Ashtanga Mysore Style FAQ's
Mysore Style practice is the heart of the Ashtanga Yoga lineage.
The room is quiet and people are in all sorts of different shapes. The teacher is moving from student to student offering individualized instruction and assistance. The sound of the breath, the serious expression on people’s faces, the abundance of sweat, and the fact that everyone (except you) seems to know exactly what they are doing can provoke the urge to hightail it right back out the door. Whether you are in South Lake Tahoe or any number of cities around the world; a Mysore Style class definitely leaves a first impression. You need not be a yoga teacher or an advanced practitioner; once you understand what is going on and commit to the practice, you may discover that Mysore Style is an amazing forum for cultivating a transformative yoga practice.
What is Mysore?
1). a city in Southern India, Karnataka State.
2). a format of an Ashtanga Yoga class.
Pronounced as in: “My sore back is what got me into yoga.” or “Boy am I sore.”
This style of class is modeled after the Ashtanga Yoga classes in Mysore, India taught by the late Sri K. Pattabhi Jois. A Mysore class provides an opportunity for students to develop a “self practice,” which is an integral part of the Ashtanga Yoga method. Students work independently on the particular series of postures that is most appropriate for them. The teacher assists, adjusts and may quietly discuss particular difficulties or concerns with individual students during class.
What is the structure of the class?
Students need not practice for 2 full hours and can come and go anytime during the 2 hour window as is appropriate due to schedule, energy level and experience.
About ten minutes into the official start time of the class, the teacher leads the students through the opening chant. Sometime students come a bit early and begin warming up with sun salutations. However when the teacher announces the opening chant, they come back to stand at the top of the mat in samastithih and chant with the group. If a student finishes their practice early, they take rest for at least 5 minutes in savasana, or final relaxation pose, before quietly leaving. Some students may also arrive later in which case they enter quietly and set up their practice space.
If there’s no teacher leading the postures, how do people know what to practice?
The Ashtanga Yoga method is based on a number of specific series of postures which are learned over the course of time and are practiced on a regular basis. Beginning with the “primary series,” students gradually, one pose at a time, work through and memorize the sequence of postures. After becoming proficient in one series, the next series is slowly introduced into the practice a few postures at a time. In this way, yoga becomes an individual practice through which breath, feelings, thoughts and sensations may be observed.
What if I forget what comes next in the series?
You can think of the Mysore teacher as a human cheat sheet (we have actual cheat sheets too). Students learn a little of the series at a time and use repetition to commit various sequence to memory. The basic pattern is the same for all of the Ashtanga Series. The practice always begins with 3-5 of both sun salutations, Surya Namaskara A and B. This is followed by the same sequence of standing postures. Next the postures that are contained within a particular series are practiced. This is followed, no matter what series has been practiced, by backbends and finishing postures. A minimum of a 5 minute rest in final relaxation pose concludes the practice. When you first go into a Mysore class it can seem confusing; like people are just doing their own thing or are doing random postures. But once you understand the basic structure of the series, it starts to make sense.
Never hesitate to call a teacher over. That’s what the teacher is there for. Teachers scan the room to see who needs help, so usually if you just stop in your practice and wait, the teacher will notice and come over when she has finished helping another student. It is not advised to walk over to the teacher to get their attention—but they’ll see you if you signal them.
Why are there series? Why not just do what feels good day to day?
Different series are designed to address different and particular aspects of an integrated yoga practice. The primary series, for example, is grounding; the intermediate series is said to cleanse the nervous system. Following the prescribed sequence serves several functions. First, the series are designed to prepare the body for the postures that follow. Becoming grounded through the primary series makes the practitioner ready to begin opening into deep backbends (which are in the intermediate series) without becoming mentally scattered, emotionally imbalanced, or ego driven—which can happen if back bending is practiced without proper grounding. Also, following a series insures that the less appealing postures are part of the repertoire. It’s always a temptation to skip postures we don’t like and often these postures are the very ones that will benefit us the most. Finally, by doing the same sequences repeatedly and by practicing on a regular basis—ideally 6 days a week—a rhythmic and meditative form automatically arises. This process allows the students to practice deeply; to move beyond the external form of the practice into the patterns of thought and emotional that shape the body from the inside. As we give space to the inner recesses of our bodies, we slowly release ourselves from subconscious patterns of conditioning. This is the practice of Yoga.
