Slow Down Your Practice. ~ Antonella Accinelli

Via Antonella Accinellion Jul 19, 2013

Photo: Jade Beall

Our solid footing is not established when we set time limits for ourselves. Important steps get missed.

When I first started practicing Ashtanga yoga I didn’t know what Mysore was (either the style of practice, or the city in India). I went to group classes for almost 4 years at my local studio before setting foot in a Mysore room.

I did a lot of Primary Series.

When I first started my Mysore practice, I was upset that I’d spent “too much time” doing Primary. I thought, “if only I’d known, I could be doing a more advanced practice.”

That was then, this is now.

Now, I am grateful for the amount of time I spent with the foundational series of the Ashtanga system.

I spent four years with teachers analyzing and refining every asana (pose) that I did; working on my alignment and every vinyasa, until my primary was grounded, and fluid.

This doesn’t mean that I still don’t have plenty to work on, but Primary is comfortable for me because I spent so much time working in it with good teachers.

Because of my natural flexibility, I’m sure that I would have been moved very quickly through Primary Series if I had begun my practice in a Mysore setting. With knowledge and experience, I realize how detrimental this would have been for me.

I was young, impatient, hot headed. I definitely wasn’t ready for many of the things that a daily regimen demands from its practitioners.

I started to appreciate this as I began to practice and teach Mysore style classes and saw how quickly some people get moved through the system without having a basic grasp of the breath, vinyasa, and postures.

Of course, I realize that this isn’t the case for all people—most spend years working on Marichyasana D or Supta Kurmasana. What I’m referring to, are the people who come into the practice with a lot of flexibility, natural ability, or an athletic background. Though they are not the majority, there is still a significant number of students who fit this description.

Maybe they have a history of dance, gymnastics, or other physical disciplines that make the performance of asana easy. Note, I said the “performance” of asana, because, as someone recently pointed out, just because someone can put themselves into a pose doesn’t mean they’re doing Ashtanga.

I feel like these people who cruise through Primary Series are missing very valuable experiences.

In rushing, or being rushed through the series they’re not letting themselves steep in the practice.

They’re not developing the refinement of feeling the body, and observing the mind as it changes and adjusts from pose to pose and day to day.

They’re not exploring the depth of the breath as it seamlessly threads one posture to another.

And maybe more importantly; they’re not getting some pretty big lessons in working through challenges, like:

  • being patient
  • accepting that some things are outside of our control or ideal time frame
  • accepting that the teacher might be in a better position to know what to do, or not to do
  • letting go of coveting and grasping for postures
  • letting the practice balance and detoxify the body
  • letting the stability of body and mind guide you to the other limbs of yoga other than asana

About a year ago, I saw this again when a student finished primary series in six months. Her entire notion of being an Ashtanga practitioner hinged on getting more postures. When I stopped giving her postures (so that her practice could settle, and so she could develop some body awareness that was lacking and resulting in her constantly injuring herself) she quit practicing with me—in her words, “what’s the point of doing this if you don’t get poses?”

Unfortunately, she’s not alone in her perspective.

Time and again I see in students and—even more frighteningly—in other teachers, the idea that the more postures, the better.

I see people who rip their bodies to shreds trying to “get” a pose. And, I see people who don’t recognize how to adapt their movements when their body hurts or gives resistance, as it tries to adjust to changes in the practice. People who grunt their way, or hold their breath through a series, and can’t do the basic elements of what came before.

Primary Series is like the foundation of a house. If you pour it and don’t let it set properly, then as time goes on cracks and imbalances in the foundation will make the entire structure you built unstable.

Additionally, Primary is the practice that we come back to when we’re injured, sick, traveling too much, going through emotional ups and downs, and as we age. It is not a practice to “get past,” it’s a lifelong companion.

So, maybe we need some perspective.

I want to ask people who want to move fast through the series, “What’s the rush? What’s the reward going to be when you’re working on third series but you can’t move because you’ve thrown your lower back out trying to get your leg behind your head? Will it be worth it? Will it make you a better person/wife/daughter/friend?”

This doesn’t mean that people should work on Primary for many years if they don’t need to, but moving from pose-to-pose without a grasp of the fundamentals of the practice isn’t good either.

I encourage everyone to take the “time limit” mentality out of their practice. There’s no ribbon to break at the end of this race, no stopwatch counting down the seconds. If you see the benefit and opportunity for growth where you are right now, then the depths of the Ashtanga practice will reveal themselves to you, even in Primary Series.

