Ashtanga Yoga

Steeped in Tradition

"While a [drop-in] vinyasa class might fit better into my lifestyle, I can’t help but think I’ve been missing out on something important by practicing a newer, less traditional version of yoga," writes Erica Rodefer Winters. How do you balance tradition and innovation in your practice?

Every year around this time, I start thinking about traditions, and how I can enjoy taking part in upcoming holiday traditions without compromising my individual beliefs. (I skip the Thanksgiving turkey, for example, but I still take a seat at the table.)

Of course, tradition is an important part of yoga, too. A few weeks ago, I serendipitously happened into a workshop about the Ashtanga Primary Series. The experience made me consider the pros and cons of traditions in yoga. If you’re not aware, in the Ashtanga tradition, practitioners practice the same sequence of challenging poses six days a week. It is passed down from teacher to student and practiced Mysore style, which means the student is responsible for memorizing the pose sequence and practicing it at his or her own pace. The teacher, then, is free to work with students one-on-one. It’s a serious practice that requires discipline, focus, and an amazingly strong core!

Aside from the sheer physical challenge it presents, I was struck by something else during the workshop: Even though I know every vinyasa class is loosely based on Ashtanga Yoga, there’s a gargantuan difference between the traditional practice and the thousands of vinyasa yoga classes that take place in so many yoga studios today. In vinyasa classes, it’s common for blaring music and dim lighting to set the stage for a teacher who tells jokes and offers a new, creative sequence of poses every class to keep things interesting and entertaining. Sure, there are lots of Chaturanga-Up Dog-Down Dogs and a few other similarities, but it’s a very different practice from the serious (some would say monotonous) Primary Series.

I’m so glad that yoga is a versatile practice that can be modified to fit individual circumstances and make it more accessible to the masses. (And, really, the thought of walking into a Mysore-style Ashtanga class as a complete beginner makes me chuckle. I would have been so lost!)

For me, the holiday season is a perfect time to reflect on traditions, honor the many yoga lineages that have inspired my practice, and question whether I’m truly holding on to the parts of the traditions that help me become more mindful, compassionate, and balanced in my daily life.

As we approach Thanksgiving, I’m grateful for both the teachers who keep the traditions alive and for those who innovate and work so hard to offer yoga in a way that meets people where they are. I’m also thankful that I have the freedom and resources to practice what works for me and let the rest of it go–even if it’s completely different than what might have worked for me at another stage in my life. After all, one of the things that makes yoga so special is the ability to take part in longstanding traditions and the flexibility to make it your own.

How do you balance tradition and innovation in your yoga practice?