By Gabriela Díaz | Special to The Tico Times
We enter the studio in silence and roll our mats out in near darkness. A few candles cast a dim glow on our teacher, who sits in meditation, wrapped in a blanket. In a dreamlike state, our bodies start to bend and twist. It’s 4 a.m. and our creaking bones and deep breathing are the only sounds to pierce the stillness of brahma muhurta, Sanskrit for the time of universal consciousness, the hours before sunrise. Slowly, the sweat starts to break.
Ashtanga yoga and other spiritual disciplines are traditionally practiced during brahma muhurta, when the world is silent and the mind fresh. At its source, in Mysore, India, the Shri K. Pattabhi Jois Ashtanga Institute opens its doors at this hour. In San José, Costa Rica, Namasté Yoga Studio, located near Hospital México, follows suit.
The studio, founded by Mariela Cruz, the first Central American and third Latin American authorized to teach ashtanga by the now deceased guru Shri K. Pattabhi Jois, celebrated its 11th anniversary in June.
Namasté is the country’s only studio dedicated to the serious practice of ashtanga yoga taught in the tradition of Pattabhi Jois, fondly known as Guruji.
Ashtanga varies somewhat from other types of yoga because it is a rigorous discipline that involves as much physical effort as internal work. “It’s the most demanding yoga. It’s not the ‘fun’ yoga where you go to the studio to socialize. It’s internal work and you have to be consequent,” said Cruz, who after 12 years of practice and nine trips to Mysore still considers herself a beginner. Despite the challenging nature of ashtanga, anyone who is interested can take up the practice.
Guruji’s grandson Sharath Rangaswamy, who, along with his mother Saraswathi, took over the Ashtanga Institute in Mysore after Jois’ death, claims that “anyone can practice yoga – young people, old people, sick people, fat people, weak people. The only people who can’t practice yoga are lazy people.”
Ashtanga, which translates as “eight limbs,” is a system outlined in the sage Patanjali’s “Yoga Sutras,” a classical text on Raja Yoga, the royal yoga. The eightfold path described in the sutras involves a set of ethical guidelines and spiritual practices ultimately leading to a state of enlightenment referred to as Samadhi. The practice of asanas, or postures, is but one of the eight branches.
“In ashtanga yoga, the asanas are very attractive and acrobatic, but they are just the tip of the iceberg. When the body starts to breathe and calm down, you start to enter another space of consciousness,” explained Cruz, adding that “it doesn’t mean that life will get any easier, but you will have the resources to resolve what comes up.”
María Lourdes “Lula” García, a 51-year-old industrial engineer who runs a catering service and has practiced at Namasté for over a decade, agrees with Cruz.
“Ashtanga has given me strength. It has helped me to make decisions that I couldn’t have made otherwise, things that were holding me back. My practice has helped me love myself,” she said.
All is coming
Ashtanga yoga is practiced six days a week. Traditionally, Saturdays are rest days and the practice follows the lunar calendar, with full moon and new moon days taken off for rest. Because ashtanga is so physically demanding, it is recommended that women do not practice during menses.
The practice is done on a Mysore rug, a cotton rug placed over a yoga mat or on the floor to absorb the large amounts of sweat generated in each session. In Costa Rica, Mysore rugs shipped directly from India are sometimes available at Namasté Studio.
There are six series in the ashtanga yoga system, although only the first four are documented. Each series is a sequential arrangement of postures with a specific aim: The primary series aligns and detoxifies the body; the intermediate series cleanses the nervous system; and the advanced series provide steadiness in body and mind.
Students are responsible for learning the series, and lessons are taught in two styles, Mysore style, in which they practice the sequence individually while teachers make adjustments, and led classes, where the teacher guides students through the series.
The ashtanga method uses vinyasa, a system of breathing and movement, and the tristhana method of three focal points for the mind during each asana: the posture, the breath and the drishti, or gazing point. Ujjayi breathing, a Darth Vader-like, deep breathing technique where each breath passes through the throat, is practiced throughout. The sweat produced as a result of these techniques is considered cleansing and detoxifying.
Guruji’s most famous words are perhaps “practice and all is coming.” Their meaning is clear to ashtangis everywhere, whose first understanding of these words is through the sense of peace and equanimity that arises after each session – a feeling that is difficult to describe.
Medical student Roberto Carter, 25, who has studied at Namasté for over a year, said that “after practice, few things appear to be wrong in our lives, almost everything has a solution, many times this solution is less complicated than we thought … but our perception fogs and hides this. Everything is lighter, life happens more in the present, less in the past or future.”
Pattabhi Jois learned the ashtanga vinyasa method from his teacher Krishnamacharya (1888-1989), who developed it in the 1930s for young men, primarily. Most of the yoga styles practiced today stem from Krishnamacharya’s work.
Jois, a Sanskrit scholar, preserved and refined Krishnamacharya’s method, initially teaching in a modest yoga hall at the back of his home in Mysore. Western students started trickling in during the 1960s and ’70s, and in the next decades, ashtanga yoga spread all over the world.
In Costa Rica, Namasté Yoga Studio offers Mysore style and led classes, workshops, yearly retreats, and hosts a teacher training led by YogaWorks, a company founded by a group of Pattabhi Jois’s first Western students with headquarters in California. The next training will take place Aug. 20-31.
For more info on teacher training, schedules or fees, visit www.ashtangayogacostarica.com. For more information on ashtanga yoga or the Shri K. Pattabhi Jois Institute in Mysore, India, visit www.kpjayi.org