I needed a picture from my home studio to post online, and the request was to include my pets. During these days of quarantine, home practices are exploding and that means pets are sharing our mats.
My home yoga space actually prevents this: it’s a three-season porch with a patio door that closes. Yes, I’m lucky! But I know people like pet pictures so I wanted to include my two whippets, Nina and Trophy, in the picture.
I knew they wouldn’t cooperate — they don’t listen very well and any time I’m on the mat it’s “play time.” I got one good picture with Trophy only — Nina had run away at that point. But I thought the others were pretty cute!
Part of an ongoing series about the eight limbs of yoga and how they manifest themselves in an Ashtanga practice.
Part 6: Dharana (concentration)
The asana practice is meditative. A yogi can cultivate this experience on the mat by building dharana into daily life. It is not easy to get to a state where you detach yourself from the next thought rising. It takes practice. Sitting quietly for a few minutes before or after an asana practice can train the mind to concentrate on “formless consciousness,” as Gregor Maehle writes in Ashtanga Yoga: Practice and Philosophy (p. 4). Focusing on the bandhas during asana practice also develops concentration. Ideally, a yogi is able to concentrate on many things at once: bandhas, breath, and asana.
“Like an addict’s moment of clarity, the pandemic presents a singular occasion to break the chains of denial that imprison us. A moment to objectively examine that which no longer serves us. The behaviors that repeatedly lead us astray. An economic system that demands constant growth at the cost of the collective good. A political system that preys on fear to divide. A conglomerated food apparatus that foments disease. A pharmaceutical complex that relies upon that disease to create dependency. And ultimately a collective obsession with ego, power, money, and material consumption that is rapidly eroding our biosphere, degrading our integrity — and separating us from others, ourselves and our innate divinity.”
As much as we try to let go, it’s hard to erase it completely. Some examples of how this may manifest on the mat include comparing yourself to others while in an asana, or pushing yourself beyond what you know is your limit.
It can also show up in teaching style.
Have you ever had a teacher (in a regular classroom or a yoga class) whose goal it seemed was to show you how much she knows, rather than conveying information to you to help you? Where the class was more about her than you or the other students?
The vast, wide, huge majority of Ashtanga teachers I’ve worked with, whether for a one-day workshop or with whom I work regularly, leave their egos behind. I get the sense that they truly want to help me as a student. But there’s always an exception.
I went to a led primary series class once where the teacher held strictly to counting in Sanskrit and counting each asana veeeeery slowly for the five breaths. I get this, even though I don’t agree. I believe that as a teacher, you need to read the room. If you have Ashtangis in the class who are quite experienced and you’ve worked with them for a while, then by all means, don’t deviate from tradition. But in this class, there was one person entirely new to Ashtanga and a couple of others who were fairly new. The rest of us had been practicing for years.
Holding each asana for such slow counts was a challenge for me; I can’t imagine what the newbies were thinking. In the moment I was a little annoyed but I tried to let it go and be fully accepting of the style. I thought, “Well, that’s this particular teaching style and who am I to judge?”
I was totally fine with this mindset until the end of class.
We were finished. We had said namaste and were starting to pack up. The teacher thanked us. He should have stopped there.
But then he said with a smirk, “I like playing with people.”
Um, excuse me?
That comment signaled to me that he was counting slowly on purpose to achieve some kind of effect. Of course I cannot know his intention for this, or who or what he was exactly “playing.” But I do know two things that still aren’t sitting well with me in light of the comment:
He was a male teacher in a class of only women.
When I arrived and he asked my experience with Ashtanga, I said I teach it. I stated it matter-of-factly, figuring that was the quickest way to let him know that I had experience. But looking back on it, I wonder if he took that as a challenge.
Have you had similar experiences? If so, what did you do? I hope I was the only one who felt this way after class. I wonder if the new woman will ever go back. If I had lived there and wasn’t visiting from out of town, I know I wouldn’t, at least not with that teacher.
In the future I will refrain from letting other teachers know I teach when I visit studios. Simply saying that I’ve practiced for years and have a home practice would be sufficient.
I do want to add that the other women in class were so warm and welcoming…as one would expect in an Ashtanga community!
Part of an ongoing series about the eight limbs of yoga and how they manifest themselves in an Ashtanga practice.
Limb 5: Pratyahara (sense withdrawal)
An asana practice is free from distractions. There’s a reason why music is not used as a backdrop during Ashtanga—the quiet allows a yogi to draw inward, to focus on the mind and body, to concentrate on the sound of the breath. It’s a meditative effect. Drishtis also serve to bring attention inward. The mind is quick to wander, but with a defined focal point to gaze toward, the mind is brought into focus. Off the mat, a yogi will minimize distractions that can pull one away from an asana practice or from a mindful life. Minimize distractions related to personal dramas or people who stir up negative feelings. A yogi should limit anything that will reduce or dull the senses and should not seek intentional distractions, such as the overuse of alcohol.
Part of my continuing series on the eight limbs of yoga and how they manifest in an Ashtanga practice.
