Saturday, February 5, 2011

Practice report, imagined outlandish response, and some musings about the nature of the practice

I practiced both yesterday and today (Sunday is my rest day). This morning's practice was good, but quite uneventful. Basically, I did full primary, and it went very smoothly. I felt that my breath, drishti and bandhas were working in sync with one another, and I got through the practice with minimal faffing. End of story.

Yesterday's practice is more interesting, in the sense that there is more of a story to tell. I practiced with my friends Brenda, Derek and Jim at Brenda's and Derek's art and yoga studio in downtown Fargo. I did full primary and second up to pincha mayurasana.

In addition to the four of us, there were two more people. One of them was new to the practice, so Jim practiced with him, leading him through primary. The other person is a yoga teacher who teaches at the yoga studio across the street from my place. He was doing his own Iyengar-inspired practice, and had a blanket, a couple of blocks, and a strap by his mat, which was next to mine. The morning practices at Derek's and Brenda's are called Open Practice, which means that anybody can come in and do pretty much whatever they want to do. Most of the time it ends up being a Mysore class of sorts because most of the time, there are just the four of us (Brenda, Derek, Jim and I).

But yesterday was different, because this yoga teacher came in and did his Iyengar-inspired practice. It kind of gives the whole studio a very interesting eclectic atmosphere. He was doing his practice next to me, and I think if somebody had filmed the whole thing, it would have been quite an interesting demo of the differences between the two styles. I mean, here's me, continuously flowing in and out of postures through the vinyasa, and then there's him next to me, staying in one posture for minutes at a time with some prop or other, then getting out of the posture, rearranging props, and then getting into another posture. Maybe it's just me, but I thought there were certain postures in which he was breathing quite rapidly and loudly, especially in the backbends and arm balances. And maybe this is just me again, but I thought his breathing in those postures was louder than mine (and I'm supposed to be the ashtanga practitioner. What's going on?) Hmm... I didn't know there are "Darth Vader breathers" in Iyengar too; I thought this is purely an ashtanga phenomenon...

My practice went very well. Primary was smooth and pleasant, and second was good too. I got an assist from Jim in Supta Vajrasana, which was really cool. I am also feeling less discomfort in the leg-behind-head postures, and I feel that my body is working productively in those postures.

The Iyengar guy and I finished our practices at around the same time. As we stepped outside the studio, he told me I have a marvelous practice, and that he really likes the way I float through my arms to transition in and out of postures. I thanked him, and for lack of something to say, I told him he had a beautiful practice too. After all this time, I still don't really know how to react when people tell me I have a great practice, so I always default to my "automated response", which is to return the compliment :-)

Maybe next time I should try saying something really outlandish. Something like this: "Yeah, you know why my practice is so marvelous? Because I am actually a very well-preserved thousand-year-old yogi from the Himalayas. I taught Ramamohan Brahmachari. What, you never heard of him? Well, he's Krishnamacharya's guru. Which makes me Krishnamacharya's Parama-guru. Which makes me Mr. Iyengar's Parapara-guru. Which makes me your Parameshti-guru! Speaking of which, why aren't you prostrating yourself at my lotus feet? Don't you want my blessings?"

These outlandish thoughts aside, I have noticed that many non-Ashtanga practitioners' response to Ashtanga practitioners tend to fall into one of two categories: (1) A certain misplaced reverence for athletic/gymnastic abilities ("wow, you can float through your arms/grab your heels in that ridiculous backbend/put both your legs behind your head"), or (2) A perception that Ashtanga is a very physically aggressive practice that is all about the achievement of postures and ego-boosting, and nothing much else.

I admit that I probably have unwittingly contributed to (1) and (2) in my own ways over the last few years. But over the last few months of mostly self-practice, I have gradually and increasingly come to realize that the Ashtanga practice is first and foremost a breath-driven practice. Whether you are an absolute beginner doing your very first Surya A or whether you are practicing second or third series (or beyond), the things that make the practice a practice are the same few things: Breath, drishti, bandhas. The postures almost take care of themselves if one focuses on these things. Despite whatever my ego tells me, the point of the practice is not whether or not I accomplish a particular posture. The point is whether I can do the posture while maintaining even breath, drishti and control of the bandhas. This is true whether I am doing my very first Surya A, or whether I am trying to get into Dwipada Sirsasana. In either case, I am trying to achieve one-pointed focus (ekagrata). In this state, there is no place for aggressive behavior or mere achievement of gymnastic postures (of course, my ego disagrees, but that's another story). So (1) and (2) are misconceptions of the practice; misconceptions that, I suspect, have the unfortunate effect of keeping people away from the practice.   


  1. I do think Ashtanga requires a more regular practice than other styles in order to achieve enjoyment. The reward comes in improvements with regular practice. I took an Anusara class today and I feel that if I were a casual yogi, taking a yoga class once in awhile, a less rigorous class would be more enjoyable.

  2. HA HA HA, I have to show James this, he also has those deliriums thoughts of responding in such ways from time to time...

    Ashtanga rocks, not that there is anything wrong with anything else. But I must say, Iyengar books rock, like, big time.

  3. Hahaha, I love the outlandish response! Should definitely be tried sometime ;)

  4. @Yyogini, yes, I think you are right that Ashtanga requires a more regular practice over a longer period of time in order for it to feel enjoyable, at least for most people (and that includes me). But now I don't think I can/want to do anything else.

    Claudia, yes, I think that James will like this, from what I can gather about his personality from his blog posts.

    Hello Pakistaniashtangi, great to "meet" you. Thanks for commenting on my post! If you do decide to try this response, be sure to post about it. I'll love to see people's responses to it :-)