June 7, 2012

The Obsessing Ashtangi. ~ Paul Gold

I am very pleased that my previous post, The Despairing Ashtangi, was so well received. I also appreciate everyone’s feedback and am glad that people found the post inspiring and supportive. The prevailing theme of the comments was “I’ve sure been there.”

In the practice of Ashtanga Yoga, we have to proceed through series of growth spurts and plateaux. We naturally improve up to a point and then appear to stall.

Recall my mention of David Foster Wallace, referring to competitive tennis in his 1996 novel, Infinite Jest. He said, “the only way to get off the plateaus (sic) and climb to the next [level]… is with a whole lot of… repetitive practice and patience and hanging in there.”

Now what becomes of the Ashtangis who are either unwilling or unable to surrender and hang in there? What becomes of those of us who cannot persevere? In this post, the Obsessing Ashtangi is our subject.

The Obsessing Ashtangi is also eager to plateau-hop. However, in this scenario, he or she tries to accelerate the process through overwork. The Obsessing type believes he or she can cross the expanse of a plateau through sheer will, determination and effort.

Our bodies come “as is” and we take practice to slowly and ultimately open them up. However, it must be emphasized that there is no date of completion inherent in this process. There is simply no way to say that our hips will open within a year. It’s impossible to say, “I want to complete all of Primary Series within 6 months.” The only goal that is relevant and rewarding in yoga practice is “I’m going to practice everyday and see what happens.” That’s about as much as we can control above and beyond focussing on proper breathing, drishti and bandhas.

So, the Obsessive Ashtangi works and works. Some of the symptoms that one might be an Obsessing Ashtangi: “warming up” and stretching at home before and after practice or at any free moment; seeking the assistance of all types of bodyworkers; hitting the workshop circuit looking for tips and secrets and/or jumping from teacher to teacher when practice gets difficult or discouraging.

In the end, the Obsessing Ashtangi too often finds injury for all his or her effort. After working and pushing and trying, he or she is left hobbling around with a rash of injuries and pains that far exceed the initial stiffnesses that precipitated obsessing in the first place. These students generally break down and either quit or finally get the picture and start relaxing.

Ashtanga Yoga teaches us that there are many things that we simply cannot control and that cannot be remedied through sheer determination. It’s not in our hands to know when our hips are going to open so we can sit in padmasana. There is no timetable for when we’ll be able to stand up from backbends. We can only apply ourselves and put in the time, but we are not guaranteed anything on a schedule. It is a practice of Krishna’s Yoga of Action mentioned in the Bhagavad Gita. We must be determined and committed but unattached to the fruits of our actions.

So what’s the antidote for the Obsessing Ashtangi? Well, it’s much the same as it was for the Despairing Ashtangi. The simplest answer is to keep in mind that more asanas is not the measure of success in yoga practice. (For a discussion of Asana in the Yoga Tradition, click here.)

It is also important to use the time spent on these plateaux to develop patience, faith, trust and non-attachment. It is also a great time to really focus on the building blocks of breath, bandha and drishti. Remember, hitting plateaux and wondering whether we’ll ever start climbing again is natural. It has happened to anyone and everyone who has practiced Astanga Yoga for any extended period of time.

Furthermore, it’s worth asking if a yoga asana is really worth all the upset and obsessing. It’s much more important to observe who we are being in the practice of asana and who we are off the mat as a result. It’s easy to lose track of why we practice. It’s always important to keep the real purpose of yoga practice in mind.

If we find ourselves starting to obsess, better to take a walk or go for a swim. Watch a movie or call up a friend we haven’t spoken with for a while. Take the edge off. There’s always tomorrow’s practice.

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 


Editor: Ryan Pinkard

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