Friday, December 9, 2011

Is it possible to compartmentalize Ashtanga in one's own life?

I just read Kino's latest article on her blog. She writes:

"One other crucial shift must happen in order to facilitate the transition into full immersion in the yoga tradition. You must make the transition from a fitness oriented approach to yoga into a devotional one. By getting this subtle shift you will gain consistency and regularity in the way that you do your practice. A daily spiritual ritual where you take time to connect internally to a deep sense of yourself requires dedication. The requirement to practice six days a week is meant to develop the kind of mental, spiritual and devotional determination needed in order make progress along the internal path of yoga. If yoga is meant to be a life long commitment to inner peace it behooves yoga practitioners to practice as much as they can. If you only practice when it is convenient or when you feel good then yoga is more of a hobby then a lifestyle. But sincere spiritual practice has never been a leisurely activity if it is to produce the results of awakening. True spiritual practice is an unbroken commitment to do everything it takes to see the deepest truth there is. It is not something you can choose to look at only on Monday and Wednesday for an hour and pretend it does not exist for the rest of the week."

There is a lot of stuff to chew on in this very insightfully written paragraph. To begin with, Kino talks about the subtle shift that occurs in the practitioner from a fitness-oriented approach to a devotional approach towards the practice, and how making this shift is necessary if the practitioner is to stick with the practice for the long haul and make genuine progress along the internal path of yoga.

My teacher in Milwaukee has also expressed the same point. He used to say that Ashtanga is not the kind of yoga that one can "dabble in": One either gets totally seriously immersed in it and allows the practice to transform one, or one eventually lets go of the practice and moves on to something else. From my own personal experience, I feel that this is very true. Even if one initially approaches the practice from a purely physical fitness point of view, as one does the practice over a period of time, one is bound to encounter obstacles. These can range from purely physical obstacles like injuries or limitations that cause one to get stuck at a certain posture for a prolonged period of time, to psychological obstacles caused by changes in one's personal life. I think that when one encounters such obstacles, one inevitably asks oneself: Why am I doing this practice, if it isn't as enjoyable as it used to be? Depending on how one answers this question, one will either stick with the practice or move on to something else.

But nevertheless, I sometimes find myself wondering: Is it possible for one to be a lifelong/long-term Ashtanga dabbler? Is it possible that there may be people out there who decide that they are only going to go for certain physical aspects of the practice, and maybe restrict their practice to only, say, two or three times a week? What do they do the rest of the time? Well, they don't exactly pretend that Ashtanga doesn't exist during that time. They just, well, do other things, i.e. engage in other activities (run, play tennis, eat lots of not-very-healthy food, drink like fishes, have lots of sex... the list goes on.). And then when it comes time for that twice- or thrice-weekly Ashtanga class, they go to Ashtanga class. And then they go back to running or playing tennis or eating lots of not-very-healthy food or drinking like fishes or having lots of sex. And so on. 

Anyway, I guess my question is: Is it possible to compartmentalize Ashtanga in one's life in this way, in much the same way in which many people compartmentalize work, family, exercise, etc, and treat those things as particular "parts" of their lives? My own personal answer is no (as you probably figured); for me at least, the practice is such that it permeates many areas of (actually, probably all of) my life at the same time, whether I like it or not. But I often wonder if this is just me; for all I know, there might be people out there who have "successfully" kept this Ashtanga thing out of the rest of their lives. And there's probably nothing wrong with that: When all is said and done, it is your practice, and you alone must decide what kind of a relationship the practice should have to the rest of your life. But if Kino is right, then it seems that in the long run, one can only compartmentalize Ashtanga (assuming this is possible, of course) at the price of not making Ashtanga a genuine spiritual practice. After all, as I understand it, one common motivation for compartmentalizing anything is to locate it within a convenient, neat place within one's existing lifestyle, so that it fits nicely into a particular slot within this lifestyle, enabling one to do that thing at one's own leisure. But real spiritual practice, as many of us know, is like life: It is often very messy and complicated, and cannot be fitted into any nice categories. At least, this is my opinion: Many may disagree.

