6.19.2012

Breaking up with Ashtanga, or How to Dig a Well


Salutations on this most glorious of moon days!  I hope the Ashtangis among you are enjoying your day off as much as I.

I am pleased to report that I have finally overcome the lethargy that's had me tethered to my bed.  I am feeling energized and enthusiastic.  Practice has been suspiciously good, and with the practice have come the insights.  I have had the itch to write more, but have not been of the temperament to produce.  It's an aversion to the empty page that I hope to overcome.

However, the time I've spent not writing here has been spent in part reading and commenting on other blogs, and sharing goodies on the Damn Good Yoga facebook page.  One such nugget in particular that sparked a conversation was a post by La Gitane at the Yoga Gypsy entitled "Dear Ashtanga: I'm seeing other Yoga."

It's a well written "Dear John" letter to Ashtanga, in which the author expounds upon a variety of reasons for the relationship to end, among them the idea that Ashtanga is the "Ferrari" of yoga:  fast, flashy, and downright impractical on this winding road we call life.

La Gitane writes:
"But don't worry, Ashtanga - it's not you, it's me. I've changed. I've grown in my practice, and you, of course, have been a part of that. But as I have become more in tune with my body - and my spirit - there are things that I have become less comfortable with, too.

You see, I'm not a dogmatic person. I don't have a religion, and I don't subscribe to the idea that any one system is better than another. Yet when I was introduced to you, Ashtanga, that sense of superiority was somehow present in the subtext. Now, I know that you're saying "it's not my fault I'm misinterpreted!" - and you know what, you're right. It's not your fault! But somehow that's the message that slipped through - "Ashtanga is like the ferrari of Yoga", one teacher said to me. The implication being that other 'vehicles' will get you there (wherever there is!) all the same, but that Ashtanga will do it faster. And with a bit more panache, perhaps. And I admit, when I first came to the practice, I certainly felt a bit of that turbo charge from the fast pace of the sequence and all those vinyasas! But I've come to a time where I'm suddenly thinking that a Ferrari is maybe not the only car that I need, because really, a Ferrari is only good if you have perfectly smooth, wide roads - say, a healthy, fit, injury-free body. To be honest, I'm more of a 4x4 girl myself - because life is not a smooth ride, and I'd happily sacrifice a bit of speed to make sure that I have enough flexibility to deal with anything that comes along!"
These sentiments are not uncommon among defectors. The idea that Ashtanga is rigid and dogmatic is an unfortunate misinterpretation of the structure of the system, which the author acknowledges. I left a comment which you can read at Yoga Gypsy, but since then I've been thinking more about the roll of faith in the lifespan of one's Ashtanga practice, and how dogma comes into play.

Faith is the root of dogma. And faith, while it may have its merits, is not a necessary precursor to meaningful practice. There are plenty of reasons to keep coming back to the mat outside the realm of faith or belief in the system itself.

Curiosity, for example, is probably my primary source of motivation.  I love to think that every practice is a gift just waiting to be unwrapped and I await the privilege with anticipation.  The nature of the gift is revealed posture by posture.  To the observer, that gift might look the same from day to day, but the accoutrements are varied and a delight to unveil from posture to posture, day to day, and even year to year.

By approaching my practice from an inquiring place, I avoid the trap of dogma or the assumption that Ashtanga is the superior method -- the Yoga of Yogas, if you will.  My choice to practice this method is not a reflection of my belief that Ashtanga is superior, but a reflection of my suspicion that it matters not which method we choose to practice, but that we must choose one method -- one path -- and stick to it.

There is a parable that I think may have its origins in zen which illustrates this concept well:
There was a farmer who wished to dig a well on his land to water his fields. So, one day, he took his shovel, went out into the field, and started to dig. When he had dug a few feet and found no water, the man crawled up from the hole he had dug, moved ten feet over, and began to dig again. But again, he found no water, and so he crawled up out of his hole and began to dig again. And again. And again, until his entire field was full of shallow holes, but no water had been reached. After some time, the farmer's wife came and saw the mess he had made of the land. She cried: "Husband! That is not how you sink a well. You must stay in one place and dig deeper."
Of course, this only applies if it is one's intention to evolve intellectually and spiritually through one's practice. If the yogi (or the well-digger) is only in it for the abs and ass, it might actually serve one better to keep digging those holes. Do the work for the sake of work and nothing more. Practice different styles, and even mix in some pilates for good measure. But if you sense that there might be something more to this practice, that there might just be some cool, clean water down below, stick with it. See where it takes you. To paraphrase one of David Williams' many gems:  Just try it out for ten years and see if you like it. If you haven't decided, try another ten more.

