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A Gentler Approach to Ashtanga

Yoga teacher Pranidhi Varshney sets aside the conventional emphasis on perfection and instead values progress of a different sort.

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Ashtanga teacher Pranidhi Varshney, featured on the cover of the Spring 2022 issue of Yoga Journal, brings a less common approach to Ashtanga classes with her easygoing vibe and accessible manner of teaching that strays from the traditional structure. Curious, we asked her to explain the “why” behind her style and to share an Ashtanga sequence so you could practice along with her.

There is a perception that Ashtanga is regimented. It’s a tradition of yoga in which you progress through a set series of postures, and only when you have achieved a certain level of proficiency in a pose or a series of poses do you advance to the next posture or series.

The Ashtanga world is also notorious for its power structure, since students must sometimes wait for the teacher’s permission to move into the next posture or series. That kind of hierarchy can be toxic. Ideally, respect would go both ways between teacher and student.

Some Ashtanga teachers follow the script exactly, but I think most are going off the page. Almost any teacher has seen all kinds of bodies and understands that you have to make the practice accessible.

I was fortunate. I was offered the postures very freely by my teacher, Manju Jois, and that’s how I thought I should teach.

It’s funny, people often assume because I’m Indian, I started practicing yoga very early on. I actually started practicing along with a VHS tape when I was in high school, and I was very casual about it until I went to college and came across an Ashtanga primary series class at a studio. I soon became hooked.

I experience such benefits in practicing Ashtanga, especially the second series. It would be unfair of me to withhold it from students who haven’t completed the primary series. Who am I to say you should or should not come into a pose? You decide! It’s a conversation. I want students to feel they have agency.

When determining whether to suggest to students that they progress, I look at how a student is breathing, their stamina, their level of commitment, and I’ll ask, “How do you feel?” Perhaps they don’t feel ready—maybe they’re in the middle of a job transition or their kid is sick or something else may be happening in their life that is affecting their focus. I want the student to feel comfortable communicating, to feel that their progress is a collaboration. They need to learn what feels right and what doesn’t in their own body. All they need is a little guidance.

Pranidhi Varshney in Half-Frog Pose
(Photo: Ty Milford)

Learn more: Experience Pranidhi Varshney’s approach to teaching yoga

I like to think of the poses in the individual series in Ashtanga as building blocks that you can arrange in different ways to suit your needs. I find it to be such a beautiful practice and one worth sharing.

I consider the way I teach “traditional” because this system has always been adapted to each student. That is the tradition. We can add things that serve us, and take away those that don’t.

My priority is to make certain I am teaching in a manner that is empowering. Then, when a student can’t come to class, they can still come to their practice. If the student has become so dependent on the teacher that they need them to practice yoga, the teacher is failing the student. Ultimately, the practice lies within each person.

About our contributor

Pranidhi Varshney is the founder of Yoga Shala West, a community-supported Ashtanga Yoga studio in West Los Angeles. She is also mother to two children who she describes as “courageous and wise little beings.” The thread that runs through all her work is the desire to build community and live from the heart.