Over the past couple years, I’ve become a dedicated practitioner of Ashtanga yoga.
I started by first learning the grossness of the shapes—where to put my limbs and align my body. I then memorized the order of the shapes. Finally, I learned to move the shapes with my breath.
The learning didn’t end there though. My practice continued to evolve. Simple discoveries like how my muscles worked (or didn’t), what patience I had (or lacked), and the judgments I thought of others and myself began to unfold in my head, and on my mat. The practice was unraveling who I thought I was, giving me glimpses of my mind. I began to see that I wasn’t as nice as I thought I was.
I learned I could be jealous, manipulative, angry, obsessive, ego driven, and cruel. I learned that my favorite head game was playing the old “I need to feel bad about myself” card. At the other end of the spectrum, I also recognized my need to be noticed with thoughts of “I’m amazing, look at me!”
I’ve often wondered why I stayed with this practice that brought up these not so flattering experiences.
Though a portion of what I was becoming aware of was negative, there was another side to my awareness; one that was positive. The practice helped me recognize the wonderful thoughts and feelings of joy, hope, love, kindness, courage, compassion, and connection. I realized these experiences were also part of me, and a piece of who I am. But most importantly, what I realized and the reason I’ve kept with my practice is that without it, I didn’t know any of these thoughts existed. In the past, I would look at the world and blame my hurts and frustrations on other people, conditions, or situations.
My practice revealed to me the ever-changing movements of my mind. It was the beginning of me seeing my own truth.
The first limb of Ashtanga yoga is yama.
The yamas consist of five principles similar to a moral code of ethics. The first yama is called ahimsa. It means non-violence in every thought, word, and action. Talk about a difficult principle to follow.
The fact that ahimsa is the first limb and the first yama speaks volumes to me. It suggests that everyone has a natural tendency for aggression to one degree or another. On my mat I could clearly see the ways I was harming myself—thoughts of inadequacy, jealously, unworthiness, and cruelness were just tips of the iceberg. I also found myself looking for ways to harm myself physically.
For example, I used to have a terrible clicking sound that would emanate from my left hip. The more I clicked it, the more it hurt. Each practice I would purposefully search for the sound and the pain.
I was positive there was something wrong with me. I asked my teacher David Garrigues about the clicking in my hip and I showed it to him by making the sound. His immediate response was, “Don’t do that!” I asked him how not to. He responded with, “I have no idea, just don’t do that!”
Seriously, that was the best piece of advice he could give me.
I realized I was continually trying to recreate my own physical pain. Within a month, I figured out how to not do that to myself and I’ve never had the pain, or heard the sound again.
To see clearly—for all that you are—is the first step on working with ahimsa. Mahatma Gandhi beautifully describes the importance of why we should be non-violent in every thought, word, and action.
Your beliefs become your thoughts.
Your thoughts become your actions.
Your actions become your habits.
Your habits become your character.
Your character becomes your destiny.
So this practice of yoga—the shapes, the movement, the breathing—eventually generates increased awareness of the movements and content of your mind. Eventually, more than likely, violence as well as other negative emotions and notions about your self will emerge. As a teacher I have noticed that people will give up their yoga practice if their discomfort becomes a regular piece of their yoga experience.
My biggest piece of advice when that happens is “Don’t do that!”
But, what are you suppose to do? Just lie down and take your own mental crap? No.
Built into the practice are focus points that are meant to help still the mind—like drishti (focus on where to look and you don’t focus on what you are thinking), breath (focus on when to breathe and how it sounds and you don’t focus on what you are thinking), and the postures themselves (focus on the shape and how to hold your bandhas and you don’t focus on what you are thinking).
But, what do you do when you are stuck? When the endless turnings of your mind won’t give you a break?
Should this happen it may be useful to simply pause and notice what is actually happening. Recognize that these continual movements are natural occurrences in our very complex and busy “monkey minds.” Though this may be true it doesn’t have to always be this way.
The mind is similar to an endocrine organ. Rather than secreting hormones the mind is secreting thoughts, endless numbers of thoughts. The thinking can be very useful when you need your mind to solve a problem, fix your car, play a game, etc. However, much of the time we are not so engaged and the secreted thoughts simply keep coming. Maybe all of these secretions don’t need to be given the attention that we normally give them. Maybe these thoughts are not accurate representations of anything. What would it be like to allow the thoughts to be there, but not play into them the way we normally do?
The practice of yoga is meant to help still the mind. With consistent and earnest practice over time the thoughts will slow down, become more spacious and apparent. There will be glorious moments on your mat. There will be scary moments on your mat. There will be dull moments on your mat. Kind of sounds like life, huh?
That’s because our practice helps us practice life.
Rashani Rea beautifully describes the process of opening to the true self in her poem, “The Unbroken.” So, when the monkey mind feeds you difficulty and you want to play with it, “Don’t do that!” Instead, find a way to practice ahimsa, any way you can.
There is a brokenness out of which comes the unbroken…
And a fragility out of whose depth emerges strength.
There is a hollow space too vast for words
through which we pass with each loss,
out of whose darkness we are sanctioned into being.
There is a cry deeper than all sound
whose serrated edges cut the heart
as we break open to the place inside
which is unbreakable and whole…
Shelley’s gift as a teacher is her ability to make the challenging practice of Ashtanga accessible to everyone. Her warmth and compassion create an open, safe place in which people can explore their bodies, minds and spirits. Shelley began practicing yoga in 1995 and continues to study as often as she can with her beloved teacher David Garrigues. Her dedication to this practice has helped open her heart and transform her life.
Shelley is especially grateful for the supporting and loving community of the Spokane Yoga Shala where she is a senior teacher. In addition to her study and teaching of yoga, she is a licensed massage practitioner and teaches kinesiology at Therapeutic Connections School of Massage. She has a degree in Exercise Science and Health Promotion.
Editor: Thaddeus Haas
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