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Healing your body with Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga

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Ashtanga Yoga Berlin is located on Brunnenstrasse 185 which is in the Epi Centre of the Yoga Scene in Berlin Mitte: You can find all different Yoga Styles in Berlin Mitte: from Spirit Yoga, to Yogatribe, Iyengar Yoga to Ashtanga Yoga where I‘ve met with Grischa, the owner of the studio, to talk about how much discipline it takes to go on a lifelong Ashtanga Yoga Journey. 

Starting at 7 am in the morning, which is the best time to start your day with Yoga, I‘ve cycled through the dark morning of Berlin to join this quiet but warm atmosphere of Ashtanga Yoga Berlin. Practicing with awareness and the direct instructions which were whispered to me I experienced a variety of new wonders in poses I thought I had known for the last decade. Never has my lower back felt so good, so safe in Shavasana which is something I wouldn‘t have expected from the commonly known very strict Yoga style.

Hi Grischa, please introduce yourself:
Hi, I‘m Grischa, I‘m 45 years old and have got two little kids. I have a Bachelor in Computer Science and started my personal Yoga practice with a Shivananda Yoga teacher in between some IT projects. After a few months of intense practice my teacher recommended trying Ashtanga Yoga and I was hooked right away. I‘ve opened my own studio in 2004.

What is Ashtanga Vinyasa?
Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga is a traditional, intense Hatha Yoga practice method. It is based on an elaborate, precisely constructed sequencing of postures, breath and internal alignment. This methodological approach is the foundation of the amazing individual teaching method called “Mysore Style”. When taught correctly it is extremely safe and “self-therapeutic”. Pattabhi Jois learnt this method from his teacher Krishnamacharya in the early 20th century. Vinyasa indicates that this method is based on the Vinyasa Krama Hatha Yoga tradition. The term “Ashtau-anga” means “eight angas” and thus the eight components/layers of Yoga practice which were was defined in Patanjali’s Yoga Sūtra about 2000 years ago. The name is a hint that we are actually practicing a complex and ancient Yoga tradition that is not based on the ego of an individual teacher. It also means: Practice is studying the Shastra! Ashtanga is also the traditional root of many Yoga systems practiced today. If you want to learn more in Yoga –go back to the roots.

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Which series are you practicing at the moment?
To me that question is meaningless. It makes little difference practicing first, third or fifth series. The difference is not in _what_ series you practice but _how_ you practice. Some of my teachers were able to fold my body up into the oddest positions almost from day one. This was not because I was an advanced Yoga adept.  I was just (too) loose in my joints. If happiness depends on showing off and achieving (new postures, new series’, fame etc.) one is not a Yogi, no matter how crazy his or her physical practice may look like from the outside.
If you do not find concentration, inner peace and happiness in simple postures you won’t find it anywhere else. My teacher Richard Freeman was asked once: How many series are there? His answer was: As many as you need to realize this simple truth.

Have you been to Mysore?
I was in India a few times but I haven‘t been to Mysore. Out of love for my personal Ashtanga practice I have decided against going to Mysore 10 years ago for two reasons. Firstly I found my main teacher Richard Freeman around that time and wanted to practice with him as much as possible. Secondly I was honestly afraid of getting injured. This is an extremely difficult topic as my dearest teachers studied with Pattabhi in the 70-90ies and they have been taught truly amazing things. I have deep respect for the wonderful tradition that Mr. Jois has established and taught over so many decades.
But it is an extremely sad but well known fact that many people got injured in Mysore. I personally know quite a few of them. I knew at that time that my loose body needed core strength and precise alignment rather than crazy adjustments and even more flexibility in my joints.

When did you decide you wanted to start your own studio?
I had to because there was no Ashtanga school in Berlin. I was desperately looking for a daily practice place. My first idea was renting a little room and finding a teacher. Well then somehow one thing led to another and I ended up opening Ashtanga Yoga Berlin together with Nicole Verheyden.

