I practice Ashtanga yoga six days a week and teach it almost every day to many students, but I’ll repeat my title: Ashtanga Yoga is not fun. Then why do I do it and why do I teach it? Because it is a powerful, invaluable, healing and enlightening practice. I can have fun in other ways. When I come to my yoga practice, I come to work. Hard. I recently heard that if Anusara is the yoga of “yes” then Ashtanga is the yoga of “no”, and I understand why someone said that.
Ashtanga yoga is certainly not something you choose to do if you are merely looking for entertainment, or for a social activity, or even for “Madonna arms”. Perhaps that’s why a lot of people (myself included) try it out for the first few times, but that is usually only the hook.
I am in the midst of teaching an ‘absolute beginners Ashtanga workshop’ and I make no qualms about telling them that Ashtanga is not easy and it is not necessarily fun. But it has the capability to allow so much self-discovery and self-improvement that it’s worth every drop of sweat and every potential tear and makes all of those nights where we tell our friends we can’t go out with them because we have practice the next morning all worthwhile. In these small group setting we move through sun salutations and the first part of the primary series very slowly, bit by bit, practicing the proper breathing, learning about drishti and bandhas and talking a bit of philosophy along the way. Despite the casual pace, these keen new students, of all ages and abilities, are practically dying. Of heat, of fatigue, of the thought “Oh my god I’ll never be able to do that”! This is when I explain to them why we are putting ourselves through this seeming agony.
I think of yoga practice like a microcosm of life. Something is always arising, something is always ending. Painful things happen, but they will pass. Joyful moments occur, but they also end. We can practice the observation and acceptance of that fact in our practice. In a posture that is very uncomfortable, you only need to take 5 or 10 breaths, and it will be over. Just in the way that in life you will get sick, but then better. You will become injured, but you will heal. People in your life will die and you will experience emotional pain, which will eventually fade and pass too. You may lose your job and experience financial trouble. You can climb out of that hole. On the other end of the spectrum, in yoga, the path is not linear. You might achieve comfort and ease in a certain pose and happiness because of this, only to ‘lose’ that pose later either because of injury, age and decline, or for unknown reasons. You may get it back, you may not. In life you may finally get that raise, only to have the company go belly up. You may meet the person of your dreams, only to have it crumble a few years later. You must learn to be ok with this and practice becoming unattached to those highs to avoid disappointment that will follow. In yoga, and in life. By staying through the lows, and not grasping desperately at the highs, we are bit by bit burning off all of our old typical reactions and habits and patterns and giving ourselves the option to be and act however we would like. Yoga can help us chip away at our past conditioning, dig up those weeds and lay down new soil and plant new seeds.
What else are we practicing when you can’t imagine why you should jump back again, or hold navasana and lift up one more time, or hold headstand at the end of a 90 minute grueling practice for 25 breaths, or not take a sip of water when you feel like you are surely going to faint and die any minute? We are practicing being comfortable in uncomfortable situations. We are building up tolerance to sensations that we normally do not like. We are not just strengthening the body, we are strengthening the mind. We can train ourselves, in our Ashtanga practice, to become less reactive. As soon as something happens that we do not find pleasing, instead of jumping up, or screaming, or running away, we can stay, observe, and then rationally choose how to act, while keeping our blood pressure down and avoiding making mistakes that we will later regret. We are becoming strong, calm, peaceful, mindful beings.
While yes, we are learning postures in the course, and proper alignment and where is the right place to look, I hope what I offer to my students beyond those things is the insight that if they are willing to work hard and come to practice not because it’s fun but because it’s so beneficial, then very good things will happen. I ask them not to loot at yoga practice as trying to get good at poses, but rather as working on the self in a much deeper way. I think they appreciate that little lesson up front so to avoid becoming frustrated right off the bat when certain poses are unavailable. I think it’s important for them to learn that that is not the point.
Out of the ten students who take the workshop, I believe about eight will pick up a regular practice for a short period of time, maybe three or four days a week to start. Maybe half of them will become long time committed practitioners. And this is ok. I don’t try to convince myself that Ashtanga is the best thing in the whole world, nor do I try to sell it to new students as something that must or should be done by everyone all the time. Even though Pattabhi Jois said that Ashtanga is for everyone, the old, the weak, the sick, the inflexible, everyone but the lazy, I realize that not everyone will come to the practice or stay with it. What I do know, is that those who do stick with it, and put in the effort out of faith that it is a good method, will have their bodies, their minds and their lives changes for the better. They can go do other things, like go to the movies, if they want to have fun. Now despite my claim that Ashtanga yoga is not fun, of course you must enjoy the practice overall, otherwise you will not make it part of your life. What I mean is that there will certainly be moments that are not at all fun, I have cried many times and not wanted to unroll my mat some days, or quit half way through on others. But, I still believe in it and enjoy its fruits every day. I am thankful that Ashtanga found its way into my life and the least I can do is offer it up to others.