Updated: Jun 14, 2019
Let's talk about the Ashtanga yoga method and the importance of showing up for practice.
First, let's define the Ashtanga yoga method. The Ashtanga yoga method is an eight limb approach to living:
Self discipline (niyamas)
Physical postures (asana)
Withdrawal of external stimulus (pratyahara)
State of bliss (samadhi)
Notice, that asana is the third of eight steps to reaching a state of bliss; however, it's often the limb that we focus on the most. It's easy to focus on asana because the yoga practice starts off as a very physical practice. We are moving our bodies, strengthening and elongating muscles, sweating, and putting forth physical exertion.
When we look at asana in the Ashtanga method, there is a sequence of postures that are practiced with steady breath and a gazing point. Take a look at the Ashtanga Primary Series most of us practice here as demonstrated from the Ashtanga Dispatch. This method of yoga is cleansing for the body from the internal heat created through breath and movement. It strengthens the bones and tissues of the body and provides the opportunity to focus or calm fluctuating thoughts.
Let's explore why it's important to practice yoga with consistency and dedication and how we can benefit.
What Lessons Are We Getting In Yoga?
“My teacher was not teaching where to put my foot, my hand, or how to create the “perfect” posture. This was not his aim. His goal was to teach me Yoga on the highest level, as if he was holding a mirror in front of me to remind of my ingrained tendencies, so that I could confront and move beyond them, and direct my energy to a higher aim, something higher than fear." -Fiona Stang
When we step on our yoga mat, we start a journey. This journey has many twists and turns, and one person's journey is different from others. However, we are all on a unique path to the same destination. According to Patanjali, the sage who wrote the Yoga Sutras, the reason we practice yoga is to calm the fluctuations of the mind. These fluctuations of the mind create distortions for how we view ourselves and the world around us. The study of the Yoga Sutras is where we can dive deeper into the meaning of yoga and our true selves being revealed. However, for today, let's stick with skimming the surface.
For many of us, our yoga practice is simply physical, we come in, we move our body, and we leave. However, I promise you, so much more is happening. On our yoga journeys, we take so many lessons from our practice that relate to life. Let's explore.
Think about your yoga practice. Does anything come to mind outside of maybe specific asanas, or feeling that you work hard? Maybe you think of your practice and you think about waking up early, or your favorite teacher. All of these thoughts are great! However, does anything deeper come to mind? Have you experienced anger on your mat? What about feeling like you wanted to cry? Where are these feelings coming from?
Here's my experience: I was taking a led primary class and I felt that the teacher was counting navasana (boat pose) too slow. This is a hard posture, and in the Ashtanga practice, we hold navasana for five breaths for five rounds! I literally had feelings of rage in this class. Now, why did I feel this rage during navasana? Once I became aware of this feeling I explored within myself. I had to consider what in this scenario during yoga matched my life that would be such a trigger? It finally hit me...I didn't have control!
I'd never noticed these types of feelings before, though I'm sure they were there. The difference is at that moment, I became aware of them. This awareness is something that took several years of consistent practice for me to realize. This experience on my mat helped me see a trend within my own life and as a result, I have been able to change my attitude and response to similar triggers.
What kind of thoughts are happening in your practice when you get to a posture that is challenging? Maybe it's in dhanurasana, navasana, or bhujapidasana (shown below) to name a few.
Often, difficult postures feel really uncomfortable. Maybe they are uncomfortable because we have to dig deep for strength. Or maybe they are uncomfortable because they are new and we don't quite know how they work yet. Or maybe, they create a really intense stretch that gives an uncomfortable sensation.
What happens when these postures come up on your mat? Do you attack them head on? Do you, maybe silently, complain? Do you go through them as quick as possible and hope your teacher doesn't make you do them again? Do you try and break down the posture to learn how it works best with your body?
Now ask yourself, how do you approach challenges in life? Are there similarities to handling challenges life with challenges in your yoga practice? Do you see a trend or patterned behavior?
Stilling the Mind's Thoughts
During your yoga practice, what's going on in your mind? Are you thinking about the emails you need to answer? Are you noticing the person next to you and how they are moving or breathing? Are you fidgeting with your hair or clothing? Is your mind still? Or maybe you can relate, in one way or another, to all of these.
Our yoga practice gives us the opportunity to calm our mind. This doesn't mean to have a blank or empty mind. It simply means that the mind is focused on a point of concentration. For example, you're in a yoga posture and you've engaged bandhas, you've locked in on your gazing point, and you're counting your deep breaths. There are no other thoughts. That's a point in time where you were able to still your mind! For most of us, if this happens it's short lived, but we get a little taste of it.
Over time, with consistent practice, we more frequently experience a still mind. Do you know why? BECAUSE YOU ARE PRACTICING! Practice is literally training our mind and body. How do you get results? You practice!
Think of it like this, if you want to learn a new skill, say how to do a bar muscle up, what do you do? 1) you practice movements regularly 2) you work with a coach to help you 3) you gain the strength required for the movement.
The same thing translates to calming the mind! How do you learn to calm the mind? 1) you practice regularly 2) you work with a teacher to help you 3) you gain the strength to control the mind's thoughts. Do you see the correlation in learning a physical skill with learning to concentrating the mind?
There is a sense of community in yoga; like I mentioned earlier, we are all a unique journey to a common destination and as a result we are all connected. Our yoga teachers work tirelessly to hold space for us to explore ourselves and behaviors in our yoga practice. They strive to learn more about yoga, Ashtanga, asana, philosophy, etc. to help us on our journey. Our teachers make sacrifices so they can show up for us; they create safe spaces to learn, breathe and move, all because they believe in the power of yoga and they believe in us.
If you're lucky enough to be close to a network of teachers, or even one teacher, don't take it for granted. Some people aren't always afforded this opportunity based on location or other factors. The biggest gift you can give your teacher is coming to class and putting in the work.
Putting it Together
Yoga asana is one part of a eight limb approach to life. We practice yoga to calm the mind to allow our true selves to be revealed. Through consistent practice, we become more self aware of our thought patterns on the mat and how they translate in the world. Can we use challenges in our practice as a catalyst to make change in our thoughts, behaviors, and lives?
We train our minds to calm the continual fluctuations of thoughts. This is hard, it take consistent practice, and over time can become a magical experience when the stillness occurs for more than a few brief seconds.
The community of yogis on this journey is a powerful force. Thanks to the selfless teachers who show us the way and bring the gift of yoga to us. They believe in us, we should also believe in us, and show it by coming to class.
"Practice becomes firmly established when it has been cultivated uninterruptedly and with devotion over a prolonged period of time." Yoga Sutra 1.14
Top 10 Reasons To Show Up
If this article wasn't enough to convince you to practice yoga consistently or "show up" or maybe it was too long to read, here are my top 10 reasons to come to class:
Your teacher is a wealth of knowledge. Don't take her/him for granted, go to practice and soak up as much of her knowledge as you can!
Get physical exercise through yoga-move, breath, and sweat.
Take care of yourself! We all have many demands placed on us for time, but it's important to take care of yourself. It's OK to allocate time for your yoga practice.
Learn how your mind and body responds to certain stimuli. Self awareness increases with consistent yoga practice.
Join a community of people who are on a unique journey to the same destination.
Cleanse the body through internal heat created during practice.
Get exposure to the deeper meanings of yoga and the "true self."
Train your mind to calm your racing thoughts.
Get comfortable with being uncomfortable. It starts on your mat and translates to life.
Learn how to truly breathe.
Share your stores and experiences of having a consistent yoga practice with me!