“Oh, I couldn’t do Ashtanga. It’s too advanced for me.” “Beginners shouldn’t do Ashtanga. They’re going to get hurt.” “Ashtanga is a painful practice.” I hear statements like these all the time. The practice is not to blame for this phenomenon; it’s competitive practice rooms where the focus is on getting the next pose no matter what.
The pose becomes the goal instead of the practice, and students end up racing through Primary Series just to get to the more impressive-looking Second Series. It’s actually recommended that a practitioner do Primary only for at least three years before learning Second Series poses. Some ashtangis only learn a new pose once every few years, and never go beyond the Primary Series. Ever. In traditional Ashtanga Vinyasa, the poses are taught one-by-one, handed down from teacher to student. The student doesn’t learn a new pose until the ones before it become comfortably attainable. The teacher varies her or his instruction to each individual student’s body and mind, and should know each students’ strengths, weaknesses, and abilities. I think this is why kpjayi (the authority on all things Ashtanga) as an organization encourages teachers to have small Mysore programs, not gigantor classes where the instructor couldn’t tell you everyone’s name, much less what poses folks are supposed to stop at. I’m blessed, because my local Mysore program is small enough that we rarely break double digits in the morning classes, so our teacher knows all of us and our practices uncannily well. I also believe in giving the students some of their own responsibility in practicing safely. I subscribe to the very unpopular beliefs that yoga shouldn’t always feel good and that injuries can be learning tools. If a new student learns that being too pose-hungry leads to injury because they pull a hamstring or tweak a shoulder trying to get into a pose they shouldn’t do, then that’s a good lesson! Also, injuries are an opportunity to learn. I tweaked my shoulder a month ago and had to take a break from jumping through and back during vinyasas. Rather than impede my practice, it allowed me to focus more on my bandhas and breath during vinyasas, instead of just trying to get my bum off the floor. Now that I’m back to bearing weight on my hands, my vinyasas are deeper and more meaningful. Long story short? Blame the practitioners, not the practice. Taught correctly, meaning one pose at a time directly from teacher to student, Ashtanga is one of the safest, most-beginner friendly practices out there.