Is Ashtanga Yoga really for everyone?

Or is it the practice of the young and physically talented?

Yoga in Serifos


“Anyone can practice. Young man can practice. Old man can practice. Very old man can practice. Man who is sick, he can practice. Man who doesn’t have strength can practice. Except lazy people; lazy people cannot practice Ashtanga Yoga.

–Sri K. Pattabhi Jois

This quote, from the man who brought Ashtanga Yoga to the west and is responsible for its popularisation sounds unrealistic to many.

If you google Ashtanga or look for a video on YouTube, chances are you will come across some young and fit people putting both legs behind the head, standing on their hands or bending backwards to catch their heels.

How can then Pattabhi Jois be right? How can this yoga be for everyone? Most people cannot even dream about accomplishing something like this.

What these pictures and videos do not show are two things: First, it takes many years of daily practice for someone to be able to do advanced asanas. Not even the most senior practitioners of this world were able to do these things when they first started. Second, Ashtanga is not just advanced series.

Pattabhi Jois also used to say: “First series is for students. Second series for teachers. Third series (and beyond) for demonstration”.

The demonstration (the “showing off” part) is not new, nor was it created by social media. It existed already back then. In fact this is how Pattabhi Jois himself was brought into yoga. 

When he was 12 years old, he came across a yoga demonstration by T. Krishnamacharya who later became his Guru. When Krishnamacharya managed to heal the Maharaja of Mysore from various health ailments, the Maharaja became a fervent advocate of yoga and asked his Guru to open a Yoga Shala in one of the palace’s wings. There, young students, among them Pattabhi Jois himself were giving regularly demonstrations for the Maharajas’ guests. 

So yoga demonstration was already used back in the 1920’s to make yoga known to people. And of course, the more advanced the asanas, the more impressed people were and wanted to try.

On the other side of this glorification of perfection and advancement in asana, there is another truth not so many people know unfortunately.

Ashtanga yoga is the most inclusive style of modern yoga. 

It is the only style of yoga where instruction is happening on a 1:1 basis. The student is required to memorise a set sequence, learning it little by little. The first few classes are dedicated to Surya Namaskar (sun salutations) only. The pace and frequency in which new asanas are introduced depends on the student, their progression is not forced or rushed because of the presence of other people in the room.

Moreover, even though the sequence is set, an insightful teacher will know how to adapt it to the needs of each and every student. We don’t teach the same way a 20 year old athlete and a 60 year old retired mother of 3. Everything is being taken into consideration, asanas can be modified and in some cases even omitted for a while.

The sequence is wisely constructed so that it starts with sun salutations and foundational standing poses which are accessible to most people out there. The practice becomes gradually more challenging. But again, a wise teacher will only present a student with challenges that they are physically and mentally ready to face.

Let’s not forget that the most important aspects of this practice are the internal, subtle ones; breath, bandhas and drishti, the so called “Tristhana” is an extremely valuable tool without which asana performance has no difference from a fitness class. But when we cultivate awareness, focus and intention through Tristhana then the magic of Ashtanga Yoga starts to unfold. And that is for everyone.

On my several trips to Mysore, I have seen and met many different kinds of practitioners: Women in advanced pregnancy practicing the accordingly modified sequence. A woman who had given birth only recently rebuild her practice while her baby was sleeping next to her mat. I have seen overweight people practicing. I have met elderly people who started to practice in their late sixties completing Primary series in their early seventies. I have met people who fought the battle against substance addiction with Ashtanga Yoga by their side, now being sober for decades. Once, at Led class, I saw a girl practicing with a prosthetic leg all the way to the end of the class.

All these people have something in common: An unshakable faith in this practice, a deep yearning to learn and evolve and a strong commitment to show up every day regardless of how they feel. I have no doubts that these three traits combined beat any sort of natural talent or “good genes”.

This practice builds character. It builds self confidence and helps develop clarity. We are spending so much time alone on the mat, day after day, year after year, that it is impossible not to see all or issues and weaknesses exposed. Then we have the choice to work on them and turn them into strengths. 

So I would say that yes, this practice is for everyone but of course not everyone will be naturally drawn to it. It typically attracts the overachievers, A-type personalities, people who love challenges and discipline. However, I’ve seen many students who would probably qualify as “lazy” at first glance, completely change within a year or two of daily practice. It can bring out qualities in people they didn’t know they had. And this is one of the most amazing things about Ashtanga.

The myth we need to bust, especially us teachers, is that Ashtanga Yoga is only for the physically talented. This can scare people who would otherwise profit greatly from this practice. 

I hope, from the bottom of my heart, that teachers will treat Ashtanga the way it deserves, making it accessible to ANYONE who has a genuine and honest desire to learn.