how to start an ashtanga yoga home practice, and how to fail at it (several times)

I got a comment yesterday on my ashtanga yoga 3 years in (with before and after pictures!) post, asking me for advice on starting a home practice (Hi, Kathy!). So I thought, hmmm, maybe a post on its own is in order? …Which made me ponder the many times I have tried to start a yoga practice in my life and failed.

Because my very, very first pursuit of yoga was with none other than Richard Hittleman’s 28 Day Yoga Plan when I was twelve. Twelve! Imagine how far I would be now if I had stuck with it for the next 30 years! I clearly remember that I could rest my head in the soles of my feet in a beautiful Rajakapotasana back then!

Sob!

Well, anyway, I have no idea where I had gotten this book from, and I can’t remember what drew me to yoga in the first place, or when I first heard of yoga, so that’s a pity. But I do remember trying out the poses in this 28 day program (why 28 days? what was supposedly going to happen after 28 days?), alone in my bedroom, and being bored out of my mind by it all but attempting to stick with it for a few days… but its hard to stick with something when you’re 12 and bored and on your own. I wish I had had something more interesting as my first yoga contact…

So, I don‘t recommend this book for starting a yoga practice. Ha! Sorry Mr. Hittleman, but your approach didn’t work for me. And I firmly believe the materials have to be interesting and exciting in some important way to the practitioner. Boring will not get it done. Also, alone is hard. More on that in a bit.

Second attempt: I actually tried Ashtanga back in the day (though much stiffer than when I was 12, I was so much more bendy as a 20 year old, why, oh why, did I not stick with it????). I didn’t have access to any videos, there was no ashtanga in my area, and this was pre-internet (okay, the internet was there, there just wasn’t very much on it yet), so all I had was books.

Actually, one book, Power Yoga by Beryl Bender Birch. I was inspired by the pictures, but only got through to the standing poses before I gave up. It was hard and I didn’t know if I was doing it right. Plus, again, I was all alone, in my bedroom, trying to work it out. I wanted to be one of those strong, bendy people, but I didn’t have the mental endurance to get there without more help. Sad but true.

I did enjoy Beryl’s story very much—she was one of the first Western ashtangis, a student of David Williams (David who brought Pattabhi Jois here from India), and a strong woman, something I appreciated. But still, after a month or so, the book was collecting dust.

So, again, not how I would suggest cultivating a home practice. Really, a book is not enough. And don’t get me wrong, there are some terrific yoga books out there, and I have shelves of them, but a book on its own? Even several books? I really don’t think a book is going to cut it. Maybe if you were SUPER devoted and living on an island somewhere…

Bottom line, for learning yoga, video is SO MUCH BETTER.

I do find it interesting though, that once again, something was drawing me to yoga, even ashtanga yoga!, but I couldn’t quite manage it. Third attempt: A bit later, post Beryl, I did find an ashtanga class to try in a nearby city, and I made the trek once, but it was a complete disaster. The dude did the basic ashtanga count, no help or variations, straight through primary from surys to finishing, and I was dying, dying, by half-way through standing. I rolled up my mat and slunk out of there before the class was even finished. And it’s such a shame! I wish that teacher had had a little compassion for the beginner and helped me out a bit, you know? Encouraged me, or shown me a variation or two, or even said one kind word to me. Oh well. Still no yoga practice.

It took me another fifteen years to find my way back to ashtanga.

Not that I think all classes are bad or in-person instruction is a waste of time or anything like that!! Fourth attempt: After that bust with Beryl’s book, and the ashtanga class from hell, I ended up doing some nice Iyengar training in my later twenties that gave me some good basics on alignment and body awareness that has served me well as an ashtangi. I loved going to yoga classes! I finally was doing regular yoga! It wasn’t a home practice, but it was yoga, and I was doing it, finally. Go me!

But then the class stopped. And on my own, at home, I found it very difficult to keep going. I didn’t know what to practice, and I didn’t have my teacher lighting a fire under my ass to get me to show up and try. After a while, I petered out. And then I got pregnant with Sophie so all bets were off.

I do think it’s ideal when you can connect with a terrific, inspiring teacher, who teaches near where you live, and whose classes you can afford, and you have the free-time to go, and there is a community of fellow-students to learn with. No doubt. It’s just a lot of ifs to get lined up. Life doesn’t always lend itself to that set up.

