Dedication, Determination, Devotion: The three traits needed to practice Ashtanga Yoga
I wandered into the world of Ashtanga yoga back in November 2013. For 3 years prior to that my friends and I had been religiously flying to Ibiza every summer, throwing ourselves fully into all of the hedonism the beautiful island had to offer. But in 2013 two of the girls wanted to travel to a festival in Croatia instead. I did not fancy the sound of the festival but was keen to try somewhere new. By this point in time I was practicing yoga every weekend, so when a colleague mentioned a yoga retreat she had been to in Goa called Purple Valley I decided to give that a try for one week.
On the first night of the retreat our teachers, Harmony & Jeff Lichty, asked us what level we were practicing at: beginner, intermediate or advanced. Since I had been practicing quite frequently I said I was not quite intermediate but certainly not a beginner either. The next day I woke up at 5:30 and headed to the shala. Everyone rolled out there mat and stood at the top so I followed suit. Harmony & Jeff began a chant, which we all repeated back verse by verse. Upon completion of the chant everyone started to move. I looked around, confused. I asked Jeff what was happening. "Have you practiced ashtanga yoga before?" he asked. Apparently I had not. Thankfully I was not the only one, two other girls were equally perplexed. Jeff took us to one side, sat us down and patiently explained what "Mysore" style ashtanga yoga was: a self practice in which the practitioner gradually learns a series of postures that they then practice at their own pace. Traditionally, no props are used in this method, instead you learn to work with your body in its current state until it begins to open and allow you to move deeper into each asana (pose). The next day the group was divided into 2 sets: those who had some experience in Ashtanga began practice at 6am, those who had no experience began practice at 8am. I was assigned to the 8am set, turns out I was a beginner after all. Jeff showed us Surya Namaskara A and told us to practice it 5 times. When we were done he showed as Surya Namaskara B and told us to practice that 5 times. He then asked us to put them together, so 5 A's followed by 3 B's in order to test our memories. This is how we progressed, each day we would be tested on what we had learnt the previous day and given a new asana to add to the mix. Jeff told us that by memorising the practice we would have something that we could take with us wherever we went. No need for a studio or any additional props, just you and your body, flowing with your breath. This concept really resonated with me. By the end of day one I was hooked, so I put a call into work and asked to extend my holiday to two weeks and texted a friend to tell her that I would not make it back to London for her hen do.
Each evening Harmony and Jeff would host a workshop. In these session we would work on asana techniques, such as correct alignment for chaturanga dandasana, but before this they set aside some time to answer any questions we had. I remember sitting in these sessions and listening to them talking about practising for 1.5hrs every morning, six days a week (not including moon days), and thinking that there was no way I would be able to make that type of commitment. Nonetheless, I decided to do a 1 month trial at a studio that offered Mysore style Ashtanga close to my office. I can recall that first morning, waking up early and heading to the studio in the cold month of January, feeling like an oddball amongst the other early risers that were on the trains at the time, most of whom seemed to be workmen. But as I walked into the warm studio I was greeted by the sweet smell of incense and the sight of my fellow oddballs, many of whom were almost halfway through their practice by the time I arrived. By the end of the month I faced an unexpected dilemma. I was pulled to Ashtanga but already had a weekend membership to a yoga studio closer to my home and a gym membership. I decided to quit my gym membership, after all I could always run outside but in order to make progress in Ashtanga you need to work with a teacher who gets to know your body and begins to apply intelligent adjustments that help you go deeper in each pose. Soon I was practicing up to 4-5 days a week. When I moved jobs one of the first things I did was locate another studio close to my new office. My lifestyle also began to change. As my experience grew new asanas were given to me and my practice became 1.5hrs long. Starting work at 9:15 meant I needed to be up by 5am in order to get myself to the studio and have enough time to do my full practice. Being up at 5am meant I needed to be in bed by 10pm at the latest in order to feel rested. Soon social events after work were being weighed up against whether or not the experience would be worth missing yoga for. Yoga won more times than than I care to confess. I was dedicated to this new way of life.
