Updated: May 15, 2020
If you're used to going to other styles of yoga classes, or you're new to yoga in general, walking into an ashtanga class can be pretty intimidating. Everyone seems to know what they're doing, some of the postures are nuts and nobody is really explaining what you should be doing in a pose. But please do not let this put you off! This is all part of ashtanga's magic and there is method behind the madness.
Firstly, there are two main types of ashtanga classes: led and Mysore. Mysore classes are the traditional way in which ashtanga was taught - it is a class where everybody is doing self-practice, which means they are working through the sequence of postures in their own time. The room is pretty much silent, apart from breathing and jumping, and the teacher will be moving around giving individual guidance and adjustments, rather than teaching to the whole class. Most Mysore classes will be open for 2-3 hours and have flexible starting times, meaning you can rock up and practise at any time within the fixed time slot. A led class is just that - the teacher will lead you through the poses verbally. This is the type of class many people find themselves in and many people are put off by!
The teacher will typically not be demonstrating the poses, for a number of good reasons! To start with, many poses are physically demanding and demonstrating them without being properly warmed up and focused is dangerous and can cause injury. Another reason is that much of ashtanga teaching comes from observing students and giving individual adjustments or instruction - it is pretty hard to observe students whilst demonstrating the poses and impossible to move around the room and give adjustments. Finally, there isn't really much need to demonstrate, since the postures are the same each time! Really if you are attending a led class you should be fairly familiar with the sequence so there isn't a need to watch what the teacher is doing all the time. In some ways, watching a teacher can be another form of distraction, so when you are not following a teacher you are forced to be alone in the practice and keep your focus more internal. This can be daunting at first but is really what yoga is all about - turning your attention inwards.
Once you are in a pose, in a led class you will usually hear the teacher count to 5 (or more in some poses). There might be a few instructions to guide you into the pose, but once you're there you will just be left with the count. This lack of verbal guidance can seem strange if you're used to other types of classes, but actually it is liberating. The less verbal instruction, the less thinking you have to do and the more present you can be in the pose. Ideally you want to be focusing your gaze on a fixed point and listening to the steady rhythm of your breath, whilst being aware and in control of your body. The less thinking you have to do, the better! To start with, it's difficult to not think, as you might not be quite sure how to do a pose, but over time your body will know what to do and you will be able to just breathe and simply be. The count to 5 represents the 5 breaths you should be taking in a pose. Don't worry if your breath doesn't match the teacher's count - there is no one count to suit everyone so just breathe in your time. When you practise alone, the count will be in your head so then you will match it to the rhythm of your breath.
The reason people seem to know what they are doing is because in most cases, they do! They might have done the same sequence literally hundreds of time. It can sound boring to do the same thing every time you practise but honestly it is fascinating - I normally hate routine but have never found ashtanga boring. It always feels different and doing the same sequence teaches you a lot about yourself. The sequence progresses too, so you'll learn new poses when you are ready and there is always somewhere else to go with it. Be patient and over time you'll learn the sequence and do it without thinking. If you're not sure on the poses, you can go to workshops or classes aimed at beginners that break down poses. Or try a Mysore class where you typically learn the sequence one pose at a time.
And lastly... don't be put off by what other people might be doing. Ashtanga is known for being physically demanding but part of the practice is not comparing yourself to others and not letting your ego get in the way. Accept what your practice is without judgment and without competing with anyone else. Everybody is working within their own limits and everybody's practice will look different. It's much less about what is going on externally and much more about what is going on internally.