For example, when I started back to yoga this time around, as a thirty-eight year old (fifth attempt!), I had 3 year old and a 4 year old and there was no way I was going to yoga classes. If there was going to be any practice, it was going to be a home practice, fit in around baby care. And as I watched my body age into a wizened lump, I really, really wanted to do yoga to reverse the damage. From rajakapotasana at 12 to a pathetic baby cobra at 38, I was heading into old-lady-who-can’t-look-up territory mighty fast.

But from my history it becomes clear: the problem isn’t starting a home practice, it’s keeping one going.

Several years ago I wrote a post on some of the vidoes I used in the beginning and why I chose them. Basically I was interested in seeing women doing the practice, because it blew my mind when petite gals did floaty vinyasa. Unlike the super buff guys (and no offense guys, but I’m this tiny, wimpy chick, you know? I can’t relate to all your upper body strength) the gals doing ashtanga made me think that maybe, maybe, I too, could, one day, achieve it. And this, I think, is one of the most important things in keeping a home practice: find out what motivates you and keep that in your mind every day.

For me, for better or for worse, becoming strong and flexible like the women in the videos was my starting goal (no, it wasn’t enlightenment, or spiritual practice, or inner peace, oh well). Keeping that goal in front of my face on a daily basis with those practice vids got me on the mat for quite a while. Still does sometimes.

Because in home practice, where the motivation is on me alone every day, where there are a million other things in my yurt right in front of me to do (including family that probably would rather I pay attention to them), remembering why I want to do the practice and just getting on the mat every day is the most important, and most difficult, thing. The materials you choose to learn with are secondary to this.

Starting is easy. Keeping on is the challenge.

And keeping your exciting (to you) target front and center helps tremendously.

It strikes me at this point that this whole post is kind of lame because I can’t speak about keeping a yoga practice going past a measly three years because I haven’t done it yet. Go talk to David Williams about keeping a yoga practice going for 40 years—he’ll have something much more valuable to say!

But wait, even three years is way beyond what I’ve managed before, so it is something. Three years is long enough so that the practice becomes a habit—it feels weird not to do it. That helps. It’s not enough, but it helps.

But back to the beginning. So what was the thing I had going this time that I didn’t have all those other times?

THE INTERNET.

The internet gave me access to tons of teaching videos and practitioner blogs and a whole world of people struggling along, and figuring it out, learning it and teaching it, and living it, too. A fresh batch of inspiration and knowledge served up every day, as needed, with pictures and video. Wow. This was THE missing element I think, in trying to have a home practice before: other people. Yes, you do your practice alone on your mat, but the feeling of being a part of a group who are all in this together is invaluable. Motivation by one’s self is much harder.

And man, I swear, with all the material out there, anyone who ever wanted to learn yoga has never had it so good in the history of the world! (Unless maybe they are the daughter or grandson of a grand master and happen to live in his house in Mysore.) The internet provides community AND inspiration, knowledge, and exposure, which keeps the goal (and mine has morphed a little as I’ve gotten deeper into the practice, but still includes not becoming an old woman who can’t look up) right in front of me. And remembering why I’m doing this gets me on the mat. (Most days. Nothing, especially me, is perfect.)

Other tricks for keeping what makes yoga exciting to you in your face: Posting photos near your yoga space? Important quotes? Reading biographies? Other practitioner Ancient texts? Reading yoga blogs is a big one for me. Watching high level practitioners do their thing can get me excited about trying something new. Occasional workshops can be a shot in the arm. Shame can work. Did you see that dude run in the Olympics with no feet??? I mean, shit. I’ve got no excuses.

Whatever your goal is, find ways to keep reminding yourself of it every day, that’s all I’m saying.

Okay, back to starting a home practice. Although there are tons of other styles of yoga, Ashtanga rocks as a home practice, and here is why: the series of poses is set. You don’t have to figure out what to do every day, which was part of my problem with the Iyengar stuff. If you’re starting out a home practice, and you’re doing Ashtanga, you’re doing Primary (or some of primary if you’re brand new) and that means you start with surya namaskar A and B. Bada bing. You memorize it, and you don’t have to rethink it every day. This is beautiful! You won’t get bored, okay? Trust me. And when just unrolling the mat is hard enough, not having to think about what to practice is a tremendous blessing.

