“It is important to practise for a very long time before you start to teach,” says Claire Saunders. Here’s why.
My journey to becoming a yoga teacher was completely unplanned. Before teaching ashtanga yoga, I had, for more than a decade, a successful and fulfilling career as a linguist. On my first visit to Mysore to study with Shri K Pattabhi Jois and Paramguru Sharath Jois in 2005, I thought that it would be a once-in-a-lifetime trip, never to be repeated. That was 12 visits ago. At present, I teach a daily Mysore programme at my shala, Ashtanga Yoga Shala Provence, which is based in a small village in Provence, in the south of France. Teaching for me is about sharing what I learned from my teacher, Paramguru Sharath Jois, and what I have discovered while doing self-practice.
I don’t believe that the best teachers are necessarily those who are most well-known, have the most number of students or have the biggest shalas. While I believe that yoga is beneficial for everyone, I do not feel it necessary to convince anyone that they need to do it.
I absolutely love teaching Ashtanga yoga but it is being a student and continuing my own practice — doing self-practice at home alone or with my teacher Sharathji in Mysore, that is my true passion. It is an essential part of the practice to have a teacher. We need a teacher to guide us in the right direction, and a good teacher will also keep us humble and keep our egos in check. Under the guidance of a good teacher, our energy continues to flow more freely — from our teacher through to us. We can see where we need to grow, what we need to work on and what our limitations are.
A good teacher will also be a source of strength and support when we need. When we stop going to a teacher or continue our own practices, our energy stagnates and it becomes too easy for our egos to grow.
The ashtanga system is incredibly complex and deep. It takes years of daily practice (under the guidance of an experienced teacher) to really understand the details (the breath, the alignment and where to look). It’s a very logical set of sequences that build step-by-step on what comes previously. This means that we often do not become aware of the importance of certain aspects of the practice until we have mastered what comes much further along in the practice. In this way, it was not until I was quite established in the third series that I came to understand the importance of much of the alignment of the primary series.
“For me, ashtanga yoga is not a physical practice. It is and always has been a moving meditation.”
Additionally, long-term practice gives further insights into the effects of the practice. Certain movements might not be harmful if you do it once or twice but over a long time, the wrong movements might actually result in injury. For this reason, it is important to practice for a very long time before you start to teach.
For many people, it may seem strange when I say this, but for me, ashtanga yoga is not a physical practice. Of course, it has a physical aspect, but for me, it is and always has been primarily a moving meditation. It is quality me-time. A way to process my emotions and thoughts — and as a bonus, yes, it does keep me physically fit.
The ashtanga yoga system with its coordination of breath, movement and where we look, gives our mind and thoughts the ability to turn inward. Thanks to this technique, we have the capacity to focus increasingly more on ourselves and less on what is going on around outside. When we practice regularly, daily, over a long time, the postures usually become easier on a physical level (age, injuries and pregnancies aside) and this allows us to give more focus to the breath and any thoughts that arise. Many of our thoughts dissolve when we practice — we see what is important and what we can let go of. Then for those thoughts that remain, we often gain a better understanding and greater clarity of what it is that we need to do. Often gaining a clearer sense of direction of where we should be putting our energy. It can also give us a new way of looking at what problems we are facing and enable us to find solutions to these challenges. Sometimes these answers/solutions are simple and present themselves quickly — others can take years or a lifetime.
When we practice daily — over an extended period of time, we are better able to observe changes from one day to the next. This starts the process of reflection — why was practice today a little easier/ more challenging than yesterday? Perhaps the amount of sleep we had was different, or was it something we ate (or didn’t eat), or a conversation we had that made us feel a certain way, or the weather, or our work? We observe and notice the effects that these external factors have on our practice. Once we observe these effects, we are in a position to make conscious choices about what we do throughout our day (what we eat, who we talk to, when we go to sleep, the type of work we do, and so on).
The choices that we make are conscious but without judgement. It is not that one choice is better than the other, it is simply that different choices result in a different effect on our practice. For example, when I eat more cheese, my physical practice will suffer the next day. This is not to say that cheese is bad. I just observe that when I do eat cheese, I will feel a little heavier or perhaps a little stiffer. Then, knowing this, I can make informed choices and take responsibility for the outcome: East less cheese and have a better physical practice the following day or choose to eat cheese because it gives me pleasure and this is more important to me at this time than being flexible on my yoga mat the next day.
An essential component of ashtanga yoga is the vinyasa or the coordination of the breath and movement in and out of postures. Many students have mistakenly called the jump back and forth between seated postures as the vinyasa. When in fact, this is usually several vinyasas or separate movements. For example, surya namaskar A has nine counted vinyasas or separate breath and movement coordinations, and the jump back and through between the left and right side of jānuśīrshāsana A has seven vinyasas. The guided classes which are conducted at the beginning and end of the week in the ashtanga system count the vinyasas.
To do the exact vinyasa — that is, to not take any extra breaths at all while moving into or out of a posture, is actually very difficult to do. It is a physical aspect of the posture but also requires a lot of mental strength and focus. It is this focus that calms and strengthens the mind. When we are able to practice with this focus and take exactly the same number of breaths in and out of the postures as there are vinyasas, we have the opportunity to let go of ideas and thoughts that do not support us. In this way, observing the correct vinyasa becomes a process in which we can change the way we think. It gives us the chance to open our minds and change our perspectives which then, in turn, allows us to make changes off the mat. The reverse is also applicable here. When we take more breaths than we need getting into and out of a posture, our minds become more distracted. Our focus is weakened and as a result, nothing much really changes off the mat.
In addition to the mental strength that we develop when using the correct vinyasa, we can also build enormous amounts of physical strength. As a woman, I have never had the same external, physical strength as a man, but when I utilise the correct vinyasa while practicing ashtanga, I’m able to perform postures that require a lot of strength. This physical strength from using the breath is beautiful as it is an inner strength and not an outward force.
In ashtanga yoga, there is a rhythm to the breath. When we breathe too fast, then we don’t spend enough time in the posture to observe the thoughts and emotions that come up while we are in that posture, so we aren’t able to let go of those thoughts and emotions. On the other extreme, when we move too slowly, then we start to think too much and that makes us heavy. There needs to be a certain rhythm that allows us to move beyond our thoughts.
The rhythm of the breath is a little bit like the elements — if we don’t have enough water, then there is a drought and it is dangerous. Likewise, when there is too much water/rain, there are floods and it is also dangerous. We need to find the middle balance. It is the same with the breath. Not too fast, but not too slow. The middle path.
The exact speed at which we breathe is not fixed. There will always be some variation in breathing rates between different people and a difference between our own breath from day to day as we have different thoughts and emotions that arise. This is a big advantage of the Mysore-style individual practice in a group class. It allows each student to respect their breath on each particular day.
Another way in which I have personally worked with my breath has been through music. I began learning the western silver flute in 1985 and on one of my earlier trips to Mysore, in 2007, I had the great fortune to meet Ravi Shankar Mishra and start taking Bansuri (Indian bamboo flute) lessons. Interestingly, for me, the more I learn and play Indian music, the greater I am able to understand my yoga practice. Both are beautiful forms of traditional Indian learning, honouring perfection and working with the breath to calm and focus the mind while opening the heart.
Claire Saunders is a Level 2 Authorised Ashtanga Teacher. For her teaching schedules, visit Ashtanga Yoga Shala Provence.