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Fire Breathing Technique First Move – Toe Tap: My first 3 months with Ashtanga practice

As I started writing this, I have already practiced yoga for about five years now. It has also been about five years that I have been a skeptic about Ashtanga practice – not in a sense that it is not a strong practice, but that I would never ever like the practice. Part of the reasons is that the I started practicing yoga with a non-athletic body, and my ego would be threatened so much if I get stuck in one pose for a very long time. Hence, I have been avoiding the ashtanga practice while admiring the strength and flexibility of those that practice ashtanga at the same time.

About six months ago, I started to feel that I hit a plateau in my practice. It was not that I no longer enjoy the practice, but I did not see much progress. There were no new poses that I manage to be able to do. There were also some displeasures that I started to experience at my then-current studio. Hence, I decided to try out a new place that was recommended by my friend.

Funny prelude

Before I even had my first class at the studio, my friend has already “promoted” me to the teacher – or so she claimed. In a normal vinyasa class, this would not have any consequences because you will likely stick to the same sequence anyway. However, in a Mysore class, a higher expectation may mean you actually get more “homeworks” or “pushes” from the instructor.

On a completely unrelated note, when I first booked a class and told the instructor that I am quite new to ashtanga practice, I was also given a pre-work. The prerequisite is to familiarize myself with half-primary series sequence. Luckily, my knowledge of asanas from a teacher training came in handy, so it was not very difficult to recall the poses. I ended up practicing half-primary series for 5 days before my first class at my new studio – Overmoon.

During my pre-work, I encountered my main nemesis – which is still my enemy to this day: jump back and jump through. In ashtanga, after the standing sequence, a jump through is required to get into a seated poses and a jump back is done before a vinyasa to close the pose. My struggle is that my feet always touch the ground when they shouldn’t. This would also mean tucking my knees to chest more and pushing the ground harder… sigh… still working on them.

Rough start (though it felt good)

Although I did not expect, I didn’t feel so bad with my first practice at the new studio. With my egotistical nature, I typically feel quite displeased being corrected on basic asanas, but here, I didn’t feel bad (or at least not as bad as I typically do). To be honest, this should be expected also because there are quite a few differences between vinyasa and ashtanga style in terms of “alignment”. Plus, the holds during ashtanga practice allow for more opportunities for teachers to notice misalignment, hence correction.

The toughest part was that this is the first time in a long while for me to practice in a room without air-con on. I’m a sweat monster and I hate warm temperature. Combining that with high-intensity practice and high humidity level in Thailand, I easily turned into a puddle of goo in the middle of practice. At one point during my first few practices, Kru Beau (aka “Khun Mae” or “Mothership”) had to give me a new mat to prevent me from slipping on my mat.

The most surprising part and the biggest achievement was that I managed to get my heels over my head – with my teacher’s help of course. This is part of the “second half” of the primary series, which I did not expect that I would reach given that was my first time practicing ashtanga. Plus, considering my stiff legs from running, I have always thought that I would not be able to do all these flexible poses.

Of course, some successes also came with great struggles. Within two classes, I got quite a lot of homework (or “drills”) from the Mothership. Toe taps and L-sits are the must-do when you practice at this studio. These are the foundation to eventually get up to handstand press. Rocking up and down from Garba Pindasana to Kukutasana was also a struggle for me then as well.

Training with the Hashiras

The founder and main teacher at my studio love Kimetsu no Yaiba (Demon Slayer) just like the rest of us Thais. She even wrote a post once on Instagram about how ashtanga practice is actually a Fire Breathing technique, which, to me, is absolutely right because it causes me to sweat like mad. Hence, I would consider Kru Beau the Sun Hashira, which is perhaps the next level of all Hashiras.

Practicing at this studio is like a training with the Hashiras from the manga. You do a lot of drills based on expertise of each Hashira. Kru Beau is like the master of everything, so you get drills to build strength, flexibility, and also techniques. Hammer, another teacher at this studio, seems to focus more on endurance and counter poses – which is a perfect combination.

Back bend is one of the counter poses for handstand presses

However, as a manger reader could recall, the training with Hashiras is intense! The amount and intensity of drills increased over time. From toe tap, now we get drills to do handstand presses, handstand variation with transition, L-Set to jump back after paschimattanasana, etc.

As a result of the tough training, I finally got my first injury from yoga practice in a long while. Perhaps, this is a reference to deep stretching from the Love Hashira or the muscle soreness from the overuse with Stone Hashira. Anyhow, it was my shoulders and neck that got strained first. Then, my back hurts from deep back bends.

One of the wisdoms I learned during this injured period is that I need to have a balance practice – deep stretch together with high-intensity practice to make sure that I don’t lose my mobility after gaining strength to do all these crazy handstand presses. However, I still need to have bit more experience to strike the right balance between resting and pushing through.

Some successes from the trainings:

Many presses to handstands – this has been one of my life goal and I manage to at least have some access to it

Upper-body strength to easily and more stably access one legged crow

My next big next step is a teacher training with Kru Beau. I’m hoping to deepen my practice through this, but it seems that she is expecting me to do some teachings as well. This is both frightening and exciting at the same time. Wish me luck!

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