August 23, 2012

Cheating (on) my Practice.

For a variety of reasons, fitting in a morning Mysore class has become increasingly difficult.

The least of which is not the relative inflexibility of my two boys, ages 3 and 6 months, when it comes to letting me jet out of the house at the crack of dawn, showered and brushed, before they’ve been cleaned, fed, dressed, cuddled and dropped off.  So for the last many months, I’ve done my Ashtanga practice, Mysore-style, in my own home.

On days when the stars align properly, my husband and I practice concurrently. Otherwise (and most usually), practice is taken in tandem. All of this is okay and as it should be. I’m both challenged by the discipline of having to self-start (and self-finish) my daily practice and also reminded of the early days when I couldn’t wait to get on the mat, even when rolled out in a dusty corner of my grad student apartment.

But sometimes I miss having a teacher’s gaze on me. I crave an adjustment. Or else, I wonder what is going on with me in a particular pose or during a transition I can’t quite master, and in those moments I know that having that guidance (or even just a witness) is all the difference between thinking about flying and taking off. Sometimes I just want to be told what to do and when.

About a month ago, a friend visiting from out of town suggested I go to a class with her. The catch: it wasn’t a Mysore or a led Ashtanga class.

In the past, she has both attended Mysore classes with me and taken classes from me. Her own practice isn’t Ashtanga, she reminds gently, and look how much benefit she has derived from exploring styles bedsides her chosen one.

Yes, I respond, but I’ve done all that. When I first started studying yoga I “shopped around” for styles or whatever other unseemly way you want to think about the initial exuberance and curiosity that eventually led me to settle on the Ashtanga system 12 years ago.

Since then, I have attended very few classes in other styles—one a year or less—and usually either at the request of or taught by a friend. Here was a friend making the request and a sensible one at that: listen, she said, the teacher has more than 15 years experience, likely many more of practice, is a stickler for alignment, and is beloved by his students.

For me, a professed emphasis on “alignment” signals trouble. It often means too much talking or too much thinking or too much time spent on a particular pose or a minute aspect of a particular pose. Sometimes it even announces a strange combination of magical language applied to concrete, even erudite concepts, like: “make sure your ischial tuberosities are smiling and bright,” or some such construct.

(Obviously, mine is an Ashtanga sensibility and a personal opinion. When I say “too much,” I mean according to, well, me.)

But, both interested in the prospect of guidance and striving for equanimity in the face of the unknown, I strapped my mat to my back and headed out with my friend.

As the class came together, I was struck by the familiarity of its components. All of the usual suspects were there: the really buff guy cruising for chicks; the two older ladies who likely started yoga in the 60s with the help of PBS, one bitter and one sweet; the lanky guy with longish hair; the overachieving teacher’s pet who always sets up front row right, follows the teacher around town, nods emphatically at everything he says, her mat used to demonstrate, her body contorted turned example; the chippers; the chatterers; the casual by-standers. My friend and me.

As for the practice—there was definitely more talking than I’m used to, more explanation about the poses and the orientation of various parts of the body. Fortunately, the teacher was seasoned and skilled, able to convey a lot of information with few words.

True, much of what I heard corresponded to bits of information I’ve gathered over the years, just by virtue of doing my practice. Many times, I found myself already making the tiny movements within a pose that energize it and take it to another level concurrently with the instruction to do so. In other words, a lot of the fine tuning that the teacher offered were things that a daily practice, especially a self-practice, bring to us through repetition, perseverance, patience. Guruji’s immortal saying came to life again for me that day: “practice and all is coming.”

Nonetheless, it was good to hear many of these “tips” imbued with actual voice and outside of my own head and memory of my past teachers. There is much to be said for practicing in a group; under the supervision of a teacher; with this particular teacher, who was truly lovely.

As I relaxed into savasana, I thought about the ways in which I cheat myself during my home practice. I often skip my finishing poses, almost always skip savasana. I sometimes answer the phone in the middle of my practice and then return to the mat for a few more postures. Without a teacher and fellow students, it’s easy to break the norms of etiquette, to cheat myself out of the complete experience of the practice.

As I made my way through my practice the following morning, solitary on my mat and in my usual spot, I made it a point to breathe slowly and precisely. I did all of my finishing poses and I took savasana. When my phone made a sound I quickly glanced at it to make sure it wasn’t (about) one of the kids and let the caller go to voicemail.

Maybe because I teach yoga, but most likely because I am a committed student, many friends have come seeking advice about starting their own practice. While I can never say enough great things about Ashtanga, I always encourage them to look around for the “right fit,” as I did years ago. There’s something out there for everyone.

And all is change. This much I know, even though I still struggle with it. It was good to practice with a group, to breathe with others, to surrender to instruction, to step outside my routine. These are all wonderful things, possibly overlooked in my diligence and loyalty to my style of practice.

Am I encouraged to skip around now? Well, no. I am still convinced that Ashtanga is for me and that many of us benefit from sticking to a particular style as we would to a particular teacher.

But now I think that going out there and trying something else, a different way to get to the same place, can be wonderful, especially as an exercise in measuring what we’ve learned and how dogmatic (or overly lax) we may have become. I am now more willing to just drop into a class and run with it. At least whenever my friend is in town.


Editor: Kate Bartolotta

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