 

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Asst. Editor: Tawny Sanabria/Ed: Bryonie Wise

Photo: Jade Beall

About Antonella Accinelli

Antonella Accinelli is originally from Lima, Peru, but has called the Washington, DC area home for over 30 years. She is fortunate to be one of only three teachers in Washington, DC who have been given the distinction of Level 2 Authorization by the Sri K. Pattabhi Jois Institute (KPJAYI) of Mysore, India. She has been practicing Ashtanga for over 10 years, and running her own Mysore program in the city for two. She has traveled to India every year since 2009, which has given her insight into this practice that has inspired so many other styles of yoga. Her teaching balances the need for alignment and ease of movement, while still being kind to yourself and your body. She urges her students to challenge themselves mentally and physically but still be open to the moments of lightness and play that can arise in a daily practice. You can find her at her website and on Facebook.

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28 Responses to “Slow Down Your Practice. ~ Antonella Accinelli”

  1. Jann says:

    Excellent post! Thank you.

  2. Lindsay says:

    I really enjoyed this article, thank you. Being that I'm in Primary Series, I appreciate the importance of a good, solid foundation. I know I'll be practicing Primary for a long while, but I'm ok with that because there's 7 other limbs I'm trying to implement into my life as well. I love what you wrote about Ashtanga being a lifelong companion, I agree 100% and it's a wonderful feeling to know there's always room for growth.
    By the way, I just moved to Virginia from Florida and I wish I lived closer to the city so I could practice with you! Maybe one day I'll be able to visit your studio. Take care and I look forward to reading more of your posts.

    • Carolina says:

      Where in Florida? There’s a certified Ashtanga teacher in Dunedin, FL and

      others in Miami…

    • Antonella says:

      Thank you! Depending on where you live in VA there are a few Ashtanga teachers in the state, go to kpjayi.org to see the list of Authorized teachers; and if you're ever in the city drop by!

  3. Wonderful post! I've practiced Mysore Ashtanga for 10 years, and the first time around I advanced very quickly due to having already practiced other styles of yoga and gymnastics before trying it. I moved to the 2nd series in about 7 months, and even began the third series before having a knee surgery and needing to stop for a while. I've started up my Mysore practice again, and reliving the primary series post-injury is drastically different than before – I'm starting in a much more tight, injured, and fragile place then when I did 10 years ago, and the experience is totally different. It's very humbling and educating – I actually love slowing down now.

    • Antonella says:

      Thanks for sharing your experience Alik! It's amazing the perspective time and an injury can give.

  4. Mizboognish says:

    Just started 2nd series after practicing Primary for 3 years on my own. Committed to seeing a teacher once a week and am so glad I spent the blood, sweat and tears in my own practice. The nuances are boundless and am continually falling in love with different poses through out Primary.

  5. om studio says:

    Thank you for this great article. I was pissed off that as an x-dancer -not a flexible one though ! – i ' ve spent 4 years with the primary. Now i am so thankful about it… I have a couple of very advanced ashtanga practitioners on my mind that ' perform' their asanas and don't get that, real yoga starts there, where performance stops and awareness in all levels expands inwards and outwards. By the way, those practitioners that have this…habit to 'perform' gracefully their asanas usually they don' t sweat.
    Unfortunately, many people want only to progress in the series without understanding that pushing to go 10 asanas forward send them eventually 30 asanas back because of injury . And that's how the ' ashtanga causes injuries' is built…
    Thank you again. A very precious text.

  6. all our good days says:

    excellent article! I see a lot of people posing in their instagram photos in complicated poses and inversions saying "come on feet" in scorpion wishing they could get them to touch their heads and I wonder if they practice just to reach the "destination". And when they get there? Then what? Do they suddenly reach enlightenment? doubtful.

    I studied the Primary Series (a lot, but not all postures) in 2009 and 2010. I switched to Mysore self guided when I had the guided postures down. Periodically my teacher added a new pose, but when she said, "next time, I'll help you do sirasana" I never went back. I never connected the two. I thought I was just bored with the practice and the repitition, but the reality i that i was scared.

    3 years, a 10K run and a baby later, i picked up my David Swenson book and gradually started a 6 day a week 6.30 am home practice. One altered for time and with pauses to read Dr. Seuss or to nurse my 16 month old when she wakes. I think I get more understanding of the 8 limbs (and a healthy dose of patience this way!) In the autumn I will return to the astanga studio, back to my teacher.

    A few days ago I asked my husband to spot me as i tried to get into preparation for sirasana. I was able to get my feet off the ground! I'm far from the full posture, but it meant so much to me I cried. Why? not because I can almost do a cool inversion, but because I challanged my fear and won a huge victory.

    Coming back to ashtanga in this moment teaches me more about myself. 3 years ago I wanted the desination, now I want to enjoy the ride.

