An Ashtanga Story
Tara Sweeney

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I first came to the practice of Ashtanga Yoga during a time of exploration and healing.  About a month prior to my first Ashtanga class, I found myself in a gentle/beginner’s yoga class as it was the only thing that I could think of that might relieve the intense pain that I was feeling in my back.  I was fresh off of several months of rehabilitating from and trying to heal a tricky stress fracture in my foot, sustained while running for my college’s track team.  Having been given the clearance by my doctor and physical therapist to do more physical activity on my feet, I took myself out for an 8-mile hike over what turned out to be very rocky terrain.  A couple of days later, I could barely lift my leg without a sharp pain shooting in my back.  After about a couple of weeks of twice per week visits with a chiropractor did nothing to provide any relief, I knew that, at that point in my life, I could not emotionally handle being back in what my mind perceived to be a “prison” of inactivity and pain.  So, I checked the schedule for the neighborhood yoga studio, tossed down some Ibuprofen and hustled to make it to that first class.  I don’t remember any specific postures that we did in that class.  What I remember most was feeling like my whole body was being used, and that it was being in a used in a way that was totally different than how it had been in any physical activity that I had done up to that point.  It felt alive, complete, and healing.  The effect on my mind was equally profound.  I specifically remember feeling like I was finally able to stop moving, despite the fact that I was technically still doing something. The back pain was significantly reduced that first night and, three more classes later that same week, the pain was gone (without the aid of Ibuprofen).  I had found this amazing new way of moving and feeling, and I just didn’t stop.

Due largely to a work schedule that changed every week, I often bounced between three different studios, taking whatever classes that caught my interest and fit with my schedule.  Initially, the inconsistency did not bother me—there was so much to learn, explore, and experience it seemed like I couldn’t get enough of it!  Eventually, though, I started to feel like my practice had no real foundation to work from.  But, I kept remembering how grounded I always felt during and after the Ashtanga classes. So, I took an “Introduction to Mysore Ashtanga” workshop that was being offered by the studio’s primary Ashtanga teacher, Kate O’Donnell. After that workshop, I decided that this was the foundation that I was looking for, and started attending the Mysore Ashtanga classes the next day. That was 8 years ago.

It took a little while before Ashtanga became the sole method of yoga that I practiced.  With feeling like there was so much to learn from the other styles and teachers, and enjoying getting to play with different postures every day (since the Ashtanga method uses a set sequence of postures), for about the first year and a half of my practice, I did a combination of Mysore Ashtanga and classes with other teachers and styles that I liked.  It wasn’t until after I took a yoga teacher training through YogaWorks, with Natasha Rizopoulos and Jennie Cohen, in 2011, that Ashtanga became my primary practice. Until that training, I had not realized exactly how much I was learning from the Ashtanga practice. When it came to writing the asana sequences for the training, my mind kept turning back to the sequences of Ashtanga, because they seemed so complete, and also really versatile and adaptable to the many different concepts that we were working within the training. Also, though my body still had a number of sports-related injuries and issues, it had gained back a lot more endurance from the Ashtanga practice than I had realized—indeed, I often refer to Ashtanga as being the “long distance running” of the yoga world.  

The training was extremely beneficial in several ways--in "cleaning up" my asana practice, providing me with a base for understanding the foundation of poses and how sequences are put together, and in giving me a starting ground for learning about yoga philosophy. But, at the end of it, I decided not go into teaching. Going into the training, I had not even been sure that I wanted to teach, but the training also showed me how much I really still had to learn about the practice, and how much more personal growth I needed to go through before I could share the practice with other people through the role of a teacher.  I really felt like I had not spent enough time just being a student.  

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But, when I finished the training, I was surprised to find that, after having spent the first couple of years of my practice exploring different types of yoga, I craved the quiet and focus of the Mysore room and the steady connection to a regular teacher.  As I settled into the rhythm of the daily Ashtanga practice (rather than the more sporadic rhythm I initially had of sometimes practicing the Ashtanga 4-5 days/week or sometimes 2-3 days/week), I noticed how the Ashtanga practice and the setting of the Mysore room was actually the best place for me continue to grow in my practice, and to deepen my understanding of yoga. The consistent, mostly unchanging asana sequence of Ashtanga provided this perfect place for everything that I had learned during the training, and from all of the other non-Ashtanga classes that I had taken, to integrate into my body and mind. I learned that even though the poses may stay the same, how you practice them changes, often every time you do them, since you are different every time you come to the practice.  Also, after learning about how yoga sequences were put together, and gaining some basic understanding of the philosophical concepts of yoga, I also began to see the intelligence behind the sequences of Ashtanga, and the genius behind the Mysore-style method of teaching yoga.

