Cheating (on) my Practice.

Via Esther Liberman
on Aug 23, 2012
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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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About Esther Liberman

Esther Liberman writes, plays, cooks, teaches, and practices Ashtanga yoga in Miami, Florida, where she lives with her husband, 2 sons, and pet Yorkie. Born and raised in Bogotá, Colombia, Esther has now been living for half of her life in the U.S. (in New York, Boston, and now Miami) which makes her old enough to know better. In 2005, she obtained her Ph.D. in comparative literature at Harvard University and met Guruji for the first time. It was a good year. You can reach her at [email protected]


8 Responses to “Cheating (on) my Practice.”

  1. Hi, Esther. How wonderful to see you back on elephant. I love your articles. I urge everyone else to check out your other work on elephant:

    Bob W. Associate Publisher
    facebook, twitter, linkedIn
    Yoga Demystified, Gita in a Nutshell

  2. Thaddeus1 says:

    This is wonderful Esther. Speaking as one who is currently struggling with the challenges of home practice, I find myself resonating with insights. Thanks for this offering.

    Posting to Elephant Ashtanga. Be sure to Like Elephant Ashtanga on Facebook.

  3. EstherLiberman says:

    Hi Bob, thank you very much.

  4. EstherLiberman says:

    Thank you, Thad. It's hard, isn't it? Will think of all of the other self-practitioners while on my mat this morning.

  5. Belle says:

    Thank you for the inspiration Esther….
    I TOTALLY cheat on my practice all the time, but much worse than you!
    Recently it has reached breaking point… I live in a yoga ashram where I need to do minimum 2 hours spiritual practice (asanas & meditation) per day in order to keep living in the ashram…. I have been lying about this on my records for 3 months now…. I'm aware that this is only cheating myself…
    No more… tomorrow morning I will wake up early and practice practice practice…. 🙂

  6. EstherLiberman says:

    Hi Belle,
    I really don't like that saying about misery loving company, but it's definitely empowering not to feel so alone in what is essentially a solitary aspect of a solitary activity. Your enthusiasm about your next practice inspired me to build up mine as well. Thank you for your message and namaste to you.

  7. maya says:

    I have a suggestion; I too do yoga at home, and sometimes when I want to be led, I do videos. There are a number of websites online that provide a database of hundreds of videos, for only something like $10 a month. I love, and myyogaonline has some of the more famous teachers. Check it out, it really helped my practice and saved me a lot of money.