Why Ashtanga will never be “popular,” part 2

In short: Because it’s too hard.

The teenage son of a friend of mine was over the house the other day. Looking over the bookshelves in the living room, he said “I see you like poetry a lot.”

“Yes,” I said, “Do you?”

“No,” he replied. “I hate it.”

“Hate’s a strong word. Why do you hate it?”

He didn’t hesitate: “Because it’s hard and I don’t understand it.”

I hear this all the time about poetry. I hear it from my students. I hear it from friends. So I have a ready response:

“If you spend your life avoiding things that are hard and you don’t understand, you’ll never learn anything beyond the obvious.”

He looked at me thoughtfully and pulled one of the books off the shelf while I chatted with his dad.

The memory of this conversation came to mind as I was thinking out my response to David Garrigues, and his comments on pain. I also kept thinking, oddly, of  lines from poets on poetry; Keats, for one–about the way it makes you think in “branched thoughts, new grown with pleasant pain.” And Marianne Moore’s famous first line on “Poetry”: “I, too, dislike it,” she wrote.

Ashtanga, like poetry, is a demanding thing, and true understanding of anything is painful. It’s why I’m always a little suspicious of people who say they “like” yoga in the exact same way I’m suspicious of people who tell me they “like” to write poetry. You have to give up so much that is familiar and comfortable. “Like” is really the wrong word for that.

The process of relinquishing to Ashtanga is slow and sometimes sneaky. I’ve noticed that it seems to happen in a fairly predictable order. Usually, you get an eyeful in your first few classes of someone who seems to be an otherwise ordinary person doing extraordinary things. You want. You want to do that. Your teacher seems to be asking you to do extraordinary things as if they were possible. You begin to believe. So you start practicing more.

More practice, more possibility. You start carving out more time for practice.

Then: Diet. Then: Life habits. Then: Sleep habit. Then: Study. Then: Everything else.

It’s definitely true that most people that try Ashtanga do not go through this process. A few who try it stay, and hover around the first few stages. They never venture into sadhana. I suspect that most of these practitioners eventually quit, because something that seemed amazing when they first started suddenly seems repetitive, prescriptive and limiting, or worse: demanding and dangerous. Pain has a lot to do with this.

And after a certain level of proficiency, the asanas of the Ashtanga system aren’t any harder than any other rigorous workout. But that kind of entropy usually leads to experimentation. “Maybe I’ll try Pilates,” they’ll say to themselves one day when they feel bored, “or go back to running more.” Ennui sets it.

I’m not deriding this; I’m just suggesting that eventually, practice of Ashtanga leads to study, and the practitioner at that point makes a choice. They either study, or quit.

I’m reminded (as usual) of a story Tim Miller tells about Guruji. “Practice, and all is coming,” they heard (as have we all). So they practiced. But one day they asked, “Guruji, what is coming?”

“Samadhi!” he said. Samadhi is not going to come from just practicing the third limb. You’ll need to know what those other six are all about to get to the seventh.

So this is another reason why Ashtanga will never be popular. Like poetry. There’s a lot of poetry out there. But the fact of the matter is a lot of it is bad. It’s bad, because it’s easy, and the poets that write it have not studied poetry. They haven’t studied poetry because it’s hard and they don’t understand it. It will never be popular—that is, true poetry will never be popular. Because it’s hard. Why read it? Why write it? Why do it? Dylan Tomas answers:

Not for the proud man apart

From the raging moon I write

On these spindrift pages

Nor for the towering dead

With their nightingales and psalms

But for the lovers, their arms

Round the griefs of the ages,

Who pay no praise or wages

Nor heed my craft or art.

So when the Ashtanga practitioner gets to the point where the real work begins, when they must release the familiar—even familiar kinds of pain—and learn to distinguish the Real from the Unreal…Well, that is poetry. And it’s hard.

Posted by Bobbie

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Two Ashtangis write about their practice and their teachers.

33 thoughts on “Why Ashtanga will never be “popular,” part 2”

  1. “I’m not deriding this; I’m just suggesting that eventually, practice of Ashtanga leads to study, and the practitioner at that point makes a choice. They either study, or quit.”

    Why are these the only two choices? The ashtanga practitioner need not decide to let ashtanga take over her life. Loving ashtanga, and combining it with other activities, is perfectly fine as well. Again, it is this suggestion that one MUST totally surrender to ashtanga that turns off many people. No need for it to be an all or nothing choice.

    1. Definitely NOT the only choices. However, devotion/surrender to the essence of the practice usually leads to making the practice a 6 day-a-week thing – possibly short/minimal, solitary, AND at home, but still, there it is. There are lots of ways to be a “full on” ashtangi.

