I've always been a practitioner who's goal was increased health and vitality (and, when I first started practicing, relief from pain, too, as I'd had a bad back since my early teens.) I've never been the type to seek the admiration of my peers for my asana prowess, but, still I was just as addicted to "getting" postures as anyone who does Ashtanga. I wanted to be strong and flexible, and I worked hard at my asana practice in the early years - too hard. I was always trying to "open my hips" and "deepen" my forward folds and back bends, under the mistaken belief that if I got my legs easily into lotus or my head to my knees in paschimottanasana, I'd have…arrived. Only then would I be happy and strong and really healthy. Only when I could "do" the postures correctly would the dis-ease I felt most of the time finally be eradicated.
I was trying to use the practice to "fix" myself.
Practicing in this way pushed my body beyond what was right for it, and it depleted and hurt me, even though my intention was to help my body. It was a form of blindness, and it took an illness to reveal to me that this approach was NOT holistic, but rather had been detrimental for me for many years. With my illness came the complete loss of ability to do asana - and a lot of sadness and grief over this loss. I had to let go of a lot of judgment towards myself, and also fear of being judged by my peers, and find a new way to do the practice so that it didn't harm me. My return to health came only after a patient year or so of using the Primary Series as a guide and teacher - and completely letting go of my old practice at the same time.
The biggest thing I discovered during that time of relearning was that the practices that felt the most therapeutic and joyful to me were those where my breathing was slow and deep, equal in both inhale and exhale, and steady throughout the entire practice - practices where the asana forms I made were secondary in importance to my breathing. My rule was "Breathing first, asana second."
("No futzing practices," as Nancy Gilgoff likes to call them. "Free Breathing with sound," was what Guruji would perhaps say. )
Equal, free breathing is referred to as sama vrtti in Sanskrit - and now, it’s what I seek every time I roll out my mat. The simple act of bringing your attention and focus mostly to your breath - really concentrating on that primarily, vs. striving trying to attain the pose - is the key to this no futzing, free breathing practice. To try it yourself, cultivate dharana (concentration) and become a Breath Detective. Listen to your breath when you do your practice. Feel it's rhythm in your body. Notice the qualities of your breath as you practice:
Pay attention to the breath first, refine the breath before refining the asana, and you will notice a beneficial shift, an easing, in your practice. You will feel less depleted, and very likely, the practice itself will feel more joyful, less stressful and I suspect, less uncomfortable and/or painful.
Your breath is the barometer, the gauge, the solace, the guiding light of your practice. If you have to change your physical form (i.e. modify the posture) to find sama vrtti, then change the form and modify the posture. There are no Ashtanga Police, thank goodness. In fact, abhor anyone who makes you feel bad if and when you do modify a posture because it is hurting you or you can't breathe. Let go of judgment (or fear of judgment) and breathe. When sama vrtti returns, let your mind rest in the steady feel and calming sound of your breath. If you wish, only then should you seek to go deeper into the pose. If that results in pain or a change in the breath, be content with where you are at that time and….just breathe.
Guruji also said, "The asana is correct when the mind is quiet." That's the goal, isn't it?
If you can’t sustain sama vrtti, then consider chanting silently as you practice. Japa helps, and you can chant whatever inspires you (e.g Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound; Om gam ganapataye namaha; Da Doo Run Run Run, Da Doo Run Run.) My personal sama vrtti chant is “lokahah samastaha” on the inhale and “sukhino bhavantu” on the exhale. (from the Mangala Mantra, "May all beings be free from suffering" - including me!) I make an effort to chant silently throughout the whole practice, especially during those times when things get more rigorous. Japa calms, refreshes, enlivens. It need not be spiritual, as long as it helps you keep the rhythm of your breath equal, steady and calming.
I guarantee, your practice will feel much better and you will enjoy yourself more if your primary focus is the breath vs. trying to get the posture in it's "classical" sense. Interestingly, after practicing patiently in this manner for some time, your body will shift and open, subtly but profoundly. Your practice will become more integrated and gain depth. As you become a Breath Detective and gain mastery over the breath, turn your attention next to the bandhas, the seals/locks, and the drsti, the gaze, as well. These are the "holy trinity" of Ashtanga practice, that bring peace and joy during the darkest of times. Happy Holidays and Happy Practicing!