Plus, Primary is a terrific series that works you this way and that and that leaves you feeling pleasantly high every time. It’s also great for beginners (something that teacher all those years ago failed to impart! I’m still bitter about that….) because you do the amount you can do and then you stop, do finishing poses, and you’re done for the day. The next day, you do that much and maybe you add a pose. Or not. You get stronger and you add a bit more. Before you know it, you do the whole thing. It’s such a great system!

PLUS your body gets used to it so that if you can get on the mat to just do the first asana…doing the rest becomes like falling down a hill. At this point, my muscles just want the next pose in the series and the next and the next. They’re used to it and they love it. If I can just get the mat out and get on, doing the whole series, or a big chunk of it, is nearly guaranteed.

Okay, a couple of quick materials recommendations to add to all of this talk of motivation….

Ease Into Ashtanga was really useful for me for breaking things down and being supportive and helpful.

David Swenson‘s videos were terrific to learn with for the beginner’s variations and his quiet sense of humor. His book is the THE book if you ask me, and a great reference when learning the series, to have by the mat.

Sharath‘s video was great for learning the Mysore count and getting a whole practice in in an hour, plus the sense of lineage.

And then there are all the women’s videos I reviews on that link above—several really good ones on that post. I’ve reviews others, too, just pull up the “reviews” category and scan for yoga vids such as Maria Villella, Lino Miele, or Anne Nuotio. Ashtanga.com has many of these and a ton of others. Find one or ten that turn you on and GO.

Next we have some internet videos: Kino’s vids , David Gaurigues’s Asana Kitchen, Sadie Nardini, who is not an ashtangi, has some terrific vids on many of the poses in Primary. So many others! Google is your friend! Oh, for inspiration, try Laruga for sheer gorgeousness in yoga. Or Grimmly‘s vids (he’s a dedicated home ashtangi) for his wonderful figuring things out as he goes—and don’t miss Grim’s fantastic blog for investigation and engagement with your practice. Claudia’s blog is great, too, especially her Sunday yoga round up posts. And both Grim and Claudia have side bars on their blogs with lists of DOZENS of other yoga blogs so you can find voices that speak to you and tune in regularly. I’m really just scratching the surface here! And this is all free!

To sum up.

How to start a home practice: 1) Get a mat. Manduka is good. 2) Get a decent video that will start you with the surys. 3) Boom, you’ve started.

Now: How to keep your new home practice going: 1) use the web to help you find regular servings of excitement, inspiration, community, and learning, in the form of internet videos and blogs where other people are doing what you’re doing. 2) Keep learning. Keep reading. Keep trying new things.

Basically, keep the soup pot of your practice simmering with new input. Don’t let it go cold.

PLUS keep your reason for practicing, whatever it is, in the forefront of your mind every day, to keep your motivation strong.

And that’s it. That’s my advice. I am so WORDY aren’t I?

P. S. Hey, if any of y’all yoga people are reading this, THANKS!! You all help me so much.

20 thoughts on “how to start an ashtanga yoga home practice, and how to fail at it (several times)

  1. Marion

    Hello and thank you for this post!

    I am just in this position right now and i’ve been looking for advice on how to start and keep at it.
    I’ve come from hatha and iyengar yoga and fell in love with ashtanga at my first class. I’m going to led classes once or twice aweek but I want to start practicing at home.

    Most of my led classes were at night thought. Body feels way more flexible! I’m so not a morning person and it is hard to hit the mat just after waking up…

    I decided to keep up with at least Surya Namaskara A and B everyday! If I over do it I quite often end up with back ache for the rest of the day.

    Blogs are indeed a great inspiration for me too!

    I’m having trouble with the detail thought and would love your advice on that!

    What do you do before starting the practice? Do you drink or eat anything ? How long after waking up do you start?

    Thanks a lot!
    I’ll keep reading your blog!

    Reply
  2. Exuberant Bodhisattva

    This is wonderfully written. So funny, and so true. A home practice is indeed a difficult thing to maintain. Mine began extremely slowly at the age of fifteen. My first video was Ali McGraw “Yoga Mind and Body.” Then I tried Rodney Yee’s “Yoga for Strength.” Started off with a few times a year. Going to a led class or two a few years later helped but it was always stop and start… I dabbled with different styles and levels of commitment for about six years before falling into Darby’s Mysore class. Just a couple months in, I knew that practice was something that I would continue to take, even when Darby wasn’t there. Around now is actually my five-year anniversary of starting mysore with Darby. I moved around a year ago so this last year has been mostly home practice. Certainly it has had its challenges, but having spent so much time practicing with my beloved community in Montreal, I know that I am part of something bigger and I am not really practicing alone. Congratulations on beginning and sticking with your practice. And thank you for this beautiful post! -Erica.

