Because it works on every level for every person— once you see the structure, the content, and the freedom to restructure to your heart’s content.
Longer, loving question and answer:
What is the structure?
At face value, it is the daily sequences that form an international language: every Ashtangi, in every country, knows the practice with a fluency that allows her to practice anywhere, alone at home or visiting an Ashtanga studio while traveling.
The practice itself is a journey based on theory— the name Astanga is unoriginal in the best sense, lifted from Patanjali’s philosophy outlining the eightfold path of yoga. Ashtanga vinyasa, the physical practice, is a demonstration of the Russian-doll-like nesting aspect of yoga philosophy: all is here, now. The seeds for enlightenment, the entire path, are in the practice of the posture, the breath, the life that is lived off the mat.
Where we need to step away from the group setting and into a closer relationship with a teacher we trust is when we find ourselves stuck in our own ways, habits that are ineffectual or injurious; or when we need to go deeper into the meditative/philosophical/lifestyle aspects that elevate the practice.
What I love about my relationships with my teachers, and what I love to give to my clients is the unwavering support in a less-traveled path. Doubts are erased when we see what what comes of steady, dedicated, whole hearted devotion to yoga.
And we do need reminders that Ashtanga is unlike any other form of yoga.
The seekers for physical fitness will find no practice as challenging as Ashtanga. It requires daily devotion on the mat, to earn postures that mark visible (and invisible) progress through the standardized, increasingly difficult, sequences. And off the mat, we are centered in our lives, changing daily thrums from normal/erratic to steady, consistent, clean eating and good sleeping because that’s the only way to keep up on the mat.
The bones, the structure of Ashtanga are the daily practice, the sequence, and the larger body is the community. The sense of connection, individual to community, east to west (Ashtanga Isi firmly rooted in India), philosophy to practice, all create a space for individual evolution when we can find the fluidity, the breath, within.
Ashtanga teaches breath over form, from the heightened wisdom that good breath creates great form— and both are founded on inner strength, the bandhas. The focus of mind is taught as drishti, but needs to be tempered by a broader awareness if we are to stay awake, free from habitual thinking, while we flow through a sequence we memorized long ago.
Flow is exactly the state we seek in Ashtanga. Without instructor cues, working with just our inner body, inner breath, the known sequence is the sure entryway to a perfect union of body-breath-mind.
So why are Ashtangis constantly injuring ourselves? Because we are the Type A (ambitious; agro; arm balance lovers) of yogis? Yes and no. The dogma, the standardized rules of Ashtanga, teach posture over person, and so individuals struggle the unique body to fit a general mold. And in the process, something breaks. Ego, conventional concepts of what we are and are not able to do— these are the good breakings. Sometimes, though, the knees, the hips, the shoulders take the aches and pains instead, and these are an example of user error. Yoga is for healing.
This is the place where I leave behind the dogma of Ashtanga and pull from all the other knowledge bases I’ve found in decades of practice. Kinesiology, structural integration, Iyengar yoga, barre/pilates, Ayurveda, Chinese medicine, basic engineering, physics, physiology— all of this informs the practice.
I like to teach most when the student comes with dedication— from ashtanga or from elsewhere— but the path forward seems hazy, unclear. And I teach sustainability, with respect to energy: the energy required to practice, and the energy we receive from the practice will sum to a positive. Every step on the mat creates, anew, the heightened awareness, health, and vitality that we seek and love.