I am changing my blog engine. This will be down for some time…
I like ashtanga yoga.
But what I really love is practicing it in the traditional mysore style. Here is why.
Mysore practice changes your body. Repeating the same sequence again and again. Meeting the edge of your bodie’s ability. For an hour or more, every day. Of course your body will change. You will grow muscles at places you didn’t even know there were muscles. Your ligaments will get longer, your breath steadier, your metabolism will adapt to exercising on an empty stomach, you will sweat less. You will feel healthier and stronger than ever. But more importantly, your enhanced body will open for you the doors of a different yogic experience. Not blinded by the physical intensity of the practice, you will find space to explore the deeper meditative aspects of yoga. This is where the journey truly begins.
Mysore practice comes with your own dedicated yoga teacher. When you go to a mysore class, the teachers will follow you, learn your body and adjust you to exactly the level that is adequate for you at this point in time. As you progress, the teacher will give you new asanas and new adjustments to deepen your practice and keep you on your edge. This level of dedication from the teachers will give you wings.
Mysore classes are drop-in classes. You don’t have to hurry and stress yourself up to get to the yoga studio in time so you can relax there. Instead, you can relax the whole way.
Mysore practice is highly portable. Once you know a serie, you can do it on your own. Anywhere. A mat and some time is more or less the only thing you need. It is a perfect match for busy people who cannot attend classes too often, such as parents to small children, like me.
Mysore practice will make you hate all other yoga classes. Once you get used to following your own breath and your own body, once you get used to focusing inward and closing yourself to the outside world, going to any other yoga class will hurt. It will take you outside of your comfort zone. You will find it extremely disturbing to have to listen and understand a teacher’s intentions, follow a different sequence, brush against totally unfamiliar asanas. You will stand there and you will think: ‘what am i doing here, when i could be somewhere else and do my practice’.
Some would say that mysore practice will hurt you. Neck pain, tensed shoulders, aching lower back, not to speak about the more serious injuries like ligament ruptures. Every ashtanga student has tales to tell of what their body has been through. But let’s be honest, the mysore practice itself is not the cause of your hurt, your mind is. Letting a strong will take over the practice and blindly forcing your body beyond its limit is not yoga. It is grasping. It is unskillful.
Mysore practice is a form of meditation. The series of asanas in the mysore practice are finely-tuned choreographies. Each moment in the serie combines the rhythm of breath with points of focus for your eyes and a complex map of activated and relaxed muscles, of movement and immobility. Getting every moment right is impossible. It is an utopia. But trying to get it right will occupy your whole mind, leaving no space for day-dreaming. It also requires you to be constantly aware of your body. In other words, the practice requires you to maintain both concentration and mindfulness, the two pillars of meditation.
Mysore practice changes your mind. Every time you practice, you are reprogramming your mind toward non-grasping, openness, acceptance and equanimity. Over years, this programming will become more permanent. You will experience states of mental emptiness, of calm and joyful bliss, of profound equanimity. Not too often, mind you, and not for free. Only by practicing again and again will you gain some control over those very addictive mental states.
Mysore practice will make you face discomfort and smile at it. Discomfort in asanas that will leave you wrenched and exhausted. Mental discomfort of having practiced with a grasping mind, leaving you all shaky and confused in your head. Shame of letting out a noisy fart in the middle of the room, as the teacher twisted you further in marichiasana. Discomfort of showing so much of your body to your fellow yogis. All this is intimidating at first, then humbling, then just beautiful.
Mysore practice is an intimate social experience. It brings up love and acceptance of other’s bodies in a way that may feel almost promiscuous to out-standers, but which reflects the coming to a place of balance and grounding towards the physical body. Going through this process in the company of others is deeply bonding. Your fellow yogis may not become friends, you may not even talk to them, but they will be special to you.
Mysore practice is always the same, yet always different. You show a cloud to a non ashtangi, she will say ‘This is a cloud. Great, I have seen those before. I am bored, give me something new.’. The ashtangi will look at the cloud and say ‘Wow, I have never seen this cloud before. And it changes all the time. I could watch it forever and it would show me all the shapes in the world.’. The same stands true of asanas. You can practice the same asanas, again and again, and yet regularly rediscover those asanas as your body changes and your understanding deepens, thus making the asanas forever new. In fact, many describe the mysore practice as a never-ending serie of cycles, in which every insight you gain makes the practice new and fresh all over again.
