Mysore Style Ashtanga in Portland with Leilah Devi Q&A

The ways in which we learn to connect are expansive. Yoga as one of these methods has many paths and expressions. Each month we will be be focusing on a different practice and highlighting teachers. Meet teacher Leilah Devi. Leilah will be offering Mysore style Ashtanga Yoga Monday-Thursday 6-10AM, Sundays 9-11AM, and Fridays Led Primary 7:00AM at Burning Spirits Yoga. We interviewed Leilah to find out more.

Tell us what brought you to yoga or how yoga found you?

I’ve always been a fairly active person, and had been practicing mat-based Pilates from a book. I used to browse and check out books regularly from the Denver Public Library’s health and fitness section, and one day found a few books about Ashtanga, including Power Yoga by Beryl Bender Birch. One book by Liz Lark guided me step by step through the Primary Series. It said to practice every day, so I did it all again the next day. It took me 2 hours, as I had to keep turning the pages and reading, but I was able to do a lot of it. Of course I don’t recommend learning from a book! But that’s how I began. At the end of my second practice I felt so good, I remember thinking “Now I have to do this for the rest of my life.” I gave up my pilates exercises in favor of yoga. The spiritual and internal aspects of the practice made it much more interesting and fulfilling than simple fitness. Also the breathing techniques benefitted my mind, mood and nervous system in a way that I felt immediately. That was over 14 years ago, and I have been practicing ever since.

At that time I lived in Denver, and after a few months of self-practice I finally got up the nerve to take an actual yoga class. It was there I met teachers Joan Isbell and Annie Pace, who came to do a workshop in that studio.  Annie was a big inspiration to me early on. She taught in a very traditional way, had been with Guruji for years, and emphasized the importance of preserving the correct method through lineage. Soon after that I went to San Francisco to practice with Guruji and Sharat on their tour. Within a matter of months I was on a plane bound for Mysore, India. I practiced with Sri K. Pattabhi Jois at what was then AYRI, and was there for his 91st birthday.

Please tell us about Mysore-style Ashtanga Method and it’s benefits?

Mysore style derives its name from the Indian city where Krishnamacharya, and later his pupil Pattabhi Jois, practiced and taught it. It is from Mysore that Ashtanga yoga sprung, and it spread from there to the rest of the world. In this style of class, students practice in relative silence, listening to the sound of the breath. As the series never varies, the vinyasa is memorized and internalized, so that the asana practice becomes a moving meditation, and the focus is turned inward. The teacher assists, instructs, and physically adjusts students. The practice is individualized and made shorter or longer, easier or more difficult, more gentle or more intense depending on the needs and proficiency of the practitioner. This method makes the Mysore style one of the safest ways to learn yoga, as students can practice at their own pace, with a level of concentration that may be impossible to attain in a typical guided class. Mysore classes are held in the early morning on a daily basis, with one day off per week, as well as usually one day of guided class in which the teacher leads all of the students in unison. Practitioners are encouraged to attend daily, and may arrive to Mysore at any time, so long as they finish by the end of the class.

People say Ashtanga Yoga is only for advanced students, is it ok for newbies?

It makes no sense to say that Ashtanga is only for advanced students, because everyone starts Ashtanga practice at the same place, at the beginning. The only reason I can think of for this misconception, is that because students who devote themselves to this method tend to become more advanced practitioners than people who don’t. And no, I actually don’t just mean in asana, although perhaps most notably in that. Ashtanga emphasizes the importance of discipline and dedicated practice over time. Students are encouraged to work with one teacher for extended periods, and are thus able to progress in ways that students who haphazardly jump from class to class, attempting to practice randomly, are frankly not. The system makes few allowances, and practitioners are often inspired to do the work required to progress through the challenges. Therefore many long-term Ashtanga practitioners have exceptionally strong practices, which may lead to the misconception that the practice is only available to advanced yogis.

