Saturday, June 19, 2010


When I first ventured out of my little home-practice-cave into the larger Astanga world, I think a motivating factor was my hunger for a community. I didn’t really care about the adjustments (Hatha adjustments are so tame, I really didn’t know what I was missing!). Travelling to another space for practice definitely wasn’t a draw. I was happy with my solitary practice and had even found motivation for a six-day practice on my own. But my encounters in the Astanga Blogosphere piqued my interest in other practitioners and their experiences. It made me hungry for connection.

Because I love this practice, I enjoy talking about it with others. I’m a perpetual student: I love learning new things. Hearing about the experiences of others shifts my perspective, shakes up my convictions. These conversations are particularly fruitful when I’m talking to practitioners who are coming from a radically different place in their practice - whether it’s different teachers or different styles, traditions or methodology. And when asked to defend my own beliefs about this practice, I find myself digging deep, excavating my knowledge and conceptualizing it. I learn so much about myself in this process. I uncover the limitations of my understanding. I grow.

Also: We Ashtangis are a quirky lot. Many of us are vegetarian or vegan. We eat supper early, if at all. We go to bed early. We get up early. The commitment to our practice forces us to make tough choices about things like double-chocolate cheesecake, Too Much Wine and dancing ’til the wee hours.

I’ve heard all the ‘cult’ jokes, but there’s some truth to it! There’s a language around the practice (not just Sanskrit!) and a lifestyle that emerges from our commitment to it. My ‘civilian friends’ often don’t get why I would want to stand up from a backbend, or put my leg behind my head. The subtle and not so subtle changes that come from practising Astanga are better understood by people who also do the practice. When I went through my CrazyPants week a while back, my regular friends were mystified, but I found comfort and encouragement from others in the Astanga community who had experienced similar challenges.

I’m not exactly sure what I expected from my shala experiment, but my experience so far has been a mixed bag. Though there is definitely a sense of camaraderie that comes with practising near the same people day after day after day, we often don’t talk. We can’t! We’re practising! And then we’re leaving. I’ve genuinely treasured the few conversations I’ve had with shala-mates before or after practice, but they have been few and far between. I know that I hoped to make some friends out of this.

I love the idea of a ‘yoga community’, where people can practice together and also come together outside of the practice. I’m aware that there are two schools of thought around this. Some people believe the experience of our practice should remain private and not be talked about at length with others, that doing so may even be harmful. It’s been suggested that discussing the practice can fuel comparison and competition. Some teachers even discourage viewing YouTube videos and DVDs for the same reason.

But others view the practice as a catalyst for connection - both with other practitioners and the world at large. In terms of establishing a regular practice, there’s great value in community. I doubt I could have stuck it out for so many years without the encouragement and advice offered by readers of my blog. In a sense, my blog has become part of my practice - writing about it has helped me grow as a practitioner. I hope that my encouragement has helped others to grow their practice. This thing we do, six days a week, is not easy! Being in the ‘same boat’ with other practitioners is helpful.

In Yoga Mala, Guruji talks about the power of speech and says: “ is not good to talk too much. By talking too much, the power inherent in the tongue decreases and the power of speech is destroyed. when the power is speech is destroyed, our words, too, lose their power...” But he also goes on to say that ‘speaking of spiritual matters increases the tongue’s power’.

I’m not certain that an all-or-nothing approach is useful. I think there’s a balance to be struck, a middle-ground between idly gossiping about our practices and finding comfort and inspiration in each other’s experiences. Genuine connection with other people is a spiritual act. It brings us together, connects us to the greater whole. Beyond the edge of our Mandukas, there’s a big, wide world out there. We have a choice. We can choose to leave the energy generated by our practice on the mat or we can take it with us out into the world. I believe a supportive community can help us do that.


Today’s practice: Technically a day off, but I hit the mat for a ‘criminal’ second series practice. Primary through Marichyasana D, then Intermediate to Laghu Vajrasana and the finishing poses. Five backbends today and a State-of-the-Backbend photo:

Eek! My hips look *less* open. For awhile, I was making such fantastic progress opening my hips, I’m frustrated to find myself regressing. But I finally figured it out: cycling. I give up my monthly transit pass in the summer in favour of riding my bicycle to the classes I teach. My hips always get a bit tighter in the summer months; it’s a tradeoff. I’ll need to do more hip openers to counter this.


sarah said...

To me your instinct to communicate, to share, to be part of something larger than the solitary practice or the parallel play practice feels so right. I have recently been struck by how your blog reaches out to my heart. I recognize a feeling that I have with the women and men who went through yoga teacher training with me at Kripalu. They exist for me in that way of community - to talk of trouble in a pose, or about teaching a class or preparing for something, or understanding a sutra or anything at all. They know about the shakes and the weightlessness, the wishing for that open space and losing it the moment you find yourself there. All the energy is useful, compassionate, full of the inquiry. Means so much on the journey. Thanks for articulating this search for sadhana. I am so glad the blogosphere responded for you. I appreciate being able to be part of it too. Talk about different styles! Your practice really inspires me.

daydreamingmel said...

I completely agree that it's the sense of community that makes a shala practice so special, and for me it's been what kept me going back for more (and more...and more). But as you say we often can't speak, so we just have to *feel* that sense of community with our fellow practitioners. I'm lucky in that our shala has a communal changing room which encourages friendliness (and it's a very friendly place) and conversations there have yielded some of the best & most encouraging tips I've been given. But I think even if I didn't have this I'd still need that shala energy to stop me feeling like a solo freakshow :)

Kaivalya said...

Thank you! The deeper I sink into my Astanga practice, the more I find myself reach outside myself for support.

It's funny, Kripalu is one of those places on my 'life list'. I read so much about it, and it's my hunger for connection that draws me to seek out experiences like that (yoga retreats, workshops, etc.).

Maybe someday!

I was just loving all of those brunch photos with Globie, Skippetty, Susan and yourself. And the backyard garden party was so cute! I need more of that in my life - social time with the other 'circus freaks' ;-)

streamoflifeyoga said...

I am Anna. I loved the pic....with my arms too short:-) even thought my arms are too long - I still can't jump. I've been practicing astanga for a bit over a year & a half, still & "progress" to marychasana D! My hips really rock (tight like a rock) & my knee started hurting. Also, the teacher asked me a questions & it make me re-think my practice. I also teach & have my own personal practice. I had to stop my practice in school which made my work life easier & now I practice at home, but really miss the sense of community & morning prayer - would love to hear other comments...
also, my teacher (who I really listen - one of very, very few) said that this practice is not great for my body..

Kaivalya said...

Welcome! I enjoyed looking at your blog and website. Very cool that you're from Russia!

The ability to lift up and jump will come with increased strength. The only way to develop this strength is to try, try, try to lift (even if you can't do it very well), consistently.

It sounds you're struggling with many obstacles in your practice. I can definitely relate to the tight hips! It took years for my hips to finally open.

I truly believe that with care and modifications (and the assistance of a good teacher), anyone can practice Astanga yoga safely. I agree with Guruji on this one: the only bodies that Astanga is 'not great' for are the lazy ones, and you don't sound lazy at all! :-)

My advice is to not give up on Astanga, but change the way you approach the practice. If your practice is too long, try to shorten it - either a half-version or short form. (David Swenson's book has some good 'short forms' you could try). Work gently and modify poses to protect your knee.

Progress happens slowly in Astanga, but it does happen. Hang in there!