July 20, 2013

Slow Down Your Practice. ~ Antonella Accinelli

Our solid footing is not established when we set time limits for ourselves. Important steps get missed.

When I first started practicing Ashtanga yoga I didn’t know what Mysore was (either the style of practice, or the city in India). I went to group classes for almost 4 years at my local studio before setting foot in a Mysore room.

I did a lot of Primary Series.

When I first started my Mysore practice, I was upset that I’d spent “too much time” doing Primary. I thought, “if only I’d known, I could be doing a more advanced practice.”

That was then, this is now.

Now, I am grateful for the amount of time I spent with the foundational series of the Ashtanga system.

I spent four years with teachers analyzing and refining every asana (pose) that I did; working on my alignment and every vinyasa, until my primary was grounded, and fluid.

This doesn’t mean that I still don’t have plenty to work on, but Primary is comfortable for me because I spent so much time working in it with good teachers.

Because of my natural flexibility, I’m sure that I would have been moved very quickly through Primary Series if I had begun my practice in a Mysore setting. With knowledge and experience, I realize how detrimental this would have been for me.

I was young, impatient, hot headed. I definitely wasn’t ready for many of the things that a daily regimen demands from its practitioners.

I started to appreciate this as I began to practice and teach Mysore style classes and saw how quickly some people get moved through the system without having a basic grasp of the breath, vinyasa, and postures.

Of course, I realize that this isn’t the case for all people—most spend years working on Marichyasana D or Supta Kurmasana. What I’m referring to, are the people who come into the practice with a lot of flexibility, natural ability, or an athletic background. Though they are not the majority, there is still a significant number of students who fit this description.

Maybe they have a history of dance, gymnastics, or other physical disciplines that make the performance of asana easy. Note, I said the “performance” of asana, because, as someone recently pointed out, just because someone can put themselves into a pose doesn’t mean they’re doing Ashtanga.

I feel like these people who cruise through Primary Series are missing very valuable experiences.

In rushing, or being rushed through the series they’re not letting themselves steep in the practice.

They’re not developing the refinement of feeling the body, and observing the mind as it changes and adjusts from pose to pose and day to day.

They’re not exploring the depth of the breath as it seamlessly threads one posture to another.

And maybe more importantly; they’re not getting some pretty big lessons in working through challenges, like:

  • being patient
  • accepting that some things are outside of our control or ideal time frame
  • accepting that the teacher might be in a better position to know what to do, or not to do
  • letting go of coveting and grasping for postures
  • letting the practice balance and detoxify the body
  • letting the stability of body and mind guide you to the other limbs of yoga other than asana

About a year ago, I saw this again when a student finished primary series in six months. Her entire notion of being an Ashtanga practitioner hinged on getting more postures. When I stopped giving her postures (so that her practice could settle, and so she could develop some body awareness that was lacking and resulting in her constantly injuring herself) she quit practicing with me—in her words, “what’s the point of doing this if you don’t get poses?”

Unfortunately, she’s not alone in her perspective.

Time and again I see in students and—even more frighteningly—in other teachers, the idea that the more postures, the better.

I see people who rip their bodies to shreds trying to “get” a pose. And, I see people who don’t recognize how to adapt their movements when their body hurts or gives resistance, as it tries to adjust to changes in the practice. People who grunt their way, or hold their breath through a series, and can’t do the basic elements of what came before.

Primary Series is like the foundation of a house. If you pour it and don’t let it set properly, then as time goes on cracks and imbalances in the foundation will make the entire structure you built unstable.

Additionally, Primary is the practice that we come back to when we’re injured, sick, traveling too much, going through emotional ups and downs, and as we age. It is not a practice to “get past,” it’s a lifelong companion.

So, maybe we need some perspective.

I want to ask people who want to move fast through the series, “What’s the rush? What’s the reward going to be when you’re working on third series but you can’t move because you’ve thrown your lower back out trying to get your leg behind your head? Will it be worth it? Will it make you a better person/wife/daughter/friend?”

This doesn’t mean that people should work on Primary for many years if they don’t need to, but moving from pose-to-pose without a grasp of the fundamentals of the practice isn’t good either.

I encourage everyone to take the “time limit” mentality out of their practice. There’s no ribbon to break at the end of this race, no stopwatch counting down the seconds. If you see the benefit and opportunity for growth where you are right now, then the depths of the Ashtanga practice will reveal themselves to you, even in Primary Series.


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Asst. Editor: Tawny Sanabria/Ed: Bryonie Wise

Photo: Jade Beall

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