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Designing a Healthy Ashtanga Yoga Practice

Designing a Healthy Ashtanga Yoga Practice

Mysore Director Sarah Hatcher: ‘You know you have matured as an ashtanga yogi, when you chose to take time away from the mat, slow down, or redesign how you practice. Or for some, it could be time to go the other way and dive deeper into the practice by renewing your effort and refining your practice plan.’

[The best way to read this blog post is to have a translation of the Yoga Sutras 1.19-1.23 near you. If you don’t have a copy, pick one up from the Meadowlark library.]

Practice, practice, practice. Years go on, and even decades, where you devote all your energy to practicing the eight limbs. You wake up at 3am some years; you go to bed some years at 7pm, and you take away the finer pleasures in life to do so.

The amount of discipline and sacrifice it takes to be on your mat every day takes guts and lots of stamina. And there are rewards to doing this type of tapas: the internal structure within you changes as your physicality strengthens and your mind clears. Your outer form is visibly different and yet so is the inner form. This is the sincere cultivation of ‘antarangam’: dharana (concentration), dhyana (meditation) and samadhi (absorption) – the last three inner limbs of ashtanga yoga. These strengthen and become as strong and supple as your slim waist and visible uddiyana bandha.

Then one day there’s a disruption in your routine: you become ill; you take a long holiday that will not allow for you to practice; you decide to have a baby and put the practice on hold for a while; or, you have an operation where you can’t practice in order to heal.

What happens then – are you no longer an ashtanga yogi?

Actually, you could be just as dedicated. Here’s how:

If you have been practicing up until that point with gusto, there will be an immense build-up of supportive pillars to the practice stored inside you over many years through dedicated effort on the mat. These are defined in Yoga Sutra 1.20 as:

  • sraddha (faith)
  • virya (potency)
  • smrti (memory)
  • samadhi (seeking meditation) and
  • prajna (in pursuit of the highest wisdom)

Because of the work you’ve done, the mature ashtanga yogi in you knows when it is the right time for you to modify, make changes and redirect your practice – it will naturally happen at least once in your practice career.

If and when it does, don’t let it bring you down.

The friendship you’ve made with the practice is alive within you, and it has a pulse. It shares secrets about prana and kundalini; it offers calmness amongst the storm of your mind; and it even sends surges of electricity through you when you are feeling like a dead battery. It gives you insight.

The practice has become a dear friend! Its humble company requires attention and listening that teaches you something that you didn’t even know you needed to learn. This relationship is strong and reliable and if we take this dedicated, soulful, physical practice away, it will still be within you – sleeping inside you waiting for you to coax it back to life.

And when you do bring it back, you will need to bring it back with serious love and vigor to light the fire once again.

**

Since our yoga practices are quite alive within us, we are reminded often of the poses we don’t do while we are doing something else.

When we forward bend to pick up a pen off the floor, we squat down to lower ourselves to do this. It is just like grabbing your toes in Padangusthasana. There is a memory of the pose when you aren’t even doing it! Your bandhas pick up and you naturally exhale as you bend over. You even inhale to come up. Watch and see for yourself some time – did it happen?

But oh the shame when we get so attached to our practices we feel remorse when we don’t do it! It is natural to feel a little bit of this as we have done it for so long; however, a smart plan is to look to Patanjali when we find ourselves in this mindset:

Patanjali says that there are different levels of effort to attaining concentrated practice: some people apply sincere effort and spend endless amount of hours doing it. Those this dedicated understand the limbs of yoga quickly. Others go slowly and, some, moderately. Each practitioner whether they are going at 100 miles an hour into the practice or taking the 5 mph route – both achieve the fruit of yoga, they are just doing it at a different intensity and pace.

If this holds true, then Patanjali is offering us a moderate perspective on practice to encourage us to practice in the right time and circumstance. Just because you aren’t doing masterful deep asana or any asana at all, doesn’t mean you aren’t thinking about it or feeling it inside you. A focused, concentrated and meditative mind upon the practice – even if you aren’t doing it daily – is very valuable.

Sutras 1.21-1.22 outline this:

“Tivra samveganamasannah”

“Mrdu-madyadhi matra tato pi’visesah”

How quickly that one progresses depends on the amount of practice as well as the actual amount of conviction while doing it. If you are practicing every day with deep intensity but without soul, then you are most likely progressing at a mild or medium rate, even though there is an intensity of practice: there’s lots of sweat but not enough tears of defeat or glory and not enough smiles of bliss and joy.

***

If you take a break from practicing, though you are concentrating upon the practice and craving its company and meditating upon it – sitting and breathing, chanting sutras or mantras –  then you are also progressing in yoga.

Be honest with your yourself: progress varies as you mature as a practitioner. Some years you see your teacher daily, study sutras in the evenings and do pranayama practices, meditation and shanti mantras in the afternoon. Other years you aren’t on your mat at all, however you’re neck deep in the philosophy, or daydreaming of asanas that bring you joy and days within the company of your teacher.

You’re still progressing because your mind is on yoga, it just looks different from the outside.

Patanjali also suggests that if you can’t wrap your head around the idea of how your daily effort is possibly different than the amount of heart you have while practicing, believe in the divine and continue to immerse yourself in the beautiful natural world that surrounds us all.

“Isvara pranidnanat va.” (Sutra 1.23)

Don’t lose focus of why you practice yoga in the first place: is it to slim your waist or is it to feel connected to yourself and the world around you?

The royal path of yoga is a mighty tool to redirect your purpose in your life and bring you closer to knowing who you are. This samadhi happens daily or once in a while – epic knowing and understanding comes as a fleeting glimpse to rediscover over and over, or for some, a slow journey of awakened consciousness.

Directing my practice towards understanding this – my purpose – is the highest goal of yoga.

Beginners, as well as advanced yogis, can benefit from the wise sage Patanjali when approaching their practice plan. Questions to ask yourself are:

  • Are you the mature yogi that needs to redesign how much you are practicing and what kind of effort you are applying to your practice?
    • Maybe a little less time on the mat but with a more meditative mind?

Or:

  • Are you needing to start a practice and begin with a practical plan: perhaps moving slowly and attending a beginner’s workshop?
    • Starting with a basics class 1-3 times a week would be the recommended plan for you. Attend the Beginners Mysore Intensive weekend and begin practicing in the Mysore room 1-3 times a week.

Whether you are redirecting your practice or just beginning, both of you are achieving the benefits of yoga. It can be done very little or a lot to be helpful to the mind, the soul and the spirit within you.

I am currently entering my seventh month of pregnancy with my second child. It is the time to daydream of the glorified asanas, think fondly of their friendship and await the time with them again with the presence of my beloved teachers David Garrigues and Dena Kingsberg. And this is in the not-so-distant future. The female shape that is overwhelmingly overtaking my asana practice teaches me to simply keep breathing, chanting and doing even the tiniest bit of yoga I can every day. And of course, sharing my understanding of yoga deeply and passionately with you to the best of my ability, dear yogi.

Catch her while you can! Come practice with our Mysore Director Sarah Hatcher daily in the mornings in the Mysore room through January when she then takes maternity leave. Participate in her Inversions Workshop on 6 January of 2019, find more information here.

 

Meadowlark Yoga

Visit our studio on the edge of the Meadows, open 7 days a week offering Ashtanga Vinyasa and other styles of yoga.contact@meadowlarkyoga.com 43 Argyle Place, Edinburgh, EH9 1JT 0131 2287581