lotus at all variation. It was soft and loving and kind, but what I didn’t realize until recently was that I’ve been missing the challenge. My mind no longer felt quiet in the practice the same way as it did at the very beginning, my body didn’t go further into poses, I didn’t find any deeper space in my Self because as I got comfortable in the modifications, I stopped searching further. I hit a road block in the practice where I started to question everything. It was during a workshop that I ran in November 2017 with a fellow teacher, Anna, from my last It’s Yoga training when I realized that I had experienced a shift in my practice and my teaching. I wasn’t offering as many modifications, I was showing the full poses to the students without modifications a lot of the time, and we were taught to do the opposite in the teacher training, which is absolutely what I did for a while, but then I realized… if they don’t see what the full pose is, what are they working towards? What direction am I then giving them? This shift happened without me even really noticing, it just came naturally little by little. I had just started to push my students more and they seemed to enjoy the challenge. Though I hadn’t truly realized how big this shift was until this workshop when I was side by side with a teacher who remained very true to the schools’ philosophy and I saw myself clearly as a changed practitioner and changed teacher. I hadn’t realized that I’d almost stopped modifying my own practice entirely and therefore cut way back on the modifications offered in my classes. I started to question myself and my views and values and direction in my own yoga journey.

 

Since that workshop I have gone back to my primary series practice, not MPS, but the primary series practice from my days in Notting Hill Life Center and the Mysore classes in Helsinki. When I modify the practice now, I don’t mix the poses, I do all the poses traditionally up until janu sirsasana if it’s quarter primary or navasana if it’s half primary or I take almost two hours to do the whole practice in my own time and pace, but I do every single pose. I reach for my toes now, I twist far and deep and I bind when there’s a bind. I even practice full lotus. I’m not pushing hard, if somethings hurts I back away (though to my surprise pain is very rare actually), but I am challenging my body and overall my mind. Since this journey began again I have managed to keep up a meditation practice which has lasted between twenty to forty minutes allowing me to truly understand the mental side of the practice on a much deeper level. I have come further in my body than I ever thought possible. It’s through my study of the ashtanga yoga method through books and videos (mainly following Kino Macgregor, John Scott, David Robson, Petri Räisänen etc.) and endless hours of inner exploration that I’ve managed to break through barriers in my body and my mind that I hadn’t managed to before and I firmly believe now that the poses should remain in the order they are in. There’s a science behind it that I fully trust now. The poses should be practiced over and over day by day every day and only through this repetition and challenge do we really receive what ashtanga has to offer. I believe in modifications when it comes to safety. I believe in modifying if attempting the full pose proves to be either dangerous or just entirely useless. I believe in lifting your back heel in standing poses if it means your back knee is safe and supported or your lower back gets to keep a natural curve as opposed to being pulled on by overly tight psoas muscles. But I also believe that the full poses should be attempted and explored with time and patience, and it should feel like a challenge and it doesn’t need to be easy all the time. I believe that something really is lost if we decide to stick to what is comfortable all the time and I really felt that in my own practice. Now in terms of teaching, I began my modified ashtanga classes before I had this epiphany, so do I want to scare my students? No. Do I want to challenge them? Yes. Therefore, I still teach modified, and each day I will add in a more challenging pose. With our sixty minute time limit sometimes I do need to skip one pose in order to allow them to try a new one that I believe they’re all ready for so my class is still not as traditional as my own practice but as I get more comfortable with more challenging half lotus and bound poses I start to add them in to my teaching as well because I want to teach what I practice. I teach from my own experience as a practitioner and a student of yoga and through practice evolution is inevitable and we shouldn’t resist it. We should keep questioning and keep exploring and keep evolving and this may lead us away from what we once thought was our home and that’s ok. While remaining forever grateful for what I have learned through my teacher trainings and where it brought me at the time, I am also very happy and excited to say that it’s paved a path that’s now brought me so far that I’ve decided my next step is no longer a 500h teacher training with my original school. Nope… my next step in Mysore.

 

Trust the process, practice, and all is coming.

 

Namaste.

Blue

 

 

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