The impacts of the simple practice of Ashtanga

Here’s one teacher’s perspective:

Posted by Steve

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If you want a yoga rug, you want it organic, right?

I suppose this one veers toward the “ad,” but it isn’t an ad that bumps up our bottom line.

And it’s the first update at David Swenson’s site since the very beginning of the year. And it’s about yoga rugs, which may not rise to the level of obsession as pants, tops and ways to do hair (if you have enough hair to do), but are still one of those things in Ashtanga.

Anyway, from his site:

I am really happy to announce that we now have a beautiful line of Fully Organic Cotton Practice Rugs!

I love the cotton feel for practice since it really reminds me of the “old school” method. In the early days we always practiced on cotton.

I like the natural feel under me when practicing and they absorb sweat. The fact that these new mats are organic is even better!

They work great on top of any sticky mat and will prolong the life of the sticky mat as well.

You can’t argue with the logic. It really is true that a yoga rug is better than moving around a rubber sticky mat. Yuck.

Posted by Steve

Any yoga highlights this year?

We’re beginning to ramp things down, approaching the end of the year in the traditional way. There are family get-togethers on the horizon. There are a few meet-ups with friends in town for the holidays. The usual.

Plus there’s the usual look back at 2014 (before beginning to look ahead to 2015). I suppose highlights for us include:

  • Practicing along the Ganges river a bunch of times during our Yatra.
  • Getting up to the source of the Ganges, not surprisingly on that same Yatra.
  • Bobbie’s signing up for Tim Miller’s Third Series Teacher Training next summer. (That includes a look ahead, admittedly.)
  • We got a chance to practice at Ashtanga Yoga New York.
  • We probably had the usual three steps forward, two steps back, two steps forward, three steps back year in asana practice. Poses come, others go. Breathing becomes more regulated, but maybe drishti fails a little. It’s why we call it practice, after all.

Anyone have any highlights they feel like sharing? Keep in mind, the what are you planning for 2015 post is probably around the corner.

Posted by Steve

Ashtanga in the evening

A bit more than a year ago, Bobbie wrote a post she titled, simply, Ashtanga P.M. A key takeaway:

In the evening, I am done with the day. I have nothing else to distract me or detain me. This is what I have come for, and all that remains. My joints are more open, my muscles less stiff, and whatever else I may have done that day—like drive, or sit for hours; or fretting over some of the day’s drama—I can now work out and release.

This, for me, is when the mind is most quiet, most calm, and the practice can come with my complete attention. The Sun now is on the other side of the Earth, and while I wait for it to return, in the morning, in the Spring, I practice.

This fall — since the time change, really — our schedules have colluded so that, for the first time since I’ve been practicing Ashtanga, I’m joining her for evening practices.

Typically, she’s partway through by the time I make it home from work, giving our duo practice room the tiniest of Mysore feels.

But I suppose not much else is “traditional” about it. Still, here’s what I’ve found over a month or so of evening practicing:

  • The central thing it, not surprisingly, the difference between practicing while facing the day vs. when the day’s winding down. In the excerpt above, Bobbie described it as a lack of distraction. My experience is that my practice, at least, is much more reflective. Dare I even say: meditative. The practice becomes part of the slowing down, of the letting the day go instead of the ramp up to what’s ahead. I’m able to reflect — when those reflections intrude — on what I’ve accomplished rather than worry about what’s to come. (I think reflection intrudes a lot less than worry.) It might be like the difference between the moment preparing for a difficult pose — kapo is a favorite to cite, right? — and the moment just after moving out of it. The evening Ashtanga practice seems to be more the latter than the former.
  • The approach can be quite different. There certainly is a great relief and even exhilaration with having practice done by 7 a.m. or so and knowing the rest of the day is for living. But the evening practice has nothing after it (beyond maybe fixing dinner) for which one needs to save reserves. If you want, and if you are able, you can bust out the big practice without worrying about falling asleep during that long, sure-to-be-boring meeting. (A little like the benefit and pleasure of a yoga retreat.)
  • As Bobbie wrote, the body, joints and muscles are certainly looser. And I’d describe, for myself, that the above reflective state means the mind is looser, too. It seems easier to find the tristana of the practice.
  • You do have to think about practice all day — what you’re eating and when, notably. But it’s really not too much different than being mindful of eating too late or too heavy if you will be on your mat by 6 a.m. But there is a matter of managing energy; I feel like I need to have a little peak as practice starts.
  • The tough thing is when the day really intrudes on practice. A late, unexpected meeting or call that pushes the end of the work day back 30 minutes or an hour can foul up the start of practice (see managing energy above). For me, though, there are enough mornings when I have to be heading to work by 7 or 7:30 a.m. that this probably all balances out — there are equal numbers of mornings and evenings that might only allow for sun salutes and the trio of finishing poses. Evening may even prove more conducive to getting practice in.
  • And, finally, probably the most important thing: Coffee. It’s easy to suck down a cup right after you wake and charge the body with prana. It’s harder to balance a surge of energy against the desire to, you know, get to sleep before midnight. So the coffee drinking is finished hours earlier, and I may be having to call on my own reserves. We may also need to explore the benefits of a nice glass of whiskey following savasana.