So where does all this leave me? Well, I'm not sure. This seems to be one of those posts where I just keep going on and on and on, and suddenly find myself running out of things to say :-) So maybe I'll leave you with this question: Do you think it is possible to compartmentalize the Ashtanga practice? I'll love to hear from you, as always.    


  1. Ashtanga determines the way you eat, the time you allocate to socializing and how. it determines the ideal time you go to bed, and it ends up taking over what you read, watch and talk about. I would say it is the rest or what islrft of your life that gets compartmentalized. Willingly and with very little regret in my case.

  2. Yes, sereneflavor, I think what you say makes a lot of sense: Enjoy life as much as we can, as much as possible while keeping up the level of practice that works for us :-)

  3. but wait....there's more:) just an observation here as I see some of my own friends and student do this. They practice to get a "good workout" man that drives me crazy, and then depending on the day, off to the bar or off to eat some animals. I know I'm being blunt and tactless here but I'm working on it:) So in life I do see how folks can make no correlation between practice and life, as a teacher and a practitioner, i try to show by example how yoga (yama & niyama)can be every moment, it ain't easy, great post as per usual Nobel:)

  4. Thanks for sharing, JayaKrishna. Don't worry about being tactless; I'm not exactly the paragon of tactfulness myself :-)

    Actually, I can't judge anybody for what they do outside of the practice, since I also drink (not like a fish, but I do drink..). But at the same time, I also like to think that if one sticks to the practice at whatever level of intensity, it will slowly but surely transform one somehow, somewhere along the line.

  5. Can one expect their limited-intensity (say, 3 days a week) practice to slowly become transformative (ie impact life significantly off the mat) or should those practitioners consider that level of "dabbling" insufficient and bound to eventually lead to boredom? A teacher of mine says that the routine becomes incredibly boring if you do not interpret the asana beyond the purely physical. Do we tell those three day a week people that they must do more, or that all is coming?

  6. Good questions, Anonymous :-) My personal view is that after a certain period of "dabbling", one is bound to ask, "Is there more to this Ashtanga thing, or is it just this physical practice?" If one decides that there is nothing more to the practice (or at least nothing more that one wants to get further into), then one will probably find the practice boring, and go do something else. On the other hand, if one decides that one wants to and is ready to go beyond the purely physical, then... (you know the answer to this, I'm sure :-))

    I would personally tell the three-day-a-week people that all is coming :-)

  7. Hello Nobel

    I was getting the attention from Kino’s site in FB to your article .

    I looks more like you have a wish ,for a new yoga style or ashtanga method that would be more free for emotions and some easier for the body and mind to practice .

    The practice from Ashtanga mysore method is like to close up to sentiments and feelings , we search all day only how to make it more advanced ,and no how to relax .

    Relaxation in movement is thew key to emotions – second charka the thoughts on it is the key to relax –
    Light blue lightened – not orange it is to aggressive

    Maybe instead of 2 years for a series we will need 4 maybe more ok why not ?


  8. Thanks for taking the time to comment on both my blog and on Kino's FB page, Philipp.

    I agree with a lot of what you say about how the Ashtanga practice brings up all kinds of emotions and how the key is to find relaxation in the midst of movement, etc. I also think that whether you take 2 years or 4 years (or 10) to "master" a series is totally beside the point. However long you take is fine; just do the practice consistently, and all is coming, as Guruji would say.

    And I also think you misunderstand me on a fundamental level. I have no desire or wish for a "new yoga style or ashtanga method that would be more free for emotions." I have been practicing six days a week for more than two years now. It's not always enjoyable; in fact, it's often very hard work. But I think this is the right way to practice, and I would not change it for anything in the universe.

    May the Force be with you.

  9. hello

    we have 7 days in a week ???

    I am on the 4th year far away to say to do the first series I was doing it good ,I had a injury in markianasa A, after a hard injury the start is to tray to reach with my hands the knees in a forward bend.

    Ashtanga Yoga is the best of the best ,way to practice , that is already given
    Improvement means to research and search or ask for something better .

    thank you

  10. Hello Philip,
    yes, we do have 7 days in a week :-)

    I'm very sorry to hear about your injury, but am happy to hear that you are working productively with it.

