“Ashtanga is the ballet of yoga”


Ashtanga Yoga is a set series of postures, with choreographed breathing and transitions between the postures. Because of this, it is suitable for a solitary home practice, or group. Most people can learn the 72 postures in the Primary Series. Following the Primary are five more sets, each more difficult than the previous one. They are truly a lifetime of challenges for the devoted—and Ashtangis are devoted to their yoga.

Dedication is a must for other physical practices, too. Dancers must be totally dedicated to the art and practice to be successful.

Recently, I polled a Facebook Ashtanga Home Practitioners Network group asking who had studied dance and to learn what drew dancers to Ashtanga. Their responses describe the beauty of Ashtanga. Please note I edited for brevity, spelling, and grammar.

C. L. wrote about the major similarities, “It’s [yoga] a methodical development of technique and skills. It’s passed down from devoted teacher to devoted student. It’s as much a mental workout as a physical. You can easily gauge your development over time due to the repetition of set skills. It is a lifestyle, a path of life-long learning, and has clear set goals.”

B. E., “Definitely rhythm of movement.”

D. A. remarked, “Both have a specific language—always French, always Sanskrit.”

L. O.: “I think it's partly just that dancers are so kinesthetic and Ashtanga and yoga, in general, is too. There is a meditation, a losing of oneself or a real being in oneself that I find in both things. That bliss feeling I remember from my very first Ashtanga class is the same feeling I got performing a dance piece and being really in it, rather than agonizing over the look of each pose in, say, a class with a mirror. It’s sheer body intelligence, no thinking, which is nicer than the dance but relates to the performance. Both dance and Ashtanga are finding flow, creating and moving energy in space. And yes, dancers know how to get up in the morning and go to class if nothing else. For decades I got up and went to class. Then I got up and went to class. It was like closing a loop.”

D. R. wrote: “The concentration, the bandhas [energetic locks], …  the way movement and gaze work together are similar—so dance is a form of vinyasa [connecting sequence of postures], too, and the intensity, concentration. I am still a dancer and choreographer.”

S. H., “Because we are gluttons for punishment!”

D. N.: “I was a professional dancer (ballet and modern dance) back in the ’70s and early ’80s. I’m also a martial artist  …. To me, the Ashtanga yoga asana practice holds several elements in common, … , including: 

  • requires dedicated, consistent, and wholehearted practice 

  • deeply involves body control and mental consciousness development 

  • as skill develops over time, subtle nuances in one’s understanding and usage of ‘energy’ are refined 

  • allows/assists one in recognizing, changing, redefining, and accepting one’s self”

Devotion, discipline, traditional transmission of knowledge, mental and physical development, intensity, concentration, and focus are similar in both dance and Ashtanga. Of course, talking about similarities leads to a discussion of differences.

G. H., “I have my MFA in dance … I would say that both dance and Aṣhṭanga share a focus; however, many times in dance that focus is outward, while in our practice, that same focus is inward.”

E. M., “I did a lot of dance before, … and I think this is why flexibility was easier when I started yoga. I think dance is the hardest sport and job as it is art at the same time—but in yoga, it’s all about connecting body and mind, no mirror, just feel and see progress coming, without the pressure, comparison and excessive goals. I do love it more than anything else, and it respects the body and its limits too, it’s softer but requires the same discipline.”

P. M.: “I was drawn to the non-perfectionist, non-comparing, and non-judging aspect of yoga; I just always loved to work with my body and find that connection and contentment it can bring. Nothing better. I still love to dance, but I will always prioritize my yoga now.”

R. R. wrote, “… Injuries are common to both; however, if we maintain proper alignment and humility, Ashtanga can be much more physically healing.”

S. B., “The huge and interesting differences I have experienced are that it’s easier for me to be more meditative in dance than yoga, and that the midline engagement in yoga is really mandatory, whereas in dance, in particular ballet, with turnout the lateral line is more of a focus.”

The desire for mastery of body and mind came up—

K. W.: “When one works towards mastery of other art forms, the more you realize you have only begun to scratch the surface. The physical first, then emotional and mental and then we get to the energetic and beyond that to a sense of being, of oneness. Ashtanga appealed to me because I was missing more of the mind-body-spirit union. When I began Ashtanga in ’94 with David Life, I saw how weak, fearful, and competitive the mind of a performer is. Yoga gave me a deeper sense of non-self and connection to something higher. Combined with mindfulness meditation, Vipassana, it saved me. These qualities are also in martial arts, in which I also trained (minus the fighting applications). There is a danger in Ashtanga to get into the ego and there is the paradox to be and not strive, but at the same time go deep. Experienced, long-term practitioners have a sense of humor, humility, and a subtleness to their practice that lacks strain. Guruji [Jois, founder of Ashtanga] said, ‘Do your practice and all is coming.’ I was out of practice for along time due to parenthood and many excuses and now I’m my ‘old age,’ haha, I approach the practice differently.”

And finally, the artistic element.

L. F., “… To me, Ashtanga is another art form.”

G. F.: “… For me, dance is the freedom and yoga the discipline. And then finding the freedom in the yoga and the discipline in the dance.”

W. M., “ … the yoga practice is like a prayer and the dance is like flying.”

N. L.: “I think what’s in common is that in both disciplines there is something beyond the mere postural practice; for Ashtanga it is the spiritual dimension, for classical dance it is Art.”

Teresa W.: “… I tried a lot of different types of yoga. Ashtanga stuck with me—to me, it’s the ballet of yoga.”

As you can read from these excerpts, Ashtanga is the perfect home practice for certain types of people wishing to reap the pleasures and benefits of a disciplined, daily, physical, mental, and spiritual practice. Contact me to learn more.