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.
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.
Is it selfish to say that I teach in order to learn? In order to stay committed to my own practice?
This article explains how teaching others helps us to better understand something ourselves.
The 200-hour training I did in 2017-18 took a major commitment of one weekend a month. I committed to the training because I knew I wanted to teach Ashtanga someday.
Now I’m doing a focused training on teaching Ashtanga. This is even more of a time commitment, because it involves driving to Minneapolis 3-4 times a month to study with Lynn at OneYoga. I’ve been getting up early, between 5-6 a.m., hitting the road to drive 90 minutes to the studio, do my 90-minute Mysore practice, do an hour of training, and drive 90 minutes back home. Home around noon, then I head to the office at 1 p.m. and finish the day with either an evening writing class I’m teaching or the Ashtanga class I’m teaching.
I admit I sometimes think of the other things I could be doing in those 6-7 hour blocks of time — sleep, write, work, read, clean the house, make good food, pay the bills, etc. But I’m gaining so much knowledge and taking time for my own practice. I’m back at school, so without an excuse to go to a Mysore practice it would be easy for me to forgo it in favor of something else. It would be easy to not read from Ashtanga texts. It would be easy to teach Ashtanga by resting on my laurels instead of introducing some new ideas to my class.
The training is helping me stay on the straight and narrow path, and this commitment results in positive improvements in other areas of my life. I’m more focused and more patient. I’m more attentive to my students at the university. I’m calmer. And I’m seeing more and more how alcohol does not fit into this path.
I see parallels in my university teaching as well. I need to write to keep my skills fresh so I’m better able to teach my students. When I teach a design class, I have a wonderful excuse to experiment with fun effects and designs in Photoshop and InDesign. I probably wouldn’t be doing many of these things if I didn’t have to teach them.
Is there something you like to teach in order to stay fresh?
I attended a 6-hour Bheemashakti Yoga training June 15-16 held at Nordeast Yoga in Minneapolis. I first heard of Bheemashakti in March, when a couple of people in my Ashtanga assist workshop mentioned it. Elaine and Jonathan brought the Bheemashakti Yoga School co-directors, Angela Patriarca and Troy Munsey, to Minneapolis for the workshop.
According to the website, Bheemashakti Yoga is “a standardized system of yoga that range from general physical exercises, to deep spiritual practices.” It’s a relatively new style of yoga, starting in India in 2005 and brought to the U.S. in 2009.
I find it beneficial to shake things up once in a while. While I continue to deep-dive into Ashtanga through continued practice, workshops, teaching and training, at the same time I’m eager to expand my breadth of knowledge about yoga and holistic living.
On Saturday afternoon Angela and Troy led us through a series of backbends. What I like about Bheemashakti is the building onto a foundation. Rather than go right into urdhva dhanurasana (wheel pose) after a warm-up, there are a series of foundational poses in which you go further and further into backbends. Same thing with handstands, which we practiced on Sunday. I’m not there yet, but someday!
I also liked the kapalabhati breathing technique (for a video, see below). I can really feel this along my ribs, my abs and my back today!
I’m not sure yet where I will place Bheemashakti in my daily practice. I know I will continue with the Ashtanga morning practice. Today I experimented and did some Bheemashakti backbends late in the afternoon, after I was working on my computer all day. I liked the counter-effect after sitting for hours, so perhaps Bheemashakti will be a late afternoon or early evening practice a couple of days a week.
I do know that when I learn something new, it’s OK to not know where it’s going to fit. A seed has been planted, and it’s unknown when it will sprout or how big it will become.
On Thursday, I wrapped up my second multi-week session guiding students through the Ashtanga led primary series at Sun Moon Yoga Studios in Mankato. I thought this would be a good time to reflect. So many thoughts!
* The Ashtanga community in Mankato is fabulous. I think I had 14 registered for winter session and 10 for spring session. Others would drop in here and there. Ashtanga is such a specialty practice that the people who actually commit are much fewer in number than people who attend other yoga classes. Plus, Ashtanga really is a home-based practice — it’s great to come together with fellow Ashtangis on a weekly basis, but it’s not necessary. So I am beyond thrilled with those numbers as well as the mix of faces. Some people have practiced Ashtanga for years in Mankato and I practiced with them back when Mel W. was teaching. But others are relatively new. Over the summer I’d like to convince 2-3 more people to commit to the fall session.
* My own practice has grown. Since January, I’ve committed to a near-daily practice in the mornings. In my day job I teach writing, and there’s no way to teach that without writing myself. There’s no way to teach Ashtanga without doing Ashtanga myself and taking additional training. I have some more fun and exciting training on the horizon for the summer and fall!
* Some crazy things are happening because of my daily practice and basking in the energy a room full of Ashtangis emits. I can’t quite find the words at the moment to articulate this, but it has to do with the cultivation of energy, the arcs of energy that run between me and others, and the ability to seemingly harness that energy to gain results.
