I have been actively practicing Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga six days a week (excluding Saturdays and the Moon Days) since October, 2000. I have waited at least six months to write this review in order to speak from a more dedicated point-of-view. Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga takes years to begin to learn and, while I realize I am still a babe in the limbs of Ashtanga, I do have some thoughts and insights that may help you decide if Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga is the right method for training your mind, body and spirit.
In 1998 I was diagnosed with high blood pressure, high weight and high cholesterol problems. I have detailed my efforts to successfully reduce these life threatening conditions in the GO INSIDE Magazine Health section where I reveal the benefits of Veganism, Pilates and Yoga. I am in great health now. Last October I had tired of Pilates because I was working hard every morning but I wasn’t sweating at the end of the workout. In seeking a new and more effective form of exercise I discovered Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga and knew I had found my mythical home. I now rise at 4:00am six days a week to practice. Some days are better than others. Each day I try to maintain focus, keep a rhythm and visualize where I want my body to be.
Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga is a specific sort of Yoga where syncopated breath and vinyasa from asana to asana are used. The asanas are “glued” together by a Vinyasa. The Ashtanga Vinyasa workout is challenging. You sweat. You are always in motion (even when you are holding position and breathing your body is actively holding the bandhas — the body root locks — and managing the pattern of breathing). You build strength. You become lithe. You become greater than yourself.
Now some hardcore Ashtanga folk may criticize me for my attempt to discover if one can learn Ashtanga Vinyasa via books and videos and not via a teacher. Some believe you can only learn Ashtanga Vinyasa if you go to Mysore, India and study directly with Sri K. Pattabhi Jois. Others will say if you can’t afford Mysore then you must learn Ashtanga Vinyasa from a person who studied with Sri K. Pattabhi Jois. If we lived in a perfect world, every Ashtanga Vinyasa student would travel to India and live in Mysore for four months a year to directly train with Jois.
However, there are people dotting this world where that sort of advantage is not affordable or even dreamable. What, then, becomes of those isolated folk who desire to learn Ashtanga Vinyasa but cannot afford Jois directly — or indirectly — a Jois student? Are they to be shunned and forgotten? Is there a way they can begin to practice Ashtanga Vinyasa alone? I believe it is possible and for the past six months I have set out to prove that mission viable.
Using videotapes and books I have been able to teach myself the Primary Series. Book and videotapes from Jois and his students would not exist if not to teach the uninitiated. I cannot do every posture yet but I have an 80% success rate in the creation, holding and movement in and out of each asana and I can say this with outside authority because after six months of self-taught study I spent a week with an Ashtanga Vinyasa teacher who corrected and confirmed the verity of my study and practice. I did not reveal I was self taught. I simply said I had been studying for a six months and that I wanted a fresh set of eyes to catch any mistakes or dangerous habits. There were a few minor corrections that were chalked up to a mechanical preference of style.
So how can one self-teach Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga? You must do so carefully because the risk for injury can be paramount if you do not side with caution. If you use videotapes you must study the movements intricately before you attempt them yourself. If you have a video camera, record your workout and do a detailed self-critique. If you have a friend interested in Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga, get them to watch you and compare what you are doing to what they see in the videotape. Well-written books can also fill in the blanks when a videotape lesson goes too fast. Learn in moderation. You will not have the luxury of a professional spotting you and correcting your errors. Know your limits. If it hurts, don’t do it.
I must warn you I had a year of hardcore Pilates under my belt before I attempted to do Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga and even then I found Ashtanga Vinyasa to be taxing, challenging and frankly… hard! Check with your doctor first before beginning any intensive exercise program, especially Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga! Do not be disappointed if you cannot form yourself quickly into the asanas.
Ashtanga Vinyasa takes a lifetime to understand. Do what you can but keep challenging yourself. Ashtanga Vinyasa is more than moving the body into positions. It is also breathing. It is thinking. It is encapsulating the spirit of the world within you. To tap into the power of Ashtanga Vinyasa you must first sacrifice yourself to the idea of something greater. You are the slave to the master of Ashtanga Vinyasa and if you serve the master well you will be rewarded with better health, a stronger center, and a magnificent glow that will keep and protect you beyond the physical world.
Now! Let me stress this point: If you are in a city where a good Ashtanga Vinyasa teacher lives — GO TO THAT TEACHER! Spend the money to study because you will learn faster and gain greater satisfaction from your practice by getting live feedback and direction! A teacher can help you improve much faster than if you struggle alone. Remember the issue of this review is to help those who are isolated by circumstance, economics or region and are unable to study with a local teacher or in Mysore.
