Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Yoga: A Relationship with Practice

I'm piggy backing on Nobel's recent post today as he ponders, "Why do Ashtanga?"

Here's an excerpt from his post:
"Lately, I've been thinking about the nature of the Ashtanga practice, and how and why I came to practice Ashtanga. There are many questions that come up in the course of my reflections, questions such as: Do all Ashtangis go through the same experiences and processes in the course of encountering and starting the journey of practice? Are there common themes that run through all such encountering-and-beginning-Ashtanga stories? Or is every practitioner's story very different from every other practitioner's, so that there are no commonalities at all? Is Ashtanga for everyone? If it is not for everyone, what kinds of persons is it for? "

Great questions!...and Nobel's blog is a great one for keeping me thinking...

I dabbled in yoga classes of various styles from the time I was 16 until age 23...a bit like dating really...or something like an encounter with the 3 bears. I liked yoga in general, but no particular class was just right.

I went to my first Ashtanga class and that was it. When the time came to move to a new city, I went looking for yoga classes in the Ashtanga style. I wasn't interested in anything else.

...but why Ashtanga??

The one word answer for me is relationship.

As Nobel pointed out, within this yoga practice is structure. That structure let me dig one hole deeply. I've spent the past nearly 10 years digging just a little bit deeper to see where it would take me.

I'm not the first person to point out the similarities in the way Ashtanga practitioners relate to their practice and the way we relate to actual human beings. I've heard my teacher refer to the reasons that he is still "in love with the practice". I have "good practice days" where understanding seems to flow freely and I have "difficult practice days" where the practice and I seem, for the moment, to be at cross purposes.

...but it is that day to day digging within, that results in one deep hole. The path to depth has asked for more patience and commitment than dabbling with a little of this and a little of that, but it has also produced more steadiness, clarity and compassion. If I am going to attempt the same seeming impossibilities daily, I'm going to have to learn to cut myself some slack!

The daily relationship with a set series of poses done in a particular way (with breath, bandha and driste) have provided great opportunities to wrestle with surrender.

Nobel has this to say about surrender:
"All is coming. The practice, by its very nature, demands surrender within effort and effort within surrender: One tries one's best at every posture (effort), and if one doesn't "get" a particular posture today, there's always tomorrow's practice (surrender)."

The Ashtanga practice is subtle this way. What appears to be the same sequence of postures is never really the same twice. If I surrender to the practice as the ultimate teacher and to the guidance of my human Ashtanga teacher, then my understanding of both the practice and of myself evolve continually. As soon as I think I understand, there's more.
This process of meeting seemingly the same practice daily and frequently being startled by something new, is exciting, sometimes intense and often humbling. I don't know nearly as much as I momentarily might think I do and the practice always knows more.

To provide just one person's thoughts on Nobel's questions:
Yes, I think there are commonalities in what practitioners find within the Ashtanga practice, although of course each person's story is their own.

No, I don't think Ashtanga yoga is the technique for everyone. I think everyone could do it, but not everyone will want to....and that I think is key. This is just one path to the center. Patanjali's Yoga Sutra mentions several ways in. The important part according to Patanjali is that we choose the technique with which we can maintain a relationship...whatever that practice may be. Practice consistently, over a long time, without a break and all is coming.


  1. I really think that because Ashtanga is so eloquently sequenced, it's safe for us to play around with it and not get hurt if we pay attention to our bodies and our breath. It's challenging enough for those who are physically strong and/or bendy, and also modifiable for those who start out less physically active or stretchy.

    However, given the number of teachers I know who started out with Asthanga and then moved on to something else, I am quite curious in their reasons for switching styles. It's going to be my mission to seek them out and figure it out (although I'm not quite sure how to bring it up with them, so this mission might take me awhile) :)

  2. Thanks for sharing! I like your analogy of digging one hole deeper and deeper, rather than dabbling. It is very apt!

    I also agree that no two practices are ever the same, which makes the practice always exciting :-)

  3. Yyogini,

    I agree, the sequencing in Ashtanga is eloquent for sure. The longer I do it, the more I see relationships between poses and the more impressed I am by the way they're sequenced.

    I'm also curious about why some people drift off from an Ashtanga practice. I'll look forward to your post on it someday when your mission is complete! :)

    Thanks for writing a great post...and hope you didn't mind the piggy backing...lol!

  4. Yyogini, yes, it'll be interesting to do some kind of informal study/survey on why people drift away from Ashtanga. From what I've picked up from speaking to a few ex-Ashtangis, two common reasons seem to be:

    (1) Injury which forced them to either stop practicing or modify the practice in a way that they found to be unacceptable.

    (2) Some particular postures (backbends are a common example) which are too unpleasant/unchallenging in an unpleasant way.

    Sometimes, I think it is also a combination of (1) and (2): A particular injury brings out certain injuries issues that force the practitioner to either have to stop practicing or modify in a way they deem unacceptable.

    I've also noticed that Anusara is a popular style for ex-Ashtangis to drift to. Not sure why :-)

    Anyway, I get the feeling that this is a sensitive topic. So if you are going on this mission, proceed with care :-)

  5. Hi Nobel,

    I've heard similar things from ex-Ashtangis. The injury thing comes up for sure and blame is usually put on too much repetition.
    My own feeling is that many of those tweaks turn up from doing too much too soon and doing it infrequently rather than doing a little appropriate practice consistently.

    I've also known people who have injured themselves outside of yoga (sports-related things usually) and then not returned to Ashtanga becuase "they couldn't do everything"...modification was just not acceptable.

    Interesting all around... :)

  6. Precautionary warning duly noted, thanks Nobel! I'm actually pretty curious what Anusara teachers' home practices look like. Maybe they throw in a lot of advanced arm balances in between the simpler sequence that they teach in class...

  7. Thank you for shraring Christine. I also really appreciate this discussion between you and Yogini as I am currently working through knee tightness - read hips starting to open up - as I recently worked through lower back pain - read lower back opening up... which it eventually did - and it was hell on earth for a coupla weeks but SO sweet after when the flexibility eventually increased.

    Patience seems to be The lesson in my life as of late, in more areas than this . . .

    I can't imagine leaving Ashtanga, wow, I so very much love and respond to the stucture!! And I also love the suggested modifications offered to work through both my body slowly opening up and fighting it tooth and nail. All my teachers are very patient and focused on doing things the right way, I appreciate that so very much and know I am in good hands in Gainesville Florida. GO ASHTANGA YOGA GAINESVILLE

  8. Thanks!! A big kudos to all of the students in our community for supporting one another in practice. The patience and discipline part of practice is always a little easier to maintain with good company! :)