How Are We Doing Our Ashtanga Yoga Practice?

June 21, 2022
How Are We Doing Our Ashtanga Yoga Practice?

In Ashtanga yoga, there are three main methods of practice. They are: guided classes, self-practice classes (called Mysore-style), and home practice on your own. Having a choice about how we learn makes the practice very adaptable. In our research survey of Ashtanga practitioners, we had the chance to learn how people really choose to do their Ashtanga yoga practice and why. And we had the opportunity to see if the method of practice impacted mindfulness of practitioners. Before we dive into the data though, let’s quickly take a look at how each of the three practice methods works. (If you need a refresher on our methods and what the statistics mean, go back to this article. Then, scroll down to “a little bit about statistics”.)

Guided/Led Ashtanga

In this type of class, a teacher is verbally guiding a group of students through a sequence of postures at the same time. This kind of class generally takes one of two forms. It could be a full led primary series class that includes a very specific vinyasa count and a set series of postures. Or, it could be a guided class that includes only part of the primary series or a mix of postures from more than one of the Ashtanga sequences.

Mysore-style Ashtanga

One of the most unique methods of Ashtanga yoga practice is referred to as “Mysore-style” practice. A Mysore-style Ashtanga class works something like a one-room schoolhouse. Practitioners of all levels are present in the room together. That might range from someone attending their first day of yoga ever, to students who have been doing a regular practice for decades. A teacher is present in the room and they move around helping students as needed. Because we use, at least loosely, just a few set sequences in Ashtanga, this approach works. New students on their first day memorize a short sequence appropriate for them. Then, in collaboration with their teacher, they build their practice slowly over weeks, months, and years.

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Home Ashtanga yoga practice

In this method, students complete their Ashtanga yoga practice at home on their own. They may have learned it initially from a teacher, or from other sources, such as books or videos. Many respondents reported combining some days of home practice each week with one or more days of a class in a studio.

How are students practicing?

Primarily, Ashtangis are doing their practice either at home on their own or with a teacher in a Mysore-style self-practice class. Home practice was actually the most common. We found that 76% of respondents did at least one day of home practice per week. That’s compared to 50% of respondents taking at least one guided class per week, and 59% attending at least one Mysore-style class per week.

It’s common for the schedule of studios with Ashtanga programs to reflect the schedule of the shala in Mysore, India. That is, they offer Mysore-style classes five days per week and a guided class one day per week. That schedule was also reflected in our data. We found that Ashtangis generally only take a led class once per week if at all. Only 15% of respondents attended a guided Ashtanga yoga class more than once per week.

Days Per Week Mysore Practice

Days Per Week Led Ashtanga Practice

Days Per Week Ashtanga Yoga Practice At Home

So, what are the impacts of the different methods of Ashtanga yoga practice?

Home practice increases consistency and sustainability

One of the benefits of the structure of Ashtanga is that by memorizing a sequence, you can practice at home when it’s convenient, without needing a teacher or class. This makes it easier to be consistent with the Ashtanga yoga practice and therefore get more of the benefits. And as we reported in previous research on yoga generally, practitioners report more benefits of yoga when they practice more consistently.

Interestingly, it seems that figuring out how to make a home practice work was one of the things that made Ashtanga yoga practice sustainable over the long term. We found that generally, the greater the number of years that students had been practicing, the more likely they were to also be doing a significant amount of practice at home (p<.0001; Cramer’s V=.19). Additionally, we found that as days per week of Ashtanga practice increased, so did days per week of home practice (p<.0001; Cramer’s V=.31).

Frequency Of Weekly Home Practice By Years Of Practice

Benefits of self-directed Ashtanga practice

One of the main benefits that we anecdotally assign to both Mysore-style class and home practice is more opportunity to practice continuously focusing our attention. In these classes a teacher doesn’t draw your attention away from your experience to listen to or look at them. So in theory, there is more opportunity to focus on your own experience. That includes things like the sensations in your body and the sound of your breathing. Within our research study, we looked to see if what we imagined was happening showed up in the data.

Interestingly, we did not find a connection between increased participation in Mysore-style classes per week, or led-style practice, and increases in mindfulness. But, we did find that mindfulness scores were significantly higher for practitioners who did five or more days per week of home practice compared to those who did three to four days or two or fewer days per week. The greater the number of days per week of home practice that students did, the higher their mindfulness scores on the Freiburg Mindfulness Inventory Scale. The letters “a” and “b” on the bars in the figure below indicate which groups had significantly higher mindfulness scores, when compared to one another.

Mindfulness Increased As Days Ashtanga Yoga Practice At Home Increased

Why choose a home practice?

There are clear benefits to cultivating a home Ashtanga yoga practice. But, sustaining a solo home practice is also notoriously difficult for many people. The discipline to show up on the mat when no one’s watching can be challenging. So what motivated Ashtangis to practice at home? The top reason mentioned for choosing home practice was flexibility in scheduling. The second most common reason was either there was no local teacher or the student’s preferred teacher was not local. Thirdly, practitioners chose home practice because they actually preferred it for a variety of reasons. Some enjoyed the solitude. Others felt that home practice gave them more latitude to vary the practice structure in some way. Finally, a few noted that the cost of studio classes motivated them to practice at home.

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The adaptability of the practice is certainly one of the strengths of Ashtanga yoga. Through the different methods of practice, we could experience the benefits of being guided through a yoga practice, moving at our own pace, focusing our attention, and having flexibility in scheduling our practice. It’s especially interesting that learning to practice on our own at home seems to be one key part of sustaining an Ashtanga yoga practice over time. This makes sense since practicing at home offers the greatest flexibility in scheduling and the smallest financial hurdle. As teachers then, it’s worth considering whether we’re teaching in a way that gives the students the tools they need to take their practice home. If home practice is related to sustainability and increased mindfulness, then it’s important that we think about how to support students in this aspect of Ashtanga practice.