The Art of Starting a Daily Ashtanga Practice

Greetings, my fellow yogis.  So begins The Shala's blog.  While I have much to share regarding asana and growth on the mat in my daily classes, I am otherwise a woman of few words when it comes to sharing stories, inspiration, and spiritual teachings.  At least, vocally that is :-)  Many thoughts and ideas have formed in my now more available mind over the last several months, so I am finally taking the leap and writing them down (despite my untrained writing skills), with the hope that you will take some lesson from each blog that I write and be able to apply it to your daily life.

To begin, let's discuss starting a daily ashtanga practice.  It is, after all, fitting to begin this blog entitled The Self-Realization Journey with a discussion on the art of the start.  The art of starting a regular, and maybe someday, daily Ashtanga yoga practice. 

Before you begin to read or not read further, can you already hear the excuses lining up in your brain???  I can!!!!!  I heard them in myself when I started, and I continue to hear them every day!  What was my inspiration?  What was my motivation?  How was I able to give up my old ways of practicing yoga and dedicate my time and energy on the mat to this one, unique method of yoga?  Why would I do such a thing?  Why would I tire endlessly day in and day out on the same sequence, over and over and over and over again for years before getting to move on to another sequence?  

My story begins with a book.  It was a Christmas present from my Grandfather's girlfriend.    It sat on my shelf for a couple of years while I was in graduate school.  One day, while suffering a combination of boredom and despair (and this is another story for another blog, but essentially I was going through a divorce at the young age of 23, leaving a church that I had known and loved for the last 6 years, all while undergoing the intensity of my graduate school training), I pulled the book off the shelf and flipped through it.

One thing led to another, and before I knew it I was trying to do a headstand in the middle of my living room.  I decided to take a yoga class.  Not knowing I was taking "Ashtanga Yoga" at the time, I felt empowered and energized after my first class.  And so began my rough (yes, rough not easy rough rough rough!) journey with yoga.  For that first year, I practiced in class about once a week.  Once my clinical rotations started, I no longer "had the time" or regular schedule to practice yoga so I just stopped.  I then moved to Pittsburgh, where at the time only a few yoga studios were open.  I found a hot yoga studio that taught Baptiste style yoga, and latched on once my first year of intense career training was over.  I practiced 4 to 5 times a week, despite a crazy work schedule.    I even completed a teacher training and began to teach Baptiste yoga at a local studio and at a gym.  But, over the course of the 3 to 4 years that I practiced this style of yoga, that fire and love for yoga inside me began to dwindle. I was getting bored.  There was no consistency in my practice.  I wasn't learning anything more than how to be strong and bendy through an intensely hot class.  I was also very stressed and unhappy with work.  On a daily basis I questioned my decision to pursue the career path that I did.     I began to crave the study of Yoga, not just asana.  I was plateauing mentally, spiritually, and physically.

That was 6 years ago.  Having decided I wanted something more out of the practice, and struggling through depression, I quit teaching yoga, threw in a DVD of Kino leading the Primary Series, and put myself to work on the mat. Nice things were not said (I'm sorry Kino, I think you are amazing and I said mean things but only because you inspired me and to this day you do and now I say nice things to you!).  I belly flopped.  I fell over.  I cried.  I grunted.  I cussed.  I yelled.  But I got up and tried and tried and tried again.  I was use to working hard, so this was just another challenge for me to "get through", or so I thought at the time.  Little did I realize I was starting a long, lonely journey of spiritual self-realization.  I hated how weak I was.  I hated that when I was in shoulder stand my belly fat would roll up and nearly hit my face.  I hated that I couldn't be graceful or beautiful.  I hated that I had let go of my hobbies and talents because of my job.  I hated that I had let go of family and friends because of my career.  I hated that sometimes I felt pain for weeks, even months, while practicing, but that no-one could "make a diagnosis" as to why I was hurting.  I hated that sometimes I would just breakdown on the mat and cry, cry, cry.  Hell, I cried cried cried 4 days in a row right in front of Tim Feldman and Kino while studying with them.  Wait……what was going on?   Why were all these life concerns suddenly surfacing on my mat during practice?? 

Yes, it was a rough journey.   A journey of growth.  There is much more that I'm sure I hated. Now, I love that I am strong.  I love that I am graceful.  I love that I gave up my career to teach Ashtanga Yoga and get to share this method with as many willing students as will walk through The Shala's doors and ask to learn from me.  I love that when I am in shoulder stand my belly fat rolls almost hit me in the face (maybe a little less so now though haha).  I love that when I do get injured (and I do my best to avoid this!) I learn so much from it.   I love that I have a guru, Tim Miller, an amazing spirit who shares his love and devotion to Sri K. Pattabhi Jois with all who will listen and learn from him.  I love that I have learned Ashtanga Yoga and about Hindu Mythology and the Sutras from him.  I love that I have cleansed my life of toxicity and am surrounded by beautiful spirits.  I love that through my journey of yoga I found my husband.  I love that I feel normal again.  I love that I feel like the person I was meant to be.  I love that I know I have more potential and I will continue to do bigger and better things with my life.  I love me.  I love and appreciate the ups and downs.  I love life.  I love yoga. I learned through this method of repetitive practice the principles of patience, steadiness, diligence, commitment, courage, dedication, steadiness of heart, steadiness of mind, meditation, concentration, perseverance, equanimity, beauty, kindness, love and I LOVE that!  

