As I sit down and finally have time to write my next blog, I realise a month has passed since my last diary entry. Somehow, I lost track of time, like everybody else who has been dealing with the craziness upon approaching Christmas time, in Australia also known as the Summer Holidays.
Of course I love all the busy-ness, I have always relished working under pressure, but it did mean that my daily yoga practice became… well, more of a weekly yoga practice. However, I did manage to come up with some interesting results in this ongoing research of self-motivation to get on that mat as often as possible.
As I concluded in my last blog, I really enjoyed practicing with the video of John Scott’s Full Primary Series. This made me decide to investigate further so in the past few weeks, I have practiced with David Swenson, Petri Räisänen and Lesley Fightmaster. I had never heard of this last name before, but somehow she was mentioned to me twice recently so I decided to check her out.
Below you will find my findings about each video, but first, let me say this: if you a beginner, I do not recommend practicing (Ashtanga) yoga with a video.
I believe that any asana practice should be taught under the supervision of a teacher. And no, I don’t necessarily mean a certified, authorised or otherwise registered person. I simply mean a person with the right experience, able and willing to share knowledge with another person.
In my opinion, physical alignment, breath control and mindful transitions between poses are crucial for a safe and beneficial asana practice. Since these aspects differ widely per person, personal guidance is very important.
Example: if a teacher on YouTube says that for Virabhadrasana B the heel of the front foot should line up with the arch of the back foot, that may be the perfect alignment for herself or the hyperflexible model in the video. However, for a large majority of the other practitioners, especially beginners, this may not be ideal at all. I won’t go into the details as to why, but you know, ankles, knees, hips, pelvis, lower back, instability, etc…
Google it and you’ll find plenty of good and bad articles illustrating what I mean. However, when you are doing an online class, I doubt you would interrupt your practice to google your alignment options, even when you feel quite unstable and are pretty sure that you don’t look as gracious as that skinny lady in her pretzel pose on your screen.
I think I made my point. If you are a beginner, go to a yoga teacher to learn how to practice asanas. Once you understand the basic alignment principles and more importantly, once you know your own body well enough to understand its strengths, weaknesses, limitations and needs, I think you could benefit from recorded classes as a support and inspiration, not so much for instructional purposes.
My rule of thumb would be that you are ready to practice Ashtanga with a video when listening to the counting is enough and you don’t need to look at the screen to understand what to do.
I can think of at least one exception to everything I said before and that is when there are simply no teachers available to you. Before I discovered Ashtanga, I practiced with Vinyasa DVD’s while I was living in a small village by the Red Sea in Egypt where I later became one of the first yoga teachers. There were no teachers around so there was no choice. Although practicing with the videos may not have taught me perfect alignment nor the philosophy behind the asanas, it did keep my passion for yoga going.
Also a reason why Ashtanga yoga lends itself well for recordings would be that it is a fixed sequence, therefore once you are familiar with it, you don’t need to look at what the video shows you. Listening is enough (see my rule of thumb above). With Vinyasa or any other form of yoga that does not know a fixed sequence, you will probably need to look up from your pose to understand exactly what you are supposed to do, thereby compromising your alignment.
Anyway, don’t let my rant above discourage you. I just try to make you aware of the limitations and risks of practicing with a non-interactive teacher. The same could be said of a teacher that does not do any adjustments and is too busy demonstrating the sequence and poses to properly supervise the students.
So Ashtanga encourages self-practice every morning, either in a Mysore style setting or alone, limited to the asanas that you have been give by your real-life teacher(s). My problem with self-practice at home is that I am simply not good at practicing alone. I miss the energy of fellow Ashtangis breathing and sweating next to me, I miss the observing eyes of the teacher and the incentive of practicing in a group setting.
Practicing with a video kind of fills some of those gaps. It’s a bit like going to a led class with a teacher that doesn’t do any hands-on adjustments. It has the added advantage that you can fast forward to the finishing sequence if for any reason, you are not doing the Full Primary that day, a good reason being that you haven’t been given all the poses yet.
So here are my reviews of the recordings of the Full Primary Series by the four previously mentioned teachers.
I would love to get your feedback on how you feel practicing with these, or any other videos!
John Scott Ashtanga Yoga The Primary Series
Total duration: 1 hour 36 minutes
Practice starts at 3 minutes 25 seconds into the recording
The finishing sequence starts at 1 hour 17 minutes 30 seconds
John Scott guides you through the Primary Series with full vinyasas, meaning that after almost each seated asana, he returns to standing and goes through a vinyasa before getting into the next. Considering that he does all that in just over one and a half hour, you will find that it is rather fast-paced. He does however, give a lot of instructions to get into the pose yet his voice is quite relaxed despite all the cues he manages to give in a short time. Beginners will find that he does not give any modifications though, so be mindful if you haven’t been taught the full expression of a pose yet.
