For about two years now I’ve mostly been practicing ashtanga yoga. That doesn’t mean that I’ve practiced it exclusively, I’ve taken plenty of yin, vinyasa flow, Jivamukti and other types of eclectic classes for various reasons and I don’t teach ashtanga, but in terms of feeling rooted in a practice, it has become ashtanga. At times there have been interruptions in my practice of ashtanga due to travelling, a bizarre fungal infection contracted while picking roses in Berlin, sinus infections and the like. But for the most part I’m pretty consistent even if it means doing a modified practice because I haven’t felt well enough to do more, or rolling out my mat in a kitchen in Sydney to do my practice.
I love how ashtanga makes me feel: integrated, calm and vital. I love the absolute focus it demands. I love the meditation on my breath, love the feeling of connection I have with the other people in the room practicing mysore, love how it makes me sweat. I love the intelligence of the sequencing, the sense of connection to a teacher and a lineage. I also love the clarity and coherence of the system, primary series is the same no matter where in the world you practice it, as are intermediate and the more advanced series. I love that the poses have Sanskrit names.
Did I mention that I really like ashtanga?
But here’s the thing: I’ve hit the boredom wall. I’m doing full primary (without the backwards rolls due to a neck injury) and although I love it for all the reasons just mentioned, recently I’ve been feeling bored and unexcited about going to practice.
Fortunately my meta-commitment to the importance of my practice in my life – it comes before everything else because it keeps me sane, helps me stay equanimous and vitalizes me – gives me the resolve to keep going, but I’m struggling. I know that my execution of the postures could be more graceful at times, that there’s plenty of room for technical improvement, that this is the perfect opportunity to practice aparigraha (unclutching) and be content with what I have rather than wanting more, but dang!!! I want to move on. Because I’m encountering boredom, because I know I can do poses from the next series, and it’s fun and feels good to my body to do them. Because I love being really stimulated and learning new things and pushing my edge.
So how to stay stimulated when you do the same sequence every day? How to keep it fresh and inspiring? I get that for all kinds of reasons every time we practice we do so anew. Each day is different and we are ourselves are different each day. Factors like what you’ve eaten the night before, whether you’ve slept well, your emotional state, can all affect your practice, but the series itself is always the same. This is deep. The practice is a mirror; there is simply no escaping yourself. When you feel good about yourself and your body is open and it’s easy to stay connected to your breath and to merge your awareness with the thread of the breath, this is great. What a beautiful reflection. But, on days when you’re upset, tired, your body hurts and you keep thinking about those unpaid bills, the unpleasant conversation you had earlier that day, the fact that you still can’t go seamlessly from bhujapidasana to tittibhasana to bakasana, well then it’s a whole nother story. The reflection in the mirror isn’t so pretty. I guess this is a big part of what makes the practice genius, what makes any practice so useful. We are always dealing with ourselves. No matter where you go, or what you do, there you are again. You gotta love it!
I radically experienced this while taking my first teacher training intensive with Ana Forrest in 2004. Every morning we began our practice by meditating and chanting for an hour. We did the same chants every day, some of which were Native American and some from the Korean Zen tradition. Some days I absolutely loved the chants, I was interested in them, found it easy to focus and had a general sense of well-being while chanting. Other days were not so smooth; I was bored by the chants, found it difficult to concentrate on the unfamiliar Korean words and generally felt tweaked the whole time we were chanting. It took me about ten days to understand that my feelings about the chants were simply mirroring my feelings about myself. The chant was just the chant, it never changed, but how I felt about myself and how calm my inner state was, or how agitated, varied from day to day depending all kinds of issues. Basically I projected my internal state onto the chant. Realizing this was liberating, but didn’t actually change my experience. That took years of practice.
I’m still a pretty regular chanter and I still project my inner world onto the chant, but much less so. And I’ve become much better at sitting back and watching the show, so to speak. In other words, now when I find my attention wandering while I’m chanting, I’m able to just observe the tendency and continue chanting. Usually this frees up my awareness and helps me to stop struggling against the tendency (the struggle itself is a waste of energy and further dissolves the attention) and I merge with the chant much faster.
But back to ashtanga. Everything I’ve just said about projecting my inner world and my feelings about myself onto the chant (whatever chant it is) applies equally to ashtanga practice. And the thing is, I know it. I’m too smart to qualify for a fool’s pass. So where does this leave me? Aside from frustrated, digging deeper. Deeper into myself and my inner resources, into my capacity to stick with it, not to flake. It’s an ongoing refinement of my relationship to myself and like other relationships sometimes its really fun and easy and takes almost no effort, but sometimes it’s a struggle and I don’t love what I encounter.
In some ways it’s like being married. I’ve been married five years and I’m crazy about my husband, and yet sometimes I hit the wall in that relationship too. But staying has taught me so much, mostly about myself. It has surprised me and delighted me and frustrated me and challenged me to the max, but more than all that, it has rewarded me deeply, in ways that I never could have known. It has been (and is) enormously gratifying and enriching, and, like my yoga practice has been a forum for me to cultivate equanimity and grace. Did I mention that by nature I’m not the most equanimous person? I have worked very hard to become equanimous, and although I still lapse and am certainly not perfect, I am very proud of how far I’ve come. It is a huge victory for me, the most meaningful of my life because when you become more equanimous you become more responsive and less reactive. This is freedom. When we get to pause, breath, reflect, then respond, as opposed to merely reacting to a stimulus, we have a choice. Having a choice means exercising control over your actions. Don’t we all want this?
And I do have a choice about my practice. I could just stop doing ashtanga and go to classes that are always different, with fresh sequencing and different asanas every time. That would be fun for a while, but somehow not as rewarding, kind of like the difference between cultivating true, deep intimacy with one person and more superficial connection with lots of people. The less deep intimacy can be really fun and stimulating and keeps you interested, but at some point the question comes up: there must be something more. So it is with asana practice. The reason I keep doing ashtanga is that it requires so much more of me, it challenges me in deeper ways, makes me confront myself in ways that other forms of asana practice do not. It forces me to evolve, or suffer, to keep going deeper and finding mystery in the mundane, fascination in the familiar. And this is the deeper value of the practice for my life as a whole. This is what helps me to stay motivated and engaged when I’m struggling in other areas of my life, helps me remain tenacious and committed, even when it’s not plain sailing. And, lest I sound all self-righteous and holier than thou, I get that delicious pranayama-endorphin-neuropeptide-blissout-buzz everytime I do the practice, and that counts for quite a lot!