“If you don’t stop killing yourself, how can you tell your students to not kill themselves?”
A question my teacher asked that has been ringing in my ears until now. That was years ago when I had just started an apprenticeship with my ashtanga teacher (in ashtanga tradition we learn how to teach by being an apprentice with a respective teacher that we have been practising with for a long time. That teacher becomes your mentor and the learning process is a life long continuation – we sometimes jokingly call it the 50,000 hrs teacher training program).
It is clear by the statement above that I’m an aggressive person. I set high standards for myself and if I commit to something I want to succeed. I appear calm and relaxed when I can actually be quite passive aggressive.
When it comes to yoga practice, it was the same. Every time I learned a new asana, I would repeat it nonstop until I got it. My teacher would have to tell me to stop before I would stop. He said I was like a dog with a bone.
Looking back I can see I have always been easily addicted. It could be a thing, feeling, person, food or activity. Addictions can turn into both good or bad things but in yoga, addiction is always negative and against “the way”.
A limb of Ashtanga yoga is called Aparigraha, relating to non-addiction. It is considered a demon that is the underlying imbalance of Guna (qualities) which exerts influence over the mind. Drugs and alcohol used to be one of the bigger problems in my youth before Yoga, rehabilitation and therapy found me.
After I started my yoga practice, yoga itself became my new addiction. I could see it from my behaviour in the past. The way I ate, slept and worked revolved around my practice and it didn’t feel right, but I was too ignorant and inexperienced to notice. I continued beating myself up for many years and even when I met my teacher, I was still projecting the same kind of energy when starting ashtanga yoga. My teacher never tried to change me, he probably believed my practice will slowly mould me into the new person that I was supposed to be. Before that happened, I broke my toes, had stitches on my chin, tore my rotator cuff, had scars and bruises all over my body, and time to time the body and mind would fight and I would break down crying on my mat. My teacher just let me be, as I learned through the pain and heartache.
One of the biggest and most challenging lessons I learnt in my apprenticeship was how to not practice and how to spend more time assisting students in Mysore classes. He used to tell me not to practice on certain days and if I asked to practice more, I would be terminated. It was hard emotionally, but slowly I started learning to let go.
But looking at it, Ashtanga method itself is the main tool that changed me. Methodology of how we learnt changed me into a less aggressive person. People that have never practiced ashtanga might not understand because this style of yoga is strong and demanding and appears to be very athletic or type A. The system is so strong that it can crush you if you don’t allow yourself to become soft. Ashtanga yoga is a samurai sword, it cuts everything and if you’re not careful, you can cut yourself.
The way we learn the system in Mysore is we are given one asana at a time and practice it until we understand the pose, the teacher will decide when to give the next. This humbled me and I realised that the practice has no end, so why rush? Where am I rushing to? One breath is done then the next, one vinyasa is done then the next, one pose is done and then the next, one series is done and then the next. There’s always more to go.
Through this demanding practice, I became a gentler practitioner, a more understanding teacher, a happier human and a person that is kind and loving to myself. I’m still doing my practice six days a week, sometimes more. But when I’m needed somewhere else it can be less too. I still wake up at 4am daily to practice, sometimes 3am if I have something to do later that morning. But if I’m tired I’ll switch to a Primary series or even half primary or even just Suryanamaskar A and B with some inversions, then I’m done. I realised I didn’t care how perfect the asanas looked anymore, it was about how I felt. If I felt right in the pose, it was correct.
Here are some tips for those who are new to the practice.
Don’t be intimidated:
Even when you consider the primary series alone (in Ashtanga, there are six series of asana), the practice can seem daunting. The point of practice is just that - practice. I used to show up worried I’d somehow “fail” because I didn't know or understand every asana, only to learn that many students spent years learning and perfecting the primary series. The sequence is designed to build on strength, flexibility, and space creation in the preceding poses. If you doubt you’ll ever touch your toes or handstand, you're about to surprise yourself.
Don’t beat yourself up:
If you don’t get this point, go up and read the above one more time. The primary series is called Yoga Chikitsa, or yoga therapy, because it eliminates toxins and disease. Starting Ashtanga is a perfect time to jumpstart lifestyle changes you’ve been meaning to make. You can reduce or remove meat from your diet, as recommended when practicing Ashtanga, and take tips from Ayurveda on what foods support your body and practice. That doesn't mean, as I first thought, that you’re required to cut out every food you love or feel guilty about indulging every once in awhile. Instead, consider your new practice an opportunity to examine your choices, make adjustments, and work on self-kindness.
If you’ve practiced any kind of yoga, you know breath is integral. All postures in Ashtanga are linked by breath (vinyasa). When you’re in some of the poses breathing might feel impossible, but try to keep it equal and steady. Breathing will bring you further into each pose and sustain you to Savasana .
Treat every Vinyasa as the first:
By the 25th chaturanga, you might wonder why you started practicing at all. Until I began building upper body strength, chaturanga kicked my butt. Other students shared my frustration and fatigue, and some took license to cheat in a few of the vinyasas. My teacher told me to be sure we performed every vinyasa with equal effort, but if we were tired just cut practice short and rest for the day.
Do your practice (and all is coming):
Guruji Sri K Pattabhi Jois’s wisdom. I struggled through my first six-day a week before learning the Ashtanga secret: just show up to the mat. When I didn’t feel like practicing, I practiced. When I stopped thinking about the demanding practice and schedule, my practice improved – almost like magic. If you stick with it, you soon might find yourself in a poses you never dreamed of attempting. You’ll notice muscles and range of motion you didn’t have the week before. You will discover the strength that you never imagined you had. Ashtanga’s eight limb path is long and multifaceted, but with a healthy body, calm mind, and developing practice, you’ll wind up further along than you anticipated. It is truly a process of self discovery.
By Sita Chia