  11. it has been extremely difficult to continue and further my very devoted Ashtanga practice exactly because of not wanting to be surrounded by judgmental comments such as above and judgmental people such as the author. Yoga, no matter what style, should help bring peace, love, unity, acceptance, right? So why do so many Ashtangis I've come across pass so much judgment upon others and have such a self-righteous attitude? Why are so many devout Ashtangis not peaceful at all?

    who is to say that just because someone may not (or may not be able to in a lot of cases) practice six days a week they are "eating lots of not-very-healthy food or drinking like fishes or having lots of sex."??? ( And anyways, what is wrong with having lots of sex?)

    I understand that the practicing 6 times a week will take the practice to a much deeper level. However, please do not assume that those of us who cannot do so are all just coming for the sweat and the nice biceps whenever we feel like it. We probably really want to come 6 times a week. We probably wish we could be there, at 6 am everyday starting the days off with surya namaskar. Chances are, we are coming (our "inadequate" 3,4,or 5 days a week) for much much much more than the physical and please do not undermine that, or our amount of understanding, and spirituality, and respect.

  12. Hello from Spain!

    I love Asthanga, and I think that our lifestyles should be as flexible as our bodies... :-)


  13. I have enjoyed reading your articles. It is well written. It looks like you spend a large amount of time and effort in writing the blog. I am appreciating your effort.

  14. Hello Anonymous, thanks for sharing. No, there is nothing "wrong" with having lots of sex, or eating lots of unhealthy food, or drinking like fishes, for that matter. But I think it is fair to say that, given that we only have so much time and energy, the more energy we put out towards those things, the less we will have to do the practice. And one should definitely practice however number of times a week one feels works for one. And practicing to get bigger biceps (or bigger whatever) is fine. I have no problem with that.

    Hello Maite, thanks for reading my blog :-)

  15. Hello, Nobel. First of all, i enjoy reading your blogs. Your writing is delightful :)

    I am a buddhist. As a buddhist, we believe in the middle path. If something is too rigid, it will break. Too loose and then it won't do any good either. Thus, one should follow the middle, or optimization path -- not too rigid or too flexible; not too serious or too frivolous.

    So, this is my take on your discussion. The way to be in Ashtanga for long-term is to enjoy doing it, in moderation, that suits one's preference. For me, what makes practicing yoga so great is that I learn about myself, my body, my presence thru the asanas. So, for me, i see it as a life-long learning and for that reason, i just have to listen to my body telling me how many classes i should do a week.

    Just an opinion :)

    1. Thanks for sharing, Fon. Actually, I am also a Buddhist, and I also believe in the middle path, although I'm not always certain that I am following it :-)

      Well, here's my take on following the middle path in Ashtanga practice. I do agree that one needs to listen to one's body and not just be blindly pushing. But if one never pushes or challenges oneself at all, one will tend to get bored and become stagnant sooner or later. I think of Ashtanga practice as being like paddling down a fast-flowing river or rapid; one has to always pay attention to what is going on every moment, or one will crash and maybe even drown.

      I could go on and on, but I think I always tend to go off on tangents when I talk/write too much. So I'll leave it at this.

      Thanks for enjoying my writing. It means a lot to me, and it really keeps me motivated to write. :-)

  16. This is an interesting post. I only started practicing ashtanga a year ago and currently am doing the 3 days a week practice. My only reason is that I hurt my neck and shoulder badly when I got too excited the first few months, and I am trying to tell myself to slow down and not let the physical, type-A thinking get in the way.

    I do plan to upgrade to a full 6 days practice, but only when I know I am ready and not because of any other things (ego, to get better faster purely for physical gains - believe me I get it and I don't like it :( ). At the moment, I spent the other 3 days just doing my surya As and Bs, the finishing poses, and savasana.