Those are a few thoughts, at least.

Posted by Steve

Act fast! Too late. Mysore’s full until December already

If your Ashtanga practice is teaching you to be calm and patient, that may be working to your disadvantage.

Because the second month of this year’s practice time in Mysore already has filled up. Here are the details from the institute’s website:

Sharath’s class is full for OCTOBER and NOVEMBER 2014. We will not accept any more registration forms for this month. Online applications for December arrivals will not be accepted until September 1st. Likewise, online registration for the January 2015 batch will begin on October 1, 2014 (3 months before your start date). If you submit your form earlier, it will be automatically deleted without further notice.

It’s starting to feel like the old concert days, where you had to get up early and get in line if you wanted seats to the [fill in your favorite artist] show.

While we have your attention, just another reminder from Mysore (I don’t think anything is new here):

For students applying to study with Sharath, please note the following:
1. Students must start their practice within the first 5 days of every month (e.g. Oct 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th or 5th). If you cannot start on those dates, you should wait and apply for the next month. This also means that in-person registration at the shala will only occur between 1st to 5th of every month.
2. Students must pay by cash when they register in Mysore, and full fees are expected from the start date. Our fee structure has changed. Click here for more details.
3. We do not entertain any cancellations or change of dates, once the online registration has been submitted. Extensions of stay will also not be granted. Students may practice with Sharath for a minimum of one month and for no longer than three months.

All clear?

Posted by Steve

How long before you’re a seasoned Ashtanga practitoner?

This week, I was recounting our Yatra to some people I work with, and as often happens there was some surprise at everything involved.

Feel free to Google me and find out why — its not like I work at a organic farm or something. (Nor do I work at SUNY. But I’m not far down the list.)

Tim Miller doing his best to make Steve's down dog part of the canine species.
Tim Miller doing his best to make Steve’s down dog part of the canine species. About three years ago.

This time, the subject of yoga came up, along with a pretty basic question: “How long have you been doing yoga?”

I said six years, which (after trying to check and see on some calendars) may have been a year longer than is right (going back to when I dropped any other “workout” for just Ashtanga) and joked that it was three years more if you counted a temple ceremony I was at during our first Yatra. (Cue confused looks.)

Six years seemed like a long time to them.

But, of course, it isn’t. But also — it is. It’s not like I’m a newbie, although I usually feel like I am. But I figure I’m at the point where I’m probably sticking with it.

The exchange got me wondering if there are any unofficial — or perhaps purely personal — milestones along the Ashtanga practice path. And I mean time-wise, not pose-wise or Series-wise.

If someone has been practicing for five years, do you figure they know what they’re doing? Bobbie, I think, is getting close to 20 years of yoga practice, with some of those years more intense. But I’m sure it is 10 or 11 years of Ashtanga by now, maybe 12.

Once you get into double-digits, are you seasoned? The senior teachers/practitioners have been at it for 30 years and more. That’s a lot of vinyasas.

I know, of course, that this practice is very individualized. What I’m wondering about is, really, a gut feeling. If you meet an Ashtangi who says he/she has been practicing 20 years, do you do a double take? Is the reaction less for 15? Is there some bar that is just really long?

Posted by Steve

Working through the hardest pose in yoga

During our Yatra, we are re-posting some of our top posts from the past 16 or so months. We’ll also try to get new posts up from India, Internet access-willing.

