Four Years of Mysore Style Ashtanga Yoga

Maya Yoga tribe with Kino MacGregor – Photo by Clyde Heppner

Every year I reflect on my practice. It all started when I was asked to write about it for my yoga shala’s blog. I figured it might be helpful to look back and see what I’ve discovered along the way and to share these discoveries with others, should they consider taking the journey as well.

This year’s reflections feel especially significant as I am about to launch into sharing these practices with the growing Midwest Alliance for Mindfulness community. It has been a dream to help others access the healing qualities of this deep-diving practice and my heartfelt wish is that more people will have the opportunity to benefit from it.

Dec 2018 will conclude four years of daily Mysore style ashtanga yoga practice and vipassana style meditation. I have also reflected on year one, year two and year three of this practice (see below) and it is interesting to go back and see where I have been. There are always new insights and discoveries and I am profoundly grateful to have these practices in my life.

The turning of 2017 into 2018 brought with it some unexpected disruptions that altered my usual routine. A family tragedy sent me traveling through three states at the turn of the year, then I contracted the marathon flu that was going around, then I traveled to the opposite end of the globe to attended my first ashtanga yoga retreat, and then I coordinated the opening of a mindfulness and meditation center. I went from practicing daily Mysore, to a wacky schedule of:

  • whatever yoga was offered at any studio I could find
  • practicing next to my bed in a rented room
  • savasana only practice as I convalesced
  • intensive mysore in a steamy outdoor shala in Thailand
  • catch-as-catch-can jet lagged yoga
  • shorter practices accommodating work-life obligations
Thailand ashtanga yoga retreat with Kathleen Kastner & Wade Mortenson

These disruptions were very informative. I noticed subtle changes in my balance, both emotionally and physically. At times, my mind seemed a little more scattered – I felt a little less magnanimous. Its interesting though, that even with this altered routine, I was able to maintain a level of equanimity that was unavailable to me in the past. I prefer my routine and I feel at my best with it, but it is reassuring to know that it can be adapted when needed.

Something that is recently emerging is an opening and lengthening of the front body in the area of the diaphragm as well as a strengthening of the back body. We all have these areas of guardedness or tension or imbalance that yoga helps to soften and re-align. For many of us, our usually daily posture looks a little bit like the letter C. Over time, we can develop something called “upper and/or lower crossed syndrome”, which includes head forward with strain in the back of the neck and upper shoulders, constriction of the chest, upper abdomen, hip flexors and low back muscles, and underuse of the front the neck and lower abdominal muscles. We curl in on our tender parts and turn our backs to the world.

Urdhva dhanurasana, or wheel pose (backbend), requires a reversing of all of our habitual postural elements and continues to be quite a challenge for me. This posture creates a stretching and lengthening of the front of the body and a contraction of the muscles of the back body. It also requires strong adduction of the anterior thigh muscles and the shoulder muscles are pushing straight up and back. All these muscles are more accustomed to working in the opposite direction in daily life. In yoga, the mental control needed to persevere through the discomfort of challenging these ingrained habits, day in and day out, is a practice in and of itself. We all develop imbalances in our bodies and minds in the very act of living and the practice of yoga is helpful in sorting these out if we will allow it.

Here and there I have dipped my toes in the stormy water of the second or intermediate series of ashtanga yoga, called nadi sodhana. This series was meant to clear the energy channels – which I take to mean it is stimulating, opening and expanding. I have more easily connected with the grounding, inward gazing of the primary series, so there has been some reluctance moving forward. People say the journey into second series can be crazy making for some. According to David Garrigues, “The content of energy that is obstructed or somehow held back or blocked is often ‘negativity’, in the form of anger, resentment, grief, trauma, fear, guilt and such.” It makes me wonder what I might find when I’m ready to move forward, slowly opening and expanding this conditioned letter C into a full circle.

