Question: Can you learn Ashtanga without a teacher?
I will make the assumption that this is referring to the physical practice of Ashtanga.
A Cautious Yes, But…..
The poses are kind of hard to figure out without help
Unless you have a firm handle on anatomy and physiology , you are already practicing some other form of yoga or perhaps you were a dancer, gymnast, acrobat or circus performer, there are poses in Ashtanga that are not easily understood from pictures or videos. Even with an extensive physical background, integration of correct vinyasa, breath, and drishti with the more esoteric parts of the practice would be difficult. If you have a background in yoga, the way that poses are entered, exited and performed in Ashthanga can be very different. For instance:
Frog pose in most vinyasa classes
Frog in Ashtanga
Gomukhasana in Ashtanga (has two variations and you sit on the feet with ankles touching for both)
It just isn’t the same
Whenever I meet someone who learned yoga from a book or videos, they all say the same thing when they take their first yoga class, “this is so different.” My first glimpse of Ashtanga came from Beryl Bender Birch’s book, Power Yoga. Though the book helped me out tremendously and is a great resource, it was a totally different experience in the shala. Even though the book was extremely detailed, it didn’t all come together until I learned it under the watchful eye of a teacher.
Also, there is a question of safety
The more complex the movement, the more important it is to do it properly and the bigger the chance of injury. This is the reason why you rarely see certain Ashtanga poses in your vinyasa class. It takes too much time for the teacher to explain them and they also cannot risk a novice student trying them. Below are poses that many Ashtangis do every day with no problem and are safe for most bodies but can damage the knees when done improperly, before the body is ready, and haphazardly.
It is not just what you do but how you do it
Every movement in Ashtanga is assigned a number. This points to the fact that it is not just what you do, but how you do it, with what breath and in what order. All this factors into the efficacy of the yoga. A good book such as Lino Miele’s, Ashtanga Yoga, includes counts and particulars but trying to make sense of it on your own puts the yoga all into your head when it is supposed to take you out of it. A good teacher will keep all of this together for you as you focus on the deeper work.
Ashtanga was meant to be learned from teacher to student
Ashtanga is big into tradition. Part of the Ashtanga tradition is learning from a teacher. The dynamic between the teacher and the student is a big part of the practice itself. Learning from a teacher teaches humility, surrender, patience, perseverance, the importance of human cooperation, compassion and trust which are all important to the path of yoga.
If You Embark on the Path of Ashtanga Without a Teacher….
Get one as soon as possible or practice with one whenever you can
The good news about Ashtanga is that it uses set sequences. Once someone shows you how to do something properly, you can take it home and practice it. There was a period in my life where I traveled once or twice a year to spend a week with a traveling certified/authorized Ashtanga. A week may not sound like a lot but I was given plenty of good techniques and new poses to incorporate into my practice. In yoga, we want to find ease in the pose. Learning new things every 6 months gave me the space to find ease with a pose or technique before I added something else. Yes, it makes for slow progression but it is safe. If you injure yourself, it may take the same amount of time to heal it so why not do it right the first time?
Stick with the basics
Sun salute A and B, the fundamental poses and the last three poses modified with an easy cross legged pose instead of lotus are a great start for beginners. For people who already practice some form of yoga, half primary to Navasana with closing sequence is a great start. When you come to a pose you are not sure of, it is much safer to cut your practice there and close out.