Saturday, January 28, 2012

Being with the universe with needles in me; Is Ashtanga only for teenage boys?

Earlier today, I went for my twice-a-month acupuncture session. The acupuncturist who was working with me today had just completed a 200-hour yoga teacher training, and we chatted briefly about yoga while she was inserting needles into various parts of my physical body (can't remember the last time I had a yoga conversation with somebody who was sticking needles into me...). She is still in the process of finding a yoga style that works for her personal practice, and she had learnt from the other acupuncturist that I practice Ashtanga, so she took this opportunity to find out more about Ashtanga from me. Here's how part of the conversation unfolded:

Acupuncturist: I heard somewhere that Ashtanga was originally developed as a practice for teenage boys who are physically strong and have lots of energy, and that because of this, it is not suitable for those of us who are not teenage boys to practice Ashtanga daily.

Nobel: Uh, yes, it is true that people do say that. But the idea behind Ashtanga isn't that people need to be able to do full primary the very first time they step into a shala. If you learn Ashtanga in a traditional mysore class, you are taught a couple of postures each time you are there, and you basically do as many (or as few) postures as you can, according to your capacity. Some people eventually do full primary or beyond, some people do half-primary, others are somewhere in between. Whichever way, it's fine. You do whatever you can. 

Acupuncturist: That's interesting. I'm the kind of person who tires easily. Which is why I think that perhaps the thing for me to do is to alternate between doing a powerful practice such as Ashtanga one day, and doing a more gentle restorative practice the next day, and so on. That way, I can build up strength and energy without over-straining myself.

Nobel: I think that's a good way to go. I think I might be the opposite of you, energy-wise. Several years ago, I went to a restorative class in the morning, and felt very lethargic and tired the rest of the day. I feel that Ashtanga gives me that morning energy boost that no other practice has been able to give me. Actually, come to think of it, I probably practice Ashtanga more for the energy boost than for any other reason. The postures are really secondary, in this sense. And samadhi? Well, it comes when it comes. No point thinking too much about it.

The conversation pretty much ended at this point. I decided that, given the context, it would be very inappropriate for me to try to sell Ashtanga too much (if nothing else, you don't want to even remotely come across as being pushy when you are lying more or less spread-eagled, and somebody is hovering over you with needles!). So she proceeded to stick the rest of the needles into me, and left me to "be with the universe." Actually, I have come to enjoy being with the universe with needles stuck inside of me. It actually feels like a sort of restorative practice in and of itself.

But back to the conversation. From this conversation, I learned a couple of things. First, I am reminded that many people out there in the "greater yoga world" hold the view that Ashtanga is something that should only be practiced by teenage boys; I have heard this view years ago, but since I "move" mostly within Ashtanga circles these days, it's been a while since I've heard anybody articulate it. The cynical part of me always thinks that people who hold this view are really thinking: Since yoga is hardly the sport of choice for teenage boys in the west, Ashtanga is too rigorous for any real-life yogi, and therefore should not be practiced if you want to stay in one piece, stay sane, etc. Well, I don't know, there may actually be some truth to this. I sometimes feel that I may be a little bit insane...

Through this conversation, I also learned what the main thing is that brings me to the mat every morning: The energy boost that comes from the practice. No matter how tired I feel when I get up in the morning, I always feel so much more energized by the time I finish the practice. To me, the practice is like an energy-creating machine: I go into it with little or no energy, give out so much energy while doing the practice, and yet always come out at the other end with more energy than when I started. How is this possible? Pretty amazing, don't you think? If nothing else, it shows that you don't have to be a teenage boy to experience the power of this practice.

What's perhaps even more amazing is that if I did not have this conversation, I probably would never have thought to articulate the reasons that bring me to the mat every morning. Isn't it amazing how conversation can serve as a mirror into your thoughts and your inner life in this way?


  1. What shocks me about this conversation is that this person has completed a teacher training and hasn't even decided what their practice is yet. Probably one of those TTs where you get trained in a different style every week.


    1. Yes, Susan, the person basically told me as much: That her TT is pretty much a "little bit of every style" thing. And you're right, it's scary that so many people who have so little practice experience want to be teachers. Maybe they see it as a good way of making some extra income on the side. This sounds like precisely the sort of thing that Sharath is talking about in his most recent conference.

  2. Oh you take acupuncture every two weeks? Would you mind telling a little about your experience with it? Maybe a blog post on the way of needles in relation to having a yoga body?

    I just had my first acupuncture sessions, five in total, last month due to some 'female troubles' and I am amazed about the wonders the needles did to my organism. This in contrast to my regular physician who didn't know what to do, except suggest some heavy hormone therapy with no sure outcome and lots of side effects.

    I have a regular ashtanga practice and did think the yoga would sort out my problems, but as nothing really improved, I decided to try acupuncture - with a surprisingly positive result. So now I am curious to hear more.

    1. Hello Roselil,
      I started going to acupuncture a couple of months ago in order to reduce the swelling that accompanied my knee injury. Over a few weeks, the swelling did go down considerably, although I really cannot be sure if this was due to the acupuncture, or just my body healing itself. Other than that, there wasn't really any particularly big issue that brought me to try acupuncture. But I continue to do it because I always feel very relaxed after a session. In a way, I think of it as the restorative practice I never had (plus needles). All in all, I really don't think I know enough about acupuncture to be able to write a post about its relation to having a yoga body.

      From reading your experience, and from hearing about the beneficial experiences of others with regard to acupuncture (with issues like migraine headaches, etc.), I get the sense that acupuncture is probably most effective in addressing hormonal and nervous system issues.

    2. Hi Nobel, Thanks for taking your time to reply me. Good luck with everything. Roselil