What is so great about “self-practice?”
When there isn’t a teacher guiding a led class, the responsibility falls squarely on the practitioner to practice with authenticity and intelligence. This form of introspective practice allows the student to observe the feelings, thoughts and sensations that arise during the practice and to gradually stop grasping at the pleasant experiences while rejecting the unpleasant ones. It allows the student to cultivate a visceral understanding of change and impermanence and a meditative state automatically arises.
If I’ve never been to a Mysore class before, is it OK to just show up?
Yes! That’s actually a great way to begin the practice. It’s helpful if you have some idea about what Ashtanga Yoga is, but even if you’re not sure you’re up to speed, beginners are always welcome. Some students find it helpful to attend guided classes at the studio to get a sense of the Ashtanga system before checking out Mysore. We offer Intro to Mysore Series on a quarterly basis but this is not a pre-requisite if you want to dive directly into a Mysore class.
Who practices Mysore?
All sorts of people from beginners to long-time practitioners. The Ashtanga method is perfect for young, athletically oriented people. At the same time this practice is something that can benefit you when you at any age and at any phase of health. You’ll find that any given class has a wide range of age, experience, flexibility and strength in attendance. It can appear when you first walk into class that everyone is advanced, because people seem to know what they’re doing and because they are practicing on their own, but many beginning students practice Mysore Style.
How do I know it’s time to move on to a new posture or start a new series?
Students work with the teachers individually to determine when it is appropriate from them to move on, modify or experiment with new postures. Students are encouraged to practice within their capability of focus, strength and flexibility. We do not encourage students to breeze through a series or skip postures ‘they cannot do’ or don’t like.
Our Mysore teachers meet on a regular basis in order to offer a coordinated approach for students. We try to keep abreast of each student’s needs so that we can help the students from our own experience. The decision to move a student onto the next pose is not purely based on physical ability. The student's overall mental, emotional, energetic and physical gestalt is considered. Mysore Style practice is a process that requires time, consistency, patience, curiosity, introspection and dedication. It may take a year or more to learn the full primary series. Ultimately the practice is not about the postures themselves but the internal process they reveal. The mat the microcosm, is the laboratory where we run experiments and gather data about how we are predisposed to think, speak and act when presented with various circumstances. This data is then applied to the macrocosm of daily lifestyle practices and choices.
What is Ujjayi breath?
One central aspect of the Ashtanga system is the ujjayi pranayama — breathing with sound. A sound that is made by breathing through the nose but from the throat. A gentle contraction in the throat creates an audible whisper. Sometimes people get overly enthusiastic and may begin to breathe with too much force, but generally it is a smooth, even and non-aggressive sounding breath. The breath is intended to be a means of focusing the mind and inviting the practitioner enter a state of meditation. As a general rule, inhaling is associated with expansive, opening, spreading, lifting types of movements. Exhaling is associated with contracting, dropping, grounding and curling types of movements.
What are the bandhas?
Bandhas are internal seals that contain body and lend it strength and grace. The three principle bandhas used throughout the posture practice are mula bandha, the pelvic floor lock, uddiyana bandha, the abdominal lock, and jalandhara bandha, the neck lock. Bandhas stabilize potentially vulnerable areas of the body while imbuing the postures themselves with buoyancy and ease. With breath there is bandha. In general, the exhale is correlated with mula bandha and the inhale is correlated with uddiyana bandha.
What does “dristi” mean?
Each pose has a preferred dristi or gazing point. The gaze is another mindfulness training tool that encourages the student to attune to the sensations of their own body-mind. The gaze is soft and focused, never gripping nor darting. The most common gazing point is the nose, though some postures may have a gaze at the fingertips, the eyebrows, the hand or the navel.
I feel like when I practice by myself I get stuck and I think too much. Should I just go to a guided class instead?
When first beginning a self-practice it can be difficult to stay focused. That’s one of the benefits of memorizing the sequence slowly over time; by knowing what posture comes next and by simply keeping moving, the mind doesn’t have as much of an opportunity to wander. By keeping the gaze steady, the movement coordinated with the breathing, and by coming back again and again to the sound of the breath the mind gradually begins to release and relax and drop in.
Cultivating a meditative form of practice takes time and patience, but it is well worth it and cannot ever happen in a guided class to the depth that it can when doing self-practice.