“Ashtanga is a strong practice – it’s really physical…really intense.”
I hear statements like this on a daily basis and I get it – Ashtanga can seem very intimidating if you aren’t familiar with its lineage and reasoning behind each posture and breath. And to some extent it’s true. It is a strong practice, but only within the reasonable measures of your own body. Your breath guides the body through the series and your mind remains focused to that breath, a very organic yoga process.
I know how to engage my Bandhas and I know my Ujjayi breath, so to me the practice can almost get switched on automatically once I set foot on the mat. Similarly, when you are in a led class and the teacher starts talking you through the postures and breath counts it becomes easy to switch the mind off and focus only on directions given. I had reached a point in my personal practice where my mind and body kept getting stuck; I kept breaking down in tears and started to be frightened of my morning practice as soon as the alarm went off. I felt almost disconnected to my practice. It’s easy, whether new to the practice or not, to forget why we do what we do and why we should be thankful for the practice every morning. It’s easy to forget how to be mindful during the practice.
Mindful – there’s an interesting word. What does it mean and how does it apply to Ashtanga yoga? I decided to head off to a Buddhist Monastery in Scotland to find out for myself.
In search of a mindful approach to Ashtanga Yoga
I searched the internet wildly looking for instant answers and solutions to appear (what a way to start a mindful approach, eh?) In my mad search for peace of mind I came across a Buddhist Monastery in Scotland offering a course on a mindful approach to Ashtanga Yoga and felt like my prayers were finally answered. I gulped down my 4th coffee, let out a sigh of relief and thought “FINALLY! Bring on the mindfulness, I am READY for you.”
I arrived in Samye Ling Tibetan Buddhist Monastery on a Friday afternoon and felt instantly at home. The grounds are beautiful and there’s a sense of magic energy in the air. There’s no internet signal and no phone reception – PANIC! How on earth am I going to Instagram all of this beauty?
Well that’s just it. That’s why I went to Samye Ling – to reconnect with myself, my breath, my practice and my mind. On the night we arrived we met our teacher for the next 3 days – Linda Douglas. She is so soft-spoken you hardly hear her coming into the room; her mannerism is so soft and gentle I feel like a monster truck of energy compared to her. Linda works within education, has a background in social work (Applied Social Studies) and lectures in Psychology, Stress Awareness & Mindfulness, Child Development, Mental Health issues and a range of health related subjects.
She has trained extensively in yoga and made her first trip to India in 2003, where she initiated her studies with Sri K Pattabhi Jois and Sharath Rangaswamy. She is the 3rd teacher in Scotland to be authorised to teach Ashtanga Yoga by KPJAYI, Mysore. She has studied in ashrams in the Himalayas as well as with international yoga teachers including Sri Dharma Mittra, Ana Forrest, David Swenson and Shiva Rea. She has also trained as a Tai Chi and Qi Gong instructor, motivated by her experience of living in rural China.
When we start to break down the standing sequence of the primary series we spend 3 hours on sun salutations alone. I was fighting every second of this slow process, my body begging to move faster as it normally does. This internal fight carried on for a couple of days and then finally I surrendered. I am not sure if it was the mindfulness or the meditation, the prayers or the immense amount of sleep, but something changed and finally I became slow and steady, feeling every muscle and nerve working together. It was both fast and in slow motion…. I was looking out but could see everything inside too.
By the end of the course I laid down on the temple floor looking up at the amazing ceiling and felt at peace. I finally understood what this was all about. Mindfulness is not about chilling out, or going slow. It’s about connecting every single organism of your mind and body and letting it be without interruptions from the ego. All I knew, all I was used to, had to be broken down to be rebuilt with love and peace at the forefront.
We spend so much of our life fitting in our routines, which is normal because we have lives and rent and bills to pay. But the focus of routine can make some things, even our practice, turn into habits. We have habits like drinking and eating, and then the practice becomes one too. Even a chore on some days
But this mindful approach was a good reminder as to how blessed we are to be able to practice, how lucky we are to have a body which can carry us, how loving our mind can be. We mustn’t forget to remain mindful and grateful amongst all the rush and panic. This is what matters, the rest is just detail. So take a step back, close your eyes, feel your toes dig into the ground, feel your legs, your hips, feel your breath fill your lung space, feel your chest lift… Allow every sensation to fill you with wonder and appreciation. And now… Ekam inhale…
On the Monday morning I woke at 5am to practice, at 6am I went to prayers, at 7am I ate and by 9am we left the monastery. I sat in the car with a sense of fullness, full on life. It was truly amazing.
I encourage you to find your own path to this peace of mind. It doesn’t have to be the same, but next time you wake up and roll out of bed to practice out of habit, take a moment to hold your hand to your heart. Breathe. Be present and thankful.