When I first started doing Ashtanga, in 1997, I was in, perhaps, the worst shape of my life. I had just given birth to my third child a few months earlier, and had struggled with the physical and emotional changes from all three of my pregnancies. Laziness and inertia had truly set in after years of carrying children and steadily gaining weight. The way I liked to recharge myself was by watching a French film on DVD from Blockbuster on Sunday nights, along with a glass of wine or two, after everyone had gone to bed (admittedly, I still enjoy doing this occasionally!)
Although it’s an accepted truth today, the idea that doing yoga could make me both healthier and happier if I just did it consistently was something that no one wrote or talked about at the time.
When I finally found Ashtanga, after a brief exposure to hatha Yoga in the early ’90’s, it’s beauty and depth (and the intellectual and physical rigor needed to practice it) appealed to me like nothing had before. I was hooked from the first class, but did not become a “daily” practitioner for many years. My path to daily practice - and more importantly, the renewed health and vitality it gave me - wasn’t a steady and straight path. In the first years, I would take off weeks due to demands of family life. Nor did I learn Ashtanga in a Mysore style setting, but only attended Led style classes, as the lovely studio where I took my first Ashtanga classes didn’t offer Mysore style practice*, and I didn’t know how to practice on my own at home.
(In retrospect, my practice took much longer to evolve and grow, compared to students who practiced more consistently and also those I met later who learned via Mysore style. Seeing my own students today, most of whom are learning the practice in a Mysore style setting, I now know that those who practice more consistently AND do Mysore style practice generally go further in - and get more out of - their practice than those who only practice once or twice a week in led style classes.)
It was only when I began studying with Nancy Gilgoff and learned that practice need not be a 90 minute led class, but rather, that you could practice 6 days a week by setting aside as little as 15 minutes (if that is all you had time for) to practice sun salutes, the last three padmasanas, then take rest - and that those 15 minutes counted as a daily practice! Only then did I begin to have a consistent, true Ashtanga practice, because I could do 15 minutes on the days I couldn’t get to led class. And, those 15 minutes soon turned into longer and longer self-practices.
After just a couple of months of daily practice, I noticed a few things:
First, what was once a demanding practice actually became easier for me, both physically and mentally, even though at first I felt I didn’t have time to do it every day. Admittedly, I wasn’t doing 90 minutes of asana every day, but I was doing at least 30-45 minutes, 6 days a week (with Moons and Menses off, natch). What was important was that it was consistent, mindful and wise practice. I wasn’t as sore or depleted as I had been when I practiced only sporadically, i.e. my former method of once or twice a week for 90 minutes of “kick-asana”-style practice that would leave me wrung out and depleted - and usually feeling discouraged, too.
Second, I felt that consistent practice made me better able to handle the ups and downs of daily living and family life. To be frank, I was, simply, a nicer person (and a better Mom and partner - just ask my family for proof of this) when I practiced more regularly. I was more patient, less irritable, more cheerful and energized, and therefore better able to sweat the small stuff - and a little better able to handle the big stuff, too.
And, third, it was only then that I finally began to do yoga.
Ashtanga practice had become something more to me than merely a means to stay fit or reduce stress. It had become sadhana. When you roll out a mat consistently several times each week, doing the same series of postures again and again, breathing and moving mindfully every day, you begin to notice a few things about who you are, what you struggle with, and what your monkey mind tends to turn towards (generally, quite negatively) like a broken record or some bad pop song looping in your head. This noticing is enhanced when your practice, your sadhana, is quiet: with Ashtanga, it's just you breathing and moving and following the same sequence every day (with effort and kindness in equal measure, egolessly) and, importantly, with little to no distractions to anesthetize you. There is no music blasting, nor is there a teacher shouting at you or telling you constantly what to do. Rather, it’s just the inhale and exhale guiding you into and out of postures that are attempted earnestly and sincerely, but without pushing yourself to injury or despair. (And, when you practice in a Mysore setting, with folks nearby working earnestly themselves, with a teacher there to support you when you need him or her, and the room filled with the sound of the breath, well, that's even better. As AYN teacher Georgiann Kristek likes to say, "How lucky are we?!")