2016 Ashtanga yoga teacher interns

Ashtanga yoga cultivates beneficial attitudes, focused attention (including breath and drishti or gaze), devotion and commitment, as well as physical endurance and fitness. Even though I have a number of years of dedicated practice behind me, I still have a long way to go. I’m very curious to see how this all unfolds. Yet, I am aware that I’m getting up there in age and there are limits to what this body can do. I sometimes wonder if my body simply isn’t meant for wheel pose, or binding, or floating, but I keep an open mind about it and I am willing to embrace it should it come.

The practice has served me well, even without these things. Per Kino MacGregor’s advice, I am being more mindful of practicing the series “like a prayer” – steadily, faithfully, and unadorned. I dedicate any benefits I receive, as humble and plodding as they may be, to the happiness and wellbeing of others. As always, I am deeply grateful for my patient teachers and the lovely studio that nurtures my practice. If I’m lucky, there will be a year five to reflect upon in 2019.

Awake, my dear.

Be kind
to your sleeping heart.

Take it out
into the vast fields
of Light

And let it
breathe.

– Hafiz

2017

Ashtanga Yoga London

(via my personal blog)

This month marks the culmination of three years of daily Mysore style ashtanga yoga practice. It has become a bit of a ritual for me to reflect each year on the fruits of this healing practice for which I am eternally grateful. After all, most ashtangis do tend to like ritual and routine, and I am no exception. I also reflected on year one and year two and have found it a useful exercise – I hope others find these reflections useful as well.

My ashtanga yoga practice has really been the gateway for my mindfulness practice. Learning to move mindfully opened the door to my sitting meditation practice. This rigorous practice helped tame my restlessness, gave me an accessible way to cultivate single pointed concentration, and opened my body for more comfortable sitting. It has also helped me have a much friendlier relationship with my body, learning to appreciate its capabilities and embrace its limitations and imperfections.

I get a little choked up when I think about the impact of this practice on my life – especially when I think of the teachers who show up every day, holding space for us all. They observe us muddling through the same struggles, week after week, month after month. My learning tends to be slow, incremental, millimeter by millimeter, barely perceptible to the human eye. I know my teachers must harbor some ambitions for us students and they want to see us all grow and succeed, yet they show such patience and restraint in accompanying us on this journey that often moves at a snail’s pace.

Speaking of a snail’s pace, my yoga journey has felt a bit like sculpting granite with a spoon, or as one of my teachers would say, “like wiring a bonsai tree”. I am working with the experience of dread around urdva dhanurasana (wheel pose), which continues to elude me. I do my best to make this posture five times most every day and yet can only now pretty reliably imitate a coffee table. Yet, I trust in the practice and believe that all is coming if I am not greedy or impatient. Another teacher once told me that an open armpit-chest region indicates an open heart, so I also remind myself to practice compassion and lovingkindness in mediation and daily life. Its not only the body that blocks access to certain postures – the mind also holds the keys.

Last year I began to dabble in intermediate series and now I realize each time my body was telling me, “You are not ready”. As soon as I worked up to 3-4 days per week alternating with primary series, I would inevitably suffer some sort of minor injury. I believe this was my sign. Govinda Kai taught an ashtanga yoga workshop in April and his words gave me permission to let go, telling us our bodies will inform us when it is time and this is different for everyone. David Williams during his workshop this October, reminded us that a sustainable practice is an enjoyable one and that hurting yourself more won’t heal you. So, I am now back to focusing exclusively on the primary series. I figure there are endless possibilities for refining this practice.

A highlight this year was practicing with Astanga Yoga London. I am so grateful to have the privilege to travel abroad and experience different teachers and cultures. AYL is a sweet little shala tucked away among the ethnic eateries and wellness centers of Drummond Street. If you blink, you might miss it. Students practice in queue, packing the tiny studio with mats fitted jigsaw puzzle style. There are 2-3 teachers assisting Mysore style classes all day long. Other than this, they offer only 1 led primary series practice per month, which I was fortunate to experience. Despite the fact that there are no introductory or basics classes, the practitioners are quite skilled, reinforcing the idea that if you practice the intended way, “all is coming”.

