This article is about the difficulties of daily Ashtanga Yoga Mysore practise. It attempts to show how after years of practise and getting closer and closer to the practise we periodically seek respite and refuge away from it and its intensity. It aims to show that we mustn’t underestimate how difficult any daily spiritual practise is and how the urge and temptation to move away from it is strong and can take many guises allowing us to fall into any number of ‘traps’ along the way. Sometimes our reaction to this can then be to try and undermine the practise and show how it is deeply flawed in some way rather than reflect honestly on ourselves.
The alignment trap
This is a common trap usually showing itself after a few years of regular practise. Sometimes we become disheartened because we feel that we haven’t progressed in our practise as much as we think we should have and as a result we feel stuck. This may also coincide with the occurrence of a few injuries. As a result of this we can then decide that this is due to not knowing enough about alignment and that this is something that is desperately missing from the Ashtanga practise. At this point Ashtangis will do their research and end up in the classes of popular Iyengar yoga teachers such as Alaric, who will expose them to the Iyengar method of detailed and precise alignment. This I feel is based on a misunderstanding and is actually an attempt to move away from the ashtanga practise which has all of a started to become a little too uncomfortable due to some of the reasons mentioned above. Our ambitions have become frustrated or we are feeling disappointed because the practise hasn’t taken us to where we want to go.
I feel what is really going on is not a wish to learn about alignment but a wish for distraction in what is happening in our own Ashtanga practise, perhaps a wish for distraction for the lack of ‘progress; or the injuries that keep occurring. During my ten years of Ashtanga practise I have studied most other forms of yoga, motivated by a passion for yoga and a genuine curiosity for other approaches. I have never been motivated by a sense of something missing from my own practise however. I remember one time turning up to an Iyengar class and seeing a fellow Ashtangi there. On the way out she said to me ‘its great isn’t it, we can finally find out what is going on’. By this she meant that at last someone is telling us what we should be doing in the postures. I’m afraid this gave me the impression that she was looking externally for a connection with her own body and was taking time out from her Ashtanga practise looking for this connection. The only place I believe that this connection can be found is within the intimacy of your own honest daily practise, whether this is Ashtanga, Iyengar or sitting meditation. Distracting yourself from practise by flitting around looking for things, is just that - a distraction.
Very talented Ashtanga teachers have also fallen into this trap, feeling something is lacking in their teaching and turning to Iyengar yoga, thinking the hole can be filled with learning about alignment. Again this is looking outside for something that can only come from the inside. I think this probably stems from blocks and obstacles that we are personally and subtly experiencing in our own practise. I know that when I turn to other sources of inspiration for my Ashtanga teaching, this is normally because something in my own practise is feeling a little uncomfortable or something is not quite right with my own practise. Ashtanga yoga, like any other yoga takes you closer and closer to yourself, a move away from your daily practise is an attempt to move away from yourself and a distraction from what you are feeling. it’s a way of diluting and avoiding the intensity.
The injury trap
I will make a distinction between two types of injury. The first injury is caused by tears to connective tissues. These sorts of injuries are caused by insensitivity to what your body is telling you during practise and ambition. It is not uncommon for practitioners to become ambitious with their practise and start pulling and wrenching themselves into postures that their bodies are clearly not ready for. The result is obvious. After a few such injuries they may move away from Ashtanga yoga completely and become ‘anti Ashtanga’ All of a sudden the practise is too driven, too physical and not spiritual enough. There is little acknowledgement of their own input in this.
The other type of injury if we can call it that, is psychosomatic pain. Practitioners may experience searing and debilitating pain during their practise. This can be caused by external stressors and worries but manifests itself in the yoga practise. It may manifest in the practise due to a greater sensitivity and insight into things and issues rising to the surface, brought about by the practise. In this case practitioners will commonly seek the help of osteopaths and physiotherapists who have basically opened consulting rooms in every yoga studio. These professionals rarely have any experience of practising yoga and will usually pinpoint the pain the practitioners are experiencing on some sort of structural abnormality that they have identified during examination. The result is that the practitioner is advised to modify their practise, either reducing practise sessions or modifying what happens during a session. The bottom line is that the practitioner is then moving away from the practise and diluting it, this time in the name of injury and pain as opposed to alignment. The idea of certain movements being contraindicated for a the practitioners body type then become ingrained and lead to a conditioned pain response that can continue for years or even become permanent.
Again the experience of viewing oneself on the mat daily has become too intense or reached an uncomfortable place and the welcome distraction now comes from injury/pain with the blessing of the healthcare practitioner.
The vinyasa flow trap
‘I like to play’ is often something you hear from ex ashtangis who move over to vinyasa flow classes. Here students are not allowed to get bored because the classes and routines are all varied from one class to the next and there is also music playing to keep practitioners entertained. Also the classes generally take place at any time of the day so the need to get up early is also done away with. I suppose this one speaks for itself. If someone is not ready for vigorous daily yoga practise than vinyasa flow is an attractive option. It probably has many of the physical and psychological benefits of Ashtanga and does lead to good health and fitness as well. You only have to see students coming out of these classes to know how much pleasure they got from doing them.
The ‘I’m being good to myself trap’
‘I have a life’ is something you often hear when Ashtangis have backed away somewhat from the practise and they proudly tell you that they went to bed at 2am after downing ten pints with their boyfriends. Similarly when they have been ‘lying in’.
I suppose what I am trying to say is that Ashtanga yoga is hard, it’s a hard practise but it is no more challenging than every other genuine spiritual practise, be it sitting meditation or Iyengar. All require a real genuine passion for the truth and an ability to look at ones self. It is due to this difficulty and intensity that we start searching for distractions and reasons not to practise. It is not because the practise is injuring us, or because there is no alignment in the practise, it is because of us and the difficulty we have with being with ourselves in such an honest, open and intense way.
The point of this piece of writing was not to sound like an Ashtanga Nazi and I think it is perfectly natural and appropriate to back away from practise but we need to be aware of this and why we are doing this. I took months off from my practise a couple of years ago, and I really needed to do this, at first I blamed the practise but it soon started to become clear that it was other factors in my life that were coming into play, things that I needed to address myself. I suppose at the end of the day daily practise, whatever it may happen to be isn’t for everybody and I suppose judging by the numbers its for very few.