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.
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.
We held a Mysore class* at SunMoon studio for the first time in years last Thursday and guess what? Ten people showed up!! This is in Mankato! A Mysore class in Minneapolis might draw about 20 people on a good day, and Minneapolis is waaaay bigger than Mankato! Thanks go to Mona and Mel for building an Ashtanga community in Mankato since about 2003 — many of us who were around in those early years are still here, and still practicing.
I wanted to write a few posts that explain the benefits of a Mysore practice at a studio. I can think of community, assistance, and accountability. Today I will focus on community.
Think of those things you do both in isolation but also as part of a community. The first things that come to my mind are church and writing.
Most church-goers will go to church for an hour a week (maybe more during the Advent and Lent seasons). But that’s not the only time they are being spiritual. They pray silently at home and may have a devotional practice upon waking or before going to bed.
Writers have to write on their own. That’s the nature of the craft. But that work needs to be shared with trusted people — hence, the writing group. It’s a place to share work but also a place to share the ups and downs of the writing life.
Ashtangis have a Mysore practice at home, but when it’s possible it’s important to come together with other Ashtangis, just as spiritual people come together and writers come together.
A community allows you to share a space with like-minded people. The energy of a practice grows exponentially with others. You can find inspiration. You can ask someone about Marichyasana D or sirsasana and get ideas for how to obtain the asana.
A community provides a sense of belonging. Many studies show that being part of a community can improve mental health. Just look at the suggestions in this article. A Mysore practice fulfills about five points on the list! Be part of a community while at the same time making time for yourself, destressing, finding a purpose, and staying positive.
The Ashtangis who left practice last Thursday all had smiles on their faces. I received many comments of gratitude. But I am just holding the space for them. We are a thirsty Ashtanga community in Mankato, and this first Mysore class after many years is just the beginning!
Upcoming posts: the benefits of a Mysore class for receiving assistance, and holding yourself accountable.
* Mysore-style Ashtanga is done on your own. You should have a familiarity with the practice and have started to memorize the sequence before attending a Mysore class. It is called Mysore because that was the home of K. Pattabhi Jois, who popularized Ashtanga beyond India in the latter half of the 20th century.
I’ve written before about my experiment this year — cutting way back on running mileage in favor of cultivating a daily Ashtanga practice and dedicating time to Ashtanga study and teacher training.
I will have a year-end report! But I recently opted out of a regular running event and it felt rather weird.
Since the Mankato Marathon and related races started in 2010, I’ve always done either the marathon or half-marathon (with the exception of 2012 when my niece got married that weekend). This year, knowing that I was running less, I thought I’d run the 10K to still do something and be involved.
I didn’t pre-register, knowing that it would be easy to register the day before. Or, as it turns out, easy to NOT register.
The week before the 10K was shaping up to be one of my busiest weeks of the semester. A lot of early mornings — rolling out of bed and immediately getting in the car to go to various destinations. A lot of late nights — writing, music, yoga. The thought of getting up early, once more, on a day where I really DIDN’T have to get up early — well, I wasn’t liking that thought.
So I decided to not run that day and guess what — I slept in until 8 a.m., something I haven’t done fore months. My body and mind needed it. I had a lovely morning and overall, just a lovely, relaxing day.
But I did have feelings of missing out, especially when I saw all the social media posts. I felt a little like a wuss — really, I couldn’t get up one more morning of the week? I couldn’t dig deep and get it done?
I could have, but I didn’t want to. As I get older, I know my limits. I know when I’m bleeding out energy all week in terms of teaching, I need to find ways to get it back. After an intense week of being with people, I couldn’t stomach the thought of race-day crowds.
Learning to “let go” is a relatively new concept for me. In our Western culture we are not encouraged to “let go” and take care of ourselves, lest it be seen as a weakness. I know people who view the world as a competition for who is busiest and who can get the least amount of sleep. I will let them duke it out — I’m not going to play that game.
Do you “let go”? Is it something you continue to work on? What choices have you made?