    Reply
  3. Louise

    I just came over here via Grimmly’s. I am probably going to be lurking for a while, I am fascinated…I LOVE your blog. Best Wishes and Hi from a 2 year home practising Ashtangeroo (usually Suryas – Navasana if the truth be told)

    Reply
    1. maya Post author

      Hello everyone! Welcome and wow, how cool to meet several new folks at once! Thanks so much for your comments.

      Marion, I fit my practice in around my kids, so don’t start until they’ve had breakfast and are situated in some project they’re into (that will last at least an hour, haha). So I’ve usually had a little breakfast (green smoothie is a favorite lately, as is coffee and toast, so its a small breakfast) and been up for an hour or two (if I got up to write it might be even more) before I start. I, too, am super stiff in the morning, but its okay, I just do my practice at 50 or 60% capability. It still seems to work.

      Bodhisattva, how cool that you got to practice with Darby!! You know, I think I tried that Rodney Yee vid at one point, he was hot, that’s all I can remember. 🙂

      Louise, welcome. What’s that, from Grimmly?… Oh! He’s got my post up on his blog, sweet! Thanks for the heads up. And I love the word astangeroo, haha. Suryas to Navasana is a terrific practice. NO SHAME. In my head I call the three poses after navasana “the Three Hard Ones” and then you get to rest in Baddha Konasana. I once timed it and realized that it only takes about 10 or 15 minutes to go from the end of navasana to backbends. When I realized this bit was so short in reality (it feels like eternity sometimes, though, doesn’t it?) I found I could talk myself into sticking it out to the end more often. What’s ten more minutes, right? Sometimes that works, anyway.

      Reply
  4. Kathy

    Thank you, thank you, thank you Maya! So helpful, and a fun read, too. I’m finishing up some physical therapy on my knee before trying to get a home practice going, but in about a month when that’s squared away, your advice is going to come in SO handy. Hope your holiday weekend has been great, and that we’ll see you soon.

    Reply
  5. Louise

    Hi Maya
    Since I read your answer to my comment I have been doing the full practise, every day, yes only 10 more minutes. It’s been worth it in every way and I think I’ve set the pattern now. Thank you for the timely reminder. Practise practise practise!
    Best Regards

    Reply
  6. Liz

    Thank you thank you thank you!!! So helpful for getting me to move in the direction of a home practice and stop moping around because there are no led classes or Mysore style in my area.

    Reply
  7. MatiRosero

    Thank you for this post! I’ve been practicing yoga for 5 years and Ashtanga for about a year and a half, at a donation-based studio, but I’ve never managed to stick with a home practice. The small studio I go to will be closing soon, and as there are not many options for Ashtanga within a reasonable distance, I feel like the universe is basically telling me “It’s time”. I know it will be a struggle, but this post (and your 3 years later post!) are an inspiration.

    Reply
    1. maya Post author

      So nice to meet you, MatiRosero. Good luck in your new home practice! We do what we have to and Ashtanga teachers are pretty thin on the ground, yes? Better to practice at home on our own than not at all…

      Reply
  8. Tricia

    This is very helpful. I’m a 51 year old woman who has been attending a regular Ashtanga class for eight years (first few years were only once a week). I tore my right rotator cuff in December then fell and broke both bones in my right arm in January. so basically i am starting over. I’m doing what i can each morning at home. no where near ready to go back to class. I’ve been feeling very discouraged but this helped trememdously.
    I agree that David Swensons book and video are helpful along with Sharaths.
    Thank you for the motivation to keep going!!!!

    Reply
    1. maya Post author

      Hello Tricia, oh my gosh, you broke your arm and tore your rotator cuff???? I am so sorry! Have you healed completely from the rotator cuff thing? Did you have to have surgery for that? Physical therapy? Wow. Well, you know, there is this amazing story about a ashtangi gal who LOST HER LOWER LEG and she is still out there doing ashtanga! Terrific pictures at that link. Very inspiring. Good luck with your journey!

