Ashtanga and the Role of Pilgrimage

Steve and I have returned from our journey to the north of India. We’ve been all over that country now, spent a lot of time studying its philosophy, getting to know its people, and visiting its holy places. Now, we’re home.

One of the best things about coming home after a long journey is the sudden and unexpected enjoyment found in the small, familiar things around you when you return. Certainly, there are the niceties of daily comfort–like familiar food, and your own bed–but there are also all the things you didn’t take notice of at all: Sounds and smells, the convenience of choice and freedom of movement that comes with the well-worn places in our lives.

That also goes for the daily practice of Ashtanga. It should be no surprise to you that Steve and I learned quite a lot about Ashtanga while we were in India (and no, we did not go to Mysore). We were assisted in this by the quiet grace of Kate O’Donnell‘s wise teaching (as well as Rich Ray’s support). What was most impressive about their teaching was found in their restraint, really. Both took care not to get in the way of the essential purpose of the journey: A contemplative and worshipful experience of India on its own terms. I was never distracted by my practice. I kept it in the context of the place.

When we were in Haridwar, for instance: Haridwar is an historic gateway to the Himalayas, and we would soon be on

The practice view in Haridwar.
The practice view in Haridwar.

our way north, up the Ganges. Our practice room was also a meditation space, with stairs that led into the river itself. Families had come down the ghat across the river to bathe, and to worship. Over the sound of the river–resonating more loudly than it had in Kashi–you could hear the voices of the myna birds and ring-necked parakeets. Steve’s photos display the variety we encountered, so we were never able to be too comfortable, jostled just enough by the view (or the monkey, or the chipmunk!) to stay alert. There was never stillness, never silence, no matter where we were practicing.

So stirred out of comfort, you have the opportunity to put asana practice where it need to be, and you are reminded regularly that we practice to still the mind, and to be healthy enough to pursue greater understanding. Going to a temple or a festival after morning practice changes things. The practice becomes like the matrix rock that contains a vein of gold. It’s the mental and physical structure that allows us to find a form for our selves.

I hope this is making sense. Going to India has allowed me to see my self. I’ve been a scholar all my life, but it wasn’t until I began the intensity of the physical practice of Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga that I found a use for that scholarly knowledge, beyond the closed and stifling system of the academic.

Toward the end of our trip, we attended a talk by Dr. Sharada Raghav, who gave us a kind of primer on Aryuveda which included some very practical advice. In her talk, she said we should always strive to “reduce the gap between knowledge and behavior.” I think I went to India this time to learn that lesson, to be reminded of things I already knew, but had forgotten to use, if you understand me.

Ashtanga is a practice that involves faith on many levels–faith in our teachers, in the system that has come down to us, faith in the body that performs it, and in the mind that wills it. But it also involves faith in its ultimate purpose: To still the mind, so that the world that is too much with us will no longer keep us from seeing what is Real.

Posted by Bobbie

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Two Ashtangis write about their practice and their teachers.

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