The years of consistent practice have created a deep love, respect, and appreciation for this tradition of yoga. After nearly 8.5 years of practice, with the last 6 or so having been dedicated almost exclusively to Ashtanga, I am still amazed at how much there is to learn from it, and with how much this practice can grow with you—adapting to whatever changes come up in your life. The Ashtanga practice has supported me through 2 surgeries, numerous sports injuries, several changes in jobs and living environments, and in learning how to manage anxiety, depression, and other emotional and mental struggles that one might encounter throughout life.  But beyond all of that, the practice has this remarkable ability to bring you to ever-deepening levels of peace, patience, stability, and balance.  It’s amusing to me that a practice that is often labeled as being “hardcore” and “intense” actually requires a great deal of self-compassion and kindness. This practice cannot be sustained on a long-term basis through pushing, forcing, or going “all out” for every single practice, and in every single posture—doing so will only eventually lead to burnout and injury. To quote a former high school cross country teammate of mine, “pace, not race." That, dedication, and a good deal of focused surrender (which is a bit different than the surrender of “giving up”) are the keys to doing this practice for a long time, and for receiving its full benefits.  

I have done this practice to help myself find healing for many years now, and, for a long time, that was enough. I had always loved talking about the practice with people and sharing it in that way, but I never thought that I would want to teach. I did the teacher training partly because so many people encouraged me to, thinking that I would really like teaching since I loved the yoga so much. But it was also largely because I really wanted to learn more. At the end of it, not only did I realize I was not ready for teaching, but I also felt like I really did not want to—I was happy just being a student and just doing this practice to take care of myself. But, at some point, years after the training, something just changed, and it no longer felt like enough to do this practice just for me anymore. I felt like I wanted an even deeper connection to the practice, but also to do more to help support the people around me, and to support the practice of this tradition of yoga. So, my teacher invited me to start assisting her in the Mysore classes in 2014. It has been such a gift to not only learn how to teach this practice from someone I admire and respect, and who has taught me and supported me so much but to also have the trust of my fellow practitioners as I learn to teach. I consider the yoga practice to be something precious and sacred, and to have people trust me to help them in their practice is truly an honor, one that I treat with the greatest of respect.  

The move towards teaching has been challenging in ways that I never expected, but also deeply rewarding and an incredibly rich source of learning. That was something that was actually a surprising gift, that I still get to be a student. As a practitioner of yoga myself, yes, of course. But, now I am also a student of teaching, where my own teacher and the practice itself are both still my teachers, but now the students are also my teachers. In my eyes, and at this point in my understanding of it, teaching is very much a partnership. I know some things about the practice and how to do it, and the students know themselves, what is going on in their lives, and how the practice feels in their bodies—things that may not always be easy for me to see or to know. Furthermore, I can only take a student so far in a posture as they are willing to let me. As with the asana practice itself, in teaching, pushing or forcing often seems gets you (and the student) nowhere. I see myself as being there to support people in their practice, and to keep this yoga tradition alive by sharing it in the most authentic and genuine way that I can, as I have been taught by my teachers; I think that’s what it means to be a part of a lineage.  

The more that I have the opportunity to teach, the more I am discovering just how much I love it—being able to support people in their practice, and sharing this tradition of yoga and whatever knowledge that I have gained from my own experiences with it. Right now I am really enjoying working with people who are completely new to yoga. After so many years, it can be easy to forget both how challenging even just the beginning stages of the Ashtanga sequence can be, but also how strong of an effect it can have on people. Working with new students reminds me of that. I also often feel like I only truly start to learn how to teach a posture, or the practice in general, when I am working with someone who has no idea what I am talking about--or with someone to whom the postures don’t come easily. It both tests my understanding of the postures and the concepts of yoga, as well as adding to it. While teaching can still feel intimidating and scary at times (with a sometimes dizzying amount of things to learn), I look forward to working with and learning from new people—-to seeing where this practice takes them, and what it has to teach both of us.