On ‘peaking’ in Ashtanga

One of the panels at the 2013 Confluence was on “Ashtanga Yoga and Daily Life ” This was right up my alley. I’m 48. I’ve just learned Second Series. I wanted to know what to expect.

Much of the panel discussion was on the shifting emphases as we grow older in the practice. Tim Miller has said he’s no longer interested in the “flourishes” that mark a younger person’s practice–he just wants to do it. David Swenson talks about efficiency over expenditure. Eddie Stern said that some days, “practice” consists of three As, three Bs, and padmasana. Dena Kingsberg discussed the effects of having children and menopause. Then, a member of the audience asked about “peaking”; that is to say, when were you at your pinnacle, in terms of Ashtanga asana practice?

It seems rude to reproduce here everyone’s age when that happened. It’s enough to say they were all peaking at about at the age I started Ashtanga–with one exception.

Now, you might think I’d find that discouraging. Instead, it got me thinking about why they even had an answer (again, there was one exception on the panel). They were young, able-bodied, and athletic when they met Sri K. Pattabhi Jois. Dena called that time, “the time of champions.” There were stories of being totally broken down, unable to move they were so sore, and then of going back the next day to get put back together. At some point in fourth or fifth series, they “peaked” and could no longer “collect asanas.” To be fair, the teachers clearly thought this was a pretty superficial question. But at the same time they had ready answers: “I was 30,” etc.

I listened to this, and pondered over my brand new second series practice. Almost every day I roll out my mat, something new, small, and awesome happens. I have no designs on Third, but hey, I didn’t on Second when I started First.

I think two things have made an enormous difference in my attitude toward the practice: I was older when I started, and I wasn’t hale and healthy. I was never athletic when I was younger. I was a sickly kid, and a sickly adult. I’d had tuberculosis, asthma, and pneumonia fifteen times (that I counted). My spine is disintegrating, as are my joints, and I had arthritis when I was 25. The day I touched my toes in a forward fold, I was pretty sure I’d peaked. Turned out I was wrong.

Everyone on the panel felt they’d peaked, except Nancy. Although she started  earlier than I did, she was very weak and sick. She still suffers, but said on the panel that she feels like she gets stronger all the time. (See Steve’s post for more detail on Nancy’s history.)

This made me think about how the idea of “peaking” might effect the teaching of Ashtanga, when so many of us come to our teachers

One possible peak. Mt. Kailash: Siva! via Wikipedia
One possible peak. Mt. Kailash: Siva! via Wikipedia

weak, sick, and broken. It also made me think about my own job teaching–writing, that is. Part of my goal at the University is to foster excellent teaching–to develop teachers, many of whom have been teaching for years. What if we thought of other learned skills in this way?

To be able to do something might not be as important as the context we put that ability in; the greater context of my weakness and illness has made my practice feel…well, peakless (“topless”? “ceilingless”?). The limitations I had in my daily life give it a kind of openness and limitlessness that is precious to me, so I’ve stopped thinking about peaking.

But back to writing. I tell my students that writing is an unpleasant and ugly process that involves constantly coming up against your mental limitations and pushing beyond them. This involves feeling of inadequacy and awkwardness that only practice can work out–practice in the form of constant revision. I tell them that they should feel as if the thing they want to say is just beyond their ability to say it. And that if they are lucky, it will feel that way for the rest of their lives. The minute they get too comfortable…well, that’s the death of writing. Of learning, and the growth of intelligence.

It seems to me that my Ashtanga practice is the same, that maybe because I always felt that this practice is beyond me, I feel amazed that I’m doing any of it, and that it won’t matter where I am in it, that I can still feel that way about suryanamaskara A. And if I’m lucky, I’ll feel that way for the rest of my life.

Posted by Bobbie