Monday, August 13, 2012

More on the (cultural) differences between Ashtanga and Flow style classes

While the previous post dealt mostly with the physical differences between the two practices, this one deals with the environment and the culture of the two styles.


1. In Flow style classes, the teacher might start with a few words, maybe set an intention or ask the students to set an intention, and possibly lead an Om as a group. In an Ashtanga class, all classes start in Samastithi and the teacher leads the Invocation to Patanjali. The opening chant is always the same, and its intention is to pay respect to all the teachers who have come before us. Some led classes can end with the closing chant.

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2. While music, playlists, and in some cases live bands and DJs are part of many flow style classes to make yoga a fun, get-out-of-your-head-and-into-your-body experience, and, to create a dance-like flow to the practice, in Ashtanga classes, the environment tends to be a lot more austere. There is largely silence against the constant, rhythmic presence of the Ujjayi breath. The rationale being that the practice is a moving meditation, and as such, the awareness needs to be drawn inward, with careful attention given to the sound of the breath.

3. More on the sounds in the room: while most Flow teachers might use many words and images to guide the students into postures (both technical cues and inspirational words), in a traditional, led Ashtanga class, the instructor mostly counts the breath and calls out the Sanskrit names to the postures. This is of course different, I’ve found, when one takes classes with some senior teachers, who often use imagery, energetic actions, and inspirational language, and, who may often break down the postures into more easily digestible portions.

4. In most Ashtanga classes, the teacher rarely demonstrates the postures. Instead, the students are encouraged to maintain their drishti (gazing point), and also, to have enough interest to study the names of the postures and their place within the sequence. Since the emphasis is on developing a self-practice (Mysore), this approach fits in the over all philosophy of the practice. In Flow style classes, perhaps because the sequence varies from instructor to instructor, but also from class to class with the same instructor, much more demonstration and technical cuing is needed. Most Ashtanga teachers tend to teach alignment with their adjustments, again, focusing as much as possible on individualizing the practice.

5. Although some Flow practitioners practice almost everyday, for most, the frequency is less than that. In Ashtanga, the expectation is that you work your way up to a six days a week practice, with the exception of lady’s holiday (when applicable), moon days, and Saturdays. Again, this is traditional, yet I know of many Ashtangis who, to accommodate both the practice and their life off the mat, don’t take Saturdays off; they rather take a different day to rest. Moon days tend to be welcome breaks for most people, and have the added benefit of making the practitioner highly aware of the phases of the moon. This final bullet point deserves its own post, since I believe a major hurdle for many people who are curious about Ashtanga can be the daunting commitment required to practice six days a week. I think it's important to emphasize that most people do not go from 0 to 6 days a week; that we work our way up to it, again, at our own pace (much like the rest of the practice). Also, the practice can, on some days, consist only of a few sun salutes and maybe sitting for meditation for a few breaths. It is better to have more frequent, shorter practices than infrequent, long practices.

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