In fact, as I said, all Ashtangis start at the beginning. Proficiency at asana and depth of practice develops over time. Newcomers to the style, as well as complete beginners at yoga, are more than welcome in the Mysore room, so long as they are willing to commit to the practice for a reasonable period of time. And so long as they don’t expect to be doing handstands on the first day! In the Mysore room, all levels of student practice together. The only “bad” students are the ones who didn’t come to class!   

What inspires you to teach this method ?

I am inspired to teach this method by my conviction in its potential benefits, and also simply by my love of the practice. I knew early on that I would become a teacher, and that it was my dharma to preserve the lineage and the traditional method. Because of the powerful transformations which occured in my own life thanks to this practice, I seek to share its magic with others who may also benefit from it.

What can a student expect when they walk into the studio for the first time?

When a student walks into a Mysore class for the first time, he/she can expect to see people deep in concentration and meditation, as well as deep into some postures! There will be a palpable energy in the room. Often, the only sound may be the rhythmic Ujjayi breathing of practitioners. Perhaps a teacher will be giving hands-on adjustments. Hopefully the room will be hot and and even steamy due to the effort and body heat of the yogis (although this is not always easy to achieve in Portland!). It may be slightly intimidating for students who are brand-new to this style, especially if they have not received any introductory instruction. New students are encouraged to attend Introduction to Ashtanga classes in order to begin to familiarize themselves with the sequence and method. This will help to dispel any trepidation regarding self-directed practice. Communication with the teacher is also very important. In general, students become comfortable quickly,  and worries are dispelled as the focus is directed inward and the individual’s practice deepens in the atmosphere of the Mysore shala.

Can students just drop in time to time like Led classes?

Students are totally welcome to drop in from time to time if they are already familiar (at least somewhat!) with the practice and/or are current practitioners of the Ashtanga method. New students are not allowed to just drop in to the Mysore class, but are very welcome to attend upon making a minimum one-month commitment. This is because, due to the structure of the class, new students tend to require more energy from the teacher, as they must be directed and guided through a lot of new information. The teacher is happy to give this attention, and other students in the class are happy to forego some of the teacher’s time, but only when this commitment to the practice is offered in exchange. Otherwise, it’s a lot of energy to expend, with little reward for anyone. Many teachers recommend that students new to Ashtanga commit for at least one year before determining if the practice is or is not for them!

What happens with consistent practice?

So many things happen with consistent practice! Invariably, life changes. The body, blood, nervous system, and mind are purified. Control of one’s thoughts and emotions becomes possible, and the body becomes light, strong, radiant, and ideally, free from disease. A sense of equilibrium ensues that transfers to daily life off the mat.  Physical and psychic senses may be heightened. With dedicated practice, ethical precepts such as yamas and niyamas are integrated and firmly established in the character and behaviors of yogis. Often addictions are overcome, detrimental habits are replaced by positive lifestyle choices, and discipline is developed. Posture practice is considered to be a gateway to the more internal and spiritual dimensions of yoga, and students may find that their interests evolve from wanting to look and feel good in their bodies, to the pursuit of a spiritual path leading to self-mastery and liberation.

What do you want our Sangha to know about you and the Mysore program at BSY?

I want the sangha at BSY to know that I am here to support them in their practice. I want students to feel comfortable and welcome to come as they are, knowing that they enter a space of compassion and non-judgement, albeit also a place of physical and internal hard work. The fruits of yoga are only obtained with effort over a long period of time. I hope students will cultivate faith and patience in the process, as well as enjoying their practice in each present moment. My goal is to facilitate the multifaceted growth and blossoming that can unfold in students, through dedicated practice of Ashtanga yoga.

Mysore style Ashtanga is 6-10AM Monday through Thursday and Sunday 9-11AM, with the exception of Moon Days. Students may arrive at any time, but must finish by 10AM and 11AM on Sundays. We'll chant the opening mantra at the start of class.

7:00AM Fridays- Led Primary

Learn more about attending your first class here!

Chelsey Fowler