What is special to you in Ashtanga? 
Ashtanga is intense yet extremely focused. It immediately led me into deep concentrated states. There is no entertainer, no show, very little talking and you learn to focus on yourself from day one. You immerse in concentration on your breath, on the linking of breath with movement and on moving precisely through the sequences with full attention on the present moment. Your alignment is centered and defined by the powerful bandhas (mainly mulha and uddiyana). Your brain activity is reduced as your eye movements are stilled by concentrating on drishti (focus points). One of the most precious jewels of Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga is the fundamentally different teaching approach called “Mysore Style”. We are teaching private classes – just in a group situation. You must try it to understand it.

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I have the feeling that beginners tend to hesitate to come to Mysore classes.
There is no reason for this. There is only one requirement for learning traditional Ashtanga: You need to catch fire – either by seeing or hearing about it and of course trying it – and do your practice. If you have no idea how Ashtanga feels like, join our “Ashtanga Flow” classes first. They make sense for Somuchmore Members and all students with a Vinyasa Flow or Jivamukti background. In these guided Ashtanga Classes we give you a good overview, a basic feel for the practice.
Anyhow – you enter a whole different universe with a regular Mysore style practice. We open our Mysore classes to Yoga practioners who are eager to learn this traditional form. It is not difficult but needs a solid commitment and a regular practice at least 3 times per week. A Mysore Style teacher will be right next to you, especially in the beginning! Each day your teacher will help you remembering a part of the Ashtanga sequence, a few postures at a time, and how to link them with your own breathing rhythm. How much you learn depends on your prior Yoga experience, physical condition, energy level and how often you come. As much as you will benefit if you come from other Yoga forms: Ashtanga Yoga can ruin your life –many practitioners end up being annoyed by music in a Yoga class, the constant babbling of a teacher in front and having to follow a rhythm that is not yours.

How often should Beginners step on their mats?
In the long run you should practice at least 2 -3 times per week, ideally 5-6 days.

Who decides when you‘re ready to switch series?
Ashtanga is a step by step process. The step between one series and the next is as big as the step from one pose to the next. In the beginning one normally gets quite a few postures in a short time. When things get more challenging it is ultimately the teacher who decides when it’s time for you to learn new postures. There are no fixed rules, it depends on many factors and normally comes naturally. If you are an eager (not: ego) student you will learn fast, but fast is relative.

Is overtraining a myth?
In traditional Ashtanga you are supposed to practice 6 times per week, except on Full Moon, New Moon and for women during their periods. This is a wonderful and extremely rewarding experience – if you have the capacity for it. If practicing Yoga is your only occupation, you have got enough time for relaxation during the day and you don’t have a family or other duties that need you – perfect. But even then – everybody is different and you need to take care of your own resources. For example my family has lately been more important to me than practicing an advanced series at any cost every single day.
When you force the practice and exploit your resources you won’t benefit from it.
Overtraining comes when you do not respect yourself as an individual with different needs than other people. But under-training also exists – if you are just lazy and find yourself inventing stupid excuses instead of just rolling our your mat!

Who are the current most important Yoga teachers?
For me, that‘s definitely Richard Freeman. Maty Ezraty, Chuck Miller and Nancy Gilgoff are very special teachers – to name just a few.

Can you name 3 Tips for SMM members on how to start with Ashtanga?
1. Burn all of your Cheat Sheets and just start being curious and committed
2. Start with our Flow Classes (Friday and Saturday)
3. Then join our Mysore classes at least 3 times per week

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Jelena Lieberberg

Jelena is a Yoga teacher, Singer, Speaker, Author and Mother from Berlin. Jelenais currently writing her column 'Dies.Das.Asanas' for Yoga Journal Germany and she will be introducing her Top 5 favourite Somuchmore Partner Studios on our Blog, starting with Spirit Yoga, where she also teaches.
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