The Ashtanga practice as a model for living, but not as life itself

It should come as no surprise that during our Yatra in Northern India, there were lots of discussions about all things Ashtanga. (Maybe that should be our new blog site: Bobbie touched on some of it in her last post. I want to highlight one paragraph:

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.

Definitely one of the things the trip reinforced for me is the proper role of Ashtanga in our lives. Tim Miller (no surprise I’d default to the guru) has taught a workshop he calls “The Heroic Practice.” As I understood it, first off, it’s heroic to dedicate yourself to Ashtanga. After all, it’s hard, and it challenges you on a whole gamut of levels.

More so, though, the practice is a metaphor or microcosm for life. You face challenges and hardships — pick your personal pose to conquer — and learn to handle those tough moments with a degree of mental equilibrium, patient breath and relatively controlled reactions.

Of similar importance (although I think this gets seriously short shrift when people talk about Ashtanga — perhaps something to think more about, as a result, but I’ll save it for another post) is learning to handle triumphs with the same mental calmness, controlled breath and reserved reactions. After all, the next challenge or true adversity is just a vinyasa away — or, put another way: Done celebrating that drop back? Let us introduce you to kapotasana.

I also think we shouldn’t under-emphasize the value of the confidence that the practice can create: Knowing you can do some pretty crazy things — especially while really incorporating breath, bandha and dristi — can be a reservoir of strength when life’s tougher moments come calling. (Even if it is just the hardship of an 18K hike at 13,000 feet.)

Trying to capture a little of the difficulty of hiking to Gomukh.
Trying to capture a little of the difficulty of hiking to Gomukh.

After all, the hero has to have confidence in himself or herself. (Think of Arjuna at the beginning of the Gita.)

The Ashtanga practice teaches these lessons. And, if we can learn them, we should be better equipped to handle our lives with some success. (Think Arjuna and which side wins the war.)

A problem comes when the practice goes from being a metaphor for life and seems to become life, itself. Everything revolves around the practice: When you eat, when you get to bed, whether you see friends and family, maybe even what your job is.

I suppose this is OK if you’re going the renunciation path and have found a cave in the Himalayas in which to practice — but otherwise, that’s nothing like the balance and play of opposites that Ashtanga teaches. And judging from some of the conversations I had, getting out of balance is fairly prevalent out there. (Meaning: There were lots of stories and discussions around this idea, not that I felt surrounded by wacked-out Ashtangis. Well, maybe a few — and you know who you are!)

I suppose it is sort of a meta-hurdle. The practice, which is meant to teach us to calm our mind and live a life less battered by the storms the come along, becomes a hurricane that tosses you back and forth. And likely you don’t realize it because, after all, you’re doing all this Ashtanga — so you must be on the right path.

Now, those last three paragraphs are not meant to say you shouldn’t think about when (and what) you eat and make sure that the practice is a priority. For instance, often on the Yatra, the big meal of the day would come at 3 or 4 p.m. And that would be it (along with maybe an 8 or 9 p.m. bed time). Was practice the next morning a bit lighter than what’s typical of our usual routine? Yes. (Albeit that’s clouded by all things India.) So I understand the desire to prep things as much as possible for a good practice. (Obviously, it isn’t just about eating; it’s just an easy illustration.)

Again, though, it’s an issue of balance and the harnessing of opposing forces — and not letting any one direction spirit you away.

That sounds a bit like the Middle Way. Which actually fits, because a few other discussions I had on our trip have me checking Buddhist meditation out. Because the learning never ends.

Much like the Ashtanga practice itself.

Posted by Steve


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Two Ashtangis write about their practice and their teachers.

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