January 11, 2012

Ashtanga Dilemma: Fewer Practice Days Or Less Practice Everyday? ~ Paul Gold

While we were in Mysore last year, a yoga student of ours stopped coming to the shala because she didn’t have enough time between attending school and working in a restaurant.

I should qualify that she didn’t have enough time to do the practice that she had been accustomed to doing before she was juggling school and work. My understanding is that it may have been possible to either come to the shala fewer days per week and do what she had been doing (i.e. the same number of asanas) OR she could come to practice daily and do a shortened practice (i.e. fewer asanas). In the end, she didn’t choose either option and, I imagine, isn’t currently doing any yoga.

Practicing is never a static experience. Life is constantly changing and so practice is constantly changing. It is important that we don’t cast our practice in stone or we will not be able to adapt. It’s also equally important to understand what “practice” is.

First, let us answer the question. Is it better to practice fewer days or practice less every day?

The answer is we should do as much practice as we are able as often as possible, if not everyday. I am talking about ashtanga yoga; so, every day is Sunday through Friday with moon days off and three days off for ladies’ holidays. It is important to practice every day. It has always been important and that is why it is stated explicitly in the Yoga Sutras. Sutra I:14 is crystal clear about this. I do not see how “done for a long time without interruption” can be interpreted differently. That said, when things are crazy, some days practice is not possible. Let us stay as close to every day as possible.

Back to life, then. As life is constantly changing, we have to be able to adapt our yoga practice. Too often, we associate our practice with a particular number of asanas that we’ve been taught. When life is a particular way and we are able to do all of those asanas, awesome. When life is a different way, we have to assess how much time we have and to do the number of asanas that we can in that time. Students have come to class and asked what they should do as they have to leave early on a particualr morning. I tell them to start practice and do as many asanas as they can before they need to finish up and rest. I do not send them home because they cannot do full primary series!

If we look at Sutra I:13, we can see a more useful and proper definition of “practice.” Patanjali says that any effort put towards restraining the tendencies of chitta is called Practice. Since doing ashtanga yoga purifies the senses and mind, which allows us to restrain the chitta, we can infer that any amount of time spent on the mat is beneficial. We should not see practice as an all or nothing endeavour.

Too often, when things get tough in our lives, we abandon practice with the excuse that we do not have time. We know full well that practice would be helpful and we love to acknowledge it rhetorically. We know that practice would help us focus while we are studying for exams, that it would release stress when we were visiting a friend or family member in hospital, that it would ground us when our babies were not sleeping through the night. The list is endless, right? But what if we did 10 minutes of surya namaskars and lay down to rest for five minutes? What if we did half-primary or only standing asanas until our schedules changed (remember that things are always changing)? What if we did what we can every day?

If practice is a relative amount of time that we have to spend on our yoga mats, and consists of doing as much as we can in that day’s amount of time, we will never be in a position where we feel there is a dilemma. The commitment and dedication required to practice ashtanga yoga is not dependent on the number of asanas we do, but rather on the arrival on one’s mat.

Photo credit here.

Paul Gold is an Ashtanga practitioner and teacher. He co-owns and co-directs Ashtanga Yoga Shala in Toronto with his wife, Rachelle. He made his first trip to Mysore in 2001 to study with Sri K Pattabhi Jois. He and his wife return annually to continue their studies with R Sharath Jois. He is KPJAYI Level 2 Authorized. In addition to periodic submissions to Elephant Journal, he maintains a personal blog called “Ashtanga and Other Things. “

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