Lately, I've been thinking about the nature of the Ashtanga practice, and how and why I came to practice Ashtanga. There are many questions that come up in the course of my reflections, questions such as: Do all Ashtangis go through the same experiences and processes in the course of encountering and starting the journey of practice? Are there common themes that run through all such encountering-and-beginning-Ashtanga stories? Or is every practitioner's story very different from every other practitioner's, so that there are no commonalities at all? Is Ashtanga for everyone? If it is not for everyone, what kinds of persons is it for? Why do some people begin with some other style of yoga, and then gravitate towards Ashtanga? Why do others go in the opposite direction, beginning with Ashtanga and then gravitating towards other styles? Do these movements to and away from Ashtanga simply reflect what is going on in the individual's life, and what he or she needs for his or her individual journey? Or do they indicate something deeper about the nature of the yogic journey itself?
These are big questions, and I cannot pretend to even begin to have answers to them. But I think they are no less worthy of reflection for being big. Maybe I'll begin by sharing a few things about my own journey of practice.
I'll start by talking about the three things about the Ashtanga practice that really resonate with me: Structure, Simplicity, and Surrender. There is a clear structure, and once you have memorized the postures, there is nothing to think about: Simply do the same postures day in and day out. Some days you will be or feel more flexible and strong, other days less so. But if you keep on with the practice, there is nothing to worry about: All is coming. The practice, by its very nature, demands surrender within effort and effort within surrender: One tries one's best at every posture (effort), and if one doesn't "get" a particular posture today, there's always tomorrow's practice (surrender). It doesn't really matter whether I happen to be feeling tired or full of energy on a particular morning: Either way, I start with the suryas, take everything breath by breath, and see where the ocean of breath/prana takes me on any particular day. Because the postures are always the same, the only thing I can do on any given day is my best: There is less psychological space to "cop out" by saying that I am tired, because even if I am feeling super-tired on a particular day, I just do what my energy level allows me to do on that particular day, which almost always turns out to be much more than I think I can do when I first start out. David Williams once said at a workshop that the primary purpose of the practice is to increase the amount of prana in the body. In my experience, the practice has this "sneaky" way of increasing one's prana almost without one's noticing it. Even on a "low-energy day", if I start out by telling myself to take everything breath by breath, each passing breath I take slowly increases the amount of prana in my body, so that by the time I get through the standing sequence, I find myself having a lot more energy than before the first Surya A, and I end up doing my usual practice anyway.
But here's what interesting: I didn't always feel this way about the Ashtanga system. I started my yoga journey by teaching myself postures from Mr. Iyengar's Light on Yoga. Early in my journey, I had met a few Ashtanga practitioners, but I wasn't impressed by what they said or did. When they told me that Ashtanga practice consists of doing a set sequence of postures every day, I remember my first reaction being: Why? Isn't the mind/body changing everyday? And if it is changing everyday, wouldn't it need a different sequence of postures everyday to meet its different day-to-day needs? At the same time, all the Ashtanga practitioners I knew at that time were pretty new to the practice, and were struggling with what I felt were pretty basic postures (for example, Parivrtta Trikonasana and the Prasaritas). I know, I have this arrogant streak... But hey, I never said I was a yogic saint, so cut me some slack :-) In any case, all this led me to see Ashtanga practice as a rather futile attempt to try to fit one's body into postures that one is not ready for; it seemed to me at that time that coming up with a specific sequence that is specifically tailored to the needs of one's particular mind/body would be a more productive way to proceed.
Anyway, to cut a very long story short, all these considerations were what prevented me from getting into Ashtanga for a long time. And even now, looking at what I just wrote, I can see how these considerations kind of make sense, on a theoretical level.
But theory is just that: Theory. What works in practice is quite a different story. For the longest time, I did my own custom-made daily home practice, strung together from various places (Yoga Journal, Light on Yoga, and a few other miscellaneous sources). I even "dabbled" with Ashtanga now and then, doing the primary series or parts of it a couple of days a week. This whole arrangement worked for a couple of years. But eventually I got to a point of burnout: There was simply a limit to how far I could go by just stringing together random postures on my own. At some point, I started to feel that I needed something that could challenge me in a more tangible, systematic way. And even though the answer to this need was right in front of my eyes, in a way (I had known about Ashtanga since the earliest days of my yoga journey), it took meeting my teacher in Milwaukee to get me started on the path to a regular mysore practice.
Once I started doing mysore practice everyday, things just clicked: I started seeing the same things in a different light. I began to appreciate what I used to see as blind repetition to be constructive practice, for I began to understand that repetition is actually a very effective way of getting the mind/body to really engrave a particular movement pattern into its memory banks. Repetition is the only way one can progressively free the mind/body from the vicissitudes of past conditioning, by not giving it too many options or ways to run away from the necessity of having to squarely face its own weaknesses and perceived limitations. I also began to have more compassion for the limitations of others. I began to understand that what I used to see as futile attempts to fit one's body to a sequence of postures are actually courageous, honest attempts on the part of the practitioner to challenge his or her limitations little by little, day by day, even if the process of such striving is far from glamorous.
But I can only speak for myself. I know that there are many people out there who see Ashtanga as a very boring, repetitive, and even dangerous and injury-inducing practice. I don't know if their reasons for holding such views are the same as those I used to have, or if they have their own unique reasons that are informed by their own individual unique experiences. I can only understand the practice through my own experience.
But perhaps we can learn from each other. Perhaps we can gain some insight into the nature of Ashtanga practice and the yoga journey as a whole by sharing our own stories with one another. Whether you presently practice Ashtanga or not, please feel free to share. So in this spirit, I'll leave you with a few questions:
(1) Do you presently practice Ashtanga?
(2) If you do, did you start your yoga journey by practicing Ashtanga? If not, what caused you to "switch" to Ashtanga?
(3) If you do not practice Ashtanga now, why not? What are your reasons for not practicing Ashtanga? (Feel free to say anything you want to. There is no "Ashtanga Secret Police" :-))
(4) If you do not practice Ashtanga now, would you be open to practicing it in the future? Why or why not?
I look forward to hearing your views, and to learning as much as possible from what you have to offer.