At AYL, I was stopped at bhujapidasana and decided  to honor that until I can reasonably execute it. Before this I always did the entire primary series. This has freed up some energy and time to refine this posture, start to execute the slightly scary setubandhasana,  and of course to continue to work on the ever-elusive urdvha danurasana. Surprisingly, this has not hurt the postures I pass over, which I get to try out once per week in led primary series. They continue to deepen and improve despite the fact that I am not doing them daily.

Another highlight of the year was attending the Trini Foundation’s Ashtanga and Addiction Forum at Ashtanga Yoga Columbus learning how to offer Ashtanga yoga as a tool to help people achieve long-term sobriety. You can read about forum director Taylor Hunt’s incredible journey in his book, A Way From Darkness. I am interested in finding a way to be a part of the solution, helping to share my love of the practice and my new learning with those who are suffering.

My trips to other shalas made me so very grateful for the spacious, clean and flexible studio in which I am fortunate to practice every day. My home studio, Maya Yoga, is large and bright with lots of windows, room to sweep my arms out wide, roll backwards into chakrasana, and find a wall for practicing handstands. Students can show up at different times and don’t have to wait in queue. We have the luxury of time to practice pranayama or to meditate after savasana. There is a spacious women’s restroom with two stalls and room to change clothes. I can always find somewhere to park my car. This is not so in some of the other shalas I’ve visited. How easily we take for granted our privileges.

If the fates allow, I hope to be practicing ashtanga yoga for many years to come. For me, my movement practice has been essential to cultivating my mindfulness practice and this particular style of yoga has been the right fit. Next year promises new adventures, including an ashtanga yoga retreat in Thailand with Kathleen Kastner and Wade Mortensen and a workshop with Kino MacGregor. Barring any unforeseen obstacles, I am looking forward to sharing my reflections on year four with you all!

2016

Taking the practice on the road.

This month concludes two years of daily Mysore style ashtanga yoga practice and I am grateful to have found this place of refuge in my life.

Ashtanga is an ancient system of yoga in which a set, progressive series of postures are coordinated with breath (ujjayi pranayama) and focused gaze (drishti). It is flowing and intense, producing internal heat and encouraging single pointed concentration and mindfulness. Mysore style practice is not led by the teacher. Instead, students practice together at their own pace and the teacher assists each individually, according to ability level and particular needs. I wrote a blog post a while back called, “Why Mysore?”, discussing why a person might choose Mysore style practice over led classes.

I took my first ashtanga class in 2013, an abbreviated led primary series, at a studio that offered it once weekly on Sunday mornings. Although I had been practicing yoga for several years before that, something about this particular practice resonated powerfully within me. I began searching for more opportunities. Slowly but surely, my practice became almost exclusively led ashtanga classes at various studios. I read books and watched videos to deepen my understanding. Then, with the gentle encouragement of a teacher, I took the plunge into daily Mysore style self-practice. Two years on, these are my observations of some of the fruits of the practice.

On a gross level, changes continue to happen in the body. Strength and endurance are still growing. I am learning not to rely so much on habitual use of the strongest muscles and I am developing those that don’t get much attention off the mat. Proprioception is also improving as I continue to learn to sense the body in space and isolate and utilize neglected parts. I have gained much more flexibility in the hips which has been mutually beneficial with my sitting meditation practice. Twists and forward folds are deeper. Even the breath continues to evolve as I learn to breathe more smoothly and evenly into the chest and side ribs, keeping the belly still.

On a subtler level, the practice is like peeling away the layers of an onion. Previously hidden fears, biases, blocks and obstacles are uncovered. Courage is cultivated in learning the difference between discomfort and pain, finding again and again that discomfort is temporary and often followed by growth. Experimenting with a willingness to float head and face first into space, balancing only on “cat hands” or balls of the feet, brings a level of trust that can only be developed through experience. Patience and self-compassion on the mat become more reliable, having developed a kindly curiosity about the workings of this body and mind that is no longer interrupted by moments of frustration or self-censure. Occasionally, I connect with the elusive bandhas and tap into the energy waiting to be cultivated and harnessed there. A burning passion is mellowing into a sustaining love and appreciation for the peaceful sanctuary of ashtanga yoga and its lessons.

