"ASHTANGA is the single best thing you can do for flexibility, breathing, and balance," says big-wave surfer Laird Hamilton, our fitness consultant for the Shape of Your Life program. Hamilton recently took up Ashtanga in an effort to boost his all-around athleticism, and he's already seen improvements in his flexibility and his ability to repeatedly extend into tougher poses on the board—and pull back into position without wiping out. "The biggest thing it has done is give me more positions I can be powerful in," he says.
But athletic perks aren't the only reason to embrace the world's oldest fitness practice. The controlled, rhythmic breathing central to Ashtanga benefits your life in ways that extend far beyond your favorite outdoor sports. Two-part yoga breathing involves taking a deep inhale through your nose that fills your rib cage, and then exhaling through the back of your throat—slightly constricted—and out your nose with an audible sigh. By constraining and pressurizing your airflow, you generate heat internally, allowing you to reach deeper into difficult poses. Studies show that yogic breathing also slows the heart rate, decreases tension and blood pressure, and even increases V02 max, the standard gauge of your cardiovascular efficiency. For Hamilton, the breath work—and the accompanying mental clarity—is a great part of power yoga. "There's a certain calmness you get by dealing with pain and pushing through the wall," he says. "You become more comfortable in situations that would be really taxing."
Feel-good stress relief aside, don't be lulled into equating Ashtanga with a retirement-home stretching class; just learning the practice will entail a holistic ass-whupping. Men, notoriously lazy when it comes to doing anything about tight muscles, face a steeper learning curve than women, says Birch, because their greater muscle mass initially makes bending more of a struggle. The best way to confront that disadvantage is to join a class with a knowledgeable instructor—and to check your ego at the beaded door. Sit out the moves when you get winded; exhaustion will lead to bad form, and worse, injury. When asked, be honest about any past injuries; each yoga pose has a variation to minimize strain on problem areas. Most important, resist the urge to compete with the human pretzel next to you—this is Zen land, and no one is competing. And don't stress if you can't quite get into the chanting. The power-yoga drills you're learning can easily be done at home as a post-workout cooldown.
Barrier: Stretching feels downright tortuous.
Breakthrough: Remember to breathe.
Beginner yogis are often so tight that, when contorted into tough positions, they forget to breathe. The better you get at two-part Ashtanga breathing, the easier it will be to relax and feel comfortable in each pose. "Initially you will have to give attention to it," says Baron Baptiste, yoga instructor and author of Journey Into Power. "But eventually you rewire yourself so it becomes subconscious." The enhanced focus the technique develops also applies to sports. "I've worked with people preparing to do major climbs," says Baptiste. "When they go back to climbing, they catch themselves in the same breath-flow pattern. It anchors you to what you're doing."