The remainder of this review will deal with two ideas: GOTTA GET ‘EM and DON’T BOTHER. The GOTTA GET ‘EM list consists of things I find invaluable in my self-taught Ashtanga Vinyasa program. The DON’T BOTHER list consists of things I hoped would help but, in the end, did not help.
I will diligently update and revise this list as my Ashtanga Vinyasa practice grows and deepens so check back often. If you know of a product that is missing and must be included in this review, please touch my hotlinked name at the head of this article and let me know. I’ll do my best to include the product in a future update.
GOTTA GET ‘EM
THE BLACK MAT – I’m starting with The Black Mat because it is your best foundation and strength. Unlike other sticky mats, Peter Sterios’ Black Mat will NOT MOVE on the floor! It really is sticky and it will stay sticky for many years! It is thick! It is heavy! The Black Mat is the Ashtanga Vinyasa student’s dream because a concrete floor becomes a fluffy cloud when you stand and stretch upon its wide river of rubber. The Black Mat is the first purchase you must make and you can even purchase a 100 inch long version. If the Black Mat has a strong rubber odor that bothers you, simply set it in the sun for a day and the golden rays will make your Black Mat right with the world.
NETI POT – Before every Ashtanga Vinyasa I flood my nasal passages with a Neti Pot. I fill up the small teakettle looking object, fill it with warm water. I then dissolve non-iodized salt in the water. Next, I pour the salted water up one nostril and it streams into my sinuses and washes out the other nostril. The process feels great and you wouldn’t believe the gritty, black, gunk that shoots out your nose every morning! The first few times you use a Neti Pot you may feel like you’ve been swimming and water got up your nose. You quickly learn to love that sensation because that sensation is a signal that soon the pollutants will be streaming into the sink from your other nostril. I haven’t had a cold since I started using the Neti Pot and it really helps with allergies and “sinus breath” for those who suffer those unfortunate misfortunes.
PRANA – Prana make great clothes! Their Yoga clothes are funky and fun and their Tank Tops are especially bright and pleasing. I like the fit of their Tank Tops. The fit is loose. A Medium is a Medium and fits well. Prana have a wide range of clothing and it all looks grand and stylish. I wish I had more of their clothes to review for you here because their unique fabrics and materials are memorable.
NIKE – I bought four Nike “Dri-Fit” bike shorts for my Ashtanga Vinyasa workout and I cannot say enough good words about these black beauties. The fit is snug but not uncomfortable. You sweat, but your shorts are ALWAYS dry. You move and your manly package stays put. You become sleek, svelte and sexy when you slip the shorts on and you feel thin, robust and muscular.
COTTON RUG – I sweat a lot doing Ashtanga Vinyasa and that is good because that is one of the core goals of the practice. If the body sweats, the body is internally burning out the bad stuff and making more of the good things your body needs and enjoys to stay healthy. My feet like to sweat when I do Ashtanga Vinyasa asanas — my feet are where the tension in my body releases — and I need a cotton rug to place over my Black Mat. The cotton rug soaks up the sweat that seeps from my entire body and gives me an even greater cushion on a concrete floor. My sweaty feet get a great grip on a cotton rug. Any cotton rug will do as long as it is big enough to fit over the Black Mat.
DAVID SWENSON – David Swenson is a master teacher. He has a series of Ashtanga Vinyasa videotapes and each one is outstanding and excellent. David is patient and precise in his direction. Watch his feet. Keep your eye on his hands. Imitate him. Do as he does. Become his shadow. Be his mirror. You will also want to get a copy of his Ashtanga Vinyasa workbook because each asana is described and demonstrated with photographs. There are even modifications of each position in case you cannot fully fit your body into the ultimate asana end. The book has a bit of a reek to it — I think it is the ink used in the printing process. I advise you to give each page of the book an airing in the sun for a day in order to lose that “just came off the press” smell of 1950’s print houses.
EAR PLUGS – A good pair of ear plugs can really help your breathing study early on in your beginning practice. Appropriate breaths in and out are imperative when it comes to Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga and using ear plugs once a week centers your breathing. With ear plugs in your breathing becomes vibrant, loud and measurable! Every breath you take cannot help but be heard and metered.
THE YOGA MALA – This book was written by the master himself, Sri K. Pattabhi Jois. You will learn the philosophy behind Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga and you can see many of the asanas demonstrated in photographs. You will be enlightened and made better upon finishing the last page and remembering forever the lessons expounded therein.
