Rocket Yoga: The Surprising Fun of Ashtanga’s Little Brother
Understanding Rocket Yoga and how it relates to Ashtanga.
By: Mary Von Ahnen, Co-Owner, Horizon Hot Yoga
I spent the month of February participating in Horizon Hot Yoga’s 200-hour Yoga Teacher Training. Carson Clay Calhoun taught us throughout the month, and he has a huge passion for Rocket Yoga. Although we offer Rocket Yoga in our studio, I had never taken a class. I had heard it was a very advanced practice, with lots of arm balances and inversions, and I definitely have a more moderate practice. But we spent an entire week on Rocket Yoga in my teacher training, and my eyes were opened to a whole new side of this interesting practice.
Beginning History of Rocket Yoga
The surprises of Rocket started for me in learning its history. Rocket is based on the grandfather of all Vinyasa yoga styles, Ashtanga Yoga. For those of you unfamiliar with Ashtanga, it has its’ roots in an ancient text called the Yoga Korunta, written by Vamana Rishi. This text was imparted to Sri T. Krishnamacharya in the early 1900s by his guru, Rama Mohan Brahmachari. It was later passed down to Pattabhi Jois, the founder of the Ashtanga practice, during the duration of his studies with Krishnamacharya, beginning in 1927.
Pattabhi Jois (1915–2009) began his yoga studies with Krishnamacharya in Mysore, India at the age of 12. He developed Ashtanga, a set series of poses done in a flowing vinyasa style, based on his learnings. Jois was the leading practitioner and teacher of the Ashtanga format, which he conducted in what is now called the Mysore style. In a Mysore class, students come into the room and practice yoga at their own pace and only through Ashtanga postures they have mastered. When their teacher thinks they are ready for another posture, they are shown the posture and given permission to begin practicing it.
The Purpose of Ashtanga Yoga
The purpose of Ashtanga yoga is important to explain because the benefits of this practice also translate to Rocket yoga. The Ashtanga practice is constructed to purify the body and mind. By moving quickly and powerfully, a student generates a lot of tapas. (Tapas is a Sanskrit word meaning heat, specifically the kind of heat generated by certain yogic practices. In the early yogic scriptures, which still shape most yoga practiced today, tapas refers to the burning off of impurities.) With so much tapas generated during the Ashtanga practice, everything “extra” (physical and mental) is forced out, leaving the practitioner with a focused, purifying, and healthful experience.
Ashtanga Yoga was well established when Larry Schultz entered the scene. Schultz was first introduced to yoga in 1979 when he saw Ashtanga Yoga’s 4th series being practiced by Cliff Barber (famous yogi and painter of the Flower of Life in the Caribbean). Schultz was impressed by Barber’s strong appearance and physical abilities and asked Barber how he was in such great physical shape. Barber explained to him that he practiced Ashtanga Yoga and it was responsible for his strength. Schultz had to learn more. Schultz met Pattabhi Jois in 1982 and practiced Ashtanga Yoga with Jois for the next seven years in Mysore, India.
In 1989, Schultz returned to San Francisco and started to teach Ashtanga Yoga from his home. Schultz believed that all students should get access to all poses, which was in conflict with Jois’ Mysore style, in which students progressed only when teachers said they were ready to learn a new pose. Schultz instead taught a modified version of Ashtanga Yoga in which each of his classes incorporated poses from three of the traditional Ashtanga Series (Primary Series, Second Series, and Third Series…there are series even beyond these three, but most are never practiced). All of Schultz’s students were welcomed to try all poses. This non-traditional approach to Jois’ method gained Schultz the nickname “The Bad Man of Ashtanga Yoga”.
Ashtanga & The Grateful Dead
How fitting, then, that Larry Schultz would be asked to join the band The Grateful Dead as their yoga teacher on tour. Nearly everyone reading this article will know The Grateful Dead. This amazing band, together for three decades, had nearly no commercial hits but had a huge following, many of them, called Dead Heads, following the band around the country as they toured. Schultz traveled on The Grateful Dead tours in the 1990s teaching them yoga.
