How Mysore made me softer

Until recently I was a hardcore traditional Ashtangi. My day off was always Saturday, I never took practice on Moon Days, I only practiced in the early morning and I never, ever messed with the sequence. Then I went to Mysore twice in one year. And somehow, my approach started to soften.

Same, same, but different

I met people who didn’t practice 6, or even 5, days a week. I met people who sometimes practiced in the afternoon or, heaven forbid, in the evening, only a few hours before bedtime. What did they do with all that good prana, I wondered.

Some people I met hadn’t learned how to stand up from drop-backs before starting intermediate series. And some weren’t even strict vegetarians!

During my first trip to Mysore I noticed that, for some people, Sharath wanted them to “Come up!” before giving them Pasasana. Whereas for others, he didn’t move them on to intermediate until they could catch their ankles in backbending.

Breaking the mould

Class card from KPJAYIDuring my second trip Sharath suddenly decided to change the day off from Saturday to Sunday. And all hell broke loose. What?! What do you mean the day off is now Sunday? Thousands of people all over the world have been practising morning Mysore style Ashtanga for 6 days a week – Sunday to Friday – for years. Friday is always primary only, or led primary in most cases, and Sunday is always led intermediate, should your practice be so advanced. In Mysore the conference was always on Sunday afternoon, meaning you had most of Friday and all day Saturday as free time.

But now, all of a sudden, Sunday became the day off, led primary was on Saturday, led intermediate on Monday and conference was on, wait for it… Saturday. Huh? This made no sense to many and everyone became very confused. Yoga shalas and studios all over the world started to get wind of this and didn’t know what to do. Should they continue as normal or change their schedules to fit with the KPJAYI? What a furore!

And when Sharath was questioned as to the reason behind this sudden monumental change, I heard that it was simply down to wanting to spend more time with his family. Likewise, I’ve heard it said that the only reason Guruji took a day off practice in the first place was because his wife requested it. Well you can’t say fairer than that. After all, what’s the point of having a committed daily practice if it means neglecting one of the most, if not the most, important thing in your life – family?

Embracing the chaos

Since coming back from Mysore in January, my life has been somewhat all over the place. Homeless, and jobless, trying to start a new business, staying with family and housesitting, starting a new relationship, spending 2 months working at a retreat centre in Italy, and then trying to come to terms with living back in the UK again after a year of travelling.

It’s easy (relatively speaking) to maintain a rigid daily practice whilst in Mysore, especially with the fear of Sharath’s wrath if he notices you took a day off without good reason. But back home, in the chaos and confusion of everyday life, it can be a very different story. Especially if you can’t afford to go to a shala, have nowhere decent to practice, feel guilty if you’re not spending all your time trying to make ends meet, and in the midst of all that are trying to get a new relationship off the ground.

Letting go

So what did I do?

I started to let go.

Butterfly flying from a handAt first I felt guilty. I felt like a bad Ashtangi. Like all would not be coming to me. I tried to tell myself I’m still an Ashtangi even if I’m not practising every day. Or every week. Or at all.

I tried to make myself practice some days. To not eat dinner, to go to bed early, to wake before the rest of the world, to get on my mat and go through my practice like a good little yogi. But that’s just it. I was simply going through my practice. Going through the motions. I knew the series so well I didn’t have to think. My mind was elsewhere. On other things. On anything but my practice.

I’d go through the postures, moving as I should, breathing as I should, engaging my bandhas as I should. And I’d get to the end and feel a sense of relief. Right, that’s done, now I can relax, what’s next? And I realised I wasn’t feeling. I wasn’t feeling anything. I felt numb.

But I decided to forgive myself. I decided to not feel guilty. I decided it was ok. I decided to allow myself the freedom to not practice.

Finding freedom

Cartoon girl meditatingI’ll say that again. I decided to allow myself the freedom to not practice. Which is very interesting, as Ashtanga Brighton’s mission is “to inspire people to find freedom through practice”. But sometimes that freedom comes through not practising. Sometimes we just need to stop. Or pause. Or soften.

Now I know that’s a very controversial thing to say in the Ashtanga world, but I feel it now more than ever. Surely it’s more important to look within, to connect with your true self, and do what feels right for you, rather than pushing yourself harder and harder to do something because you feel you “should”? Isn’t that how injuries happen?

For now, all I know is that going to Mysore and meeting countless Ashtangis from all over the world opened my eyes to the realms of possibility within my practice. Maybe it’s not about being so rigid that you restrict all areas of your life against your better judgement. Maybe those sacrifices and compromises you make don’t have to feel so harsh so much of the time.

And maybe, just maybe, there are ways of softening within our practice, whatever form that may take.

– Hannah

What do you think?

Do any of Hannah’s words resonate with you? Perhaps you disagree with something she says? Don’t be shy to tell us what you think – we love a good Ashtanga debate! Just leave your comments below.

