Diary of Lazy Ashtangi and Why I Do Not Encourage Practicing Yoga with a Video.

Practicing in Purple Valley

Yep, that’s me ↑ in Petri Räisänen’s Led Class in Purple Valley, Goa, India in February 2010.

As I sit down and finally have time to write my next blog, I realise a month has passed since my last diary entry. Somehow, I lost track of time, like everybody else who has been dealing with the craziness upon approaching Christmas time, in Australia also known as the Summer Holidays.

Of course I love all the busy-ness, I have always relished working under pressure, but it did mean that my daily yoga practice became… well, more of a weekly yoga practice. However, I did manage to come up with some interesting results in this ongoing research of self-motivation to get on that mat as often as possible.

As I concluded in my last blog, I really enjoyed practicing with the video of John Scott’s Full Primary Series. This made me decide to investigate further so in the past few weeks, I have practiced with David Swenson, Petri Räisänen and Lesley Fightmaster. I had never heard of this last name before, but somehow she was mentioned to me twice recently so I decided to check her out.

The highlight was that in my digital archives, I also found the led class recorded with Petri when I was in Purple Valley. So last week, I practiced with that video as well and it’s almost identical to the online version with one major difference: I get to practice with my 34-old self and two of my friends who were there with me.

How is that for great company during a lonesome self-practice at home!

Anyway, below you will find my findings about each video, but first, let me say this: if you a beginner, I do not recommend practicing (Ashtanga) yoga with a video.

I believe that any asana practice should be taught under the supervision of a teacher. And no, I don’t necessarily mean a certified, authorised or otherwise registered person. I simply mean a person with the right experience, able and willing to share knowledge with another person.

In my opinion, physical alignment, breath control and mindful transitions between poses are crucial for a safe and beneficial asana practice. Since these aspects differ widely per person, personal guidance is very important.

Example: if a teacher on YouTube says that for Virabhadrasana B the heel of the front foot should line up with the arch of the back foot, that may be the perfect alignment for herself or the hyperflexible model in the video. However, for a large majority of the other practitioners, especially beginners, this may not be ideal at all.  I won’t go into the details as to why, but you know, ankles, knees, hips, pelvis, lower back, instability, etc…

Google it and you’ll find plenty of good and bad articles illustrating what I mean. However, when you are doing an online class, I doubt you would interrupt your practice to google your alignment options, even when you feel quite unstable and are pretty sure that you don’t look as gracious as that skinny lady in her pretzel pose on your screen.

I think I made my point. If you are a beginner, go to a yoga teacher to learn how to practice asanas. Once you understand the basic alignment principles and more importantly, once you know your own body well enough to understand its strengths, weaknesses, limitations and needs, I think you could benefit from recorded classes as a support and inspiration, not so much for instructional purposes.

My rule of thumb would be that you are ready to practice Ashtanga with a video when listening to the counting is enough and you don’t need to look at the screen to understand what to do.

I can think of at least one exception to everything I said before and that is when there are simply no teachers available to you. Before I discovered Ashtanga, I practiced with Vinyasa DVD’s while I was living in a small village by the Red Sea in Egypt where I later became one of the first yoga teachers. There were no teachers around so there was no choice. Although practicing with the videos may not have taught me perfect alignment nor the philosophy behind the asanas, it did keep my passion for yoga going.

Also a reason why Ashtanga yoga lends itself well for recordings would be that it is a fixed sequence, therefore once you are familiar with it, you don’t need to look at what the video shows you. Listening is enough (see my rule of thumb above). With Vinyasa or any other form of yoga that does not know a fixed sequence, you will probably need to look up from your pose to understand exactly what you are supposed to do, thereby compromising your alignment.

Anyway, don’t let my rant above discourage you. I just try to make you aware of the limitations and risks of practicing with a non-interactive teacher. The same could be said of a teacher that does not do any adjustments and is too busy demonstrating the sequence and poses to properly supervise the students.

So Ashtanga encourages self-practice every morning, either in a Mysore style setting or alone, limited to the asanas that you have been give by your real-life teacher(s). My problem with self-practice at home is that I am simply not good at practicing alone. I miss the energy of fellow Ashtangis breathing and sweating next to me, I miss the observing eyes of the teacher and the incentive of practicing in a group setting.