I’ve never experienced anything else quite like it. After almost 18 years of doing Ashtanga, I am grateful that it’s lessons and gifts keep coming, and hope they will for a long time.
Sometimes students ask me, “Why do you think this works?” I usually say in response, “I don’t know, but it does work. Just keep practicing, even when - especially when - it gets difficult.” Sometimes, I read them this lovely quote by the Australian Ashtanga teacher Dena Kingsburg (one of Pattabhi Jois’ most advanced students) from the book Guruji by Guy Donahaye and Eddie Stern. It is the best metaphor I've ever read of the Ashtanga practice and explains better than I ever could why the practice works:
“The practice is a purification process, a therapy to make us well. From this state of being well, other things unfold....the rhythmic repetition of movement becomes familiar and soothing, and the mind slips away into the space between thought. I think of it like this: Perception is a window. This window has been marked with the passing of time. Impressions are left upon it by our conditioning...by life’s experiences...damaged by disappointment, trauma and loss, clouded by uncertainly and confusion. I see the practice as the process of cleaning the window. Each day we dip the sponge into the bucket and wipe it across the surface. After some time, the change is apparent. A clear opening arises where it was clouded before, and this unclouded vision brings more light and clarity. It’s enough to keep you dipping. Sometimes there are marks on the glass that are difficult to remove and sometimes there are areas in the practice that are difficult and it seems that we will never be able to pass beyond them. Repetition is the key. We go back to the same place over and over without expectation or judgment ...until eventually catharsis,either subtle or dramatic, occurs as some stubborn or trapped part of us breaks free....Days, weeks, months, years pass, and slowly the mind settles and the window of perception clears.”
*(In fact, AYN is still one of only two Mysore style Ashtanga shalas in Western Mass, and Mysore style teaching, which teaches students how to practice on their own, is rarely available outside of big cities even today.)
I'm going to get personal here, inspired in part by my good friend Maria's most recent blogpost on her excellent Ashtanga-centric blog, Serene Flavorful. She was inspired by another blogger who wrote about body dysmorphia.
If you've never taken Mysore class, it's really kind of hard to describe, and a picture (or a grainy video) is worth a thousand words. Yesterday, I filmed the Mysore class for a few minutes, with the plan to share a minute or so on the studio's Facebook page. Watching afterwards, however, I didn't see the class or the students. I couldn't help but notice myself, especially, my belly, and my stiff way of walking about the room. I cringed and thought immediately, "Ugh, I can't post this: I look old and fat."
My stiffness was the result of slipping and falling hard during a hike the day before, and it will pass. But, my belly has always been, shall we say, rounded, even as a young child - and this roundness worsened after carrying three big babies. Pregnancy gave me diastatis recti, a splitting of the linear connective tissue between the "six pack" or (rectus abdominis) muscles. Essentially, there is a long weakness and in some places an actual tear in the connective tissue, from my pubic bone to above my navel. Because it's always been weak, even as a child, my gut tends to hang out. Practice and the integration of uddhiyana bandha has helped immensely in knitting up the damage from pregnancy for the most part, but I will never have a flat stomach, even if I starved myself and worked on my abs for hours every day.
I've tried that form of suffering and, frankly, it sucks, and it's not ahimsa.
My Father liked to call me "Stick Legs" or "Shelly Belly" because I looked kind of like a candy apple as a little girl. Now, I am not blaming my Father for my personal self-image issues, but certainly, those names didn't help. Growing up in our rock-hard-abs-buns-of-steel-obsessed culture didn't help either. Looking at the video, I notice a couple of things: the skinny legs and big belly of my childhood exist in my adult form, too. But, in general, I am healthy, strong and feel great. My bodily form looks as it does because it's what genetics gave me, and 18 years of Ashtanga practice have not changed it very much. My form ultimately will dissolve completely, along with everyone else's, including those considered by our culture to possess the form of a "lithe yoga goddess".
