Ashtanga = boot camp?

As I write this, the third-most e-mailed story on The New York Times’ website is an article that hasn’t even appeared in the print edition yet. “The Yoga Mogul,” a profile of Anusara founder John Friend, will come out in this weekend’s Sunday magazine. It’s a fairly interesting piece that makes you think about whether yogic principles and business objectives can peacefully coexist without diluting the authenticity of this ancient practice (a meaty issue that deserves another blog post down the road).

What I’m going to focus on here is this section of the piece:

Like many other small-stakes subcultures — the world of poetry, or academia, say — yoga has become embroiled in head-of-a-pin type arguments. In yoga’s case it centers on authenticity. The fight over whether it is a spiritual or a physical practice has raged virtually since its inception, but now in the United States this question has been tinted with issues of competition, status and sweat. People who favor the demanding flow of Ashtanga yoga, for instance, might scoff at those who practice Iyengar yoga, which is slow-moving but stresses proper placement of the body in the poses. (Think of boot camp versus a classical ballet lesson.)

I think it’s unfortunate that as yoga becomes more popular, Ashtanga’s reputation grows – a reputation for being the style of yoga geared toward super fit, Type-A personalities. How many people out there have already shied away from trying the practice because they were turned off by what they had heard? The Sunday Times has a circulation of 1.4 million, so the potential reach of just this particular Ashtanga-as-boot-camp image is extensive.

Yes, Ashtanga is challenging. But yoga, in the most general sense, is challenging – it’s a practice that demands mindfulness, intention and honesty. And there is nothing easy in that.

Earlier this week, I ran into a friend I hadn’t seen in quite some time. Dealing with a low-back injury and post-surgery recovery, she told me that she’s starting to integrate more Ashtanga classes into her schedule because the primary series allows her to move at a slower pace and compassionately return to her asana practice.

Ashtanga is a deeply grounding practice that’s designed to detoxify the body, mind and spirit, and to bring us into balance. We can approach the practice in a hard, confrontational way by treating the asanas as a string of poses to be conquered – Hey, look at my Marichyasana D! Do you know how long it took to perfect this? – or we can approach the practice from a softer space in which we seek to flow with grace.

I think the best way to show people that Ashtanga is not the boot camp of yoga styles is to – well, show people. Show them through example, through how we experience and express our own practices, and encourage them to try the practice for themselves.

Print Friendly

2 thoughts on “Ashtanga = boot camp?

  1. I think that it is unfortunate that many people might be turned off by something like the “boot camp” reputation. However, I’ve personally seen friends who come to an Ashtanga led class having only experienced Hatha or Iyengar and are turned off by the vigorous nature of the practice. One friend ,to paraphrase , said “it is entirely against what yoga is supposed to be about”. I suppose to her Yoga was about feeling centered and relaxed and sweating buckets and chaturangas until she could chaturanga no more just wasn’t conducive to that.

    For others and at least for me, I cannot focus or turn off my head in Hatha or Iyengar classes. It is the flow and the effort that brings me to that feeling of unity with my body and freedom of ego.

    I truly don’t think Ashtanga is the yogic path for everyone, and maybe the boot camp reputation does more good than harm, or at least has a neutral effect. For every person who it might be turned off (and those that would be turned off might very well not like vigorous activity and would never return after their first class anyways), it attract someone who relishes the physical. These people may never find yoga otherwise because they imagine middle aged women sitting in a single posture for long periods talking about a bunch of “new age stuff”. Those people will initially be attracted to the exercise but stick around for the transformative nature of yoga.

    (caveat- I think a mysore class (with an adaptive instructor) can certainly be suitable for someone with physical limitations or someone who does not want to jump into the physically demanding part, but these are not where most aspiring yogis start)

    Anyways your blog is a good read so far!

  2. Thanks for your thoughtful commentary. I know it’s a lot to pick apart a magazine piece for two words — “boot camp” — but those words will stick with some people, and become the way they think of the practice.

    You brought up a great point that for every person who might be turned off, someone else might be attracted to the practice based on this reputation. Just a couple days ago, I was talking about this with a friend who practices karate and has never tried yoga, and he said that he was more inclined to try Ashtanga because it sounded more vigorous. So yes, that element is definitely there.

    And on a personal level, I am very much like you in that I need flow — even better if it’s a vigorous one — to find freedom on the level of the body, mind and spirit. It’s such a blessing, though, to find the surrender in that vigor.

    I love that you started your blog to channel all your Ashtanga thoughts and keep your friends and family sane :-) It’ll be interesting to follow your experience!

Leave a Reply