Mysore practice has no end. You stay at your edge and, as you progress, so will your edge. There is no end to it. No reward at the end of the path. The path is the goal. Every step is a reward. And since it has no end, it teaches you to stop grasping.
I am starting to realize the depth of the practice I have engaged in.
It took me a whole year to just start to feel comfortable with the primary serie. And by comfortable, I don’t even suggest any kind of mastery, far from it. I haven’t even completed the serie!
But I am not anymore totally physically wrenched and mentally overwhelmed by my daily practice. As my body has gained in strength and flexibility, I am starting to experience a form of relaxation through the practice, a letting go of bodily tension, a softening of my will and mental activity. I am starting to find a space where I can settle and listen while practicing. A space where I can open up my awareness. And what I find in this space gives a foretaste of endless possibilities.
I have read so many books about buddhist philosophy, mindfulness, meditation, and listened to so many podcasts. Most of what I have read or heard, I understood in an intellectual way. But through my yoga practice, I get reacquainted with all those ideas in a brand new way, not as ideas but as direct experiences.
Again, I am struck by the similarities between the yogic path and zen meditation. Different journeys, same direction.
Some time this month ends my first year of regular Mysore practice.
One year that passed fast, but triggered such deep changes into my mind and body. Much deeper than my earlier seven years of less committed yoga practice.
At some point during this year, my practice stopped being influenced by trying to reach further and deeper. Without consciously seeking it, I have gradually let go of the grasping pressure in my practice and somehow come into a peaceful acceptance of wherever I am.
This realization is partly fueled by the deeper insight that change will happen anyway. I don’t have to strive for it. By just maintaining a regular practice, strength, mastery and depth will come, in their own time.
Letting go of the pressure to achieve was liberating. For those of you who have practiced Ashtanga or been to Mysore classes, I am quite sure you will have felt the intense energy of this practice and the way having others around you easily triggers one’s reflex of seeking achievement. But practicing with a mind constantly craving more from the body is clearly a hindrance to meeting the body where it is and listening to it. Clear of that distraction, I feel a new space opening in my practice.
An other effect of the regular practice has been a growing sense of emotional stability. I have become more equanimous. I see regular proofs of it in my daily life: a couple of weeks ago, my bicycle got stolen. No later than yesterday, I heard from the repair shop that my car is good for the scrap yard. I had invested a lot of energy into both of them, yet their loss barely affected me. I almost immediately accepted the change and moved on, with no further emotional quakes.
My body is still transforming as well. Interestingly, the areas of change have moved around during this year. These last two months, I have felt a lot happening in my hips. I have connected with hip muscles I barely felt before, such as those that get activated in navasana and utthita pandangustasana. My rib cage is also changing. It feels like my ribs are starting to gain a kind of lateral flexibility and can sort of glide on top of each other. Sometimes I can hear light crackings in my ribcage in Marichiasana C and D (that’s not as bad as it sounds . I have a better control of my sweating too, mostly because I don’t spend my energy as fast as before and thereby don’t overheat so much.
One year gone, many more to come. I am pretty confident to be on a long journey. No need to hurry anymore.
Ever since I was introduced to yoga some 8 years ago, I have had this question nagging me in the back of my head: where do the asanas come from? how did they appear and evolve?
It’s not that I care so much: I am not dogmatic about yoga and seeing it as a continuously evolving practice seems natural. But to understand a thing, it’s always nice to get a historical perspective on it.
Anyway, I finally got some answers in this yoga journal article: http://www.yogajournal.com/wisdom/466
Have a nice read!
No, I am not about to rant about the eponymous brand of yoga products.
What I want to share is this disturbing thing that regularly happens to the under-side of my big toes, namely that, as a result of sustained yoga practice, the skin of my toes regularly wears away to the point of leaving a bloody raw patch in the middle of my poor biggies.
I won’t attach a picture
But here is what’s happening: I am practicing mostly on a jade mat. It’s a reasonably sticky mat with a rather rough texture. When doing the primary serie up to Kukutasana (the one below), which is where I stop nowadays, and if am not confused in my maths, that means I land on my toes into a plank a total of 38 times. 5 to 6 days a week in the worst case.