    • Antonella says:

      Congratulations on your sirsasana and being able to get past your fear, what a great story! I hope you enjoy the journey, every day, what more could we ask for. :D

  7. Yoginibear says:

    Thank you so much for writing this article… It reminded me of the more important aspects of my practice rather than getting through primary or getting more poses added to my practice. Yes, it really is important to be aware of our journey through each pose after all it is getting there that really changes us and not achieving the pose per se…. Thank you.

  8. shazjameson says:

    Great post! I was one of those people. I came to yoga practice with many years of dance and lots of natural flexibility, and a lot of teachers just assumed because I could twist my body into asana that I knew what I was doing. It's taken a steady, regular practice to realize it's not a competition and that that really, really is not the point. I was lucky that in Capoeira it was "all about the basics" and I saw that a lot of those who could do fancy flips could be taken down very easily because of the lack of strong foundation. I am in no rush.
    However I must say, though I can understand the logic to doing the same series every day, it's not for me. A bit of challenge helps me focus.
    Whatever one's preference or needs, I think the article's conclusion is really sound. Thank you.

  9. Lalana says:

    This is wonderful!!!!! Thank you:)

  10. Brian M. says:

    Excellent! I started my yoga journey about a year and a half ago so I'm relativley new but because I used to train in martial arts & was always working out, I tried more advanced poses instead of patiently waiting to bulid the "foundation". I suffered many sore necks attempting headstands after hearing of its associated health benefits. I also would get frustrated attempting other poses. It took awhile until I realized that yoga is a lifelong journey & there's no need to rush! Thanks for the excellent article! Well said!!

    • Antonella says:

      Thank you Brian! Yes, yes, we have our entire lives to do this. Good luck with your practice!

  11. aseemgiri says:

    This is such a brilliant metaphor:

    "Primary Series is like the foundation of a house. If you pour it and don’t let it set properly, then as time goes on cracks and imbalances in the foundation will make the entire structure you built unstable."

    I've had the good fortune of being in one of Antonella's Mysore classes. The one sequence she advised me to slowdown and try multiple times before moving on – I never get wrong now.

    Thanks for the great post!

  12. Helen says:

    Loved this article. I've been practising for 5 years and can't even imagine going beyond primary. I may well do one day, but I'm in no rush. I find myself telling people a lot "what's the rush?". <3

  13. Allison says:

    Really great article. This spoke to me a lot. I am one of those people who are naturally bendy and athletic built, but my first teacher saw my hot head and my crazy, young erratic side and kept me in primary for 2 yrs even though he knew I could easily go onto second. Now as I enter second series, I can truly appreciate taking it slow. And days where I am tired or my mind is crazy, I can go back to Primary and feel right at home when I feel lost. Your article can not be read enough times! Everyone needs this reminder daily. Thank you for sharing

    • Antonella says:

      Thank you Allison! Sometimes in not moving forward in the physical practice we can move forward in other areas. It sounds like you had a good first teacher. :)

  14. Jennifer says:

    Great article! I was one of the flexible, dancer-types, that had done yoga for many years before trying Ashtanga and I could "do" all the poses. I was fortunate to work with Lino Miele early on and my early experience in the primary series was of him constantly stopping me and telling me "that is enough for today, come back tomorrow." He could see that my focus, awareness and strength were not there. At the time it really frustrated me, sometimes to the point of tears, but I am so grateful for it now. I learned to really get inside my body and listen and to develop the strength and focus necessary to do the postures safely. I worked on the primary series for 3 years before starting the second series and it gave me a very solid foundation.

  15. Shelby says:

    I came from a dance background to Primary and having good flexibility the biggest challenge for me remains pratyahara. On stage I could be performing a routine and thinking about something else. So I have to work really really hard at practicing ashtanga. I am also an athlete so I can push through things that someone else might not consider. Yep the stronger and more flexible at my practice I get, the more I have injured myself, the jewel in the crown being a high hamstring attachment injury last November. I have had to back off. A LOT. Its been a huge growing experience. Thanks for this article.

  16. Myrna McCoy says:

    Wonderful article! I started Ashanga with led practice about 12 years ago and did that for about 6 years until I didn't have a teacher anymore. I then moved to an area where there was no Ashtanga teacher and began practicing mysore style on my own and occasionally with a few other practitioners. I am still doing Primary and an still progressing, albeit slowly, and have finally achieved Mari D, which is something I didn't know if I would ever achieve (and at age 65)! I love practicing and hope to still be practicing Ashtanga for the next 20 years! I like slow but sure and it doesn't matter if I ever do Second, I just love to practice!

  17. julian says:

    i read this article a few months ago before i started ashtanga, and came across it again today. such an important article for me to read again today. thank you

    • Antonella says:

      Thanks Julian! I hope you enjoy your experience with the Ashtanga practice. Remember, just take it one breath at a time. :)

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