22 comments:

  1. Megan,

    I also read this post recently and have to say that your response to the contents were insightful and inspirational. I can understand where Yoga Gypsy was coming from, and yet I can also see your point in this post. However, after reading the post you're referring too it did tend to make me wonder a little bit. Would it be wrong if, one day perhaps, I woke up and decided I'd like to try a different style of yoga for the mere sake of trying something new? Not that I'm anywhere near wanting to change to a different style but it just gave me pause as I read that post and this one. So, therefore my question I guess is this, would trying different yogas while maintaining a steady practice of Ashtanga be a bad thing or not recommended?

    Brianna
    http://travels-of-life.blogspot.com

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    1. Hi Brianna,

      In my opinion, it can never be wrong to try new things. You might find that a regular restorative practice or the occasional flow class is exactly what you need to support your Ashtanga practice. There is, of course, the possibility that, in your exploration of other styles, you find a school of yoga that serves you better than Ashtanga. And that's ok. We all have to choose for ourselves, but it is best to avoid "hopping" from one style to the next.

      The relationship analogy that Yoga Gypsy uses is a good one. I'm sure you've known "man-hoppers" or "lady-hoppers," people who stay for the honeymoon period and then, when things get tough, jump ship and seek out another superficial, short-lived relationship. This is the type of thing we need to look out for in our yoga practice. It's ok to look elsewhere if the practice doesn't serve you -- it's no good for anyone to stay in a destructive relationship -- but be sure to be honest with yourself about your reasons for leaving if the time comes.

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  2. Megan,

    That makes sense. I am content and even happy with my practice at the moment. I am just in the beginning stages of deep explorations. Having practiced Ashtanga for < 1 year, I'd call myself a newbie. Although I'm not a newbie to yoga itself. Thank you for your insight.

    Brianna
    http://travels-of-life.blogspot.com

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  3. After practicing Ashtanga for a dozen years, I have come to believe that what most people think of as the core of Ashtanga - the various series, are not very important to an advanced Ashtanga practice. So I now practice the bandas, the breath, the flowing mind, and I let my body take me where it wants - I respect my limitations, enjoy my strengths, and try to practice in a way that serves by best & highest goals and desires. In Zen terms, I have killed my master, and joined him.

    I could not have come to this place except thru that decade of practice, not only of Ashtanga, but many other styles as well, because that work strengthened my body and taught me awareness, biomechanics, passion, and ahimsa. So I suggest that students wait to go independent until they understand the path so completely that it disappears.

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    1. Hi Dale,

      I agree that, ultimately, the sequences themselves -- though intelligent and effective -- are nonessential, and the heart of the method lies in the tristana (ujjay, bandhas, and driste), but the problem solving skill-set one develops by navigating through the successive series is invaluable. I think one would be remiss to sacrifice that sort of depth of character for the sake of comfort or "freedom" in one's practice.

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  4. Wonderful. Recently, Jill Manning posted: 'there is a difference between a style and a system...I'll take a system'. There's some great insight! Bless the words from you both ;)

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  5. I can't help but start drawing a distinction between the Ashtanga I've experienced under the senior western teachers and the Ashtanga I've experienced (briefly) under post-Guruji Mysore-trained teachers. I can't help but wonder whether that dichotomy influences the discrepancy between various students' experiences.

    The Mysore-trained teachers I've had contact with did not inspire me, nor did they give me assurance that the practice could, can, or should be tailored to the individual.

    That is not true of the senior Western teachers I've had the great fortune of practicing under.

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    1. Interesting observation, VanillaGorilla. I guess I've been lucky in that all the Ashtanga teachers I've had the pleasure of practicing with have been compassionate, supportive, and safety-conscious.

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  6. Hey Megan! Thanks for the link, and for keeping up the conversation! My first Ashtanga teacher said something similar to what you said in this post: "choose one yoga system and stick to it". And I did, for a while, until it wasn't quite working for me anymore.

    Recently I have realized that I no longer believe that the various modern asana systems are really that different. If you accept, as I do, that asana as we know it today was created only about 130 years ago or so, then it follows that all of our modern asana systems are really currents in the same river, not separate streams. So on a purely physical level, we are really all practicing the same thing. To use your metaphor, when I am practicing something other than Ashtanga, I am actually digging the same well, but just from another angle.

