Ashtanga Lila: the playfulness of the practice

A few days ago, Bobbie posed a tough question to me:

“You’ve been practicing at home for two months now. How’s it going?”

How, indeed.

The simple answer is: Fine. The slightly more complicated one is: Not great, not bad, but probably not overall much different than had I been getting to a shala that whole time.

I’m sure that physically my practice hasn’t advanced as much as it would have in a warmer room, with more adjustments. But I also suspect at least some of that loss was offset by the Rolfing that occurred during the same time frame.

But the inner practice — the important one? — has probably advanced more, and for a few mundane and not so mundane reasons.

  • It’s nice not having to drive to practice, especially at 6 a.m. And I’ll add a little extra: One of the hardest parts of practicing at our Los Angeles shala was that it was almost exactly half way on my commute to work. But I only rarely would practice and then go straight to work or manage to practice after work. And so I was driving half of my daily commute twice. I was seeing parts of LA — sadly, some of it around the airport — four times every day. That got old pretty quickly. Not having to drive definitely keeps things calmer.
  • I like the solitude of practicing alone. Probably it’s because I’m so easily distracted. But the dristi-breath-bandha focus is, well, easier. And I think it is hard enough for me that I don’t need to add to the challenges there. Being in a solitary space, without others’ coming and going, certainly makes for more of a still and inward-turned asana practice.
  • Our household gods, our Ishta Devatas, our role models, are there watching. That helps.

There’s a final discovery I’ve made (which probably won’t come as a big surprise for most) that also helps both the inner and outer practice: Practicing at home offers is the ability to mold the asanas a bit more to the body’s needs — like playing music, not exactly traditional or by the book. But I’ve found — as with the beneficial short practice — that addressing the (physical and subtle) body’s needs more explicitly can work.

This morning, for instance, I was pressed for time. And I had a few solid hip and back aches. So I recalled this from Eddie Stern’s description of a beginner’s class:

The class begins with gentle breathing that creates both relaxation and warmth in the body, followed by the sun salutations, and six standing poses that give strength and flexibility to the legs and waist. Following the standing sequence, you will learn several seated poses that strengthen the back and increase the flexibility of the hips and legs, and then close with a short seated meditation. [My emphasis.]

Sometimes, I have to be honest, that’s what my body needs. (I should probably note that another benefit from the two months of home practice is that I think I’m coming to terms with my inevitable, eternal stiffness.) At other times, upping the back bends might be what the asana doctor calls for.

I’ve come to think of this mutating asana practice as the play of Ashtanga, its Lila, if you will. (Apologies, Frances.) And while it isn’t 100% legit, I guess, I don’t think anyone this side of uber fundamental would watch what I’m doing and think, “That isn’t Ashtanga.” (What I’m talking about is an Improv self-class, I suppose, but I have been sticking more to the sequence than those do in my experience.)

I think — and I could be deluding myself — I have a good enough sense to know what I need. Yes, there’s probably some degree to which what I need is just to push on through the practice as it’s supposed to be done, every day. (Tapasya, right?) But right now, that isn’t always possible.

In the meantime, it feels like I’ve found a new aspect (limb?) to Ashtanga, one that defies the militaristic stereotype. Following Lila’s more playful meanings, it has a little bit of fun to it, a little bit of the unknown. And it seems to be addressing better my physical and subtle needs.

Hmm… this is starting to sound bad. I’m on my way to the Roots Yoga, aren’t I?

Posted by Steve

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Two Ashtangis write about their practice and their teachers.

2 thoughts on “Ashtanga Lila: the playfulness of the practice”

  1. As a fellow big stiff white guy, Steve, I think you should commit to full Primary every day, for two years. And see what happens.

    Oh, and do the poses you find most challenging twice. 🙂

    1. You’re forcing me to do some math and figure out how long this Ashtanga thing has been going for me…

      It must be 2.5 years now focusing on Ashtanga (going on 3 of just yoga as my form of “exercise”), and that included for sure a solid two-year run in there where I was, as Dena might put it, a “committed practitioner.”

      Uh oh, I may be proof this doesn’t work! (Actually, I think I’m proof of just how stiff I am. I’m not sure people *believe* me.

      Oh, and during that time, there have been lots of practices (following Tim’s advice) of holding poses, especially standing, for 10 breaths.


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