  2. I know about this argument: With a fulltime demanding job, a wonderful child to raise, more than my share of domestic/community responsibilities, and yoga studios that dropped their Ashtanga programs for lack of interest, I could not — or is it did not? — commit to a 6-day practice (or even a 4-day consistently) for more than 11 years. Three times a week was a good week for me. And Susan’s right: You can do that and experience the tantalizing rush that is Ashtanga. I love this practice and always have. Then my life began to shift with the years, and a dedicated Ashtanga studio opened right in my hometown. I took it as a karmic sign to try a daily practice and go deeper. I’m only about six weeks in, but I am in awe at the difference in a) my focus at work, b) my level of acceptance and c) my self-image, not to mention some physical changes. Any Ashtanga is good, but I’ve concluded that, much to my surprise, more Ashtanga — for me — is exponentially better.

  3. “If you spend your life avoiding things that are hard and you don’t understand, you’ll never learn anything beyond the obvious.”

    i love this.

  4. “So when the Ashtanga practitioner gets to the point where the real work begins…”
    May we all have the intuition required to recognize it, and the courage to take it on!
    Thanks for the inspiration!

  5. Poetry is one of the beautiful fruits of yoga for me. I can’t say I really even read much poetry, except in school, before yoga. Now, I seek out and relish poetry, and I hadn’t thought of it, but it does remind me of the Ashtanga practice, which I have returned to this year after an absence. They both (Ashtanga and poetry) have this quality of lost and found, hidden and revealed, and finding myself being endlessly curious.
    Thank you for the post.
    (PS I’d include both the Yoga Sutras and the Bhagavad Gita as the poetry I dive into.)

  6. Why Ashtanga will always be very popular:

    It is a simple yet profound practice, an easy method, yet a very hard sadhana to perfect, but it is only as hard as you make it.
    Ashtanga is a practice for everyone, beginner or advanced student; whether you do it for fun, for health, for religion, for life, for hours or just for a few minutes per day or week. You just do, you take practice; follow your teacher’s advice, follow the sequence, one breath at a time, one vinyasa after the other — focus, breathe …
    And it is actually easier to practice every day, rather than sporadically. It takes less discipline if you really always want to do it, when you practice out of habit and love, and do it within moderation and with patience.

    Ashtanga will only be unpopular if we make it so. Ashtanga for my people! 🙂

  7. Ever read Billy Collins? “You will always be the bread and the knife, not to mention the crystal goblet and—somehow—the wine.”

    Not so hard to understand, and yet so beautiful and true.

    Neither Ashtanga nor poetry must be hard. Hard if you want it to be that way. Fluid and beautiful and simple if that suits you better.

    Conflating ‘pain’ and ‘hard’ with success or progress can be as much about attachment as anything else.

    I love poetry too, but not if the poet is being purposefully obtuse. Teasing out meanings can be great fun, just so long as we realize that it’s for fun and doesn’t automatically make it a better, deeper poem.

  8. This posting reminds me of what Guruji (or Saraswathi) said: that yoga is for every kind of person, but not lazy persons.

  9. Your blog keeps reminding me why Ashtanga is so important to me. It is difficult, it does cause pain sooner or later….but Ashtanga gives me more strength, courage and faith I am on the right path on and off the mat. Life is difficult, life causes pain…working through my karmic path on and off the mat has been a blessing. Ashtanga has brought a new way of looking at difficulties in life…and when I finish with my practice I feel great…but more than great I feel a stillness and a peace within through consistent effort and discipline Ashtanga gives to live my daily life especially when those painful or difficult moments appear. Namaste. 🙂

    1. ure right fruition2012…i do my practice whenever when im happy and unhappy..and i like how ashtanga makes me feel better when im unhappy..or the great after feeling it gives me when after i finish my morning practice..like u..i feel the stillness and peace within me..i feel like invicible! i wish i found ashtanga earlier 🙂 for now..im thankful im an ashtangi!

  10. ashtanga is 2 macho, words often used support this hard demanding vigourous……..it is also competitive, I practiced in mysore and else where and witnessed competition and ego, myself included

    1. Ashtanga is not macho or competitive. The person who practices it can be those things. The practice itself is just a game to expose the nature of the practitioner’s mind. The poses are empty, they are not inherently this or that. We make them whatever they are. I guess this takes me back to Peg’s piece last week about maturity and mysore practice…

  11. I am in my 4th year of practicing Ashtanga and this post really hit home. Like many I have danced on the edges, yet I always come back in part active practice reveals deep hidden truths. However it is painful, today was my firsy day back in the studio after a couple of weeks and halfway through I just wanted to walk out. But just as I was hitting that wall, I surrendered to the moment, the pain, the sweat and just felt peace and stillness.

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