Hmm… the WordPress Monster seems to have gobbled up my two latest posts. Ah well. Such is the Internet.
Ashtanga practice seems to get some flack from some of the more free spirited yogis out there as being too structured, too hardcore, too unforgiving. Afterall, Ashtanga practice works with a very prescribed, very carefully formulated sequences of poses, and from what I understand, purists rarely (if ever) deviate from the sequence. As I’ve mentioned before, there’s a rhyme and reason for the order of the asanas, as each pose appropriately prepares the body for the next one in line. We do tend to move relatively quickly through the poses (five to ten breaths max for each pose with brisk vinyasas between some asanas), but it’s silly to say that there’s no room for modifications or realignment or teacher intervention. In fact, mysore practice is built for teacher intervention and allows time for one on one instruction in what would otherwise be an individual endeavor.
So yes, Ashtanga does require dedication to a tradition and a willingness to forego some of the creativity you might find in other vinyasa flow practices (although the studio I practice at does offer a “Mixed Series Improv” class that draws from both the primary and secondary series in a playful and exploratory way… maybe this is a no-no for hardcore Ashtangis). However, after 10 days of mysore practice, I’m finding solace and constancy in the primary series sequence. Every morning I come to mat, and there it is, unchanging, welcoming, reliable. And as I become more comfortable and proficient, the flow of poses becomes meditative, and I can lose myself in the increasingly connected line between my breath and my movements on the mat.
You see, despite my dedication to my practice, my growing interest in Eastern philosophy, and my desire for a simple existence, a part of me is afflicted by anger. A whole lot of anger, if I’m being honest. And I own this anger. It comes from within me, aimed at things and people I can’t control, and it’s destructive. I know that while Pema Chodron and Thich Naht Hahn would suggest I confront it, sit with it, and acknowledge it for what it is, I often find myself turning away from it, as going down that road of anger is often disturbing and frustrating. It creeps up on me when I least expect it, and instead of looking it in the eyes, I often turn away, hoping it will lose interest and die down. More often than not, it forces my attention, and I find myself in the grips of anger until the familiar train of bitter thoughts runs it course. Only then can I return to my regularly scheduled life.
There is one time, however, that I face my anger, and that is when I’m engaged in meditative physical activity. To me running, biking, and swimming are meditative. When I’m cruising the roads, exploring new trails, and moving methodically through the water, my breath and body are working as one, leaving my mind free to confront my demons. When I exercise I come from a place of power, and my anger stands little chance when I’m barreling down a windy road or charging up a rocky hill. And when I’m in the lap pool, my body completely supported by water and the harmonious movement of my limbs, my mind can careful pull apart the strands of anger. I do my best thinking in the pool, and I’ve worked through more issues while counting laps than in any therapy session.
Ashtanga has proven to have a similar effect. My body is learning how and when to move, leaving me free to tackle my inner knots. While vinyasa practice is using my breath and the force of gravity to gently transform my body, my mind is working to release the tension that I’m hesitant to face off the mat.
The patriarch and originator of modern Ashtanga yoga, Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, sagely said, “Do your practice and all is coming.” He’s not just talking about physical growth here, people. Ashtanga means “eight-limbed,” with each of the first seven limbs working towards the eighth, Samadhi (union with the divine). One of the Niyamas (personal observances) is Svadhyaya, or self study. When we engage in our practice, we have the opportunity to study all of the aspects of ourselves, including the inner landscape of our emotions.
My anger is there. I see it everyday, but nowhere is it clearer, more innocuous, and more manageable than on the mat.