"Anyone can learn to safely practice yoga and experience its healing effects. A beginner's mind is required, a flexible body is not." - Michael
I would say the opposite is true. Ashtanga, as we know it today is for everybody!
The argument that Krishnamacharya made up Ashtanga for young boys is as impossible to prove as the master’s claim he learned the system orally from his Guru, then sought out further instruction from an ancient scripture, The Yoga Korunta. Krishnamacharya also said this Yoga method was designed for householders, people with social duties, families and jobs. Regardless of it’s history, today it is highly adaptable, any single movement in the practice is adaptable if you consider the function of the movement, and drop attachment to achieving an idealized form.
It is likely that modern gymnastics and warm-ups used by Indian wrestlers (Sun Salutations) were incorporated into this style. The Maharaj of Mysore, India had put Krishnamacharya in charge of teaching Yoga in the 1930s, with the hope of preserving this rich tradition of Indian culture that few had been practising at the time. The Maharaj was one of Krishnamachrya’s most dedicated students, practising Yoga with him in a space shared by Indian gymnasts.
Ashtanga Yoga, as taught by Pattabhi Jois, is a physically demanding style that asks a lot from practitioners, ideally that one make it a daily routine. Discipline plants the seed of transformation. How many poses, which ones, or how great the execution of the postures is besides the point. The daily repetition of a Yoga practice is an act of purification for the senses, ego and body. The advantage of having a set sequence to repeat each time is that the mind is not distracted by strategizing “what comes next?”, nor is it only doing things that gratify the ego. You develop a certain ability to put your preferences inside, and feel the practice from inside-out.
Four years ago, I could have told you about 100 different theories of mine on why Ashtanga was improper. Truth be told, I didn’t even like the style when I started practising, but witnessed the profound transformations my close friend experienced after it had been his daily practise for about six months. I couldn’t put my finger on exactly how it had changed him, but his happiness and physical capabilities impressed me. After returning from a three month stay in India, he stood about 3-inches taller, as his once rounded spine straightened out.
As I persevered with the practice, all my theories about its faults fell away, one by one, and were replaced with a complete awe for a method that reveals its brilliance the more it is practiced.
Ashtanga is a spiritual discipline, not a circus
It is believed that Jois called this style “Ashtanga” to bring awareness to the eight limbs of Yoga, the wonderful philosophy, ethical and meditative aspects of the practice. Without the eight limbs, “Yoga is a circus,” Jois would say. When asked what is the purpose of the Yoga practice, his answer was “to find God.”
Ashtanga Yoga is hard work. It takes a lot of commitment for the poses to transform the body, create openings and become effortless. It also takes regular practice and dedication to memorize the nuances of the Primary Series so it can become a moving meditation. Perhaps the hardest part is remembering that it is not about physical mastery of outward posture forms, but mastery of inward focus and feeling patterns.
Ashtanga is for householders, not only young boys!
As the history goes, many of Krishnamacharya’s students were young boys and he taught his students Ashtanga yoga. However, Krishnamacharya claims he learned the Ashtanga yoga style from his Guru and it is based in the teachings of the Yoga Korunta, an ancient scripture. He also was fond of saying the system is designed for householders, people who have social duties such as jobs and families.
As Krishnamacharya got older, he became more interested in adapting his teachings to the unique needs of individuals. It is true that one size does not fill all if we try to imitate the shapes of the poses, but I believe that just about anyone can practice Ashtanga, young or old, big or small, strong or weak, injured or healthy if we seek to understand the function of the poses, and learn it from a good teacher.
Who goes to the local Ashtanga studios anyway?
There are some people still in their 20s, most are between 30 and 60 and they are all shapes and sizes, some short, some quite tall. You’d never believe what these people have learned to do if you saw them out in street clothes. Those who have been around for a while have a rare quality of grace to their practice where nothing ever appears forced.
Watching them move and breathe for even a minute, you realize that this truly is Yoga therapy, and that with the right combination of humility, patience, and persistence, nothing is dangerous about it.
What about my injuries, and my inflexible _ _ _ _?
Welcome to the club! If a student of Yoga has some sort of health condition or injury that prevents them from “following the rules” of a system, then that individual is in a wonderful position to modify the practice in a way that it can be shared with those in the same situation. Studying Ashtanga is much like studying music theory — we learn the rules, strict as they may be, and experience what we can, before breaking them.
I hope you have the opportunity to experience this Yoga as a moving meditation, where each step of the dance is already in memory. The beauty of this path is that you fully connect to your own rhythm of breath, you move to the flow of that breath, not the words of the teacher. Then in the silence of hearing only your own breath, your thoughts, space is given for the inner work, and that’s what Yoga is all about.
Always consider the function over the form, and you’ll learn an exciting, rewarding practice you can tweak as you age and take with you anywhere. The practice is the teacher.