He also gives the exact vinyasa count (the number of breaths) to get into each pose and he counts in Sanskrit, which I love. However, his Sanskrit pronounciation is terribly American and to me, a little bit distracting in the beginning. After a while, I got used to it and I really enjoyed this practice.
Although you shouldn’t be looking at the video while practicing (you’ll never hear him say that the drishti in on your screen), you might notice that he jumps to the side and back to the front to get into and out of the standing poses and has his arms out to the side. I always practice (and teach) to step rather than jump and keep the arms in the waist, in order to bring some awareness to the alignment of the hips. If jumping is your thing, then by all means…
This recording is probably quite a few years old but traditional Ashtangis will certainly appreciate it.
David Swenson First Series
Total duration: 1 hour 56 minutes
Practice starts at 24 minutes 10 seconds into the recording
The finishing sequence starts at 1 hour 32 minutes 40 seconds
David Swenson is another teacher from the old lineage and although the video must be at least three decades old judging by his clothes, his teachings are still invaluable. The video starts with a thorough introduction on what Ashtanga yoga is, what the important elements of the practice are and how to do the Surya Namaskaras and Vinyasas. Very useful for beginners.
Interestingly enough he skips the opening mantra and counts only in English, instead of the traditional Sanskrit. He gives plenty of options for beginners and instructions how to get into the poses, possibly even more than John Scott. Also David likes to stretch his arms out and jump in between standing postures which makes me think that this must have been the way in the old days. This and also lifting the chest and chin on the inhale before getting into the standing poses is not practiced anymore nowadays. When practicing with Sharath at the main shala Mysore, students are explicitly told not to look up or back bending when inhaling before folding over into the pose.
Even though also David Swenson counts a little bit too fast to my liking, I use the time he spends giving instruction on how to get into the pose to get one or two breaths in and so I often manage to take about four breaths, sometimes even five.
It’s a brilliant video and I like practicing with David.
1 1/2 Hour Ashtanga Yoga Primary Series with Jessica Kass and Fightmaster Yoga
Total duration: 1 hour 24 minutes
Practice starts at 50 seconds into the recording
The finishing sequence starts at 1 hour 7 minutes 10 seconds
If you thought the previous two videos were fast paced, than this one will have you hyperventilating. In less than one and a half hour, Lesley Fightmaster has you running through the entire Primary Series. Somewhere halfway, you can hear her sucking on a candy which I found distracting, although I understand that you can get pretty thirsty talking and counting for 90 minutes non-stop.
As she emphasises herself at the beginning of the practice, this is not meant for beginners as she does not give any alignment instructions nor modifications. The girl demonstrating in the video has a pretty practice with a few quirky habits. She adopt Anjali mudra every time in Samasthitih and does Gyan Mudra with her loose hand in the seated poses, something Patthabi Jois discouraged. Indeed, you will see most traditional Ashtangis make a fist, but hey, each their own rituals!
The counting is in Sanskrit and Lesley has a pleasant voice, yet altogether this was much too fast for me. I breathe super slow, but Lesley counts the breath to get into the pose as the first of the five holding breaths and uses the fifth breath to get out of the pose, effectively holding the pose for only three breaths. Perhaps this is how they practice in downtown Manhattan or LA where people live in a constant rush, but my background is the lush jungle or lazy beaches of Bali and India, where everybody has the time to breathe and a full practice takes at least 1 hour 45 minutes. I must admit I have never been to Mysore so I don’t know what the average practice time is at the main shala.
But if you like a deep and intense practice, this would not be a suitable recording.
Ashtanga Yoga Led Primary Series with Petri Räisänen
Total duration: 1 hour 49 minutes
Practice starts at 8 seconds into the recording
The finishing sequence starts at 1 hour 17 minutes.
By far my favourite recording so far, because Petri, another amazing Ashtanga teacher, actually leads a class. It’s not a manicured, staged demonstration with a voice-over and edits. No, this is a real life led class, filled with Ashtangis of all levels and Petri guides the class through the Primary Series adjusting his pace and his instructions to the energy in the room. He does hands-on adjustments throughout and you can hear the shuffling, the panting, the jumping of the students.
He counts in Sanskrit and his Finnish accent make the pronounciation of the asanas much more acceptable to my ears. This class also lasts a good fifteen minutes longer than all the other ones. No rush, time for long deep Ujjayi breaths and best of all, when you practice with the video, you practice with 30 other students. I love it.
Another reason for me to love this recording, is because six years before this recording was made, I was there, practicing with Petri in Purple Valley. I know that shala, its echos, its smells and I know his voice. Petri was the first teacher to help me into Marichyanasa C without any struggle (he is an energy healer and renown for his amazing adjustments) and simply breathing through this practice at the count of his voice brings me back to India.
And to top it off, I also found in my digital archives the led class recorded with Petri when I was in Purple Valley. So last week, I practiced with that video as well and it’s almost identical to the online version with one major difference: I get to practice with my 34-old self and two of my friends who were there with me.
How is that for great company during a lonesome self-practice at home!