Ashtanga Yoga is, first and foremost, a spiritual practice.
It is not an exercise where you judge your success by how hard you work your body, or how perfect the posture is.
You cannot measure a good yoga class by how many adjustments you get, or how much attention the teacher gives you. While it always feels good to receive the guidance of your teacher, either through verbal or physical cues, there is a deeper relationship to the practice that becomes possible only when you let go of the need to “get” something from the teacher or the class.
Some of my best practices have been in the shala in Mysore, when I did not have a single adjustment from my teachers. Instead, the energy of the room and the practice itself provided a forum for me to explore and experience a myself more fully. In some ways all the adjustments and guidance from a teacher are really just there to create a doorway to the realm where we experience the beauty and grace for ourselves directly. If we rely on getting adjustments and attention from our teachers in order to have a good practice, then we will always be focused on an external source for our own development. Eventually, we must take responsibility for our practice and our own journey.
In the beginning it is, however, essential to have a teacher guide you into the postures. And when you really need help, the teacher should ideally be there for you. But some students get too attached to having help in postures where they would benefit from trying several times on their own. For example, I recently heard R. Sharath Jois say to his assistants in Mysore, India, to let certain students work on challenging arm balances or backbends for awhile before going over to help them. His actual words were
“let him suffer”
“let her fall.”
These two experiences tie directly into the discussion of pain and suffering within the context of our yoga practice, and as such they also offer the most potential for growth and development in the student. When you learn a new posture you often need the teacher present to go to places inside of the body and mind that bring up fear and pain. After awhile, you will need to strengthen your nervous system and face these places with your own inner resolution. Sometimes, asking for the teacher to help you every day is a kind of escape that prevents you from experiencing exactly what you would need to experience in order to learn the tough lessons contained within some of the most difficult postures in the Ashtanga Yoga method. In a posture like Pinchamayurasana, you need to learn how to fall freely and safely to get over the fear of it. If you always either go to the wall or ask a teacher to spot you, then you will never develop the kind of self-confidence that it takes to master the posture on your own. You have to learn to…let yourself fall.
When I first learned Pinchamayurasana, I fell over and over. One day I even fell over more than 20 times. I was impatient and determined. Then after 18 months of trying and falling the balance came and stayed. Yes, you read that correctly! It took me a full year and a half of trying every day to learn how to balance in a simple forearm balance. While I was learning, I used the wall once a week and mostly practiced on my own, so I never even had the chance to have someone catch me. When I went to the wall I stayed for 25 breaths to build strength. When I toppled over I picked my body right back up and tried again. My back was always more flexible than I was strong so in order for me to learn how to balance in this posture I had to learn to be strong enough to control my spine. Pinchamayurasana was a lesson in patience (I am not a naturally patient person), perseverance (I wanted to quit nearly everyday) and ultimately a lesson in self-confidence (I had to learn to believe in the idea of my own strength). Every posture has its own time and its own lesson for each person. They key is to be willing to put in the work whenever you face a moment of difficulty, pain or suffering.
You have to let yourself fall. If you do you practice from the perspective of avoiding the uncomfortable feeling of falling then you deprive yourself of full scope of learning possible through yoga. If you can learn how to face pain and suffering without avoiding it then you have understood what the practice is all about. Learning how to fall is about understanding what suffering is, how to face it, accept it and ultimately make it your friend. This is at the core of yoga’s deepest teaching. Yoga is an ancient spiritual tradition, of which the practice of physical postures, known as asanas, are just one component. In Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras asana is in fact only one out of the full eight limbs of practice. Recent dialogue within the yoga community, most notably in the New York Times article on yoga-related injuries, presents the notion that yoga might be potentially discounted because of the risk of physical injury. Yet this fails to take into account the spiritual journey to the heart of each student’s essential nature that is at center of the yoga practice itself. A true student of yoga is a sincere spiritual seeker and is willing to go through the work of pain, suffering and potential injury if that road ultimately leads to liberation, happiness, healing and freedom. My teacher Sri K. Pattabhi Jois said that if you experienced an injury during your physical yoga practice the only real way to heal that injury was through more yoga. He also said that if you quit your practice after having experienced that injury that it would stay with you for a long time, perhaps the rest of your life. If pain can be avoided by students learning their lessons the easy way through an open heart, healthy alignment and accepting attitude that is the fastest road. However, when pain and injury arise it is crucial that you do not run from them nor allow their presence to rule your experience of your body, your practice and your life.
There is a mind-body connection that underlies the practice of physical postures. Yoga is more of a body awareness technique than a physical exercise routine. In fact the main purpose of all the postures is to prepare your body and mind for deeper states of realization. When you try to feel and awaken a forgotten area of the body for the first time it is often hard to rouse. Yoga students must use the posture to dig deeper into the layers of the body and reach through memories, emotions, thoughts and anything else to touch the heart of their human soul with all its foibles and vulnerabilities. In the path of yoga it is essential that when pain arises you do not run from it, reacting to the pain from a purely psychological perspective and throw out the whole tradition based on fear. In fact, when you do experience pain it is sometimes a better teacher of the inner work that happens along the path of yoga. Any injuries that arise can be used to learn a deeper lesson about life so that then actually the path of yoga is truly working from a broader perspective.
Editor’s note: that said, fear and pain can be two different things. If a yoga posture is hurting you, this can be dangerous. Needless to say, we hope! Being macho and pushing through is not the message here. ~ ed.
When you accept yoga as a spiritual path the notion of the need for “safety” is challenged. You have the confidence to let yourself fall with the full faith that one day you will catch yourself in the air. Think of the yogi as a brave warrior going on a long and epic journey to the center of the soul. Just as in every heroic epic there are fearsome, painful and worrying battles that test the limits of the hero’s ability, so too in yoga are there challenging, difficult and nearly impossible postures that test the limits of your body and mind. But if you are the hero who is committed to the whole journey, then you also have the heart to see the experience all the way through to the end and win your final freedom.
When you look back you will also see that every step—not just easy ones, but perhaps especially the hard ones—along the way were indeed crucial to the successful conclusion of the your life’s greatest epic.