My old Mysore Ashtanga teacher used to kick me out of class by the middle of the Primary series. He used to say that I'm too weak, too fat, too unsteady in the mind to advance anywhere in the series. And for the longest time, I believed him. Every time I got to practice on my own, I stopped around the part where this teacher would tell me to stop and leave the class. This went on for years.
Few months ago, a guest teacher came from India. Attending his classes meant that, unless something urgent is happening, we don't leave class until we've done the entire series. I ROCKED IT!
He didn't push or holler or tell us to do things. Mysore Ashtanga Yoga is SUPPOSED TO BE LIKE THAT, a guided practice. If the student is able to reach 50% into the asana, the teacher will help make room for the student to reach 55%. If the student is able to reach 99% into the asana, the teacher will help make that 99% last longer. And if the student is able to perfect the asanas, a good teacher will set the stage for the asanas to turn into a practice: A tool for strength and meditation and guidance.
When my fat obstructed my hands from reaching behind my back, this new teacher sat behind me and guided my breath. When my mind chattered, he stood by my head and asked, "What are you thinking about?" - Not expecting an answer, but reminding me to leave the world and return to the mat. And when our breaths softened, he said, "I don't hear anything," to remind us of our Ujayyi breaths.
I've been practicing Yoga for a gajillion years, but it was only with this teacher I found the confidence to practice an unsupported headstand in a classroom: The one who didn't take himself or his practice personally. The one who facilitated our growth, instead of judging it.
A Kind of Hell
Nothing beats the fun and ease and concentration of practicing yoga together in a classroom.
That said, ideally, the practice should remain with us wherever we may be. The reason why I chose to stick with this Yogic path is for its convenience. I don't need weights, shoes, or too much room to practice. I can practice yoga even if there is no driver to take me to the gym/classroom. With a teacher around or none, with a sparring partner or none.
And there is no competition in Yoga, not with others, nor with yourself. There is no judgement, nobody's asana is better than another. There is only the practice: The body recites the sequence's mantra, the breath is the mind's anchor for stillness. Since there is no winning or losing in Yoga, there is no material reward, no compliments or criticism. You practice for the sake of the practice.
Which can be very hard on someone who was raised to compete. Which can be very hard when your society expects you to impress. Which can be ridiculous when your face and legs are flat on the mat and there is nothing but your breath as sole company, day in and day out.
This is a kind of hell, I tell myself on the 123rd breath into the practice. And that is when I usually quit. I usually blame the exhaustion or lack of focus for quitting early.
But I can't get away with those excuses anymore. Not after I've had so many teachers. Not while practicing on the best mat in the market. Not after half-a-dozen 10-Day Vipassana courses. Meditation and strength and flexibility are not my weaknesses.
Truth is, I can't bear the thoughts that come forth when I practice alone.
If we react to what arises through the practice with aggression, injuries or physical and mental exhaustion may result. If we try to avoid or run away from the difficult postures by breaking the rules and skipping poses or practice, we will fall into the opposite extreme: laziness or inertia. Finding the middle path is usually what we all learn in Ashtanga, discovering our mental, physical and psychological behavior and getting to a place of acceptance and loving kindness towards ourselves and the world around us.
From Ashtanga: Maintain Focus by Alexia Bauer
- The body we have today is nothing but the accumulation of our past thoughts, emotions and actions.
- Asana is the method that releases us from past conditioning, stored in the body, to arrive in the present moment.
From Ashtanga Yoga: Practice and Philosophy, by Gregor Maehle
- Practicing forcefully will only superimpose a new layer of subconscious imprints based on suffering and pain.
Setback. Well, kinda.
Few days ago, I did the entire Ashtanga Primary Series. The whole thing. With Vinyasas between the forward bending sequences, and continuous Ujjayi breathing. From Aleph until Khatam. Even did a long, unsupported headstand.
Then hell broke loose and my hemorrhoids went crazy.
In the Ashtanga book by Gregor Maehle, there is something about anger being stored in the hamstrings and grief in the chest. During that last practice, I had managed to disregard all the feelings that came forth through the asanas. (I don't know how. I still have to figure out the right combination of eucalyptus balm and sleep to regain that kind of unflinching and continuos focus.)
And the universe just couldn't let too much of a good thing going. Maintaining focus for that long and disregarding the emotional influx backfired on my ass, literally.
The good side of having an inflamed bottom is the sudden concentration on liquified high-fiber diet. I never thought it's possible, but easy pooping is not a myth, you hear?! It's possible with just enough papayas and apple vinegar! I may never get to do the Primary series ever again, but I CAN POOP!
I had a hard practice this morning. I knew everything I needed to do to keep at it. I just couldn't. By the end of the forward-bends, I couldn't pick myself up anymore. No asana is too easy once the thoughts set in and take over.
To make things worse, I took it hard on myself. I had to cuddle up with my master and succumb to defeat.
What should I do?
He patted my head. "Keep at it. Try again tomorrow. It'll get easier with time. Everything does."
So it does.