15 Responses to How Mysore made me softer

  1. Jonathan 10th August 2015 at 1:50 am #

    great article hannah! good to know you stopped being so hard on yourself!

    • Hannah Moss
      Hannah Moss 10th August 2015 at 11:02 am #

      Thanks Jonathan. I still feel guilty sometimes and like I’m being lazy, so it’s an ongoing process, but it’s quite a relief too!

  2. Sarah 18th August 2015 at 4:34 pm #

    Thank you – this is exactly what I needed to read today! I’ve been struggling with my practice for a while now – I’ve been working with an injury this year, moved house, and all the usual things which has meant fitting my practice in has been hard (especially when you’re not a morning person at all!). I had feelings of guilt and became totally disheartened thinking I was the worst Ashtangi ever. I even thought about giving up completely. But your words make complete sense to me. It’s so important to listen to and trust in yourself. Besides, the asana practice is only one of the 8 limbs after all!

    • Hannah Moss
      Hannah Moss 19th August 2015 at 11:53 am #

      Hi Sarah, thanks for your comment and I’m so glad to hear my article was helpful for you. Sometimes we just need the reassurance that we’re not the only one having certain feelings or thoughts. I feel like I took a risk putting these out in the public domain, but I’m glad I did, as if it helps even one person then that makes me happy. And you’re so right, about asana practice only being one of the 8 limbs, I feel it’s so easy to forget and lose sight of that sometimes. Take care and good luck with your journey xx

  3. Christl 1st September 2015 at 12:59 pm #

    Hi Hannah, thank you for this article.
    Sometimes I think, a lot of Ashtangis intregrate their life in their Ashtanga practice, instead of intregrating Ashtanga in their life. If someone is really happy with Traditional Ashtanga being the center of his life, ok, but if someone is happy with practicing three or four times a week at what time ever, this is ok as well. Just practice!

    • Hannah Moss
      Hannah Moss 1st September 2015 at 5:55 pm #

      Hi Christl, well said! Glad you like the article, Hannah.

  4. Elly 1st September 2015 at 6:29 pm #

    Hi Hannah,
    I remember you from Buddhafield, Yoga with Joey….
    I have taken the summer of teaching to spend more time with my family and friends as I normally have very little time… Like you I also take my practice very seriously and feel very guilty when I don’t practice “enough”…
    Now over the summer I have barely practiced and I have been sleeping in nearly every day, am spending more time with my family and friends and I am doing things like lying around and reading books! I look forwards to going back to a regular practice, but I am also determined to keep it on the “lighter side”. Like you, I don’t want to be a machine. I also have my age to consider, at nearly 50 I am beginning to bend the rules to suit my needs. After all Yoga is meant to meet the needs of the individual 🙂

    • Hannah Moss
      Hannah Moss 7th September 2015 at 9:20 am #

      Hi Elly, good to hear from you and thanks for sharing your experiences. It’s always good to hear how people are changing and adapting their practice to suit their lifestyle – not the other way around! Good luck with your journey, and remember you never need to feel guilty – you’re doing great! Hannah x

  5. Jane Sleven 2nd September 2015 at 9:32 am #

    What a refreshingly honest article Hannah. Welcome to the world of the maturing Astanga!! Meaning – you’re realised there’s oh so much more to Yoga than a set sequence of postures done when, where and how precisely as prescribed because – because….. errr well because if you do then all is coming.

    I was an extremely dedicated Astanga practitioner (John Scott, Pattabhi Jois) for a solid, unbroken 8-10 years. I loved it, I was completely committed to the precision of the form, the precise nature of the classically counted class, the diligence of daily self practice, the importance of not deviating from any of it. Guruji gave me his blessing to teach, recognised me & greeted me warmly on my Mysore visits & his London tours. It was the first thing I’d ever fully committed to so completely in my entire life!

    But there was a growing sense of uneasiness growing in me as my body continued ageing, as I matured in the practice, and felt more & more felt trapped by the limitations being imposed upon me by the unbending structure in shalas run by well intentioned, gymnastically able, but otherwise less mature teachers who literally had no idea how to work with someone who had a Yoga practice dating back to the 1970’s. Goodness know why I felt the need to attend shalas – well I do know! As a nomadic teacher I felt the need for sangha as I travelled around, I wanted to touch base with the community of worldwide Astanga practitioners and I did have this wonderful feeling of sangha in many places- alas not in Brighton, where I was told not to make even the smallest modification – regardless that it was guruji who’d instructed me to do it- why? Because it distracted the rest of the class….. Aaarghhh… I kept turning up summer after summer to see if I’d be accepted & the teacher finally told me she simply wasn’t mature enough in her own teaching practice to feel comfortable with me including warm ups pre supta kurmasana or backbends – I either had to go in cold or not come at all. So I left after finishing that session. Truly Hannah, I was heartbroken. Was this what practice practice all is coming had led me to?

