So do I practice every single day? What if I don’t feel well?
This is actually such a common question that I wrote an entire blog on it, called When to Practice and When to Rest. And there are plenty of times when you should rest — like if you have a fever or an acute injury. But there are also plenty of times when you’ll probably feel like resting but should actually still practice, like when you are sore or tired.
Do you do anything other than yoga for exercise? (Or some variation of this.)
I always tell students to do what they love. Whether that’s climbing, surfing, riding, hiking, playing football, or staying out late dancing and drinking – by all means, do it. But just remember, like with anything in life, there are tradeoffs and what you do off the mat will have its effects on your practice. It’s important to remember this, and to be realistic about it. Pursuing other athletic endeavors might make you feel tight in certain places, or more fatigued, or stronger or better balanced. Just continue to check in with your body and do what works for you. Personally, I have always enjoyed some Pilates for additional strengthening, and foam-rolling to loosen up my fascia. When I was working through really tight areas of my body, I would do some yin stretches at home in the evenings. And I make sure to never skip a hike, bike ride, or adventure just because I was worried about my practice the next day.
Can I practice other styles of yoga?
Again, do what you love – if that’s practicing other styles of yoga, then go for it. In my experience teaching and practicing, though, I’ve found that practicing more than once rarely leads to faster progression and frequently leads to injury. What’s more, I believe that you can only make the most of an Ashtanga practice if you commit to it, and students who consistently dabble in other styles of yoga tend to be less likely to practice the optimal five to six times a week. This seems most likely to be a function of scheduling – if you go to a vinyasa class in the evening that finishes at 8pm, get home at 8:30, eat dinner, unwind, etc., the chances are much lower that you’ll feel like returning to your mat for a 7am Ashtanga practice! Like I said in the previous question, be realistic about the effects that other activities and practices will have on your Ashtanga practice, and do what feels like it lines up with you and your life.
I cannot wake up in the morning — help!
You and me both. In my career, I’ve slept through my alarm when I was meant to be teaching four times — and let me tell you, waking up late is absolutely a jolting start to the day. I know I’m never going to be an early-morning person, but I have still found a way to make this practice work for me. I also wrote a blog about this because it is quite common when starting an Ashtanga practice: How to Optimize Your Morning (When You Aren’t an Early Morning Person!)
How do I go to bed early?
It may seem obvious, but the easiest way to wake up early in the morning (and feel okay about it) is to go to bed earlier! There are a lot of pulls on our attention in the evening – going out with friends, watching an episode or two (or five) of your favorite TV show, getting caught up on household chores, and a million other things. But when you commit to a discipline like Ashtanga, and when you want to commit to a discipline and the changes it can require, your life tends to shift around to accommodate it. My suggestion is to set a routine around bedtime and stick to it. I also wrote a blog post on this, which you can read here: Early to Bed.
What does it mean to split your practice?
In the Ashtanga method, poses are taught one by one. Once you have finished and achieved a level of proficiency in the primary (or second or third) series, you begin to add postures from the next one. These postures accumulate piece by piece, one by one, so eventually you will be practicing all of primary and the first half of second – this is a long practice! It makes the student stronger and gives the muscles plenty of time to warm up for the increasingly difficult postures of second series. At some point, the student splits their practice, and would no longer do all of primary before second series. This makes for a much shorter practice, so it is important to put in the work leading up to this point.
Why do teachers “give” you poses?
This is a tough question to answer. I think that it is firmly rooted in tradition, and I think it’s especially important to address this given the current climate of heightened awareness around teacher/student dynamics. “Giving” students postures should be reframed as “teaching” students the postures; giving a student a posture shouldn’t be about a teacher withholding a posture, or about any type of power trip. A good teacher teaches a student a posture when the teacher believes that a student is ready to continue and practice that posture safely. Ashtanga is an edgy practice – the postures get increasingly difficult, and there is risk of injury if a student moves through them too quickly. A good teacher will keep a student both from stagnating and from moving too fast. The teacher will recognize habits in the student, help to build healthy and sustainable patterns, and help keep the student honest with themselves. If you’re wondering how to find the right teacher who can help you with this, maybe my blog can help: How to Find a Genuine Teacher.
How do I practice when I am on the road?