* I’m so much more comfortable with assists. Back in March, I took an assist workshop with Lynn Thomasberg. I love the way a body “gives” under my hands — I can feel the person finding that “sweet” spot.
* I’m leading a class, not teaching. I see my role as a guide and observer. I’m there to cultivate the space — show up early, turn on the lamps, adjust the temperature, create the warmth needed for Ashtangis to settle into a practice without distraction. What I want most is to create a space in which Ashtangis can reach deep inside of themselves, go to a place both mentally and physically that will open up new channels of energy and new ways of seeing. After class, some of the practitioners will share their experiences. I loved this one from last night:
Summer we’re scaling back to one-hour Ashtanga “prep” workshops in June and July. I look forward to spending more time in asanas and regrouping for the fall full primary series. I also plan to work on a personal goal of attaining bhujapidasana.
Touch doesn’t come natural to me. I grew up in a family that wasn’t demonstrative with affection — not uncommon in small-town Minnesota, populated by descendants of stoic Germans and Scandinavians.
So providing assists during an Ashtanga class presents a challenge to me. But I look forward to this opportunity for self-development. I will be spending some time contemplating my place of resistance and developing ways to break through it.
I attended my first assist workshop last weekend, led by Lynn Thomasberg at One Yoga in Minneapolis. Lynn focused specifically on the asanas found in the Ashtanga primary series.
Right away, I noticed my discomfort. But confronting that discomfort was exactly why I signed up for the workshop. Prior to this, my only experience with assists was at David Swenson‘s weekend workshop last September. We paired up with each other, and I felt challenged by having to put my hands on strangers.
Lynn told us we’d be changing partners for every asana so we’d get a chance to work with all body types and all abilities. Wow, I’m going to be putting my hands on a lot of strangers today, I thought. But that’s why I was there, so I might as well dive right in.
I did what Lynn told us to do, pushing through my resistance. I was beyond my comfort zone, but that’s where growth occurs. At home at the end of that first day, I reflected upon the work I did and readied myself for the second day.
When I got to the studio the second day, I was feeling a lot more comfortable. That was a good sign! Knowing that I’d have to assist again wasn’t giving me anxiety; I was excited. I think I felt more comfortable on the second day for a couple of reasons: 1) I was more familiar with my classmates — they were no longer strangers; and 2) we worked on seated postures.
For some reason, assisting people while they were seated felt more natural to me than assisting in standing asanas. Hmmmm! Maybe I was just more comfortable in general and if I had assisted standing asanas on the second day, I would have felt natural, too.
Today is when I get to put the assists into practice in my class at SunMoon. I feel excited rather than anxious, so I’m relieved about that. The people in my class aren’t strangers — I know them all, so there’s a level of comfort there that I didn’t have on the first day of the workshop.
I think my resistance isn’t necessarily about touching people. I like to hug people (though I often wait for people to make the first move), and I will touch people on an arm when I’m talking to them (if I feel it’s warranted). I have warmed up considerably from where I was as a young person!
My resistance comes out of fear — I don’t want to hurt people. Even in the workshop almost everyone I worked on said I could push further — my touch was too light. I know that people will let me know if I go too far, but I worry about the people who might not say anything. Or the people who don’t realize I made them go too far until after practice, when a pain or soreness sets in. Or I am spotting someone in sirsasana and they tumble over on my watch.
I’m so grateful for the opportunity to teach a led class so I can confront areas of resistance and learn more about myself. If I were only practicing on my own, this world would not be opened to me.
How do you feel about assists in a yoga class, whether giving or receiving?
“Take care of yourself to sustain a movement,” she answered.
It reminds me of the talk they give on airplanes before takeoff. In case of emergency, put your oxygen mask on first before you assist others.
People who are working to enact change in their communities, state, nation and world often do so tirelessly. They rarely rest and devote themselves to a cause. But that’s a recipe for burnout. I’m glad Huggins chose to tell the young woman that self-care is so important if you hope to care for others.
Huggins said that she meditates daily, something she picked up in prison nearly 50 years ago. In prison, the meditation kept her from losing her mind. She has the calm and thoughtful demeanor one would expect from someone who meditates regularly. In her talk, she often referenced love, how it’s love that has the power to transform the world.
Do this much exercise each day, and these types of exercises.
Drink 8 glasses of water a day. No, 12. No, make that 16, or 24. Do it, and don’t fail or else!
This time of year we’re given a lot of rules, especially if our goal is to eat better or get more exercise or just try to embrace a healthier lifestyle.
I think rules work for some people. They want a clear set of guidelines and succeed when they can check off boxes. But others chafe when given a set of rules. That would be me.
If someone says I can’t do something, or can’t eat a certain type of food, or need to give up caffeine, I instantly want to do the exact opposite.
So my goal is to find a plan and adapt it to my lifestyle and schedule at the moment.