    But this setback turned out to be a brilliant wake up call for me. I saw the Astanga world changing, saw hundreds upon hundreds of new, enthusiastic practitioners flooding in & saw them blindly following the rules & regs just as I had done. I certainly was changed, healed, awakened by Astanga – it’s a fabulous method & I have the greatest respect for it – but as a practice for self awakening – not as a dogma.

    I was so disappointed and disenchanted with all the above I gradually let my Astanga practice fall away, I maintained an occasional, maybe weekly practice, but explored my roots in classical Hatha Yoga more and realised I’d lost all my natural creativity in class planning & teaching. My mind only knew one practice – Astanga primary & half of intermediate. It took me several years, a lot of practice & study with other experienced teachers before I regained some sense of freedom from what had become for me a prison of the form and structure of Astanga.

    18 years down the line from when I first took up Astanga, I’m a very happy Yoga bunny. Astanga lies at the heart of me, as does all of Yoga. I believe in structure, form, awareness, breath with bandha, vinyasa, breath with movement and flow – but more than this I believe in the individual who stands before me on the mat. I love my practice once more!! And it could be literally anything my lovely body tells me it needs on a given day.

    Haha I obviously should have sent in an actual article on this not just a reply, before it was decided to close down the newsletter! I did often consider it, but felt my views were too controversial in this small community to be shared publicly. I don’t regret any of it now, it was a hard journey at times but then that’s a good mirror for all of life. Wishing you well on your journey dear Hannah, maybe our paths will cross again soon. Jane xxxx

    • Hannah Moss
      Hannah Moss 7th September 2015 at 9:26 am #

      Hi Jane. Thank you so much for taking the time to share your experiences and insights. Yes, a full article would have been great! In fact, we can still publish if you do decide to write one. I’m planning to write one more very soon, about where I’ve got to with my practice, but it’s difficult to find the right words and really express myself, particularly within the Ashtanga community, which as you say, could be considered quite controversial. But then it’s only my experience, I’m not saying anyone has to do the same as me. Anyway, I’m glad you’ve come to a place of peace on your yoga journey and I also wish you well along your path. See you soon, take care, Hannah x

    • Michelle 13th September 2015 at 4:35 pm #

      Dear Jane,

      Thank you (both) for your refreshing view and for your courage in sharing it. I concur! The dogma arising out of fear of not following or honoring parampara is something I’ve also seen and experienced. There seems to be less “joy” in the practice as its being taught now in some shalas. As if being strict and rigid and conforming would bring greater benefit, when in fact in my experience it only serves to create the angst or anxiety about doing the practice “correctly” about which Hannah writes so honestly.

      This is, paradoxically a system that brings freedom through dedication to a specific or set movement art form. Through reverent (honoring the body…honoring what is) practice of the form, uninterruptedly for a long time, we begin to awaken and perceive more clearly our own nature and the nature of reality. This path is a good one, but it is nonetheless one of many – and if you talk to any longtime practitionerabout their practice or how they learned it, each experience was unique to the individual. As a teacher I am sure you’ve seen this in your students, too.

      We are diverse. To expect all who practice Ashtanga faithfully to do so conforming rigidly like automatons without taking into account unique differences in mind and body is dogmatic. Joyless, imho. Isn’t it hard enough already!?

      • Jane Sleven 28th September 2016 at 8:24 pm #

        Michelle! I’ve only just come across your very thoughtful reply to my lengthy comment on Hannah Moss’ searchingly honest Astanga post from several years ago…

        Well, we’re all a few years further down the line now – I hope you’re still enjoying your practice – whatever form it fakes…

        Warmest wishes
        Jane

      • Jane Sleven 28th September 2016 at 8:25 pm #

        Oh dear, unfortunate typo in my msg should read ‘takes’ not fakes!!

  6. Christin 14th September 2015 at 7:49 am #

    Thanks Hannah for your honest opinion! This is the essence of a true Ashtangi! Itotally agree with that Ashtanga should be incorporated into your life rather than make it your life. But hey, this might not be the case for every practitioner. I am glad though to have read your article.

    I was actually planning a month at Mysore. To finally go to the origin of Ashtanga yoga. But with three kids at home and in a need of a job, I will have to plan for some other time. And maybe I will never go. Who knows? I discovered my passion for Ashtanga over a year ago, but I don’t know if I want to give up my life to it. Life is too beautiful and too short. Enjoy every moment if it!

    Namaste from Hong Kong
    Christin

  7. Jason Schramm 1st December 2015 at 7:48 am #

    Hi Hannah Thanks for this wonderful post!!! I agree with Christl that lots of people integrate their life for the Ashtanga Practice. It is about practicing the Ashtanga yoga if you are feeling great doing it. It doesn’t bind someone any time to practice for such hours. It just needs dedication and passion for the Ashtanga Yoga practice. I used to practice about 2-4 hours of Ashtanga earlier when I started daily with full dedication. It has been about 15 years since I am practicing this wonderful form of yoga and what I have earned a great body, flexibility, improved postures and much more.

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