Ashtanga Yoga’s Rigorous Poses Have Helped My Mental Health So Much During the Pandemic

I don’t know how I would have made it through the pandemic, and my transition to living in New York City, without Ashtanga yoga. I moved to NYC from Hong Kong in January, two months before the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic. Throughout the 18 months of the immigration process, I found myself riding a wave of emotions—from frustration to anger and sadness. I decided to devote myself to Ashtanga yoga, which I had encountered during a trip to Mysore, India, the birthplace of the practice. The practice has so far given me such emotional stability.

Ashtanga can be an intimidating practice. For one thing, it’s quite physical and athletic, particularly when compared to Hatha yoga (which is the kind of yoga that probably comes to mind when you hear the word yoga). The Primary Series, which I’ve been practicing for eight months now, is the foundation of the Ashtanga method. It’s made up of a variety of asanas (postures) that are done while standing, seated, and twisting, as well as in backbends and inversions. When I first started practicing it, I found myself getting frustrated. I couldn’t touch my toes and balance myself in seated poses like Ubhaya Padangustasana (or Double Toe Hold, which you can see here).

Plus, halfway through class, I’d feel tired; the practice lasts for about 90 minutes, which is longer than any non-heated yoga classes and a long time to practice a sequence of challenging poses.

Despite—or maybe because of—how physically demanding Ashtanga practice can be, I’ve come to love it. I’m drawn to its graceful fluidity and the use of the Tristhana method, which combines asanas, Ujjayi pranayama (breath), and drishti (focused gaze). When I synchronize each movement with deep breathing, I find myself immersed in a moving meditation. When I hold a pose for five breaths or longer, gazing at one single point keeps my mind focused. “When you practice the Primary Series, first you’ll feel the changes on the physical level,” 78-year-old R. Saraswathi Jois, daughter of the late Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, an Indian teacher who popularized the Ashtanga practice and started the Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute in 1948, tells SELF. “But when you incorporate proper breathing and gazing, your mind becomes sharper, more controlled, and focused.”

The traditional way to practice Ashtanga is Mysore-style, where a group practices together with each person going at their own pace and an instructor assisting people as they go, rather than leading the class through a sequence. But during the pandemic, I’ve practiced alone in my apartment. This consistent practice is what I need to achieve both physical and mental progress.

Pursuing the practice can be daunting especially because living in New York City means I’m surrounded by what feels like an inescapable hustle and bustle at all hours. But the practice helps me slow down, separate myself from the chaos and the pace of the city, and finally stop my mind from racing thoughts, which allows me to look deeper and more calmly within myself. It’s also what gets me out of bed before sunrise and onto my mat. This practice helps me work on mastering self-discipline and the skill of persistence.

Practicing the same sequence six days a week may sound boring, but it’s not for me. Whenever I show up to the mat, I encounter new challenges. Sometimes I can’t plant my foot firmly on the ground in standing poses like Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana (Hand-to-Big-Toe Pose), making me feel unbalanced as I fight the trembling base leg. Other times I can’t touch my toes in Janu Shirshasana (Head-to-Knee Pose) because I feel discomfort in my knees or have a tight hamstring. When my body moves into an unfamiliar pose and goes deeper into it, I accept the discomfort and try not to run away from it. The way I face challenges on my yoga mat helps me reflect on how my body and mind respond to a perceived challenge in life.

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