Limb 4: Pranayama (life force)
Without breath, there is no life. This life force propels us. It is important for a yogi to pay attention to the breath. The Ujjayi breath is used to trigger the body’s flow during an asana practice. The breath moves the body, not the other way around. The breath is taken in throughout all parts of the body. It is deep and audible, not shallow and silent. A yogi feels this life force from head to toe, and from fingertip to fingertip. Much like the other eight limbs, the pranayama does not happen only on the mat; it is a part of the yogi’s daily life.
Part III of a continuing series on the eight limbs of yoga and how it relates to an Ashtanga practice.
Limb 3: Asana (physical practice)
The asana practice, the physical movement of the body, tells us a lot about our mental and emotional states. The asana practice allows us to move through the past to arrive at the present. Physical limitations become apparent. But the more we use asana, the more we can confront those limitations and start to open up. Anyone who has practiced likely has witnessed this opening up in themselves or others. Crying during or after an asana practice is the result of a release that the asana has triggered. The asana—the physical—should not be seen as the end goal or the only reason to set out your mat. It is just one of eight limbs—important, but not any more important than any other limb.
Oddly enough today, I drew the “niyamas” card from my A Yogic Path deck by Sahara Rose* I didn’t intend to post about niyamas today, but I take the card as a sign!
This post is part of a series exploring how the eight limbs of yoga manifest in a yoga practice. See Part I here.
Limb 2: Niyama (observances)
In an asana practice, a yogi strives for purity in mind and body. This relates to cleanliness, both physically and being of a “clean” mind. Simplicity is also valued. In a world where the yoga industry generates millions of dollars a year, a yogi can buy the “latest and greatest” in terms of gear and clothing. A yogi resists overabundance. The asana practice also benefits when a yogi studies the sacred texts and recognizes the supreme being that has power over the world and its inhabitants. The yoga mat is a place for introspection and reflection, and that also plays a role in a yogi’s life off the mat.
* I am loving this deck. It’s the first deck I’ve ever bought. The cards are definitely choosing me!
Ashtanga is a particular style of yoga, but you may have heard the term in general yoga classes or studies. Ashtanga means “eight limbs,” and each limb plays an important role in the life of a yogi. Not only do Ashtanga practitioners aim for incorporating all eight limbs in their lives, but all yogis.
In my Ashtanga teacher training last fall, I was asked to write a paper on how each limb shows itself in a yoga practice. This series of blog posts briefly will address each limb and how I see it manifesting in my practice. I welcome comments and conversation on your interpretations!
Limb 1: Yamas (ethical rules)
This limb is thought of as “do no harm.” In an asana practice, a yogi does no harm to herself. This means paying attention to both the physical being and the mental being. Physically, a yogi should not push herself beyond her limits. She needs to listen to her body. She needs to work with her own body, and not see her practice as a “competition” with others. Mentally, a yogi needs to be kind to herself and not harm herself with negative self-talk. When the asana practice is done with others, such as in a Mysore class or if the yogi is leading a class, no harm should be done to others. In a community, a yogi embodies kindness and compassion toward others. If the asana practice involves the exchange of money (i.e. teaching a class, owning a studio, or giving private lessons), the yogi should refrain from being greedy and always charge a fair price for services.
This is the first in a series of blog posts in which I will explain what I wish I had known about yoga — specifically, Ashtanga yoga — when I started my journey nearly 20 years ago.
I will start with what I wished I had known about the benefits of yoga.
I entered yoga for the purely physical benefits. I was a runner when I started going to yoga classes, and I wanted the deep stretching that yoga provided. I went to class when I felt like I needed it, physically. This meant that sometimes I would go each week, but there were times when it was more like every other week, or at times I’d even take a long break from it, like over summer.
I was always glad I went because I felt better after each class. I was less injury-prone when I went to yoga class regularly.
But by focusing just on the physical, I was missing out on the other benefits. What yoga brings to your physical body is only a small slice of the pie. It’s only the shell, a skeleton without muscles, skin, or clothes, or a building that only has the foundation.
I was experiencing the other benefits, but my mind was closed to what was happening. I could feel something. I came home from Ashtanga with renewed energy. I knew I only wanted to put good things in my body after practice and would eat a small, healthy meal. Since class was in the evening, the energy affected my sleep. I’d wake up in the middle of the night, not exhausted or tired, but with that good energy flowing through my body. I described it as “zingy.” I could feel these things, but I didn’t know what it was. I knew yoga was the reason for the experiences, but I didn’t know why or how.
I also could not articulate the benefits of community, though the community was a reason why I enjoyed going to Ashtanga class. The class had a steady cast of characters — some were there almost every week, but others would rotate in and out. To this day, I can remember the group that I first started with back in 2002 or 2003. Many of the people whom I practiced with in the last 10 or 15 years are ones who now come to my class. These are lovely, lovely people, to a one. In this world, any time you can be around lovely people you need to cherish that and realize what a gift that is. I took it for granted when I first started my practice; I don’t take it for granted anymore.
It took my 200-hour yoga teacher training to help me realize that my yoga practice was far more than just physical. I learned about chakras and energy and how to live a life that’s consistent with your yoga practice. I’m not saying that everyone has to go through yoga teacher training to learn these things; just be open to what is happening to you beyond the physical when you practice yoga.