Yoga and Strength - Physical Practice in Mysore, India
Updated: Feb 24, 2020
My recent two months practicing Ashtanga Yoga with Paramaguru Sharath Jois at Sharath Yoga Center in Mysore, India were deeply rewarding, albeit a bit challenging both physically and mentally. As Ashtanga is traditionally taught via parampara, that is, via in-person transmission from teacher to student in a lineage, serious students and teachers in this school often find it imperative to study and practice directly at the source. Hence, I made my 3rd journey to Mysore to practice with the Guru. In order to accomodate my Ashtanga practice while there, I had to adjust my strength training program.
Ashtanga yoga is largely centered around asana and vinyasa, meaning the physical practice of static postures linked together by deliberate movements and breathing. It is a vigorous and demanding style of yoga that requires discipline and focus, as well as considerable flexibility, strength, and stamina. Ashtanga means "8 Limbs," of which asana is seen as the entry point to the other more esoteric limbs, because the physical body is most readily accessible to us. Control and purification of the body and breath (pranayama) is said to lead to control of the mind, enabling us to practice the more subtle, internal limbs of Ashtanga.
At SYC, the asana practice takes precedence. Daily classes start in the Shala as early as 4:30 am, rolling in batches for several hours, with newer students in the later groups. In the Mysore style class, students practice at their own pace through the series of postures that Sharathji has given them. As individual students finish, others are called to replace them with the words, "One more!" There are also bi-weekly Led classes, in which all the students practice together in unison, while Sharathji counts the Sanskrit vinyasa and leads the class with succinct, specific cues. We practiced every day except Moon Days on the new and full moon, and on Sundays. There were also conferences in which we could ask questions, as well as Pranayama and chanting lessons.
Soon after I began practice in the big, newly-built Shala in December I was invited to join the Led Intermediate class, which is the more advanced of the two Led classes. As I had spent only two months in Mysore previously (in 2006 and 2016), I was pleased to be admitted. However, I was not allowed to practice the entire series, as Sharathji stopped me (and many others) at a pose known as "Dwi Pada" technically Dwi Pada Sirsasana, meaning Both Feet Behind-the Head pose. When he commanded me, "Show me your Dwi Pada" and I performed it, thinking to myself, "this is pretty good," he observed me, made a sound which I took to mean "MEH," and shook his head, saying, "More practice."
Some students who had progressed to Dwi Pada were then told to perform only half of the Primary Series, and then to move directly into intermediate postures. Since I was not specifically told to split the practice in this way, my daily practice consisted of the full Primary Series followed by the first half of Intermediate. By the end of my two months in Mysore, I was practicing through Yoga Nidrasana (Yogic Sleep Pose), which is also a two-feet-behind-the-head pose, done lying on one's back. To do it, the student lies down and takes first the left, then the right leg behind the neck and clasps the hands behind the back. After this, I performed back-bending and finishing postures. My daily practice took about two hours.
Backbending is a prominent part of practicing with Sharath Jois. He insists that everyone who is able must include a posture which is known in Mysore simply as "catching" (Chakra Bandhasana, Bound Wheel Pose). After the back-bending sequence, which in my case consisted of 3 of the classic backbends we call Urdhva Dhanurasana (Upward Bow Pose), as well as 3 "drop-backs," which is dropping back from standing into Urdhva Dhanurasana and then standing back up again. At that point, either Sharathji or one of his assistants would help me perform 3 standing backbends without bringing the hands to the floor, and then, finally, to "catch."
In order to catch, the help of an assistant is usually required. Even the very few students who are able to catch on their own are assisted to move deeper into the posture in Mysore. From standing, the practitioner firmly grounds the feet, which are inside and parallel to the edges of the mat, and activates the legs. Inhaling to lengthen the spine, the yogi then sends the pelvis forward while reaching the arms back as she exhales into a deep backbend. The assistant supports her lower back and then pulls her hands, one at a time, to clasp her ankles, shins, or on rare occasions, thighs. Usually, the assistant remains supporting the student's low back while she takes calm, controlled, deep breaths, but the most flexible and strong students are able to balance on their own while catching.
After catching, the practitioner sits down with straight legs in a forward bend (Paschimottanasana) and is given a hands-on adjustment in which the teacher helps to deepen the stretch. Physical adjustments such as this are an important feature of learning and practicing Ashtanga. However, in Mysore, minimal adjusting is done, primarily only in catching and in certain poses where help may be necessary, such as Karandavasana, in which the yogi tries to lift their lotus legs back up into the fore-arm balance called Pincha Mayurasana, Feather of the Peacock Pose.
You can imagine that to move directly from postures in which you have both legs behind your neck, an extreme forward bend, into several deep backbends culminating in the deepest one you can perform while catching- is intense. Throughout the practice we transition many times from spinal flexion to spinal extension, beginning at the very start of the practice in Sun Salutations (Surya Namaskara) and intensifying as we move through the sequence. In Ashtanga, the series of postures never varies, and each posture prepares the body for those that follow. After years of practice with proper method, we become capable of things we might once have not thought possible.
Because the practice in India required so much energy, I scaled back my strength and conditioning training while I was there. I wanted to progress beyond Dwi Pada, a pose that requires maximum openness in the hips, so I didn't want to hinder my flexibility with stiffness from deadlifting! Also, I wasn't sure of the wisdom of trying to lift heavy in the afternoons, between daily bouts of Dwi Pada and extreme backbending. Most yogis rest or perform only light activity in the afternoon, and this is recommended.
Strength and Conditioning type training hasn't quite caught on as much an India as it has here in the US. While I was there, I searched for a decent local gym but was pretty disappointed by what I found. There was limited equipment, and I wasn't impressed by the training that I saw. However, interest is growing, and as it does I'm sure more and more people will become educated in this field. In the gym I did join, I ended up giving some lessons to the trainers on staff! I also had a great time training with a group of old friends in Goa, and teaching them Wolf Brigade Public Assistance principles.
Before I went to India I had been following the Wolf Brigade training schedule, and had just tested all my 2RMs and set several PRs. In order to conserve energy and to prioritize my Ashtanga practice while in Mysore, I cut my training days in half, and focused more on skill work with lighter weights, stability "Time Under Tension" drills like one-arm planks and hollow body holds, and less demanding conditioning exercises such as jumprope, stair climbing, and sometimes simply long walks. I threw in some heavier deadlifts when I just couldn't help myself, as well as a few higher rep hypertrophy days. I admit that it got a bit sporadic and chaotic.
Now that I am back in the States and have access to a well-equipped gym and to my own mace and kettlebell collection, I have immediately returned to my Wolf Brigade programming! With my yoga practice no longer under scrutiny, I am ready to move into a phase in which strength and conditioning is the priority. Of course I'll maintain my Ashtanga practice, but I will shift my focus more towards training. With the Wolf Brigade Convergence coming up in 3 months I feel particularly motivated to work towards honing my technique and to get as fit as possible. I'm curious to see how well I've retained my strength, and confident that any loss thereof will be minimal, and quickly recovered.
My time practicing Ashtanga in Mysore this year was quite a learning experience! It was tough, but empowering to practice so consistently at such a high level. However, I missed the gym and hard training days. I am happy to no longer deviate from the Wolf Brigade progam, which as Greg Walsh says, is "not a suggestion." I know that I will likely lose flexibility, and that some yoga postures may become less accessible or even impossible, but when it really comes downs to it, I value strength and stability over bendiness and extreme ranges of motion. And that is wise.