    I think where the magic lies - the difference between digging hundreds of empty holes or creating a well - is in our attitude in the practice. As you say in this post, and some commenters have beautifully expressed - a practice with self-study at the heart will take you deeper - no matter what you are practicing. I think that if you have the right focus, if you practice the yamas and the niyamas both on and off the mat - whatever you are practicing will deliver you to that deeper place.

    This attitude is definitely taught differently in different asana systems (although I reckon the teacher probably makes more of a difference than the teaching system), but once you can hold that space as a practitioner, I think you can bring it anywhere with you in this big wide wonderful world of yoga and beyond. :)

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    1. Hey lady,

      Thanks for coming over to comment. For me, there is just something so powerful in commitment. Not only that, but the consistency of a potentially life-long practice like Ashtanga has been such an important pillar of strength for me in the ups and downs of life. I may not be able to count on anyone or anything outside myself, but I can always count on this practice to show me the truth within.

      So, yes, the differences from style to style are negligible on a purely physical level, but I truly believe that the consistency inherent in the ashtanga system promotes growth on a deeper and more practical level. This belief comes from my own experience with the practice of yoga -- pre-Ashtanga and beyond -- and nothing more. I don't pretend to speak for others or to suggest that my experience is a template for anyone else, but the well-digger's parable is apt, and it continues to be told for a reason. To extend the metaphor, others have also remarked that parallel holes or lateral holes may be dug from well to well, but this suggests to me a mole problem. One cannot walk on hollow ground.

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    2. "A mole problem" - LOL! You have a way with words! That cracked me up. :D

      I can totally relate to what you're saying about constancy and commitment - it's a precious gift and one that you obviously don't take for granted. For me, my decision to leave my comfort zone and "see other yoga" has made me feel a deepened connection and commitment to my yoga practice on a spiritual level - I feel I am digging deeper than I have in a while - and that is how I know that I am on the right path. :)

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    3. Then I am happy for you and I wish you the best. :)

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  7. Hi Megan,

    This is a great post. When I first began exploring spirituality in my teens this idea of not following more than one path struck me and has guided me ever since. As an Ashtangi I whole heartedly agree that I find the system of Ashtanga useful in it's constancy. I don't get to choose what my practice is, it is the same thing with gradual changes day by day and I find that a powerful tool, to stick with it regardless of how I feel day by day. I know sometimes people quit because they get stuck on a pose and there ego doesn't like it or they start to really see themselves and they run away.

    I am hesitant to criticise anyone else's path. La Gitane's comment above is wonderfully reflective and shows she has given this some thought and whilst I agree that constancy is very important, I also feel that it is not great to yoga shop, especially if it avoids facing reality, I think it also important to practice the right practice that resonates with the individual. I am certainly glad that I found Ashtanga and am not practicing the gentler hatha I used to practice. If I had stuck with that for constancy sake I would never have found Ashtanga which has completely changed my life. So I feel it is sometimes useful to explore and sometimes it takes a while to find the right path but once on it, dig deep.

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    1. "So I feel it is sometimes useful to explore and sometimes it takes a while to find the right path but once on it, dig deep."

      Wise words. Thank you, Helen.

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  8. I loved reading both sides of this story, from the yoga breakup to the proverbial well-digging and deepening of consistent practice. I'm a fusionista at heart. I love sampling many many many many different styles of yoga and fusing them all together, finding the similar threads amongst them all. For the last 8 years I've regularly combined Vinyasa Flow, Anusara, Kundalini, Taiqi, and more recently Qigong and Yin/Restorative.

    Am I shallowing my practice, rather than depening it? I believe it is just my way and it makes me happy. I think it is this way for many others too. Jumping around and samplimg sounds contrary to deepending a practice, but I think it can be the same thing. I can stand all day in shallow water, but I can only tread water so long at the deeep end, before I would need a life raft. Just to make it confusing, how about another analogy? It's like seeing how the many strands of the spider's web interconnect by riding down each strand. Some people will know the essence of the strand itself and thereby know and understand the web. Others will want to look at all the design of all the strands together and also understand the web. People who like to dig deeply, will call me a jack-of-all-trades or a dabbler. People who operate the same way as me will bolster with labels like polymath and Renaissance woman.