One of the beauties of an Ashtanga practice is that you learn the sequence inside and out, so you don’t have to rely on a teacher every step of the way – rather, you carry your practice with you everywhere you go. This makes it significantly easier to practice when traveling, because all you really need is a little bit of space to practice in. Just be compassionate with yourself. You don’t need to push it after long flights, and you don’t need to put pressure on yourself to try to squeeze in a full practice when you only have a short amount of time. If all you have time for is 3 As and 3 Bs, then that’s good enough. When you are practicing while traveling, the point isn’t necessarily to make great breakthroughs or have transformative practices. If you do, awesome. But the goal is to maintain your practice that when you are back home and back in the routine you can pick up where you left off. Don’t put too much expectation on yourself – just bring a mat and the clothes you need, so that you’re more likely to make it happen. My go-to travel mat is the Manduka eKO SuperLite – it folds up to the size of a shirt, so you can squeeze it into any bag, which I love. I don’t use it for rigorous practices, but when I am on the road it does the trick.
Can I eat before practice?
I typically advise against it, but go ahead if you are very hungry or low energy and feel like you have to eat first. I always eat dinner to help me manage my morning hunger in advance – as you get deeper into the discipline of your practice, you learn little lifestyle hacks like this to make it all a little more manageable day-to-day. My friend Annette, who’s an Ayurvedic health coach and fellow Ashtanga practitioner (and whose site can be found here), suggests eating a small amount of food, like a date stuffed with almond butter, before practice. The natural sugars, protein, and fat will help see you through your practice and prevent your blood sugar from yo-yoing.
Do I have to be vegetarian?
Although vegetarianism is the preferred diet for a lot of practitioners, you don’t have to be anything! You can drink alcohol and eat meat and cheese and sugar, if you want to. Dietary habits are extremely difficult to modify, and often change much later than other habits. But here’s the thing: It’s not about what someone else tells you to do; it’s about what your body tells you to do. More often than not, changes in eating habits just naturally accompany the practice. Part of what happens in our yoga practice is that we become more attuned to our bodies and how we feel. We notice how certain foods make us feel, and we become more compassionate toward ourselves. So, changing your eating habits will likely happen just because you want to wake up feeling energized, or strong, or lean. Maybe you are always going to need meat in your diet, but you might decide to shift to more grass-fed, free-range, fulfilling meat sources. My suggestion is that you don’t force anything and don’t make any changes because you feel that you “should.” Let the changes happen organically.
What’s the deal with not drinking water during practice?
When we practice Ashtanga, we are trying to warm our bodies from the inside out. In a sense, drinking water during our practice can put out the fire we’re trying to kindle. Typically, rather than drinking water during the practice, I suggest drinking a lot the evening before, some in the morning before practice, and lots after practice. Of course, there are exceptions to every rule. Please don’t pass out from dehydration just because you are worried about putting out your tapas. Drink if you need to drink, especially if you are practicing in a hot room, are pregnant, or are dehydrated to begin with.
What is the opening mantra? Do I have to say it? How do I learn it?
The opening mantra is what establishes our practice as more of a spiritual workout than a physical one. When we chant the opening mantra, we set the intentions for our efforts, and we recognize and express gratitude for the lineage of teachers that handed the teachings down to us. It can be difficult to learn in class, so I suggest you write it out a few times at home and study it. Check out my friend Cory’s site for more info on it.
What type of mat should I use?
I always recommend the Manduka PRO mat for Ashtanga. I got my first Manduka sixteen years ago, and I still have it. They are durable, just the right amount of sticky, and – my favorite part – they provide adequate cushion, so you know you’ll have enough support to help your wrists through 60 chaturangas and to help your back with poses that might otherwise make the spine feel vulnerable (like the rolling postures at the end of primary). Also, these mats are thick enough to absorb some of the shock when you transition to chaturanga from a headstand or other such pose. I suggest the standard length, but yogis taller than six feet might be more comfortable using the extra long mat.
Can I have more than one teacher?
I am working on a blog post dedicated to this question and will go into more detail there, but you certainly can if that’s what feels most aligned to you and your practice. I think it’s wise to be careful about receiving conflicting information, and I see the logic behind sticking to one method or teaching long enough to give it the chance to work; on the other hand, there’s enormous value in having more than one perspective on your practice (just like with anything in life!). Different teachers are going to see different things, teach from different experiences, and offer you different insights. It’s a long journey ahead – I think we can agree we want all the help we can get.