This post was sparked by something I’ve been mulling over for some time now: the addictive aspect of asana practice. Last week on the Twitter shala the topic generated some interest so I decided to get some of my thoughts down.
It’s worth making a note about context here. I practice traditional early morning Mysore style Ashtanga yoga and aim to practice 6 days a week with the exception of moon days. This post is an exploration of my own change processes and observing the changes in other practitioners in our group over a period of years.
While I don’t believe yogasana are addictive, I do think that the traditional Ashtanga method can cause problems for certain personality types. The motivation/effort required to practice two hours of Yoga 6 days a week can and does highlight a certain disposition which could lead to a certain rigidity to the practice and life in general.
While Ashtanga yoga is often described as a physically intense form of asana practice. It seems to me that while the physical changes can be various and impressive these changes should and are accompanied by internal, mental, emotional and spiritual changes. Integrating these changes in one’s life can be challenging.
My own journey has led me to study and explore Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, Buddhism, Zen, Advaita, Ayurveda, Tantra and yogic philosophy in a desire to deepen and nourish my own Ashtanga practice. I’m not however an authority on any of these topics.
I’ve structured this post around certain questions that I have that seem to keep recurring:
Who is drawn to yoga practice and why?
Yoga is a process of change. Desikachar describes yoga as the process by which that which was impossible becomes possible. People are drawn to yoga because they want to change something. It could be for physical reasons: perhaps cosmetic changes like losing weight and staying in shape, or theraputic reasons: recovering from injuries or accidents, or performance reasons: to improve flexibility, develop strength and build stamina. Or it could be mental or psychological: to help unwind, relax, help to manage stress or mild depression.
Now wanting to change for the better is a good thing, but this can be problematic if this desire is rooted in low self esteem or a lack of self acceptance. For instance issues around body image, eating disorders or competitiveness could be aggravated by an intense yoga practice.
I was drawn to yoga initially for it’s relaxation benefits and the philosophical aspect. It’s interesting to note that there are parallels between Patanjali’s 8 limbs of yoga and the Buddha’s noble 8 fold path. But I suspect that’s a topic for another blog post! 😉
What is the purpose of asana practice?
The purification and strengthening of the body in order assist the practitioner to gain direct experience of unconditional reality or truth. I’m avoiding using the word enlightenment here as I don’t find it a very useful term. This may sound a bit complicated but what it essentially means is that the purpose of asana practice is not physical.
However the process of learning and practicing primary and intermediate series is experienced very strongly in the physical body. The primary series is called yoga chikitsa or yoga therapy and this cleansing purifying therapy is achieved largely by sweating it out on the mat. This purification process is never completed (for example we never become pure!) although with years of practice it does become more refined. The generation of heat and therefore sweating is essential for this cleansing process.
What is Ashtanga Yoga?
I’ve been fortunate enough to have had two opportunities to interview Manju Jois in Brighton over the last 2 years and I put the question to him: “How would you describe Ashtanga yoga to someone who has never done yoga before?” He described it very simply as: “The practice of Ashtanga yoga is a discipline”. I found this rather interesting as I was probably expecting something more of a description of the intense nature of the asana practice for which Ashtanga yoga is renowned.
Does Ashtanga yoga attract a certain type of personality?
I’d say that would be a definite yes! Sustaining an Ashtanga practice requires commitment, dedication, patience, kindness, perseverance, self discipline, emotional flexibility, acceptance and most importantly surrender. Now unfortunately none of us have all of these all the time and cultivating these qualities can be challenging. Because there’s a fine line between commitment and obsession and self-discipline and rigidity. Is it kindness to practice 6 days in a row when I feel run down and exhausted? The thing that comes to mind when I’m writing this is that there is no right or wrong answer and that we have to trust our intuition or our inner guru in any given situation. We each have to take personal responsibility and accept the consequences of our actions.
Personality type, diet and Ashtanga yoga
Anyone interested in diet? Ok ok, we can all put our hands down. Ayurveda is fascinating particularly for Ashtanga practitioners as you’re able to identify your constitution and then tailor your diet to support your practice and enhance emotional well being. It’s definitely out of the scope of this blog post but I’d recommend checking out the references at the end of this article if you’re interested. Prem Carlisi’s “The only way out is in” is a good primer on Ashtanga, Ayurveda and Tantra and how the three can support each other. AG Mohan’s Yoga Therapy offers in depth insight by one of Krishnamacharya’s own students. I mention diet because it’s absolutely essential to sustaining long term well being and plays a critical role in Ashtanga yoga. Remember to listen to your body, it knows what it needs! The rules for diet are very different for yogis and the average person and it’s really worth exploring this area. I’ll leave you with 3 words on this: coffee, ghee and milk! (I suspect there’ll be at least 1 blog post on this topic soon.)
Is asana practice addictive?
This came up in my interview with Manju too, he said that after a while the body craved asana practice. So after some time practicing the body gets used to feeling a certain way. The repetition of the practice has that affect on the body. For instance if the practitioner has a history of drug or alcohol abuse and part of their recovery involves the practice of yoga they are likely to have a tendency towards obsessive Yoga practice. Addiction is characterized by repetitive compulsive behaviour accompanied with obsessive thinking. Obsession and compulsion consumes the life of the addict. I’m not saying that asana practice is addictive but it’s our relationship with ourselves and how we approach life that can be highlighted here.
For this reason I believe that it’s healthy to take breaks from practice when the opportunity arises. It can be very interesting too! I was recently ill with a cold for a week and didn’t practice for 6 whole days. That’s the longest break I’ve had in over a year. I have to say I found it rather difficult! My body definitely went through a withdrawal from the practice. Most challenging however were my emotional states. I felt restless, frustrated and irritable. Understandably I was ill with a lethal dose of man flu. But it seems clear to me that my physical asana practice has a powerful stabilizing effect on my emotional state.
After all if there’s nothing to achieve or be gained then why not take a break? It’s not like there is a finish line. The structure and progressive nature of the Ashtanga practice does seem to present a rather compelling illusion that we’re working towards something, our next posture. When you can drop back from standing or put your legs behind your head then what? It won’t make your life any better. The first time I heard this I was struck by it’s truth. It also made me question why I was trying so hard.
This brings us rather neatly to tapas. Tapas is one of the 5 niyamas and literally means “to heat” and it is the fire generated by our spiritual practice. By practicing daily we generate great heat and energy. Learning to channel this energy without being controlling or becoming obsessive can be a real challenge.
Mathew Sweeney sums it up so eloquently: “This is one of the most troubling truths that yoga practitioners have to deal with. No amount of asana or pranayama or meditation practice will make you a better person or hasten your development. Nothing will. For there is nothing better than being what you are, right now.”
Finally, I hope you’ve enjoyed this reading this post. Did anything resonate with you? Is there anything that you don’t agree with? Let’s hear it. I’d love to hear about your own experiences on this topic. My motivation for writing is to provoke healthy discussion amongst Ashtanga practitioners. Namaste!
Here are some of the books that I consulted while writing my post:
Shri K Pattabhi Jois
The heart of Yoga
The only way out is in
A guide to the theraputic use of Yoga and Ayurveda for health and fitness