  17. I myself find it very difficult to separate, or as you say, compartmentalize, Ashtanga yoga from the rest of my life. I have found myself giving up many things in order to prioritize my practice. I no longer go out and "drink like a fish" or stay up late in general so that I can get up at 5am to practice. Once thing I have been struggling with is giving up something else I love in life. I am a skydiver. I have been skydiving for the past nine years. However, last summer is the first summer that I didn't make any jumps. I was afraid to jump in fear of having a bad landing that would twist my ankle or jar my knee and have negative impacts on my ashtanga practice. Once summer was over in Pennsylvania, I found myself sad that I didn't jump and really missing the fun of skydiving. Here we are in spring 2013 and I am faced with the same question. Do I go and have fun skydiving and risk injury and setbacks in the physical part of my practice (I know there is much more to it than just physical), or do I sacrifice my skydiving hobby and stay devoted to only ashtanga yoga. Any thoughts? Also, I would like your thoughts on my blog about whether or not there is such a thing as cheating on your teacher.
    Thanks so much for you blog posts and insight. They really hit home for me.
    -Ordinary Yogini

    1. Sounds like a classic case of Ashtanga ruining your life :-) Actually, Ashtanga has pretty much ruined my life too... I don't go out late much anymore (although I still have a beer after dinner), I plan my day around my practice, etc, etc.

      I can't tell you what to do about your skydiving vis-a-vis your Ashtanga practice. That is a personal decision for you to make. But I'll share something that happened in my own life. Maybe this will give you something more to chew on. Last year, I injured my left knee during Ashtanga practice, and had to back off and modify a whole bunch of postures for a few months. My knee has since healed about 90% (there is some residual stiffness or soreness on some days), but I probably wouldn't go skydiving right now :-)

      But the thing is, I've never really been a very active outdoorsy kind of person in the first place (I sometimes go on hikes or long walks, but that's about it). So perhaps I really don't have much of a life for Ashtanga to ruin, in the first place.

      Not sure if this story of mine is helpful, but I just thought I'd share. About the issue of whether it is possible to cheat on your teacher, I just left a comment on your blog about it. Nice blog, btw :-)

    2. Thanks so much for your response. It does give me alot to think about. I just stumbled across your blogspot the other day and still look forward to reading all your posts.

  18. So, I'm getting to this thread pretty late but wanted to throw my thoughts out there...

    I started practicing Ashtanga nearly 17 years ago. For the vast majority of that time I've practiced at home alone because classes don't meet with my busy life. If I'm not chanting by 5:30, it's not happening. There have been stretches when I have faithfully completed a very traditional full series (I'm in one of those stretches now.) At other times I could barely get through the standing series and the last three closing postures. This practice has seen me through an entire pregnancy with a 10 pounder, a broken leg, a painful divorce, my mother's cancer, a devastating diagnosis for my child, countless soft tissue injuries (always from walking, never yoga), and now the radiation therapy of the love of my life.

    And at almost 50 years old and all that experience, here's what I know for sure. Ashtanga is not my life. It is a tool I use to get through life. It is practice for the inevitable ups and downs. When I traveled to Mysore and practiced with Sharath and Saraswati, the most important lesson I learned was to laugh at it all. Because, really, what's the big deal if you can't close Marichi D today?

    But I don't want to veer too far off course. If people want to dabble, who cares? They're getting what they need from it. And that's enough. Maybe they'll find a lifeline in it and get more consistent. But maybe they have other mechanisms that perform the same function that this practice does for me. Cool! This works for me so I do it - to some extent, most days. Good enough. Didn't Guruji say judge not lest ye be judged? No, wait, that was another guy...

    And just for the record, I practiced today and as I'm typing this I'm drinking a nice glass of wine, my lovely man is grilling me a steak, and I'm likely to have sex later. Just sayin'... ;-)

  19. in buddhism, the teaching concepts and knowledge are provided for different practicioners. there are two main categories, general people and monks in monastery. when i read kino's comment, it reminds me of the time i was in monastery, there are hundreds of rules to follow, and tons of knowledges which seem impossible to learn all and that is how i realize about the jouney of following buddha step toward the enlightenment(i think its very difficult but somehow possible). i understand the point that kino made in her comments(in my way and not about the enlightenment). for me ,kinos comments are very encouraging. i do believe making Ashtanga a dialy spiritual ritual for the purpose of finding inner peace need a lot of dedication and commitment. honestly I wouldnt decide to become a monk for the rest of my life and follow footstep of buddha for enlightenment. however personally, ashtanga is also another type of a learning path for general people to find peace, dhyana and perhaps samadhi and only people with true commitment will perhaps be able to reach the stage of samadhi.
    PS just my thought and may not correlate with author's question.