The repetitive nature of our Ashtanga practice has many benefits: Having a set series of poses to do every day frees up a good portion of the mind, and allows for an increasingly internal focus. All who practice know this.
Six days a week. Not on Saturdays. Not on the New Moon. Not on the Full Moon.
Why not on Saturdays? Tim Miller says that in the beginning, Guruji taught on Saturdays, but his family asked him to take a day off once a week to spend more time with them. Remember, Guruji had already had a long career as a teacher at the Sanskrit college by the time the Westerners got to Mysore. It seems fair that he should have more than just two days off a month.
Why not on Moon Days? I’ve heard many speculative theories, but the best is that it was a tradition from his classroom teaching at the college: Students don’t learn on those days in any case. Might as well take them off.
Whatever the reason for Moon Days, there’s an odd effect on the Western yogi. There’s a part of your life that becomes Lunar. And your early rising makes you keenly aware of lengthening and shortening days, the shifting place of the sun in the sky. Your awareness of the seasons becomes more. . .planetary.
All these things, I think, contribute to the popularity among Ashtangis (in Southern California, anyway) of the “yoga mala,” the practice of 108 sun salutes. My first Ashtanga teacher, Shayna Liebbe, taught me my first mala (and Steve as well, actually). Shayna taught at YogaWorks, and at that time the studio wouldn’t allow her to observe Moon Days. So rather than teach us the sequence, she’d lead a mala on Moon Days.
This was bold, but made for some hilarious situations for the “I got this free YogaWorks class and decided to try Ashtanga today” students. Shayne decided to do the malas only on the change of seasons, a fairly common practice around here. And we always remember Shayna on the mala days, which happen four times a year.
Equinoxes and Solstices. The repetitive nature of our practice causes us to be conscious of these shifts in the angle of light, the length of days. On these, Steve and I like to do 108 suryanamaskara As—four sets of 27, continuous (no holding in down dog, in other words) with a five-breath break in between.
It’s beautiful and meditative, intense and liberating. Each time, something changes about my practice, something is freed up or shifts. The focus is so entirely on the breath, that the mind becomes lost in it. There are, in other words, brief flashes of union with the breath, and the mind becomes still. I’m not sure where “108 Sun Salutes” took on the name for Guruji’s book, a Yoga Mala, but it’s appropriate.
The next day’s practice feels like a fresh start. The body has been briefly taken out of its routine. The shortening days have been marked. The leaves will change, the practice shifts slowly towards its Winter form—slower movement, heightened care. Until its nadir, on the longest night, the Winter Solstice, when we’ll do another mala to mark the return of the Sun.
Posted by Bobbie