October 27, 2013

Surrendering to Ashtanga. ~ Genny Wilkinson-Priest

Sooner or later, an Ashtangi hits a roadblock.

It can come in obvious places like supta kurmasana in the primary series, pasasana at the start of second, or in my case viranchyasana A in third. I’ve been “stuck” there for so long that I’ve lost track—months, a year?

I simply cannot bind over the leg that’s pinned behind the neck.

I blame tight shoulders, the product of carrying four children around—one balanced on my right hip while I stirred Bolognese sauce with my left hand, another child gripping on to my leg. (I’m not sure where the other two were, up a tree in the garden probably.)

In the early hours of my morning practice, I think—this is it, I’m going to get the bind. My teacher will nod his head approvingly and give me viranchyasana B.

There are two hard truths I’ve had to face.

One, my teacher doesn’t look as much as I think (wish) he would.

Two, that bind in all probability isn’t going to come. I’ve been practicing fanatically, striving for a bind while denying the reality of the present moment.

Asana-wise, I have reached not just a roadblock, but my “peak.” I keep saying to myself, “Hey self, you’re 42. You’ve made it halfway through Third. This is an accomplishment!”

“Self,” I say, “you’re not supposed to care. Take the good and take the bad. Practice with equanimity. So long as you put in the effort, the outcome is beyond your control, so lose your attachment to it.”

But sitting on my other shoulder is ego, who whispers in my ear, “Self, you’re not good enough. What’s the matter with you? You have failed!”

The ego wants more.

I’ve worked through a range of emotions from frustration, to anger, to sadness and even humiliation within the time I’ve been stuck. And I’ve finally emerged from the turmoil with an understanding of what comes next.

And guess what?

It’s not viranchyasana B.

Working your way “up” the Ashtanga asana ladder is all I’ve known within the 12 years I’ve been practicing. What’s next is working my way down.

I’m not getting any more flexible, or any stronger. I’m getting older and my body is changing.

So, how do I incorporate this in to my practice?

At some point or another I’m going to have to drop certain postures. It’s easy to pinpoint what goes first—grabbing my ankles with the final assisted drop-back. It’s increasingly difficult, and anyway, it looks like I’m possessed by the devil when I bend back that far.

This journey, I feel, will have to be done without guidance. It was not codified, as far as I know, by Guruji or currently by Sharath. (He said at this season’s first conference that one should practice as long as one is physically able, even if it’s just a few postures.)

Working your way backwards, as you age, must be done on an individual basis, according to an individual’s needs and circumstances—exactly the way one learns Ashtanga, on an individualised basis according to each unique person’s strengths and weaknesses within theirbody and mind.

This individulaized method is the antithesis to the system’s reputation for being a one-size-fits all approach—it’s not!

My teacher, amazing as he is, will offer guidance but he cannot know what is happening inside of me. He can only rely on my ability to interpret and communicate what I feel. And how often are we really truthful with ourselves, let alone to the outside world, when admitting what we erroneously perceive as weakness?

But here’s the magic of the Asthanga system—while my practice will not advance physically, it will deepen in a more empirical, subtle way.

I will have to be more honest with myself.

I will have to listen harder.

When a person’s 22, and bendy, they can cut some fancy moves quite easily without thought. When a person’s 42, the mind has to be much more engaged, with much more feeling.

That’s much harder work, and where the real yoga begins—being deeply connected to what’s going on inside, forgetting the outside.

I will have to more finely tune my awareness to come to know better the bandhas, the breath and the drishti. The yamas and niyamas must be reinforced daily, for without them we are not practicing Ashtanga Yoga at all—with the mental limbs of dharna, dhyana and Samadhi being discovering (glimpsed) within this more refined, subtle practice.

So I find myself in actual fact working my way back up the ladder as I age, backing away from the intensity of my external practice, and working harder on the internal practice.

I’m no longer stuck.


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Assistant Ed: Laura Ashworth / Ed: Catherine Monkman

{Photo: Photo: Jade Beall.}

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