JOHN SCOTT – John’s excellent book on Ashtanga Yoga lives in full color. His writing is sound and informative and you will better understand the how and why of what you are doing after training with him on the page.
MEDITATION CHAIR – In addition to Ashtanga Vinyasa I also practice meditation and the moving of Qigong and Prana throughout my day. I like to meditate and visualize my Ashtanga Vinyasa practice in order to see my routine from different angles and to work on holding true the bandhas. The Meditation Chair is also a great landing place for Pranayama (breathing) practice. I had been searching for an appropriate meditation chair to assist me in properly and comfortably aligning my body. I found the perfect answer in the low meditation chair and low table. These products are sturdy and imbued with a mysticism that compliments each reaching journey. You will forever be comfortable and content in the chair and having the table right next to you on the same plane makes for a perfect place to find your mala or to rest a candle.
OTHER GOOD BOOKS: Here are a few Yoga books I’ve been studying. Not all of these directly deal with Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga, but they are still valuable fountains of information: The Bhagavad Gita, Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, Moola Bandha, Yoga Mastering the Basics, Light on Yoga, The Heart of Yoga, Light on Pranayama, Health Healing and Beyond, The Royal Path and The Tree of Yoga.
Now let’s take a look at some of the duds I discovered during my Ashtanga Vinyasa journey. You may have already had a positive experience with these entities and to that I say, “Bravo!”
HUGGER-MUGGER – We ordered some shirts, body tights and shorts and it took three weeks to get the order! That sort of longwinded turnaround from order placement to delivery is simply too much in this Age of Invisible time. The shorts and body tights are made of mainly cotton and a bit of Lycra and they make you look enormously fat! It was quite an experience to snuggle into the clothes only to realize, upon looking in the mirror, that you’ve gained 20 pounds! I can’t imagine wearing these clothes in public because you’d look and feel like a whale in need of an ocean. The material does not breathe very well so you’re wet and sticky soon after your practice begins. The front and back “privacy panels” are a nice touch, but they add even more bulk and “weight” to your frame. The shirts run small. If you take a Small, leap up to a Medium or you’ll be sorry because the armholes are uncomfortably tight. That surprised us since the whole idea of Yoga is to move freely and to be unbound.
BAREFOOT YOGA – Delivery time was acceptable. It took a little more than a week to get our order of a couple of sticky mats, two carry bags and two cotton Mysore practice rugs. We were disappointed in the quality of all the items. The sticky mats were thin and not suited for Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga at all. I can’t imagine anyone sitting on a sticky mat and feeling comfortable on a concrete floor. The Mysore practice rugs colors ran together when washed. That was a great disappointment because the color instantly faded. One mat also appears to have been made with some sort of fishing line. There are small fishing line knot ends that stick out of the rug in places and it can be quite painful to step on one of them or roll back onto an end because they are sharp, and being invisible, impossible to see. The basic black carry bags lack craftsmanship. The zippers stick and refuse to run smoothly on both bags and the bags are also catch-alls for dust and cat hair: Why, it isn’t a mat carrier, it’s a dust mop!
AIREX – Airex makes outstanding, albeit expensive, exercise mats. Pilates and Airex were made for each other. Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga and Airex are, in my experience, natural enemies because Airex mats have a habit of moving around on a hard floor. There’s nothing more frightening than to be in an asana with your feet spread and then having the Airex mat start to stretch beneath you. Airex mats are great when you are flat on your back and on your stomach. Airex mats are not great when you’re balanced on your hands and feet. I used an Airex mat for my year of Pilates study and enjoyed the mat a lot. I got rid of my Airex mat the first day I began my Ashtanga Vinyasa practice when my feet moved because the mat moved.
Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga can lead you to a delightful way of life and it can be self-taught if you dedicate yourself to the realization it will take you three times longer to understand and grow than those who study with a live teacher.
Ashtanga Vinyasa can change your life if you dedicate your being to practice. It isn’t easy to awaken six days a week to do Ashtanga Vinyasa at 4:00am — but I have resolved to do it because my life isn’t as bright or as strong if I don’t do it. Be sure to bookmark this page as I will be updating and revising this review as I continue on my Ashtanga Vinyasa journey for the rest of my living days… and beyond. Namaste.
Its incredible that you could teach yourself the practice from scratch. Im a student of ashtanga myself and it takes incredible drive and perseverance to do what you did.
Thank you! Yes, it’s a difficult and ongoing process. The trick is to go slow and be careful and to be a good mirror unto yourself.