Dedication did not come without many moments of doubt. Traditionally, in the Ashtanga method you are only given the next asana once you are able to move into your current asana without the teachers help. My first hurdle came at Marichyasana B. I had just joined my new studio and was practicing up to Bhujapindasana but the teacher noticed that I was doing an alternative posture in the place of Marichyasana B and D, two asanas that came before Bhujapindasana. "Darling" she said to me one morning. "You can continue to practice the alternatives or you can start to work on the full asana, but this will mean stopping at Marichyasana B until you are able to do that asana. So you need to decide how you view this practice. If it is something you intend to stick with it makes sense to take it slowly and allow your body to open. You will have the rest of your life to learn the full series." I decided I wanted to learn the full asana. It would not take that long, she assured me. Just a few months until my hips began to open. But she was wrong. It did take long. It took me almost 1 year to get into Marichyasana B and Marichyasana D is still a work in progress. I can get into D but I need help. The first blockage in an asana is when the Ashtanga practice starts to take you beyond the physical asana. It is in these moments, when you have been practicing for month after month with little if any sign of progress, you come face to face with your inner psyche. What came up for me was a lot of negativity. Frustration. Impatience. Shame. Anger. And more than anything there was a loud voice telling me to walk away. "This practice is not for me" I would often think. "My body will never move in this way, these āsanas are impossible for me." But in spite of the negative emotions, still I kept coming back to my mat. One day, with help, I was able to get into Marīcāsana B. My breakthrough: finally! At last I could move forward. One week later I injured myself in that very same pose. Fortunately I had only injured one of the ligaments around my knee rather than my knee itself, but the injury still set me back. For the next 10 weeks I found myself back at square one, having to work in an alternative āsana and then gradually build back up to the full āsana. It was in this period of time that I began to learn to talk to, and handle, myself more kindly. If this was a practice I wanted to do for the rest of my life then I needed to not break my body now in my rush to advance. I started to relax more. I began to let go of my goal to reach the pose and tried to enjoy the journey. Off the mat I also found myself beginning to let go of the many expectations that I had been holding myself to in my everyday life. Because what we learn on the mat can often be applied to our broader life. One day, quite unexpectedly, I got into Marīcāsana B without any assistance. This is how it works with Ashtanga. As the founder of this method, Sri K Pattabhi Jois, was famous for saying "do your practice and all is coming." Doing your practice requires dedication and determination.
Fast forward 3 years, it is November again and I am in India, again. This time sitting on the shala steps at Sri K Pattabhi Jois Yoga Institute (KPJAYI) in Mysore. I am here for 1 month practicing with Sharath Jois who took over the teachings of Ashtanga yoga when his grandfather passed away. There are over 300 students from all over the world here this month. Many of whom are experienced teachers themselves, returning each year to study at the source. Others, like me, have left their jobs to come and practice at KPJAYI for 1-3 months. The shala opens its doors to practioners from 4am-11:30am. To manage the numbers everyone is assigned a time-slot. My slot is at 9am, a lie in compared to the 6:30am starts I had back in London. Me and my fellow 9am crew sit here, outside on the shala steps until we are called inside by Sharath. Then we all sit by the entrance doors to the shala, watching the practitioners from the earlier sessions. Each of them in their own zone, breathing deeply, working slowly with their breath through this moving meditation. We wait until Sharath give the cue for one of us to enter the shala "one more", "two more", "one more: tall! Go there". I enter the room, roll out my mat and marvel at how I came to be here. I went from thinking I would practice one or two days a week to committing fully to Ashtanga and yoga. And my story is not unique, this is what happens with many people who practice ashtanga yoga. The body is a gateway to something that is in fact a spiritual path. Many of us are initially drawn solely to the methodical and mesmerising asana practice, but curiosity soon has you wanting to know more about the ancient tradition of this method and wanting to understand, and perhaps one day experience, all of the 8 limbs of yoga. This is how it unfolds, through dedication, determination and devotion. All of which are continuously tested and strengthened as the months and years pass by.