It’s been clear to me for quite a while that if I want to sell a workshop, the topics on the flyer are jump-thru/back or backbends. One Saturday afternoon after class, one Sunday, and that is always the advert even though I submit many other subject titles for my hosts to consider. What about ‘learn to breathe better’, ‘firm foundational movements in sun salutations, ‘forward-bends’… not quite so catchy, eh? Don’t worry, I always teach the important stuff under the allure of the catchy title anyway, but the point is, as it has always been, we always pay attention to whatever, or whoever shouts the loudest.
In this case it’s hard to resist with Ashtanga not to focus on the jazz of the jumping between postures. After all, that is its USP. Then, just to keep us going until the end, there’s the huge challenge of the backbend, spurred on in recent years by the encouragement of walking hands closer to feet and then catching ankles and then higher and higher.. There are obvious goals to focus on and, make no mistake, they are tough ones; it takes daily practice and a lot of effort to perform this kind of gymnastics. So the allure of the Ashtanga practice particularly has a lot to do with these little aspects of it, which, providing us with quite a challenge to overcome, give us the necessary ideas of progression and development that we constantly look for in order to feel better about ourselves.
Firstly, I question the very notion that I hear constantly from students that these obstacles have brought about much ‘learning’ for them. I don’t want to rain on anyone’s parade here, but I would also like to know what, exactly, this is comprised of apart from that life is hard we always experience struggle with ourselves. I’m not discounting that discipline has a strong benefit for ones self-belief, general outlook and positive and honest relation with the world. However, what I do question is the degree of effort and struggle against ones own natural limitations none is encouraged to put in on a daily basis.
Now I’m not recommending being lazy, but I think turning up morning after morning we should not encourage this over-stressing of the nervous system to achieve the backbend (usually a gateway for progression to the next set of postures, so extra necessary to get) or all the feel-good jumping, great to watch and quite an ego-boost to be able to do. The practice was always said to be over a lifetime, so over the years, these things will happen, or not, within a more natural progression. A daily putting in of 70 percent effort is not being lazy to any degree and will prevent burnout, chronic fatigue, and, a lot of unnecessary injuries, amongst the whole host of criticisms laid at the door of this method.
It is, in a way, both the teacher and the students responsibility for this most un-holistic kind of experience of what is meant to be a tool for self-therapy and healing, emotional and physical (and even psychic) in the first place. We cannot find any kind of healing with the kind of pushing taking place in most Mysore classes, but it seems this level of struggle goes unquestioned by the die-hard daily Ashtanga practitioners, they even expect it. So there is this demand put on the teacher to deliver some kind of noticeable (i.e. physical) shift, on a fairly regular basis. How regular, depends on the level of patience of the student, but I would generally say, with most people coming , if they haven’t progressed through quite a few more postures within a year, will probably be in danger of leaving your class.
Less heard, or maybe never by me, is the observation that the student has made so much progress if they are still on the very same positions. Of course, they may mitigate comments on physical progress with the fact that they have ‘learnt so much’ or ‘feel so much calmer’, and this may all be the case, but the fact remains that the teacher is under the gun to deliver the good and this is, in my opinion, not the best news for a student who really wants to get lasting and serious benefit from their Ashtanga yoga practice.
Working on the big-stuff; the deep backbends and the vinyasas – the jumping in different guises is the obvious way everyone derives meaning from what they are doing and both parties keep turning up in the morning. However, as well as exhausting most practitioners by daily demanding they exceed their limitations, it’s also like a glittery but cheap jewel, a massive distraction, from the real jewels hidden deeply within. Though they can be experienced all at once in a transformative kind of epiphany, they aren’t usually the big-bang stuff, like getting a new posture or catching your ankles in backbends. It’s a much quieter, subtler and gentler, though, way more profound for being so, experience.
These experiences though can’t be immediately quantified, and thus fed-back, on either side, student to teacher or student with themselves, so it’s not so easy to realise, or even believe them when they start to happen. They are simply not obvious to assertion and have to be given time to arise, which means taking out the huge physical-mental energy drains of obsessive focus on the show-moves. Ironically, the kind of nebulous qualities that can start to blossom if one tends to the soil of the practice with a little more thought than we generally want to give it, provide the foundations which the big-stuff comes out of when it’s done properly from the inside of the body and not just cramming and straining with no benefit from the more superficial muscles of the outer body.
Indeed, I am talking about the function of the breathing in the practice, and before you start to tune-out the hackneyed old cliche of the yoga teacher that ‘it’s about the breath’ or yoga is a breathing practice’, it needs to be clarified that what I am talking about is a special kind of, still physically made, breath which comes from correct use of the diaphragm by engaging the deep (hence very elusive and hard to get a hold of) muscles of the lower-abdomen. What is referred to here, let’s be clear, is that breath and ‘bandha’ (the internal locks) are one and the same. Bandha is (in most cases) harmful and irrelevant without breath and true breath cannot even function at all without Banda. Now, this is the true ‘big-stuff’ but it has to be learnt in by the small-stuff and that’s the problem; we get distracted wanting to drive the Ferrari when we need to learn our technique for driving with the mini first. Otherwise, to continue the metaphor, and I’ve so often seen, we can be in for big-trouble, trying to control such a powerful engine too early.
As mentioned at the beginning, want tends to be overlooked in the practice are the yoga postures themselves (all bar the most show stopping ones) are attention is so focussed on the jumping, then the backbend at the end and the effort that this all takes, that we don’t end up focusing on most of the actual asanas at all. However, it is in all the different smaller and ‘quieter’ shapes that this notion of how the lower abdomen draws in and out the breath, how much more profound this breath is, and how the positions themselves then unfold, as they naturally should in their own time, from simply applying these inner techniques more and more skilfully.
It is in this way, over the course of years that a student learns a yoga that is fitting and nurturing to them on all levels. It is a much more pragmatic, quiet and, although the word doesn’t exactly define it; gentle approach than we might imagine, or what is generally encouraged in the class, or even by the easy the practice itself had been set-up. Don’t get confused that this approach is all a bit ‘do what you feel is right for your body on the day’, wish you essay or laissez-faire. I am still for keeping the sequences in the traditional manner and practicing to the best of our ability. I think if I did what I immediately felt my body was telling me to do each morning, I would simply just lie down on my mat. I think, when approached with a dose of reasonable common sense, on a physical level we can always tune the positions with the amount of energy we feel that day. However, sometimes even this can be tricky to know, whether it’s just a lazy-vibe we have or an actually tired body, so that’s why I recommend the idea of 70 percent energy as a rough guideline which can be used to avoid the extremes of going crazy with ourselves when we feel super-energised, or getting overly sloppy when we don’t.
There is not some struggle with the practice for sure, but it’s enough that this entails bringing yourself to the mat each day and then applying your greatest degree of thoughtful awareness to try and figure out what we are really trying to feel, in every part of the body, and in every asana. Surely, this is an onerous task enough, without trying to , in fact, generate more (obvious) struggle, by attempting to bust through potential road blocks give us that self-satisfied feeling we have really progressed, that we are changing, that life is changing, that we desire on such a deeply human level. The road blocks may be there for good reason, and if we bust through them, not dismantle them slowly and covertly, we may get that elation first of all, but some time in the future, the police will hunt us down and there will be a price to pay. The only learning, I have experienced through doing this myself, is that the real learning comes in the humility and deep-wish to focus on the inner details and jot out after the big stuff. Otherwise, all this has yielded up is pain and unnecessary struggle and surely we have enough of that in life already without creating more.