Practicing with a video kind of fills some of those gaps. It’s a bit like going to a led class with a teacher that doesn’t do any hands-on adjustments. It has the added advantage that you can fast forward to the finishing sequence if for any reason, you are not doing the Full Primary that day, a good reason being that you haven’t been given all the poses yet.

By clicking on the links, you will find my reviews of the recordings of the Full Primary Series by the four previously mentioned teachers.

I would love to get your feedback on how you feel practicing with these, or any other videos!

Review of David Swenson First Series

Review of Ashtanga Yoga Primary Series with Jessica Kass and Fightmaster Yoga

Review of Ashtanga Yoga Led Primary Series with Petri Räisänen

Review of John Scott’s Ashtanga Yoga The Primary Series.

John Scott guides you through the Primary Series with full vinyasas, meaning that after almost each seated asana, he returns to standing and goes through a vinyasa before getting into the next. Considering that he does all that in just over one and a half hour, you will find that it is rather fast-paced. He does however, give a lot of instructions to get into the pose yet his voice is quite relaxed despite all the cues he manages to give in a short time. Beginners will find that he does not give any modifications though, so be mindful if you haven’t been taught the full expression of a pose yet.

He also gives the exact vinyasa count (the number of breaths) to get into each pose and he counts in Sanskrit, which I love. However, his Sanskrit pronounciation is terribly American and to me, a little bit distracting in the beginning. After a while, I got used to it and I really enjoyed this practice.

Although you shouldn’t be looking at the video while practicing (you’ll never hear him say that the drishti is on your screen), you might notice that he jumps to the side and back to get into and out of the standing poses and has his arms out to the side. I always practice (and teach) to step rather than jump and keep the arms in the waist, in order to bring some awareness to the alignment of the hips. If jumping is your thing, then by all means…

This recording is probably quite a few years old but traditional Ashtangis will certainly appreciate it.

Total duration: 1 hour 36 minutes
Practice starts at 3 minutes 25 seconds into the recording
The finishing sequence starts at 1 hour 17 minutes 30 seconds

Diary of a Lazy Ashtangi – Week 9, 10 and an Epiphany.

“Water does not resist. Water flows. When you plunge your hand into it, all you feel is a caress. Water is not a solid wall, it will not stop you. But water always goes where it wants to go, and nothing in the end can stand against it. Water is patient. Dripping water wears away a stone. Remember that, my child. Remember you are half water. If you can’t go through an obstacle, go around it. Water does.” – Margaret Atwood, The Penelopiad

I read this quote to my students the other day at the end of a class. It’s one of my favourite quotes from a book that has been described as a “a brilliant tour de force” and that I yet have to read.

Anyway, the past two weeks my practice has been erratic at best. And the last couple of days, I realised that perhaps I should listen to my own advice a bit better. Keep an eye on my objective, stay focussed, go around obstacles when they present themselves and just keep going, zigzagging, ducking, jumping, slowing down or picking up the pace when I need to. Just don’t give up.

Here’s how I came to that conclusion.

Note: Upon request, I have now linked the Sanskrit names of the asanas to a website where the poses and the sequence are all explained in great detail. Very valuable resource for those interested in the traditional way of Ashtanga.

Sunday 6, Monday 7, Tuesday 8, Wednesday 9 November
This reporting period starts with a slacking day on Sunday 6 November. On Monday I get my period. Two more days without Ashtanga and on Wednesday, I am at the tail end of my moon cycle, so I do a lovely long Yin session instead.

Thursday 10 November – 9.30 am
It looks like I am going to be indolent again. I didn’t get up in time to practice before my class and am not proud of it. Only one student rocks up for my class, a practitioner with a pretty steady practice, though only in led classes. I have a light bulb moment and I propose to her that we practice together rather than doing a guided class. That way, she gets to feel what it’s like to practice without the Vinyasas counted out loud and other cues and we get to share the energy of our individual practice. A win-win, the way I see it!

She agrees and we practice until Janu Sirsasana A, I set the pace as she follows me to get the sequence right. After the closing sequence we rest in Savasana and 90 minutes after our first Sun Salutation we get up and both feel the wonderful after-practice glow. Of course I ask for feedback and it turns out she really enjoyed the silent semi-guided practice.

