November 22, 2013

What Self-Practice Means (to Me). ~ Antonella Accinelli

“The happiness which comes from long practice, which leads to the end of suffering, which at first is like poison, but at last like nectar—this kind of happiness arises from the serenity of one’s own mind.”

~ The Bhagavad Gita,18.36-37

I’ve had the good fortune to do my yoga practice in a number of different places and contexts.

I’ve practiced in big, crowded rooms, with all types of practitioners; from those doing their first sun salute, to those well into Ashtanga’s 4th series. I’ve also practiced in small, intimate spaces with only three or four other people. I’ve practiced hours before sunrise and hours after sunset, with friends by my side and between many people I don’t know.

But mostly, over the last three or so years, I’ve practiced alone. Every day (except Saturdays and moon days). Just me, my mat and a quiet room. This habit didn’t come from any extraordinary self-discipline, it came from necessity. As a Mysore teacher this was the only way for me to be able to run a full time program and keep up my own practice.

Recently, I had a conversation with a fellow practitioner who lamented that with a new move they wouldn’t have an established group or teacher to practice with. They were going to miss the camaraderie and energy that the Mysore room provides. This led me to wonder: what does self-practice actually mean?

Ashtangis often define the Mysore style class as “a self-practice in a group setting.” But many practitioners don’t ever have to practice by themselves for long periods of time.

Yes, sometimes we travel and have to roll out our mat in our hotel room. Or maybe we go on vacation and for a couple of weeks or months can’t make it to a studio. But we know that these periods of time are limited. There is an end date to our solitary endeavor which makes it easier to bear. We know that if we can make it through the self-imposed exile that we’ll be able to go back to our “shala” and our community soon. There’s a reward for all of that unaccompanied hard work.

During the same conversation, I mentioned that in needing to practice alone I began to develop a different understanding of “self-practice.” Digging a little deeper beneath the surface we can start to see external motivators that unwittingly take root if one isn’t careful.

I know many people who constantly travel in groups from teacher to teacher and workshop to workshop, in part, because they are reluctant to practice alone. Many teachers will let students come in extra early, not just occasionally, but as a way to have a regular “practice buddy;” and others who won’t teach on certain days just so they can go to a class.

This isn’t a critique of the people who do this. We all do what is right for us, and what has to be done at a given moment in time. Doing your practice is what counts, whether in a group or alone. But if you need that group energy in order to practice then maybe there’s a reason that isn’t being addressed.

It’s very easy to become dependent on the energy of the group around us.

Maybe we need the eye of the teacher watching to prompt us to do the next pose or to try a little harder. We may get caught up in wanting to please the teacher, or we may become dependent on getting physical adjustments. We may compare ourselves with the person next to us. Maybe we want to be seen by others, or get motivation by seeing what others can do.

Maybe our yoga time is also our “social” time. Knowing that a friend is next to us can give us a little extra boost, making us feel safe and comfortable, in addition to knowing that we’ll get coffee or breakfast after (full disclosure: the reward of a post-practice coffee, or chai if I’m in India, often spurs me on).

But when we strip our yoga down, and take away the group energy, what REALLY motivates us? What keeps us putting our mat down day after day, week after week, and year after year? If we’re lost without others around us, if we constantly need the attention and validation of our peers (even if it’s just as simple as knowing they’re there), and if we’re driven only by the external influence, then it’s unlikely that our self-practice will actually stand the test of time.

In many ways, a solitary practice is harder than dealing with someone else’s voice telling you what to do. Being alone, you have to deal with your own voice inside your head; and you can’t discount, or run away from that voice—it’s with you everywhere.

Can you subdue the internal dialogue and keep to your work, even as that voice tells you that it’s hungry, too tired, too sore, that it would rather check email? Or will the chatter of your mind ultimately distract you from your task?

Digging deep into what drives us forces us to be honest and recognize where we are at our best, and sometimes where we need more work. Maybe the “self” in the self-practice is actually to study ourselves, as in “svadhyaya”, one of the five niyamas mentioned in the Yoga Sutras.

This ode to self-practice probably sounds odd, even contradictory, coming from a Mysore teacher. After all, teaching to a group of students is the norm in a typical Mysore class.

As I write this, I’m sitting in a room in Mysore, India, on my yearly trip to practice at the K. Pattabhi Jois Ashtanga Yoga Institute (KPJAYI), the home of Ashtanga yoga. In the Shala the concentrated energy of all of the other practitioners around you is so strong that it feels like it can carry you on a wave, from pose to pose and breath to breath.

There is nothing quite like the feeling of practicing at the KPJAYI, it can be intoxicating, even addictive.

At some point, though, every student that practices here has to go home. We all need to go back to our lives, our families, our jobs.

We then have a choice: recognizing what the group energy has given us, utilizing these lessons and integrating them to keep ourselves engaged in our personal practice, letting them inform our teaching, and seeing what new conversations arise within our head….

…or, we can search for a new energetic “boost” elsewhere to distract us.

When I look at the many long time practitioners I’ve been fortunate enough to meet; people who seem to radiate the steadiness and grace that a well-established practice provides over an extended period of time, they all regularly practice by themselves.

This isn’t to say that that they don’t probably enjoy the occasional company, and feel the need to check in with their teacher, if they have one, on a regular basis. As an observer, however, it appears that their practice has moved beyond needing external stimuli.

What may have also started out as something born from necessity has become something else. Over time, there seems to be a natural progression that takes these practitioners further within themselves even if they’re surrounded by others.

My teacher, Sharath, always says: the first four limbs of the Ashtanga practice are external, you have to do them, work at them. Once these limbs are firmly established then the others, the internal limbs, just happen within you. Maybe self-practice is one example of the movement from an external practice towards an internal one.

Mysore teachers walk a fine line between contributing to their students’ development as conduits for the teachings that have been passed down, and knowing when to let the students fly on their own. This is something that happens gradually, with the experience of both the teacher and student contributing to the student’s eventual independence to explore these teachings on their own.

As some old wisdom says: the teacher can show you the door but the student has to take the step and pass through it.

With all of these ideas in mind, I keep thinking that if yoga is meant to be a way of realizing the Self, then it has to ultimately be a solitary journey. Although we can walk in others’ footsteps and learn from their experience and insight, ultimately the path has to be walked alone.

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Assistant Editor: Daniel Garcia/Editor: Bryonie Wise

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