“Oh, you practice Ashtanga Yoga, too? What series are you working on?”
This is a common refrain (even if it is only asked internally) amongst Ashtanga Vinyasa practitioners, and one which, I believe, reveals a deep-seated misunderstanding of the process behind the practice. Even though this kind of superficial analysis of progress can be fun and meaningful while done in the company of friends, it can also dampen the practice’s potential to serve as a vehicle for healing, integration and enlightenment when not properly contextualized.
Here are five important points to consider on your journey that will keep you free and unbound by the trammel of spiritual materialism in asana practice.
1) Instead of asking about advancement in posture, I think it is more worth asking: Oh, you practice Ashtanga (or any asana, in general)? Has it made you a better person?
It is worth asking yourself this, too, regardless of your level of outward proficiency (making yourself looking like B. K. S. Iyengar in Light on Yoga). It is also worth asking: Is this experience making me a better person? Am I more able to be present with my friends and family? Am I kinder? Am I a better person at my day job? Do I get less road raged? Am I a better father/mother/husband/wife as a result of all this pretzel impersonation? See more on pretzel impersonation here.
2) In the broader scheme of the practice, we are confronted with the veracious idea that the series indicates a linear progression: First, Second, Third, and so forth.
There is linearity in a sense, yes, but we needlessly project a notion of advancement or evolution related to being better or more spiritually advanced as a result of progress through the series. Furthermore, in the context of Mysore practice, where we practice with other students and can potentially compare ourselves with others, we tend to think of practitioners of the more advanced series as, indeed, more advanced.
Furthermore, in a world where Facebook and social media websites represent who we are, or the virtual egos/idealized projections of who we are, we can be confronted by energies of competition (not inherently bad, of course, but worth observing) and what one might call a politic of the performative.
We can think of this politic as the being associated with seeing and being seen and the projections of advancement we bring to outward representations of asana practice. According to the seventh century sage Sri Shankaracharya, a good asana is one in which meditative states arise spontaneously out of the skillful practice of drishti, bandha, breath and mudra via the yantra of the body. A good asana is not simply making the bind, even though this can be a part of the correct unfolding of alignment for some practitioners.
3) What we bring to the series—our projections, value judgments, hopes and fears—is essential to look at and will reveal much about ourselves and our relationship to the fabric of the universe.
The funny thing here is that someone who appears incredibly advanced from the outside may have easily been able to get there due to physiological predisposition (naturally open joints and connective tissue). Just because you look cool in your practice does not mean it is really doing the work of alignment and connecting to the deep purpose of yoga.
4) In our journey towards advancement, we must view each posture as a lens to focus the structure of the ego (our feelings of a solid self).
Consider: a) the goal of understanding its origin and the eventual realization of non-dual union, and b) the continuous expansion of our capacity to hold other beings in our hearts.
5) That which is easy in the practice is not a symbol of advancement, and if you are really good at grabbing your ankles in Kapotasana, it is worth asking yourself why and how.
Maybe you have long limbs and a short torso, or have a naturally limber spine. Or maybe you just have long ligaments. The easy poses are good and they are gifts for us to cherish, but the true work happens with the churning of the ocean of milk in our practice.
True advancement occurs where we encounter the tough stuff, our places of rigidity or weakness, where we sweat, and where we open-mindedly approach our relationship to fear, resistance and intensity. For those of us more naturally flexible, the challenge will be in creating strength and stability. The opposite will be true in the case of the naturally strong and stiff.
Performance, as an idea, is based on there being a subject and an object; the receiving of a gaze, or being seen by another, and the offering of a gaze. In authentic yoga practice, the distinctions between self and other are blurred or altogether dissolved. Be focused. Track your breath. Practice bandha and correct vinyasa. Relate to the posture as if it were mudra.
How can we allow our performance on the yoga mat to be placed like a flower on an altar, or at the feet of a beloved master as a selfless devotional offering? And how can we practice with devotion, faith and commitment to the radiant potential that the practice offers?
Matthew Champoux is a yoga teacher, conservation anthropologist, and ornithologist. He has been a student of yoga since 2001, but grew up having Buddhist teachers around his home in Boulder, Colorado. Matthew’s background includes in-depth studies of Hinduism, Tantra, Buddhism, Ecology, Biology and Anthropology, and he has been teaching Ashtanga Yoga since 2005. As a yoga teacher, he promotes the practice of ‘inner’ transformation to affect positive change in the ‘outer’ world. At Human-Nature Photography, Matthew uses his images to cultivate enthusiasm for the natural world, in order to garner support for its protection, in addition to providing the yoga community with yoga portraiture. Matthew teaches yoga immersions stateside and internationally, and is currently based out of Yoga Workshop in Boulder, Colorado.
Prepared by Soumyajeet Chattaraj/Edited by Tanya L. Markul
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