I’m starting to get a bit tired of people’s reactions when I tell them that I practice Ashtanga… “Ooooh, that’s the crazy yoga” they say, looking at me like I’m some kind of one man freak show. Things aren’t any better when I say that I teach it: “Isn’t that the one where everyone gets injured?”… Possibly implying that I play a part in that – either by being the militant teacher at the front telling people to push their way into poses (I think they’d find that that’s more the Bikram approach) or that I’m heavy handed in adjustments and snap people’s hamstrings and the like.
Having faced such responses whilst on my weekend of Yin Yoga workshops (my presence there as an Ashtangi seemed to confuse them), it seems fitting to talk about self practice – the traditional way of learning and practising Ashtanga yoga – and that this post be the third in my series of I’m not sure how many, describing the beauty of Mysore self practice.
So the practice of self practice. To the uninitiated, the traditional form of learning whichever Ashtanga series you are on is through self practice. Literally practising by yourself. A teacher is present, often an assistant too, but instead of being led through a sequence of postures in which everyone is at the mercy of the teacher’s count (and some are more mercenary than others), you rock up at any time within the window of practice (at Triyoga this is three hours, between 6am and 9.15am), roll out your mat, inhale lift your arms, exhale fold forwards… the sun salutations begin. Students generally know the sequence off by heart, some have ‘cheat sheets’, and the teacher(s) walk around adjusting people in their poses – from softly whispered verbal instructions to full body physical adjustments designed to help students get deeper into poses, help students feel how a pose ‘should’ feel, and to programme the technicalities of the pose into the mind and body of the student.
Picking up from where I started, yes, Ashtanga does get progressively more ‘crazy’ in terms of the poses becoming more challenging, requiring more strength and more flexibility. If practiced steadily (and not rushed), the body becomes primed for these poses, which is how the system of Ashtanga operates – it is a systematic opening and restructuring of the body. The ‘craziness’ becomes relative – what seemed like crazy poses in primary become easy compared to those in second and so on. If the practice is rushed or a teacher moves a student through the series too fast, there is indeed a danger of a student getting injured as it is the ego (the student’s and/or the teacher’s) that is more ready for the poses than the body.
What I find amusing in all this is how people overlook a crucial point when it comes to this ‘hardcore’, ‘injurious’ practice which is that the poses are simply poses. It is the approach and the mindset of the practitioner which determine how hardcore the practice is, and the approach of the person doing the poses that causes injury.
Which is where self practice becomes beautiful in its simplicity – you can practice as fast or as slow as you want, as hard or as soft as you want. YOU take responsibility as only YOU know how a pose feels or how an adjustment feels. I may be able to get my leg behind my head as a teacher but it doesn’t mean I’m psychic. It’s easier to blame the practice or the teacher because it absolves responsibility.
To me, it is in self practice that you really get to practice true yoga, to really be in tune with your own bodily sensations, with what’s coming up in your mind, your heart. To really connect mind and body in a way that is less possible (not impossible) when you are being led through a class by a teacher. Having a regular practice allows this to become even more finely tuned as you see the differences from day to day, having to work with whatever is rather than what you’d like there to be or what you expected there to be. Just because you went the deepest you’d ever been in a pose yesterday doesn’t mean you’ll do the same today. In fact its usually those days WHEN you’re expecting the good shit to happen that it really doesn’t… a way of being whipped into line and taught a lesson by the intelligence of the body. Whether you choose to listen to it is another matter. We come back to personal responsibility.
There is a principle in Gestalt Psychotherapy about the relationship between awareness and conflict which I love and apply during my mornings on the mat. The principle is to allow whatever feelings to come up and to not resist them as resisting them leads to conflict. What you resist, persists. If you’re tired, just allow yourself to be tired rather than pretending you’re not and dragging yourself huffing and puffing through your practice to ‘get the most out of coming to class’. The same applies during the day – for instance with the classic post lunch slump. Tiredness kicks in but we can’t allow ourselves to be so, so we have a coffee, maybe some biscuits, anything to just not be tired! Of course, we all know the logical answer would be some kind of power nap room that all offices should be obliged to have by law… how many studies have we seen extolling the virtues of a power nap during the day? Doesn’t quite fit with the capitalist agenda however.
Bringing that back to the mat, one of the many things I love about self practice is that I can work with whatever may be going on for me at that particular time. If I didn’t sleep so well, am tired, sluggish, heavy, I really slow down my breaths, focusing on huge energizing breaths… I may do less sun salutations, I may jump less and step more. I practice in a way that restores and reserves energy rather than depleting it. On the days when I’m full of beans, I go with it, bouncing around to my heart’s content, feeling like I could do sun salutations for 90 minutes.
The key theme again being in tune with yourself – listen to yourself. Your body knows what it needs but it is a skill that needs to be practiced to be able to listen in and really hear what it is saying. Self practice gives you the opportunity for this. You just need to grab it.