Friday, September 14, 2012

All About Ashtanga: Day Three, "It's supposed to be hard."

"Do your practice and all is coming."
-Shri K. Pattabhi Jois

Let me back up a little bit and talk about what Ashtanga is. It means 'eight limbed yoga' (yama, niyama, asana, pranayama, pratyahara, dharana, dhyana, samadhi) and is "an authentic practice that can lead to liberation and greater awareness of our spiritual potential" according to the booklet that Andrew Hillam (Yoga Director at Jois) handed me when I first interviewed him. Ashtanga believes that the third limb (asana) is the most important, because through this, we can understand the others as through consistent effort, we find more subtle layers. The last four limbs arise spontaneously as a result of the practice of the first four, leading to the 'union' that is so often spoken of in Yoga. Over time, asana brings both the body and the mind to a state of stability and peace, a feeling of contentment and inner tranquility.

In order for yoga instruction to be effective and true, the Ashtanga style believes in a direct and unbroken transmission of knowledge from the Guru (teacher) to the Sisya (student), a tradition that reaches back thousands of years in India. Ashtanga is rooted in Shri K. Pattabhi Jois (Guruji) and his family. Guruji studied under Shri T. Krishnamacharya, one of the most distinguished yoga practitioners of the 20th century, for a total of 25 years. He went on to establish the Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute and after seven decades of continuous teaching, gradually retired from his daily classes, leaving the Institute in Mysore in the hands of his daughter, Saraswathi, and grandson, Sharath. The lineage continues with the Jois family at locations around the world. Guruji passed away on May 18th, 2009 at the age of 93.

The method of asana practice prescribed by Guruji was taught to him by Krishnamacharya and is said to have come from an ancient text, the Yoga Korunta. The style relies on the linking of asanas through prescribed vinyasas (movements) and incorporates deep, even breathing and steady gazing with the eyes, or drsti. The vinyasa, or movement between asanas, encourages the blood to circulate properly in the body, while the deep breathing supplies a rich source of pure air, oxygenating the blood and allowing the removal of unwanted toxins through the lungs. Internal heat is produced and burns up the impurities in the body, so that toxins are liberated from the tissues by each asana. The sweat that results also serves to remove toxins from the skin. Drsti, or steady gazing in different places during each vinyasa and asana, is an important element of the practice, because over time, it facilities dhyana (meditation) which profoundly steadies the mind. When all of these elements are incorporated into the practice — learned correctly under the guidance of a qualified teacher — we're able to purify and strengthen the system, making the body light and strong, the mind calm and peaceful. Then, we're able to realize the full benefits of the practice and "dive deeply into the ocean of yoga."

Today, after practicing both the opening and closing mantras, we moved deeper into the standing series, during which I wobbled substantially in Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana.

"It's supposed to be hard," David said quietly. "Don't let the ego get in the way."

I laughed when I fell out of it, partly out of embarrassment until I realized that we all have to start somewhere and they — every advanced teacher I've met — stood where I was standing today. A moment of feeling unsure, unsteady, self-conscious until practice made the poses purposeful and easier.

I also noticed that I would reach for water or my towel to stall in between moments when David was assisting another student, mostly because I wasn't sure what else to do with myself and standing in Samasthihi proved slightly awkward. David saw me reaching for my water bottle and said, "No" firmly from the middle of the room.

"I'll tell you why after," he said once he was closer to me, and instructed me on the next pose to move into.

Later, he explained that if I drink water, then all the awareness and energy goes to my belly to process what I've just ingested. Instead of being in the actual practice, I start to move out of it. He recommended that I can drink a little water enough time before class, then a few minutes after, but none in between.

"It's hard on your system, especially if it's cold water," he explained. "These are just little things, but they are..." and I nodded with understanding.

We'll see what happens tomorrow, but for today, I can feel my elbows and body getting a little sore. Luckily, that's why I have wonderful people for acupuncture and massage to help me feel good!

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