I’ve been thinking a lot lately about why we do what we do in Ashtanga Yoga. Why we place such an emphasis on sticking to the sequence, the correct vinyasa, and the count. And truthfully I’ve been having some trouble finding the words to express it.
It feels so much bigger than me, but I know there is something special about Ashtanga, maybe even magical.
I hear stories all the time from people whose lives have been transformed by this practice. People who have overcome addiction, mental illness, and so much more at the hands of Ashtanga Yoga.
So what is it? What is it about this practice that invites such a radical transformation?
I don’t think the magic lies in the asana’s themselves, rather it’s what they represent. And I don’t think there is anything inherently “special” about the practice; David often says that the sequence is somewhat arbitrary.
Rather, I think the magic lies in choosing this one path with your whole heart and committing to it every single day.
In an attempt to understand more, I sought out the advice of my dear teacher and friend, David Robson. We talked about tradition, the asanas, and why it’s so important to stick to one practice, with ideally, one teacher.
One of the most profound comparisons was the idea that a spiritual practice is like digging a well.
Imagine you are trying to dig for water. So you start digging for a little while in one area and find no water. So maybe you get frustrated, abandon your post and trying digging somewhere else. Perhaps this pattern continues several more times. Over time, you will look around and have several shallow holes, but no water.
Now, if you pick one spot, (or in our case, one practice) and you dig in that same spot for a long period of time, you will achieve far greater depth, and have a way better chance of finding that water.
See, when we commit ourselves to one practice, we give ourselves the opportunity to go deeper mentally, physically and spiritually.
When we commit to one singular, objective framework – such as the Ashtanga Yoga sequence – we can more readily observe the fluctuations of the mind, our self-limiting stories and go beyond them.
Our stories become more visible because they may show up as a pattern when we enter into an asana, or part of the practice that we don’t particularly like. And because we have this one objective path, we don’t get to choose to avoid that part of the practice. We’re forced to sit with the discomfort that arises every single day.
With enough steady practice, discipline, and a teacher who doesn’t buy into your BS, this practice affords you the opportunity to go beyond those stories. To see them as mind-made, sometimes self-sabotaging stories that hold you back from your potential.
Steady practice has helped reveal my own stories.
When I first started this practice I had so many stories about what was and wasn’t possible for me. I had tight hips and I had developed this story that I could never do lotus. Whenever I tried my knee hurt, and after a while, I just gave up trying altogether.
I even bought into the idea that I was “one of those people who’s head of the femur sat weird in their hip socket and therefore would never be able to do lotus.” LOL.
So each day in the Mysore room, defined by my stories, I modified half lotus without even trying.
Until one day David noticed I had stopped trying. He came up beside me and said, (in what I interpreted to be a rather disappointed tone):
“Hmm, you’re still modifying, huh?”
“Yea…” I said sheepishly trying to avoid eye contact so as not to disappoint him further.
“Mmmm” He responded, and walked away.
I was filled with so many emotions in that moment; I wanted to crawl into a hole and never come out. I felt like I had let him down. My mind was racing, and the thoughts went something like this:
“OMG! What a jerk, I can’t believe he just said that. Oh, sh*t, maybe he’s right? I should try. NO! The head of my femur definitely sits weird in my hip joint. He thinks he knows everything. Pfft. I’ve always had tight hips, and I always will. What does he know?! I can’t do this! Ok, well… maybe I’ll try. It will be pointless though, because of the aforementioned femur issue.”
So, in spite of this inner turmoil, I did start attempting half lotus. Mostly to prove him wrong. Ha!
Well, jokes on me because it turns out I could do half lotus; and full.
So either Robson is a witch doctor and used voodoo magic to shapeshift my hip joint OR, I was so attached to my stories and self-limiting beliefs that I held myself back from even trying for so long.
Now, that’s not to say some people don’t have legitimate injuries or irregular hip joints. But the point is, if it weren’t for David challenging my beliefs, I never would have tried. And if I had spent my entire life not trying half-lotus because “the head of my femur was shaped funny” I would never have achieved half or full lotus.
This isn’t about achieving a specific asana – it’s about what the asana represents.
David says that “asana’s are screens.” They act like a mirror into our minds, and reflect those inner narratives and reveal them to us, so that hopefully, we can go beyond them. Now when we do the same asana over, and over and over, these narratives become more apparent. And with even more practice, we can go beyond them.
Since I’ve had that conversation with David my perspective on practice has changed. I notice the thoughts that come up in particular asana, when I’m sore, or feeling lazy, and more readily acknowledge them as stories. And now each day I imagine I’m chipping away in my own proverbial spiritual sandbox, slowly, but surely.