How do I do An Ashtanga practice without a teacher?
Guest post by Christine Wiese, LMBT
There’s a lot of rhetoric around the Ashtanga practice about working with the guidance of a teacher. We refer many of the struggles and transitions in practice to a teacher. Need to know what to practice when you’re healing from sports injury or accident? Ask your teacher. Need to know if it’s the right time to start working with the next pose? Ask your teacher. Have a question about what to practice when you’re traveling or short on time? Ask your teacher. But how do you do an Ashtanga practice without a teacher?
What if you don’t have anyone that you’ve been fortunate to develop that lasting student-teacher relationship with? Maybe you started learning the practice from the David Swenson book or you’ve been learning from Richard Freeman’s DVD’s. Maybe you practiced briefly with a teacher and then you moved across the country. Maybe you practiced for some time with a teacher and they moved. Now what?
- Do you just keep practicing what you’re practicing now forever?
- How do you keep the motivation up for practice?
- Who do you ask when you have questions about practice?
- And what about adjustments?…How do you practice the things you need an assist with when no one is there to help you?
I first started learning the Ashtanga practice from Beryl Bender Birch’s book, “Power Yoga” and from a local teacher in central Florida who taught from a modified led primary format. Some months after that start, I moved to Miami, FL and found my first Mysore teacher. When my first Mysore teacher stopped teaching, I found another one. When my second Mysore teacher stopped teaching, she sent me to David Keil who has been my teacher ever since. But David doesn’t teach regularly in one studio and I moved from Miami after beginning work with David anyway, so what to do?
What resulted was spending the next ten years traveling to practice with David at regular intervals and learning to be a good home practitioner.
It’s from that experience that I offer the suggestions below. Please take my suggestions below with the caveat that they come out of my own practice experience. Your experience may be very different. If a suggestion resonates with you, great! Adopt what works for you. If a suggestion doesn’t resonate with you, leave it and move on.
First, take a deep breath and keep practicing. Really. The practice itself done with attention and consistency will really teach you a lot about the practice.
Second, give some thought as to why you want a teacher. The answer(s) to that question can help you answer your own question about how to do Ashtanga practice without a teacher.
If you’re newer to practice, say in the first few years of practice, then it really can be helpful to have someone with more experience than yourself to orient you. In this phase of practice, it’s easy to do too much and feel overwhelmed. It’s also harder to have a sense of what’s possible. If you’ve never had someone help you access the more challenging poses in primary series or the subtler aspects of practice found in the breath, than it can be harder to find your way there on your own.
If this is your scenario, then there are a few things that I’d suggest:
If you or your teacher moved and you connected well with them, then don’t let distance get in the way of practice. Block out some time to go practice with them once or twice a year.
Reach out to the wider community
Need to hear a friendly voice that will encourage you to keep practicing? Reach out through online forums and connect with other home practitioners. There are a number of Facebook groups as well as other forums for home practitioners. Sharing the challenges of home practice can help keep you motivated to practice.
Connect locally if there are other Ashtangis nearby
Form a practice group. Even it only meets once a week, connecting with a group can create a sense of accountability for showing up and a renewed sense of enthusiasm for getting on the mat.
If you’ve been consistently practicing for more than a few years, then you probably already have a good foundation in the practice, especially if you were fortunate enough to spend those first few years of practice working with a teacher that you connected with.
If this is your scenario, then while some of the suggestions above might apply to you, I’d also challenge you to think a little bit deeper about your practice.
How many of your practice questions do you really already know the answer to? Are there practice questions that you don’t actually need to answer? In some ways, is it the fact of having questions that brings you back to the mat to keep exploring? Try looking at home practice as an opportunity to explore deeply.
Learn the vinyasa count
The vinyasa count can be a way in to explore the practice and your relationship to it. While the vinyasa count is the ideal, not something that will ever be perfected of course, it does make us look more closely at the breath. The vinyasa count can help serve as your teacher for the purpose of continuing to refine your breath and giving you something to be accountable to. It can also help you stay connected to the lineage. Sometimes it’s helpful to remember, when you step on the mat on Friday morning, that all over the world other Ashtangis are counting their way through primary series too.
Use your practice as a laboratory to answer your own questions. Certainly, there are objective facts of anatomy and physics that impact asana, but practice is so much more individual than that.
If you’re stuck on a pose, break it down for yourself. Ask yourself a series of questions: What aspects are there in this posture? For example, are you forward bending, twisting, backbending, or doing an arm balance? Where do these aspects come up in other poses that I practice? How are those poses working for me? How am I approaching them? Am I avoiding these aspects in other poses? Does it seem that something needs to open or get stronger?…or does it seem that it’s something more qualitative, such as the quality of breath that I need to refine? Go into your own experience and see what you find there.
At the end of the day, practice itself really is the best teacher. There was probably a good reason that Pattabhi Jois had so many aphorisms about practice to answer student questions.
“Practice and all is coming.” -Sri K Pattabhi Jois
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David summarizes research which suggests that activity by the parasympathetic nervous system, specifically the vagal nerve, is involved when we see the beneficial heart rate variability increase that occurs at low breathing rates like the type of breathing rates that would occur in yogic breathing practices.