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
This is something you have spent a fair amount of time of thinking about. I will respond to this on my return and I look forward to reading some of the comments that will I hope will be posted in the meantime.
Great article! I always like to read something about Ashtanga after my morning practice, helps me savour the practice. I’m not in Brighton, but practice Mysore style in London at the Yoga Place.
Keep up the great posts!
Always good to hear from practitioners especially from other cities! Mind you London isn’t that far.
I love the idea of going to another city pretty much anywhere in the world and finding Ashtangis to practice with.
I’d not heard of Yoga Place so I’ll add it to the links section of the site. Good to see that there’s Mysore style Ashtanga there too!
Thanks for the encouragement!
Thanks David, It’ll be lovely to practice in a warmer climate right now. PS I’m not holding my breath for any comments. The topic is one that I’ve been mulling over for a while and the blog post turned out to be a lot longer than I was planning. Oops. Have a great holiday!
Great thoughts…thanks! Very relevant to me at the moment as I’ve just been trying to explain to my very confused partner why I still practise every day even though I have back pain at the moment…
I don’t think sticking to daily practice necessarily means being ‘attached’ or striving – I think it’s just about maintaining the flow of the practice in life. So just as each practice in itself is flowing and continuous, so the practice over time should be…
Obviously taking a break while ill makes total sense! But otherwise, practising each day seems right – just gently giving your body and soul a reminder to connect, whether or not you’re going to get very ‘far’ – whatever that means!
This issue of ‘going far’ and ‘getting somewhere’ with yoga is also interesting. In a sense, we’re moving backwards on our journeys as much as going forward – going back to a kind of source that’s in us all the time, but learning to be tend it and become more aware of it. That’s kind of a nice thought for me at the moment – going backwards into myself, rather than reaching forwards somewhere ‘out there’ (cos that hurts too much!).
thanks for the comment. Sorry to hear about your back pain. As you know I suffered quite severe back pain for around 6 months. My first instinct was to stop the thing that was “causing” my pain, but instead I modified my practice and kept it steady with Sarah’s help. That taught me a great deal about how I want (quite naturally) to avoid any pain in life. It also taught me to be gentle yet persistant.
Transformation and healing doesn’t come free of discomfort and upheaval. But it’s hard to remember that sometimes and it’s also not easy to explain either. Although you could compare the quite intense pain caused by learning to play the guitar or making a barre chord as quite similar. In yoga the body is the instrument with which we make the mind sing!
(Sorry it’s Friday afternoon.)
I’ve only just got round to reading this blog post (sorry darling) and have to say it makes for a very interesting and thought provoking read. My own Ashtanga journey has been a very rapid one, having thrown myself in at the deep end of starting 5-day-a-week morning Mysore style with no previous experience of Ashtanga! The other day I was telling a new acquaintance how I was struggling to find the time to build up my new writing career, as I was too busy working part time just to survive. He asked if I’d be willing to work evenings, and even into the night, just until I’d got it off the ground. My answer was no, I wouldn’t be willing to do that because I go to bed at 9.30pm in order to get up at 5.30am every day to practice. And he said “Wow, you really are into yoga aren’t you?”
And it struck me in that moment just how important Ashtanga has become to me over the last 10 months. So important in fact that I place it above my career in my list of priorities, even though I’m struggling to make ends meet. I also realised recently how important it’s become to practice not only 5 days a week, but 6. When Sunday self-practice sessions were suggested a few months ago, my first reaction was there’s no way I’d want to commit to that every week. Surely 5 days a week are enough and wouldn’t I miss having 2 lie-ins at the weekend? But a few months of Sunday practice later, I find I’m very disappointed that the sessions have ended and am even offering to undertake the administration of setting up a new group elsewhere.
So….. am I addicted? Such an interesting question and such a powerful word. No, I don’t think I am. I simply think that I’ve found something which brings more meaning, awareness and peace into my life than anything else I know, and naturally I want it to continue. So I find myself dedicating more and more time, thought and energy to it and have changed my entire lifestyle because of it. But at the same time I don’t give myself a hard time if I miss practice one morning, or even a whole week for that matter. I feel like the practice has taken hold of me, not in an aggressive, demanding way, but in a gently supportive and encouraging way. And to me that’s a very positive thing.