    The more I practice all of these yoga styles, (along with the dozens of other jobs I've had, from barista to valet, paralegal asssitant to yoga studio manager, web developer to photographer) the more I see their similarities in the direction and concentration of energy as well as variances in alignment points as well. I'd like to think it's made me a well-rounded and understanding practitioner and teacher, and that we're all ultimately saying the same thing, everything is all actually of one vibrational essence manifesting in as many ways as there are humans.

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    1. Why would you tread deep water when you could simply swim?

      And who would you visit to save your life? A general practitioner or a specialist?

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  9. This discussion came at just the right time for me. I began practicing yoga 3 years ago at the age of 49 after a life time of weight lifting, running and other cardio or "ball chasing" games as my wife calls them. After 2 years of looking around, I ended up in Ashtanga. So, for one year, I had been practicing Ashtanga daily. Then something happened in the early spring. I had a prolonged cold or something that everyone seemed to get and I stopped practicing because I felt awful. Since then, I can't seem to get back into daily practice even though when I do I love it and ask myself why I don't do this everyday.

    This post and the responses make me reflect on my practice and I see how my relationship to ashtanga reflects everything in my life. I notice how I begin things frequently, get passionate about them and then stop and move on to something else. It seems like I stop just before things get too serious or too deep to go with the well metaphor. Luckily this hasn't been the case in one area of my life, my relationship with my wife, but in just about every other realm, this has been the case even though I am someone who has always been employed and am pretty successful at what I do, I also lack a certain depth in everything I do. Maybe no one else notices it, but I do. So it is interesting how my relationship to ashtanga is reflected in my life. I seem to be following my "monkey mind" everywhere, rather than just settling down and breathing.

    When I first started Ashtanga I talked to my instructor and told her that it seemed boring to me to do the same asanas all the time. She laughed and said, it's interesting to observe what types of feelings come up in our relationship to the practice, they often reflect our mindset in other areas. I've found that to be true.

    Two reasons I prefer Ashtanga to other practices I've tried:

    1) In the morning when (if) I practice, everything is all laid out for me. I know what comes after each asana, I don't have to experiment or come up with stuff on my own. I also have to do poses even if they aren't my favorite poses or even if they make me uncomfortable; something I may not do if I did another practice.

    2) I read somewhere that when you practice yoga you are literally working with patterns, with habits. In other words, we are dealing with sanskara, the imprints or habits left on our mind from things that have happened in this life or others if you believe in that. By practicing the same movements habitually, we are imprinting other habits on our mind. I'm not sure what the result would be of haphazardly putting asanas together, but there is something powerful about following a practice. As the many postings here point out, it makes us confront a lot of different feelings-- boredom is one of them-- and we can choose how to deal with that feeling. Either we encounter it and dig deeper, or we move on to something else.

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    1. Thank you so much for sharing these insights, Anon. And best of luck in your practice!

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  10. Hi Megan,
    Thanks for sharing all this. I did go to the original post and found it quite interesting to read all the comments. You make a lot of very valuable points and I love the well analogy. One thing about Ashtanga that I've noticed is that eventually, especially if you are working closely with a teacher, the practice confronts you in very challenging ways, your feet are right up at the fire and you have to observe your reactions and choose how to act. For most people this is too scary so they run away and skirt their issues because that's what their "heart" tells them to do. I personally love that the practice makes me confront myself, my fears and my shortcomings. I don't just want my yoga practice to make me feel "good". I want to learn about myself through my practice, deepen, grow and become a more authentic, loving, honest and grounded human being. I appreciate that AY is not a perfect match for some people (though I believe that Mysore practice is extremely adaptable and that a qualified teacher can make the practice work for almost anyone) but I found that her post really perpetuates some of the negative and untrue stereotypes about Ashtanga as a system.

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    1. Very well said, Frances. Thanks so much for weighing in.

      I find it especially unfortunate that these harmful stereotypes about Ashtanga Yoga (i.e. "it's too hard" or "it's dangerous") come from what I'd call "casual" Ashtanga teachers. These are teachers who teach "Ashtanga" classes that aren't really Ashtanga, wherein the series is changed, postures omitted, others added in. I find that these teachers most often don't have an Ashtanga practice themselves, don't posses an understanding of the bigger picture, and thus the misinformation is spread.

      La Gitane's post references some such teachers, and it saddens me to think that this sort of thing continues because those of us who teach undistilled Ashtanga suffer the consequences: small classes and fearful newbies.

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