I think I may have sowed the seed for a little local Mysore practice group for in the near future.

Friday 11 November – 10.30 am
It has been a few weeks, but I am back on the mat for a Restorative Yoga class with one of my favourite local teachers. I do have the energy for an Ashtanga practice but a friend is joining me at Restorative and I have tonnes of other things to do. So I skip the Primary Series and dive head first into my busy day after the Restorative bliss and brunch with my friend.

Saturday 12, Sunday 13 & Monday 14 November
I don’t practice for three days. I am not sure what the obstacles are that I am not able to tackle.

It is not a lack of energy because I am super active. In the weekend I am cooking, gardening, sorting through boxes with old memories, reading old letters, sending ex-boyfriends (the ones that I’m still on good terms with) copies of their own love letters and reminiscing about the years that I actually was as young as I still feel now.

On Monday I have just two classes to teach and no other appointments. So it is also not lack of time. It really wouldn’t hurt anybody if I would take two hours for my practice.

I think it is the loneliness. I simply don’t like practicing alone. I like to hear the breathing of fellow Ashtangis next to me, I like to feel the energy of their movement. Despite the eyes on me when I practice at home, it is still only just me.

Tuesday 15 November
It is the largest supermoon since 1948 and the moon won’t be coming this close to earth again until 2034. If there was ever a day not to practice in my life time, it is today.

I heard first hand (from one of my best friends practicing in Mysore at this very moment), that Saturday is not rest day anymore. Instead, at the main shala, Sharat – the grandson of Pattabhi Jois, founder of Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga as we know it today – teaches led classes on Saturday and Monday, leaving Wednesday through Friday for Mysore-style practice. So now Sunday is rest day.

Lo and behold, we are deviating from the tradition! Is the universe going to self-destruct? No, the sun still rises in the East and sets in the West and all is well in Ashtanga land.

Wednesday 16 November
I am teaching at 7.00 am so I really can’t be bothered to get up at 4 am to do my practice before going to the studio. Malesh! (Never mind in Arabic, vocabulary legacy from my time in Egypt).

It’s a busy day. Stefano has not gone to work since Monday, recovering from a little surgical intervention that left him… well, let’s say, very tender. If you are curious about what I am cryptically babbling about, read this blog that I wrote last year and puzzle the answer together yourself. Anyway, I enjoy his company at home, even though I have lots of work to do. Lucky for me, he is not unwell enough to not be interested in food, so when I come home at 7.30 pm from my evening class, a beautiful dinner is served.

Thursday 17 November – 9.30 am
Again only one student in my morning Ashtanga class, but not the same as last week. So I don’t hesitate and propose the same to her: practicing together instead of a led-class. She gets a taste of Mysore style while I get to practice too. Fortunately she loves it as well. My plan to cultivate Mysore style enthousiasts in the neighbourhood is steadily progressing.

Friday 18 November
No excuses, slack slack slack.

Saturday 19 November – 9.00 am
Saturday is not a rest day anymore right? I have a new idea. I google Ashtanga Primary Series on YouTube and select the first Full Primary that I come across recorded by a reputable teacher. You do find an endless number of bad yoga videos online but even if you do find a good led class on the internet, practicing with this is definitely not a technique that I would recommend to beginners. In my next blog I will explain why (click on Follow in the side column to make sure you don’t miss out on the next blog in which I will explain the pros and cons of practicing with a recorded class).

However, for today’s purpose, I find John Scott’s Full Primary Series and I love it despite the fact that my leg is still not well. Trikonasana and Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana go as wobbly as expected and I have to be very careful in the Prasarita sequence. I struggle terribly in Bhuja Pidasana, Kurmasana and Supta Kurmasana. Upavistha Konasana A & B are impossible and the drop from Supta Konasana to the floor is out of control. But I breathe with John Scott through the entire series and Stefano is even back home in time from early morning fishing to lend me his ankles for a modified Urdhva Dhanurasana.

Despite the fact that it is just a on computer screen, I have somebody breathing next to me, guiding me through the vinyasas and helping me to stay focussed.

I do the full Primary Series for the first time again since Sunday 2 October. Best Ashtanga practice in a long time. On a Saturday, of all days!

My little epiphany may prove to be a valuable one and I feel I may have found a way to keep the water flowing despite the rocks that are in the way.