Saturday, 9 November 2013

Is Asana Madness Messing Up Your Practice?

I still remember the first Ashtanga Yoga workshop I ever went to. It was year 2000 or 2001 or so. Alexander Medin, who is now my teacher, arrived to Oslo from London. He was one of few certified teachers in Europe, and I was both in awe and nervous. This was the time when my ego was super tied up to my mastery of asana (the way I defined mastery of asana those days), and I knew the workshop was going to draw quite a few advanced practitioners. I fancied myself to be one, of course. I had practiced for about a year and I progressed pretty quickly. My teacher at that time had already pushed me through most of the intermediate series. Basically, I was like a low frequency appliance plugged into high frequency electricity. Long story short, the workshop was ferocious. I was exhausted, mentally and physically. At the time, I thought this was because Alexander was such a tough teacher. I actually didn't dare sign up for his next workshop when he came to Oslo, where I live, the year after.

Why I am writing about this, in an article about how asana can mess up one's practice? Because years after the experience I described above, I now understand that the horror of the workshop had little to do with how tough the teacher was. What it had a lot (everything!) to do with, was the fact that I hurled myself into the kind of practice I wasn't ready for. I was still struggling with aspects of the primary series that should be mastered before going further. Bandha was still a vague concept for me. Bhujapidhasana was a huge struggle. Drop-backs seemed unattainable. I hated putting my chin on my shin in utthita hasta padanghustasana (when I practiced without anyone looking, I mostly omitted this movement, as it demanded more from my strength and sense of balance than I could be bothered to exert). But most of all, there was this: deep inside, yoga was just gymnastics for me. I wanted to do all this stuff so that people would admire me more, I wanted the wow's, the oooh's and the aaaah's. So I could love myself more because others liked me more. I had a teacher who wanted the best for me and who was very ambitious on my behalf. I called this "yoga". What it really was, I don't know. It wasn't yoga.

Here's the tricky part: "Patanjali's Yoga Sutras" states that yoga is the cessation of fluctuations of the mind. We are also supposed to be cleansed through the challenge of the system and through flames of wholesome discipline. The practice is a tool we use to break out of the bonds of conditioned existence. Challenges we face through asana practice teach us that defining what's possible or not is none of our business. We're supposed to follow the method and the fruits will come. True knowledge comes, in a sense, through not taking our reality on face value, but letting the practice reveal what is real. Applied to asana practice, this might mean that difficulties and apparent impossibilities are meant to be met with the same attitude with which we would meet the things we find easy: Steady, regular practice according to the Ashtanga method. Doing this while not getting caught up into ambitiously chasing asana and not constantly spewing the pictures of ourselves balancing on an eyelash on Instagram demands a lot on our poor, overexposed egos. In Bhaghavad Gita, Krishna asks Arjuna to surge into battle and fullfill his dharma. For Arjuna, this meant a complete surrender to a reality he doesn`t yet see, masked behind a situation seemingly extremely opposite to what his sense of moral dictated.

Now, let`s pull all this esoterism back to the yoga mat: Say, I`m on my mat, with my laptop in front of it, Kino MacGregor`s Third Series - dvd on. Sthira Bhaga ftw!And I want this. I want that leg behind my head, as I recline back, my other leg straight and strong, glued to the floor. Look at me - Sthira sukham asanam incarnate!So, I do one position, because I can, then I skip three because I can`t get into them, but then I do the one after it. As fun as experimenting with asana might be, I ask myself whether yoga has left the building and circus has come to town instead. Sooner or later (but mostly sooner), every Ashtanga Yoga practitioner will face something like this.If you have practiced for a little while, you will be tempted and try to do stuff that is beyond where you really are or should be. You will attempt stuff your teacher wouldn't let you do, as it's energetically and physically beyond where your truth currently is. And these days, you will feel a pull to put this on your Facebook wall.

I have so been here. Years before I started practicing intermediate series of Ashtanga Yoga, I performed a very back-bendy version of pincha mayurasana (I'm sure the vertebrae in my lower back were dialing the emergency room number, crying on the phone) and I took a photo of myself. I edited out the laundry drying behind me and put the picture up on the internet. It was a cute picture. Was it yoga? No. It was me doing gymnastics and selling it off as yoga. Which is fine, as long as we don't mix things up. This had nothing to do with me being present and definitely nothing to do with cessation of fluctuations of my mind. Au contraire. Look away, Patanjali. My mind was racing mad and I wanted people to admire my physical prowess.

So, if I have learned anything through my years of yogic practice, trials and tribulations, it might be this: as much as the practice shouldn't be taken so seriously that we never attempt to bite more than we can chew, relaxing into the practice is a prerequisite if I am not to turn into a conceited freak. The lesson: relax and breathe and don't think too much. Today, every time I find a position frightening or tensed up, I get my Bhaghavad Gita on; I breathe and do what I can. There's the enemy army, so Arjuna get yourself together, boy. I used to not be too crazy about back bending in the intermediate series. Until I started doing the movement with my mind in a sort of "fuck it, let's go" - mode, under caring eyes of my teachers. Kapotasana and I are BFF's today. When my hands get to my heels, my heels want to make them a coffee. My experience is that you achieve this through relaxing into a regular practice, with a good teacher. Being overly ambitious about asana is tension. Wanting to be where you're not is tension. Tension is the opposite of presence. You get where you want to be by doing what you can today and respecting it. And then you kind of flow into things. This is when we find that we genuinely come to be able to do all the cool stuff without the freakishness of grasping what's not ours to grasp.

The concept of avidya in yoga, the blind ignorance of not seeing the reality the way it is, helps us here. Avidya is beyond ignorance. It is filtering how we perceive the world and ourselves through our ego. The truth we think that we live is a lie. Ashtanga is tough and it will show you that the way you perceive asana can feed into this blind delusion. You will think that mastery is something else than being present in anything that you do. You will think that mastery is about what your kurmasana looks like. If you get there, you will be pushed and pushed and pushed until something happens - an injury, a word from someone, or just the passing of time - and the bubble will burst. Unless you decide that you trust the practice before you go bananas and before there is a bubble.

A major part of the human experience is that, more often than not, we feel inadequate, somehow not good enough, somehow lacking. A major part of what our yoga practice can do for us, is putting this humanity under a magnifying glass, so that while feeling inadequate, unloved or whatever, we might experience that doing what we can with what we have, from where we are, we are suddenly at the place we dreamed about being. Asana-wise for me, I remember that years ago, I couldn't fathom how I would ever be able to do drop backs. This is one of those things you can't fake yourself into safely. Neither my head nor my body understood how this movement was possible to execute. I did the only thing I could: I followed the sequence until the time to attempt drop backs came, and I tried. My teachers helped me. I breathed and trusted. Today, I think I could do them if I got up in the middle of the night. When this suddenly became a possibility, I have no idea. The thing is that at some point, I accepted that I didn't care if I ever got to this back bending craziness. I did what my teacher told me, when they told me to do it. I have also experienced a state where I was in such pain (not because of my practice, mind you) that sun salutations were all I could do. Asana madness ceased to be an option. I had to accept that I might never get back to where I once was, when it came to my circusy skills. For the fact that I actually regained them, I believe that I can thank those small things like sun salutations, standing postures, breath and most off all, doing what I could safely do, doing it well, not caring what it looked like.

So there. Next time you're on your mat, no matter who you are, practice like no one is looking, like you're caressing yourself with asana. Do the positions like you want to heal yourself with them, not like you want to be on the cover of "Yoga Journal". This is how your asana practice, no matter what it looks like, ceases to be madness and starts being rock star practice. This is how it is never a nuisance. Go. Try. It will work. See?