What’s waiting on the other side of asana mastery?

During our yatra, when we had the chance to practice our asanas, it was typically pretty intimate. Just 15 to 20 of us, who were spending almost all our waking hours together in some intense and emotional settings. The spaces — an airy second floor beside the Bay of Bengal, a rooftop near Tiruvannamalai, tight walls in our hotels — always offered something to help focus our attentions and intentions.

A number of my fellow yatris have pretty advanced asana practices: Second and even Third series. Perhaps it was due to the extra oomph of practicing in India and between temple visits, but I was struck by a combination of focus and investigation that many exhibited.

And then there was me, doing my little ol’ Primary practice.

Before I write anything more, I ought to preface this by saying I’m happier in my practice now than I’ve been for a long time. More at peace. It is what it is, my limits are what they are, and there are meanings to be found that run deeper than whether I can grab my ankles in a backbend.

Not that I wouldn’t like to be able to do that.

But being so close to these other practices left me wondering about what those Ashtangis are experiencing as a result of their advanced physical poses that is different from what I am in the meat and potatoes — hmm… that’s not such a good metaphor for this… how about dosa and masala — of Ashtanga. There’s a simple difference of time, even.

I know there’s the shared experience of breath, and I think a shared sense of tapasya or agni — one yogi’s Eka Pada Viparita Dandasana is another’s Utkatasana — but it is hard not to ponder what a handful of headstands or precarious balance poses do to one’s system. What more they do.

I guess I am just wondering what I’m missing out on, though hopefully not in too much a “woe is me” way.

We’ve certainly written a lot about the practice of holding students back or progressing them forward, and I understand the need for a certain level of physical mastery of the practice. And, in the end in the Patanjali system, we are talking about only one of eight limbs. That leaves plenty of other limbs to explore. But asana is the one we all festishize, right? So it is difficult not to spend time thinking and talking about it.

Or even blogging about it, heaven forbid.

I also recognize that everyone’s practice is their own. I even can imagine that someone gifted with flexibility might look at my practice and think, “Wow, that’s some serious effort and fight. I wonder what experiences that level of trying opens up to him that I’m missing.”  (I told you I was feeling pretty good in my practice. That has to go down as the most positive thing I’ve written about my own practice on this blog. I’m sure I’ll shake the feeling soon.) But that doesn’t keep me from wondering what other insights are out there that are, literally, beyond my stretch, twist or bind. Or whether all those insights are available with what I’m able to do.

Posted by Steve

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Two Ashtangis write about their practice and their teachers.

3 thoughts on “What’s waiting on the other side of asana mastery?”

  1. This is some nice wondering Steve. I don’t have much to offer by way of insight except to say that I’ve recently been spending more time with my primary series and I can tell you that each and every time I come back to it, it continues to surprise and enlighten me in ways I could never expected.

    I also always make a concerted effort to look around the room and remark to myself how everyone there must be more advanced than me. After several years of this, I can honestly say I believe it in my heart a little more everyday.

    1. I would say this “insight” grows in depth more as you progress through the internal limbs of yoga: ie dharana, dhyana, pratyahara, and samadhi, rather than the external limbs( ie asana). This primary series serves to cleanse the body, and as you progress to second series( if you so choose) serves to further cleanse the nervous system. Since practice is merely an expression and serves to prepare the body for meditation, I would think the asanas are simply tools. It’s never really about the asana, or getting those legs behind the head, rather embracing your body in its current state, and using the practice to fit your body as is, rather than molding your body to what you think your practice should be. ” do your practice and all is coming” regardless of the degree if difficulty in posture. Legs behind the head or not, the internal satisfaction and connection burn equally with intention:)

  2. Steve I really enjoy your posts of your inner and outer adventures. I some times have to laugh though when I read many blogs about yoga. Yoga is here to aid us in living a happier more fulfilled life not just in reaching some extreme physical goal. I can attest to the power of ashtanga yoga even though I too only practice the primary series at this time. You see I care for my terminally ill daughter 24/7. My daughter is very intelligent but she has about 5% of the muscle mass as a regular human which makes her very very weak. She breaths with her stomach instead of her chest because she can’t even expand her chest wall. Even though she has a terminal serious disability she practices pranayama in her own way, we call physio therapy yoga. Though her body is always still because she is paralyzed (in movement not feeling) her soul radiates life. You can feel and see the agni, the prana that emanates from her because this is life and this is my teaching. I see any kind of yoga as a prayer to the divine within ourselves giving thanks to just be able to breath, to be here, to experience. There are so many levels to experience yoga. My child that can’t move and can only breath experiences yoga, you and I experience yoga performing the first series and others might not experience yoga in their practice at all but might off of the mat. We focus so much on the mat while the other 7 limbs are practiced on the mat and off the mat. We can’t really focus asana walking down the street (except for maybe posture) while we can surely practice everything else through our daily lives. Letting go of the attachment of outcome and just enjoying the experience is true presence. We all need a sounding board. For you it’s comparing yourself to advanced yogis for me it’s comparing myself to someone who can’t move. This to me is yoga. Wondering where our thoughts come from, trying to understand why our thoughts are formed this way, seeking the source of the thoughts and trying to reach that peaceful state behind all thought. I believe my daughter is already there. She has the gift of not having to fight with her body and she truly lives from the inside out. The other day we through a penny into a wishing fountain and I asked her what she wished for. YOu would think she would ask to be able to walk or not have her disease but she wished for a toy to play with. It’s a gift to be alive and we give back, give thanks for being happy where we are and striving to be better like a 7 year old that can’t walk, swallow, breath normally, use her hands etc. but is happy. Namaste. Brad

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