Since I am not too good at floating backward, I land with most of my body weight each time. And since I land with straight feet and my big toes stick out, the impact gets focused on the skin under my big toes. Against the rough mat. That’s what is wearing them to the point of scraping away a small patch of skin in their middle.
This phenomenon cannot be that unusual, so I decided to write about it.
It’s not a big deal, really: the skin heals quickly. Stopping practice or avoiding jump backs for a day or two and it heals completely. But when it happens and starts hurting, usually in the middle of practice, the sharp pain becomes handicapping and cuts the strength out of the forward jumps and backward landings.
So what to do?
One idea would be to land on all toes at the same time, but that would mean maintaining an inward rotation of the thighs while landing backward, which, if you try, is really tricky and probably not a good idea with regard to the hip joints.
A much better solution would be to float backward and land on my toes like a cloud of mist on a patch of morning grass, like this:
Obviously not for the clumsy beginner. Not for me yet, at least. But definitely the way to go.
In the meantime, I have tried wrapping my toes in surgical tape. It works, even though the tape gets rubbed away during the practice.
(Here is an old post I started to write last august but somehow never finished. Until now, a day away from xmas
I have just finished a week-long workshop with Dena and Jack Kingsberg at the Yogashala in Stockholm. Two hours of mysore practice every morning for 6 days.
Prior to the workshop, I had spent 6 weeks practicing alone. Just me and my mat, and the occasional loved family member beside, and the sun above, and the cool wind in the trees… Then, suddenly, I found myself trying to continue my practice with a packed class of heavy-breathing yogis around me, in a room heated like a sauna, with world renowned teachers. The mental pressure literally threw me out of balance, both physically and mentally. In the middle of the week, I could not even keep my balance in utthita hasta pandangustasana. But interestingly enough, a part of my mind kept watching my struggles with equanimity and a form of love, just making mental notes and adjusting myself. Not judging, not pushing. In fact, I did not even care how degraded my practice was. I just noted my lack of focus, my irregular breath, my fragmented mind, my body leaking energy away… and hugged them. What is one day of struggling, when I have a lifetime of practice still ahead of me?
I got a slightly scary glimpse of the kind of journey I have started. One year of mysore practice is just the very first step on a long path. The practice is a pressure cooker. I am sitting right inside it and the lid has just been closed. At any time, in any weak moment, I can popup the lid and jump out. But the only way to melt and re-model my self is to remain inside. Day after day, year after year.
I just found a great blog about Ashtanga yoga: http://ashtangayoginionthemove.blogspot.se/.
Here for example is a long post about Marichyasana C. I remember googling around a lot when I first tackled this asana, a year or so ago, and this post would have been of great help. I love the way she understands the sequencing of the series
6 weeks of holidays have passed, roaming Europe with my family and my mat.
Poor mat, it is falling apart, literally. It has served me well for 3 years, but all the chaturangas and jump-throughs have digged holes in its surface and I now find myself covered with small mat-crumbs after each practice
Good-bye dear old mat, I am leaving you in the countryside. May you rest in peace there.
Somehow, I managed to keep practicing most of this summer.
Sometimes in cramped conditions as apparent on the picture above
I haven’t gotten deeper in any particular asana but I feel an increasing ease and flow through the primary serie, a sort of calm confidence and a sense of detachment from the physical aspect of the practice. This gives my mind more space to focus on the meditation part, which in itself opens a whole world of possibilities…
In 6 weeks, I went to only one class in a studio, a mysore class at Ashtanga Yoga Paris, and it was thrilling to get a taste of how people practice in my former hometown
The rest of the time, I practiced at home, in living rooms, in gardens, in a garage or on the floor of hotel rooms. Practicing outdoors was wonderful, but quite challenging: flies kept landing on me, the ground under the mat was never even and distractions were plentyful.
Now I am back in Stockholm. I went to a bikram class today, for a change, and was shocked by how easy I went through the whole sequence. Last time I did some bikram was a year ago and it used to feel like torture. Yet another proof of the deep physical changes brought upon me by the mysore practice.
In 2 days, I’ll jump start the season with a one week mysore workshop lead by Dena Kingsberg. Then back to Laruga and David’s class at Yogayama