      Reply
  9. Pingback: finding new motivation in ashtanga home practice: PUNISHMENT | mayaland

  10. Missy

    Stumbled across your blog and so glad I did!! I’ve been lurking on Grimmly’s and have been wanting to start a home practice but I am soooo not consistent. Been doing hot vinyasa at my local gym for about a year now and just started Bikram (groupon deal) but I just can’t relate to Bikram :/. I’ve realized that all the super cool bendy girls on instagram do Ashtanga lol and that seems to be my motivation as well! Your journey is inspiring! I hope I can start and keep at it as well.

    Reply
  11. Bekah

    Maya,

    THANK YOU! I have several books, DVDs etc. and just can’t make it stick, and never really got why, and apparently I am not alone 😀

    One question, I have gone back and forth with ability since the beginning of my attempts at yoga. Being that I have never had an opportunity to take a real Ashtanga led class (the closest certified instructor is at least a 3 hr. drive and I don’t drive in the first place!) I have no idea HOW to go about performing the series if I am not capable of doing very early postures (Chaturanga) Is it better to just do what little I can and modify through things I can’t do 100% (I can’t lower in Chaturanga bc my body is heavy and my arms are tiny…lol) and then go on past them if I am capable of postures past that? because honestly, stopping at Chaturanga, is just sad and makes me NEVER want to do it, and individually, I am flexible enough to do through Navasana on a good day…so you can see why it makes me want to scream and throw things to not be able to lower in Chaturanga! LOL! I found a GREAT modification video recently (Curvy Yoga: Chaturanga–thank you interwebs!!!) but I just dont know if its better to stop there and do it over and over and over and over a bazillion times for an hour, or modify and move on?

    Off to look at all the links now 🙂 Have a great day!

    Reply
    1. maya Post author

      Hi Bekah! Now listen, I am not a yoga teacher and this is just my opinion. But I couldn’t do anything close to chatarunga–I had my knees down for quite a while. If I were you, I’d go by the David Swenson/David Williams approach, which is modify modify modify. Find a version of each pose that works for you and feels good. Swenson has many many variations offered in his book, and I used a lot of them. As a home practitioner with no teacher, the buck stops with you, you’ve got to make the call. As long as what you’re doing feels really good, you probably aren’t going to injure yourself. So modify and practice as much of the series as you enjoy, in order, without skipping asana. Good luck!

      Reply
  12. Iris

    I’m so glad I found this article. I feel drawn to Ashthnga and have started (and failed) a home practice only twice so far. As I see it, I have many more attempts in front of me! 🙂 I was looking for other resources such as books and alternate videos as I get ready to start my home practice again. I found some great resources here so thank you for that. One resource I didn’t see mentioned here is Ashtanga for Beginners with Nicki Doane (video/dvd). It’s a great video that breaks down each pose step-by-step which helped me to learn at a slower pace. It’s not necessarily for yoga beginners. It might be best for those with some general yoga experience that are new to Ashtanga (if that makes sense.) Another reason it’s awesome is that, as you mentioned, it is motivational to watch as a woman rocks those poses. I just wanted to share. I’ll be reading more on your blog and I feel blessed to have found these resources today. Namaste.

    Reply
  13. Elizabeth O'Brien

    Great post, good on you for repeatedly returning to yoga, especially when you had kids, that inspires me to keep at my practice (I stopped recently for a few weeks and I’m finding it hard to get back into it). If you could start again so can I! And yes, for simply gorgeous yoga Laruga is just divine. I love watching her move through the postures, she has such grace and energy. But as for finding that over time, the practice becomes easy like rolling downhill – I disagree, in so far as my own experience goes. You definitely do build stamina and strength to get through it easier but there are still some days when just getting through half of it is a struggle! It’s been a rare occasion that I could say I flowed through my practice with joy and ease but the reward after the difficult ones of course made it worthwhile. Thanks for sharing this, inspiring and motivating!

    p.s. I have a blog too with a lot of yoga posts if you’re interested – http://www.elizabethjasmine.wordpress.com

    Reply
  14. Chantel

    Hello. I stumbled across your blog here and it truly speaks to my experience of maintaining a home practice. Oy!

    This line made me laugh out loud: Did you see that dude run in the Olympics with no feet??? I mean, shit. I’ve got no excuses.

    Thank you for the words.

    Reply

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