Ashtanga is a good example. The “rules” of Ashtanga say that you do the series for 90 minutes a day first thing in the morning, six days a week. That just doesn’t work for me right now. So instead, I aim for the six days, but my practice is anywhere from 15 minutes to 45 minutes. I trust that my body and mind will adapt to where I will be devoting more time to my practice.
I’m also experimenting with Ayurveda, both in terms of food and also lifestyle. Today I went to a workshop with Julianne Englander at Yoga Barre in Shakopee and learned some great details about Ayurveda. Julianne talked about the morning routine, which if you did everything would probably take about an hour. I know that’s not anything I’m going to do right now. I’m going to start small, like getting up and scraping my tongue and washing my face — getting “clean” before heading to my mat. Julianne also said this is like a yoga practice — it develops over years.
Regarding my diet, there are just some things I’m not ready to give up yet. These include:
An occasional social alcoholic drink with friends
If you want to succeed in a diet or exercise routine or other lifestyle change, you have to make it work for YOU. Find something that sounds doable and that you’ll enjoy, but ADAPT from there. Remember, a small change is better than nothing. See how that small change goes and if you feel good, add more changes. Because the second you dislike something you for sure will stop doing it.
How have you adapted a diet or exercise program or lifestyle change to make it work for YOU?
I had A LOT of time to think while I was running the Mankato Marathon on October 21, lol! I finished in over five hours. It wasn’t my slowest marathon; it wasn’t my fastest. But it was MY marathon.
The longer I do this running thing (almost 30 years at this point), the more I see the parallels between running and other areas of my life. The following similarities jump out at me as I reflect upon the marathon.
The wind won’t always be at your back…
October 21 was a chilly day — around 30 degrees at the start. I’ve done a Mankato Marathon run each of the nine years except for one, and this was the coldest start I could remember. It wasn’t so much the cold, but that wind. It was blowing out of the south at about 15-20 mph. In the marathon course, runners go south on a two-mile stretch of Monks Avenue twice. The run starts on Monks, and while I could feel the cold wind, there were still plenty of other runners around because it’s also the start of the half-marathon course. I could do a bit of drafting at least. But the second stretch is at miles 14-16. These miles are typically my worst of any marathon, just from a mental perspective. You’re halfway done, but you still have a long ways to go. Those miles almost beat me. My 3-minute run, 1-minute walk plan went out the window. I thought I would have to sit on the side of the road and really think about if I wanted to go on. But other than the wind, I was feeling OK, and it would be silly to give up. So I pushed through.
It’s your race…
I say this all the time. I won’t stop saying it. I’m not going to win a marathon so I’m not competing against anyone, only myself. If I decide that I did the best I could that day, then I’m satisfied. And I’m really satisfied with my run that day. My goal was to finish, and finish comfortably, and I did that. But in the days after the run, the first question I got many times was “What was your time?” There are more measures of success than that. Better questions would be “How did you feel?” or “How did it go for you?” or “Did you set out to accomplish what you wanted to?”
Push through and reap the rewards…
The best part for me of running a marathon is the feeling the next day and in the days after. Yes, I’m usually sore, so that’s not the feeling I’m talking about! It’s the feeling of lying in bed the next morning, ready to get up, and thinking “I did it.” There were times last week at work when things weren’t going well or I was frustrated but I could think back to the marathon and reclaim that feeling of accomplishment. All that work all summer, all those long runs in the heat and humidity, in the rain, running when I didn’t feel like it, squeezing in a run among fifty other things to do that day, all came together to get me through five-plus hours on October 21. It was worth it.
What’s worth it in your life? What do you put so much work into in order to reap rewards?
Inner story and outer story is usually the first thing I talk about when I give memoir workshops. A memoir that just stays at the surface — this happened, then this happened, here’s what I looked like, here’s what our house looked like, etc. — doesn’t have any substance. Writers have to dive deep within themselves to discover what all those things meant. How did it change the writer? What transformation took place because of those events?
Writing the inner story is difficult because it takes time and contemplation. We may know we have an outer story, but perhaps we haven’t spent a lot of time articulating on the page what it meant or how it changed our lives. At least that was my case when I wrote my memoir. I knew I had a unique story in that my dad was a gravedigger, but until I started to write I didn’t realize exactly how that upbringing impacted my life. The thinking-to-writing ratio while I was working on the memoir was definitely skewed toward the thinking!
This is why I’m so excited to do this yoga/memoir workshop. Yoga lends itself to looking inward and contemplation. There’s the physical practice of yoga, what we see. If we practice regularly we may see changes to our body — more defined muscles, increased strength, new flexibility. If we let our practice sit there on the outside, like a memoir, there’s nothing wrong with it, but it can be so much more.
It’s when your mind and body are strong when the real transformation occurs. As Kino MacGregor writes in The Power of Ashtanga Yoga: “Strength in yoga is an integration of the sum of the body, mind, and soul in a way that gives access to something much larger than any individual part.”
For memoir, the strength is in the combination of outer story and inner story. To borrow Kino’s words, that is going to give access to something much larger than the individual parts.