As Kino MacGreggor so eloquently stated in her book, The Power of Ashtanga Yoga, "No matter how much support and help you have, the spiritual journey is a lonely quest that must be walked alone; you are directly accountable for each step you take in any direction.  It is your own strength that you discover along the way, and no one but you can truly find that."  As we each begin this journey, we quickly learn that we are taking a lonely one, but I can reassure you that it is more than well worth it.

How then, can YOU commit to a regular practice?  

Well, let's just run through the list of excuses first.  I will have you know that I have pretty much battled with all of these excuses in some form or another, and to this day many of them still creep into my head in attempt to keep me off the mat.  Some days we feel like practicing, and other days we don't.  Ashtanga demands that we practice, no matter what or how we are feeling about practicing that day.

"I already practice yoga several times a week, it's not Ashtanga but I practice and any yoga is good for me, right?"  You are absolutely correct.  Any yoga in my book is good yoga.  However, to make the transition from a physical fitness approach to a more spiritual and devotional approach, you need to practice consistently, methodically, without doing just what you "feel like" doing or practicing something different every day.  Growth will cease to happen over time.  When you sense cessation of growth physically, mentally, and spiritually, then you are ready to begin a regular Ashtanga practice.  Ashtanga will make you practice those poses you hate day in an day out until you are free of that hate because you can finally take the posture with ease, and then now ready you will continue on to learn more.  

"I'm too fat" or "I'm too weak".  Okay, then practice Ashtanga yoga.  You will gain strength, and you will trim down.  You will also learn, over time, to love your body more than ever, if ever, before. 

"I'm to stiff" or "I'm not flexible enough".  Okay, then practice Ashtanga yoga.  Through repetitive practice, your body will grow more supple.  Yoga does not require that you be flexible to take practice; rather, yoga requires that you take the journey to gain flexibility and suppleness in your body.

"I'm too depressed" or "I don't have energy"  Okay, then practice Ashtanga Yoga.  It doesn't have to be the practice of the century.  Roll out your mat and take 5 sun salutation A's.  Feel okay?  Do 5 more.   Feeling more energetic?  Take 5 Sun Salutation B's.  Losing energy?  Close your practice there.  You did it.  You practiced.  Even if all you do is Sun Salutations for 8 years, you are practicing yoga, and you are establishing growth in your mind and your body.

"I have to much bottled up energy to practice yoga".  Okay, then practice Ashtanga Yoga.  While ultimately, over time with conditioning of the body and mind it becomes a meditative practice, you will find that for many years it will be quite physical.  You won't get bored.  I PROMISE.

"I don't like discipline and structure".  Okay, then practice Ashtanga Yoga.  Clearly you need some discipline and structure in your life.  Enough said.

"I don't have time".  Yes you do.  Even if it is just for 10 minutes, you can get a practice in.  Take that 10 minutes, roll out your mat, and practice.

"I don't know where to start" or "I don't know how to maintain a practice when I can't come to class".    Okay, then find an Ashtanga Yoga teacher.  He or she will teach you a sequence that you can practice in class and at home.  Over time, as you learn the sequence and your body becomes more supple and strong, more poses will be added to your sequence.  You will memorize it quickly.  

"I have an injury" or "I'm disabled".  Okay, then we will work around that injury.  We will work around your disability.  Find an Ashtanga Yoga teacher who can teach you modifications until you heal, or a fully modified practice if needed.  After all, breathing and dristi are all that is necessary to ultimately achieve concentration and eventually meditation in Yoga. 

"I don't have any yoga clothes".  Okay, then practice Ashtanga Yoga anyway.  Who cares if all you have is jeans and a button down shirt?  You can still practice.  It may not be as comfortable, but it can still be done!

"I don't have a yoga mat".  Okay, we will lend you one.  These days you kind find cheap mats for $10.  So get one.  That's 2 packs  of cigarettes.

"I already practice a form of yoga I love and I don't want to try something else".  Okay, then practice Ashtanga Yoga.  I'm not kidding. Be open.  Give it a try.  Maybe it won't be your path.  If you want an individual journey, in which you will always have room to progress under the guidance of a skilled teacher who will learn and know your capabilities on the mat, give you amazing assist and daily individual attention, then give Ashtanga Yoga a try.  If it is not your path, then go back to what you were doing.  But, at least you gave it a try!

"I can't practice Ashtanga Yoga because I can't practice 6 days a week".  Okay, then practice Ashtanga Yoga 3 days a week.  Or 2 days a week.  Give what you can give to the practice.  You won't be shunned for not practicing every day.  While it is ideal to practice 6 days a week, it is not practical for everyone due to family or career or health or whatever.  Start with a couple of days a week.  Once you begin to really want to practice more, you will find the time in your days to do it.  

"I hate this practice, I hate hate hate….."  Okay, then keep practicing Ashtanga Yoga.  This feeling is merely a part of your journey.  Some days you will hate it.  Other days you will love it.  More often you will love it.  

How then, can you the yoga student commit to a regular, daily (or several days a week) Ashtanga Yoga practice?  

Find an Ashtanga teacher.  Find an Ashtanga community.  If you can't find one, then while not ideal you must practice alone and travel to seek out teachers and the community you crave while practicing with care and diligence.  Finally, DON'T use excuses to stay OFF the mat.  Rather, use those excuses to get ON the mat.


Laura Gorham-Huon