When you hear the word Yoga, what image pops into your head? For many, it’s vaguely synonymous with “relaxing,” “stretching,” or “calm.”
My idea is a bit different. But then, I practice Ashtanga Vinyasa.
Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga is a therapeutic system designed to create alignment in body and mind with an emphasis on tapas. In Spain that’s a nice appetizer, but in India it’s a word that means something along the lines of “effort” or “burnishing.” Those first three adjectives (the image of sitting cross legged in perfect bliss) may describe the result, but they sure don’t do the journey justice! Ashtanga Vinyasa is a very active and energetic process, an alchemy of movement, breath, and one-pointed concentration that results in lightness, grace, and balance of body and mind. And boy, is it hard work.
The goal is nothing less than to dramatically and permanently improve your quality of experience in your own body and mind. Usually that comes as a combination of eliminating pain and discomforts, inspiring confidence and ease, and increasing self-awareness.
Many forms of exercise target specific muscles to strengthen or stretch. If you go the gym, there’s one machine for your shoulders, one for your chest, one for your quads, and so on.
Ashtanga Vinyasa is a bit different. I like to say that we’re trying to use all our muscles, all the time, just in different relationships and positions. Every movement you do affects your whole body, and in Ashtanga Vinyasa we use that to our advantage. Muscles (and bodies) benefit from being used in as many different combinations, lengths, and positions as possible.
So what do I mean by “creating alignment”?
Physically, there’s an optimal position that allows your body to be steady, stable, and comfortable, working effectively in its environment: the gravity of Earth.
Bringing the body into alignment with gravity and your activities creates space and ease in the body. We’re literally stretching ourselves out: growing taller, creating spaciousness in joints that are typically subjected to compressive forces. Most pains in muscles and joints come from misalignment or compression, often caused by injury, illness, or habitual movement patterns. The body is wonderfully adaptive and responsive to stimuli. Unfortunately that means it can pick up bad habits quickly; if you’re often using a computer or have a job that requires repetitive motion, your body will adapt to that pattern and allow the muscles and movements not used to wither away. But the upside is that by changing how the body moves, we can change how it develops (yes-your body is still developing) and effectively influence it for the better.
Muscles aren’t just used for getting you around or playing your favorite sport. They’re essential for many processes of the body, including circulation (cellular nutrition), toxin removal (lymph system), digestion, etc. They pulse and contract, pumping fluids throughout the body and preventing this flow from becoming stagnant. Unfortunately for most of us, our daily lives and routines don’t require us to use most of our muscles. Through disuse or injury (even small hurts – “oh it was nothing!” – can have an effect), areas of muscle stop functioning properly, becoming atrophied or “glued” together. They can no longer effectively perform their job of supporting the body and aiding the circulation of fluids. Percentage wise, the average person uses very little of their musculature, and most of that is the superficial layers closest the skin that span multiple joints. The smaller, deeper muscles become dormant and often, these muscles have remained in disuse for so long that they are no longer under conscious control.
Many people practice yoga for its cleansing aspect, “sweating it out.” Maybe that’s you.
If so, good news: activating these dormant areas of muscle is a powerful detox, but just as importantly, it brings fresh blood and nutrients to those cells. Sweating, alone (from heat, for example), won’t do much. Healthy muscle tone allows waste to be removed from tissue (then it can be sweated out) and replaced by fresh nutrients to create a healthy vibrancy.
The deep muscular engagement that we would benefit most from is in small, deep layers of muscle and fascia that require precise alignment to be activated. But if these muscles are atrophied, how can we access them?
This is the magic of the breath. Ashtanga Vinyasa is a breath-centered practice. Many of those deep layers of muscle aid or are involved in the process of breathing. By learning to direct the breath, we can begin to reinnervate those muscles much more easily. I think it’s amazing: we can actually use Yoga to rebuild and shape the nervous system (and it works!).
I love hearing people comment that they’re feeling sensation in a place that they didn’t know existed. That’s the delightful process of reawakening and increasing self-awareness.
Getting the maximum benefit from Ashtanga Vinyasa means constantly challenging yourself. One of the many things that I deeply appreciate in this system is that the challenge shifts and changes, but never disappears. It’s my constant companion and guide, pointing out those areas of my body or mind that need to be nourished and developed. It’s always pushing me higher, my motivation and muse. Sometimes I’ve resented it because I feel so completely seen and exposed – to the process, to myself – and let me tell you, it’s not been enjoyable for my attention to be drawn to the areas where I’m weak, where I’m deficient, or where I’m cheating myself. But that’s the Ashtanga Vinyasa process: mercilessly nurturing. It won’t let me ignore those places I don’t want to look. And I’m so grateful for it – when I don’t have the strength to take a good hard look at myself, well, bam. In your face. Deal with it. And through this process, I’ve transformed for the better in every way I experience my existence.
That challenge, that boundary, will meet you wherever you are. It will nourish you. It will push you. If you’re willing to invest your time and effort, it will pay you back a thousand fold.
If that’s a journey you’re willing to take, allow me to offer my sincere respect. It’s not a path for everyone. Not everyone is willing to go to that place of I-will-do-whatever-it-takes. But if that’s you – unroll your mat and stay awhile. We have work to do.