Although the fruits of practice have been invaluable, I can see that it is only the tip of the iceberg. Ashtanga yoga is system that offers six increasingly subtle and challenging series as well as pranayama practice. One could spend an entire lifetime devoted to the system and never run out of territory to explore. I find this to be intriguing and motivating rather than discouraging – the endless possibilities!

It is my observation that ashtanga yoga is an especially useful practice for those of us who tend to be intense and restless in body and mind. The system channels and burns away excess energies, softening and opening the body and mind to the possibility of stillness. It also exercises the “muscles” of attention and concentration, reducing distractibility and increasing focus. I suspect it may be equally useful for those who tend toward inertia or lassitude, in that over time it stokes the inner fire to an optimal level, cultivating a better balance of drive, discipline and endurance.

I give thanks to my teachers and the gurus that came before them for this healing practice. Thanks as well to fellow ashtangis that breathe life into the practice room every day, wordlessly encouraging and inspiring one another. And finally – thanks for the warm, welcoming, and sacred space where we gather every morning to meet our true “selves”.

2015

(via Maya Yoga)

Ashtanga Yoga teacher training with Kathleen Kastner

When I look inside and see that I am nothing, that is wisdom.
When I look outside and see that I am everything, that is love.
Between these two, my life turns.
~Sri Nisargadatta

Tracy Ochester is a reputed psychologist who incorporates mindfulness training into her professional sessions.  She is an avid Mysore-style practitioner at Maya Yoga and completed her 200 Yoga Teacher Training in 2014.  One reason she loves Maya Yoga so much is the luxury of time that Mysore Style of Yoga affords her for long meditation sessions after her practice.  Yoga and Meditation are integral to Tracy’s healing and search for wisdom as an adult.  She writes:

“I have reaped so many benefits from my yoga and meditation practice.  One of these benefits has been increased patience. 

The changes I have experienced – mostly in my mind, as well as in my body – have been gratifying, but they have occurred incrementally, accumulating millimeter by millimeter over a long period of time. I am stronger, more flexible, and more balanced. I feel calmer, more centered, and better able to focus on the important things while letting go of minor frustrations. I am learning to quiet my mind under a variety of circumstances and be in the moment.  Yet, some days I feel off, stiff or fatigued, or I can’t find my balance, or my mind is full of chatter.  Yoga and meditation have helped me ride these waves with the understanding that nothing is permanent, all things change, and the benefits of patience and devotion will appear given time.

Another benefit of practice has been gratitude.  My appreciation for my body and my connection to it has increased.  I don’t have a stereotypical “yoga body” – I move and sweat more like a linebacker than a yogi.  This has forced me to let go of ego (to the extent that I can) and adopt a greater sense of humility so that I can fully embrace my practice.  I am better at knowing where my various parts are in space, my body’s mechanics and its habits, its limitations and its strengths.  However, it’s in dealing with my body’s limitations and imperfections that I have come to appreciate it all the more.  I have developed tender feelings of compassion toward it.  Who knew it was capable of doing such things and that it could serve me so beneficially, even with all its frailties?  I understand more than ever how attention and care helps my body thrive and how the well-being of my body is so intricately intertwined with the functioning of my mind.

The most important and valuable contribution of my yoga and meditation practice, by far, is how it benefits others.  When I am better, I make space for others to lean toward their best selves.  I am more patient at home with my husband and extended family.  I am more focused and present with my clients and I have a wider variety of tools to offer them.  I am more compassionate when strangers behave badly out of their own suffering.  I have a deeper sense of stewardship for the Earth and its beings. This benefit of increased compassion continues to grow and evolve – it is the primary source of my devotion to practice.

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