***

For whatever reason, here in the West we look at the ending of the Gregorian calendar and think, “Time to make a change.” It’s the time of year when your shala becomes packed with the resolution yogis (who will slowly thin out by the end of February, so be patient). Gyms are packed. The population of joggers goes up in the morning. Even the Whole Foods produce section gets a little more close.

Here in the Confluence Countdown household, we are not immune to this effect. Steve has resolved to read more classical Indian texts, and has started on his list already (I’m sure he’ll be talking about that). This year, dagnabbit, I’m going to take on a beast.

My resolution this year is to finally face what is, for me, the most difficult pose in the practice: Savasana.

I know what you’re thinking. She’s being facetious. Kidding. No, I’m not. I’ve been practicing Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga for well over a decade, and other forms off and on for six years before that, and I’ve never been able to do this pose.

I’ve laid there, mind popping loudly like mustard seeds in hot coconut oil, going over my practice, what time it is, what day it is, if I can scratch my ear, what I’ll make for dinner, the fact that it’s time to rotate my tires–really, I’ll think about any dang thing but what I’m supposed to be thinking about, which is nothing. What’s worse, I’m in seething envy of the dude next to me who is clearly in the early stages of sleep, breathing in deep sonorous rhythm. That envy turns to annoyance at whoever’s snoring to my left.Great day in the morning, hasn’t it been ten minutes yet? I think.

This leaves me feeling like a total poser when the teacher gently rouses the class from rest with tinging bells, or a softly recited poem, or turning down the savasana music that got me thinking in great detail about the oeuvre of Krishna Das. I of course knew this gentle awakening was coming, because I heard the teacher get up and move across the room for the bells, or flipping the pages of the book, or walking quietly to the stereo control.

Turning to my right to transition gently back into the world I never left? Sure. Why not? I move in fake slo-mo.

You might think, ye who find savasana restorative and necessary, that it would actually be easier to practice the last pose at home, in your personal practice, which is what I currently have. No. Way harder.

When there’s no pressure to be polite to your fellow practitioners and be still, you can fidget all you like. You can hum a little tune. You can scratch. You can think about the coconut water in the fridge, just fifteen feet away. Or about the clothes that need to go in the dryer. Look at the clock all you like. And then you can think, Aw, to heck with it, then give up, get up, and walk out, no questions asked.

I was raised as an Ashtangi with Tim Miller’s beautiful stories of epic long practices, just him and Guruji in his home, with correspondingly epic long savasanas—so long Amma would stick her head into the room and suggest, “Coffee, Tim?” He would describe tearful drifting, swells of gratitude and powerful feelings of union with his teacher. To me, that kind of peace is as unreachable as Sixth Series.

There are technical aspects to the pose, you know. Check out this detailed and highly methodical description in Yoga Journal. My favorite part: “In addition to quieting the physical body in Savasana, it’s also necessary to pacify the sense organs.” Pacify them? They own me. My sense organs are like the Chihuahua that lives next door: The more I gently say “shhh! good dog!” to him, the more it ticks him off. Bark bark bark bark, my sense organs say to me.

Tellingly, these instructions totally leave out the hardest part of the pose: Pratyahara, the fifth limb, what you’re supposed to be doing in savasana and the whole point of the entire ordeal you just went through. There I am, at the pinnacle of the practice, head hands and feet in proper position, tongue relaxed, breathing relaxed–I mean, I am in perfect posture here–yet all I can think about whether or not I remembered to turn off the coffee maker.

Tim has taught me exactly what’s supposed to be going on here. Inward turning. This is where the cittas are supposed to stop vrittaing. It’s called “corpse pose,” but you’re not supposed to be lying there like road kill; you’re supposed to be working on internal maintenance, disciplining the mind in the same way you just disciplined the body. Not easy. Tim was once asked in a teacher training if it’s okay to fall asleep insavasana, and his full answer is telling: “No,” he said, strongly (and immediately), then added, after a pause, “But it’s so sweet when you do.”

Which I cannot. No matter how hard I try.

But, I have a plan.

This year will be different. For the first time, I’m going to treat savasana like any other pose. I’m going to discipline myself, just do the darn pose, and if at first I don’t succeed, I will try try again. Yes, I will fail. But the worst thing that could happen? I might fall asleep.

Posted by Bobbie