An invitation to daily practice

ashtanga daily practiceSo you’ve been practicing yoga for a while. You love it. You’ve bought a nice mat, a fancy mat bag, you have the right clothes, you may even have one of those little scented pouches to put over your eyes when you’re in savasana at the end of your practice. You may even get up early a couple of mornings a week to practice Mysore style Ashtanga yoga. Maybe you’ve not quite managed to get up early to practice in the traditional way, but it intrigues you and you’d like to give it a go. Is this you? Well then dear reader you’re in for a treat!

Daily Ashtanga practice

Firstly lets clarify what daily Ashtanga yoga practice actually means: It’s practicing early morning Sunday to Friday with a rest on Saturday. Easy eh? It’s not even daily! But wait a minute! We also don’t practice on new or full moon days either – Bonus! And if you’re a lady you also get the first 3 days of your period off. By now we are all punching the air as we get ready to unroll our mats right? But hang on a minute, why the heck should we practice 6 days a week? What are the benefits?

The benefits of daily practice

The benefits of yoga postures are well recorded. Guruji, the late K Pattabhi Jois documented the benefits of the Ashtanga primary series in his book: Yoga Mala. Although the practice affects different people in different ways it will make anyone stronger and more flexible. I’ve never been overweight by western standards but I’ve also lost and kept off a fair amount of weight (around 15kg), My body is toned and my skin is healthy, my immune system is strong – meaning that I suffer from a brief mild cold once every 18 months, my hair and nails grow at a rate of knots, I have good posture, balance and core strength. Harder to measure are the mental/emotional benefits which I consider to be: an increase in humility, patience, sense of humour, perception, honesty, empathy, and self discipline. I’ve also directly witnessed someone with bowel difficulties, indigestion, excess gas and irritable bowels experiencing dramatic immediate alleviation of these symptoms as a direct result of daily practice of the Ashtanga primary series. All of this however is anecdotal and I can’t say specifically what the benefits will be for you but I can share with you my journey to daily early morning Mysore style Ashtanga yoga and invite you to experience it yourself at a shala near you. The chances are if you’re still reading this then it’s something you’re interested in.

Getting it

I’m not one of those lucky few who got it (it being daily practice) immediately. For me it was a slow progression to daily practice – one that could have been quicker. So let me say this: If you are serious about giving the practice of Ashtanga yoga a good go – I’d like to encourage you get up early tomorrow morning, go to your nearest shala and present yourself to the teacher there regardless of having ever done any Ashtanga yoga. Do the same thing a minimum of 5 days a week for at least two months. After that make an informed decision as to whether it’s something you’d like to pursue. Put aside your reservations and find out for yourself! There is nothing more compelling than your own direct experience. Go for it!

If you still have reservations and/or like to read blog posts then lets move on:

How early?

There are a number of natural obstacles that appear along the road to daily practice. First off if you’ve never done an early morning Mysore class there’s the ‘getting up earlier’ obstacle to overcome. This is how I did it:

Firstly I’d like to say that I’ve never been a ‘morning’ person. I’d been going to led beginner’s evening classes for a month or so with a friend. I loved the intensity of these led sessions. The teacher noticing that we were coming regularly, encouraged us to come to the early morning Mysore style class. So my mate and I decided at the end of a week that we were going to take the plunge and agreed to meet at the yoga studio at 6:30am the next Monday morning. I found it quite exciting getting up early – like I was going on some exotic holiday. Everything was the same but it looked different at that time of the morning.

My friend soon moved away from Brighton but our pact was very useful to get me over the hump of getting up early. The only way to get up early consistently is to go to bed earlier. Doh! While you’re getting up early and going to bed late it’s going to be a bit of a bumpy ride. It’ll take a while for your body clock to adjust.

Know what you want

You can’t make a big change like practicing daily without it affecting other areas of your life. It will bring into focus what you really value and then you can make decisions based on what’s important to you. You may discover that that you really love cycling and swimming.

To begin with I was practicing on average 3 times a week in the morning and also doing regular martial arts classes 3 times a week. While this may sound like a good balance in practice it meant that I couldn’t fully commit to either activity. Eventually I decided to let go of the martial arts to fully immerse myself in the practice.

You may have another physical activity that you enjoy in your life besides Ashtanga yoga – and you don’t have to give it up. The fact is that we can’t do all the things we enjoy in life as much as we’d like to. In my case I asked myself what I’d still likely to be doing when I’m 70 or 80 and the answer for me was clearly yoga. In fact my inspiration was meeting a 72 year old at a weekend yoga workshop some years earlier. My first yoga teacher was also in his 60s when I met him. In the end it was a relief rather than a sacrifice to make the decision.

Keeping it going

The other thing I was struggling with was consistency in my practice. My ‘flexible’ schedule meant that if I missed practice on Monday I could still make it up later in the week. The problem was I tended to be too ‘flexible’ and then would practice Wed, Thurs and Friday followed by 3 or 4 days off. The body craves routine and there’s nothing quite like consistent daily practice. It’s difficult to emphasize how important this consistency is when it comes to yoga practice.

Hard times

When it comes to daily practice over a long period of time – pain and upset is unavoidable. You can’t dramatically change your breathing pattern, stretch your muscles and open your joints and not expect there to be consequences of such deep and profound body work. It also seems very likely (if you consider Body Psychotherapy) that we store and process our experiences both mentally and in our physical bodies.

Yoga therapy

The work we do on our mats can have a powerful impact on our emotional states as we begin the healing process of breathing deeply into our deepest and tightest places: be they hips, shoulders, chest or back. I’ve shed many tears on my mat and at times collapsed with exhaustion or stomped off my mat in anger and frustration.

Practice with faith

Hopefully by the time the hard times come you’ll have built up enough faith in the practice to know that it’s really a processs of deep healing rather than destructive pain. Very often medicine doesn’t taste nice but it’s good for us so we take it. Being part of a community of fellow practitioners is really important because you very quickly discover that there are many that have gone through nearly exactly the same thing as you are. Ask any practitioner who you admire or respect and they’ll recount numerous harrowing experiences about knees, hips, wrists, shoulders… you name it.

Again not everyone suffers the same difficulties and some are blessed with seemingly minor troubles. It’s best not to judge and instead to cultivate an attitude of gratitude for your own health and practice despite your difficulties. Sounds simple doesn’t it? Good luck!

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