The Grateful Dead members were spontaneous, playful men, and they grew tired of the Primary Ashtanga set sequence. They wanted to get to the Secondary Sequence. Schultz mixed up the order of the Ashtanga postures and combined poses from both the Primary and Secondary sequences, following his previous style of playing around the strict Ashtanga methodology. The Grateful Dead named this new yoga, based on Ashtanga, “Rocket Yoga” because it “gets you there faster”. A Rocket practitioner could now enjoy postures from the Primary and Secondary Ashtanga sequences without having to fully master a posture before being “handed” the next posture by his or her yoga teacher.
Rocket Yoga is designed to be practiced and taught much less strictly than traditional Ashtanga Yoga. Modifications within postures are encouraged (whether to make a posture easier to execute or to be more challenging). Teachers do not have to follow an exact script in each class. There is more structure to Rocket than a typical Vinyasa class, which can be completely choreographed individually. A Rocket class follows the general sequence of the Ashtanga Series on which it is based, but postures can be added in or modified by the instructor. Rocket 1 is based on Ashtanga’s Primary Series. Rocket 2 is based on Ashtanga’s Secondary Series. Rocket 3 is a mixture of Rocket 1 and Rocket 2.
Carson Clay Calhoun Answers Questions
(You can find a longer interview by clicking here.)
I learned all this and practiced many Rocket classes during the month Carson was with us. I conducted a brief interview with him and Ceci Castillo, Horizon Hot Yoga’s Studio Director (who also teaches Rocket Yoga) to get their thoughts on a few topics.
Mary: What got you into Rocket Yoga?
Carson: Mom had a pretty strict Ashtanga studio, and there were lots of rules. Rocket is about modifying and bending the rules of Ashtanga for your own practice, even though it’s based on Ashtanga. Every Rocket practice can be different. (Author’s note: In getting to know Carson during the month I spent with him in training, I can definitely see why a less “rule-bound” style of yoga appealed to him. Carson is spontaneous and has a wonderful sense of humor and fun about him. A Rocket class gives off that vibe.)
Ceci: I kept seeing Rocket on social media. I come from a disciplined practice, Bikram, just like Ashtanga is disciplined, so the fact that Rocket is based on Ashtanga appealed to me. But I also like to mix it up within the “skeleton” of Ashtanga. I love arm-balancing, and there are plenty of opportunities to do that in Rocket. I enjoy teaching people to arm-balance.
Mary: Are there people who shouldn’t do Rocket?
Carson: People think they can’t because they don’t have an advanced arm-balance practice. You can do difficult poses for sure. No limit. But there are no requirements to do these more complex asanas.
Ceci: Anyone can do Rocket, at their own pace. It’s for all levels of modification and amplification.
Mary: Is Rocket a broadly popular yoga, or more of a niche style?
Carson: It’s been a bit of a niche, but it’s gaining in popularity. It’s the freedom of it that more and more people are enjoying.
Ceci: I feel like I see it a lot now, and that it’s growing in mainstream popularity. I am heavily involved in the Ashtanga and Rocket yoga communities. There, Rocket is definitely a big deal.
Mary: The unlock for me for the true enjoyment in this practice is that it does not have to be an advanced inversion, arm-balancing style. As a moderate-level yogi with lots of modifications necessary for health issues, I did not think Rocket would be a style I could do; however, I taught a Rocket Yin class as my final test to achieve my 200-hour certification. I did more basic expressions of the postures but was also able to offer more advanced yogis some amplifications they could do. And many Rocket teachers offer short periods of “free time” where yogis can practice whatever their bodies are calling on them to do.
My journey with Rocket has been fascinating. The history is so unconventional, and the practice has been full of so many unexpected pleasures. I highly recommend this yoga for anyone who is curious to explore new styles. We offer 3 Rocket Yoga classes a week at Horizon Hot Yoga in Frisco.
More on Horizon Hot Yoga:
During our “Staying at Home” mandate, Horizon Hot Yoga is not open. However, if you go to their Facebook page you will find several FREE online classes.