What's the answer to all this disfunction?
Perhaps remembering that my temporary form has nothing to do with what I am in a permanent sense, and also that future suffering can be avoided (in this case, being saddened by how I perceive myself, and also, afraid of my form being judged harshly by others.) There's where the advice "Practice and all is coming" should be taken to heart, as practice (and non-attachment) is the best way I've found of becoming more conscious of being caught up in my inherent doubts, judgments and self-delusions. Only when I become aware of them do I have a chance of wiping them away, as the invocation exhorts us to do, "...Pacifying delusion, the poison of conditioned existence."
Meanwhile, I also noticed a few other things about the video: every person in the room has their own completely unique body type. (In fact, spend some time in a variety of Ashtanga rooms around the world, and you will see that the practice is for everyone and done by everyone, of all ages, shapes and sizes.) The students are generally so intent on doing their practice, they don't seem to be caught up in how they "look," but are just trying to breath and move to the best of their abilities. I'm not thinking at all about what I "look" like, either: I'm teaching. We are all present, breathing and moving, in these few moments. It's only after I looked at the video that I judged myself.
Maybe another answer to body dysmorphia is to stop taking (yoga) selfies and posting them on the internet, when the intent is to get attention or admiration. Because, how does it feel when we don't get the response we were seeking? Future suffering can be avoided, indeed.
In any event, in the interests of full disclosure, and to face my fears and self judgment, I'm posting a quick clip of our Mysore room working peacefully and quietly together. Enjoy.
On heat and practice...
I recently read a great Facebook posting by certified Ashtanga Teacher and author Gregor Maehle on the subject of heat in the Ashtanga room during practice. While I find the preference of a hot vs. cool room depends on one's constitution (i.e. whether or not your primary dosha is Vata, Pitta, or Kapha) in general, keeping the room at around 80 degrees F in New England seems to work best for most of our practitioners. But, Gregor gives some great insights on heat in the shala, and also, why it may not be necessary to keep the windows shut, too. Read on...
"I keep receiving questions regarding whether it’s important or good to heat the yoga shala and whether this aids in detoxing. I also hear people reasoning that the shala should be heated to emulate the heat of the gangetic plains in India, which is supposed to be the native environment of yogis. Now during the 1980 and 90’s I travelled extensively through the gangetic plains but I must say that I found them surprisingly bereft of yogis. On the other hand if you went up into the freezing Himalayas you found that the yogis were stacked up to the rafters. Surprising, isn’t it!
Do you remember that even Krishnamacharya went up into the Himalayas to practice tummo, yoga of inner fire, while sitting on the ice? You can’t practice that down in the gangetic plains.
Nowadays Western yogis are really emphatic about keeping the windows of the yoga shala closed. I remember that neither KP Jois old shala in Lakshmipuram nor the Parakala Matt in Mysore where T Krishnamacharya taught ever had any windows. And I remember that in January at 4.30 AM I always froze in those drafty windowless rooms. And nobody offered to turn on any heaters because there weren’t any!
Now of course in many places in which people practice yoga today it gets much colder than in Southern India in winter, such as North America or middle and Northern Europe. In which case it makes sense to heat the room to room temperature, say around 20 to 23°C (68 to 74 °F). Everything above that would mean that if you practice vigorously, the bodies cooling mechanism (sweating) would fail, which can be noticed when the sweat starts to run off and forms puddles. People who practice in such a fashion usually age prematurely and if you look at them 10 years later they have a washed out and drained look to themselves because of all the prana they lost, by practicing too vigorously under too hot conditions.
Notice that the yogis were very concerned about loosing tejas (inner glow) and one of the ways of preventing that is to rub the sweat produced during pranayama back into the skin. This is a technique, however, that should only be used in the context of pranayama and not during asana, during which excessive sweating should be avoided. Hence, do not heat the room too much and if it’s warm outside keep the windows open. Many yogic texts (shastras) state that the shala should be well aired. Hope that helps, Gregor"