I recently had to take a break of nearly six months off my daily Ashtanga yoga practice due to a mild yet recurring hamstring issue. Having been a strict and devout Ashtangi for a year (meaning 6-mornings-a-week practicing the same sequence by myself, day in, day out) this official break felt wrong and weird, like I was a yoga-failure.
Of course in reality, what was happening was that instead of getting what I wanted, I was getting just exactly what I needed, and what I needed, was a break from my strict routine. So here are some of the lessons this break taught me:
1) EVEN JUST TEN MINUTES DAILY OF THE SURYA NAMASKARS IS ENOUGH!
I used to feel like there was no point in doing just the sun salutations.
How wrong was I!
After six months of practically no yoga, I realized just how beneficial this foundational yoga sequence is, as my stiff body settled back into them. Even if all you practice daily is ten minutes of Surya Namaskar A and B, you can increase your strength and stamina, open up tightness in the body and develop a deep, soft, powerful breath.
A calm and steady breath equals a calm and steady mind. This after all, is the whole point of yoga as in Patanjali’s yoga sutras (the modern day “bible” of yoga):
“Yoga citti-vritti nirodah”
“Yoga calms the fluctuations of the mind.”
Don’t be distracted by the physicality of Ashtanga yoga. True yoga is all about the breath and, as I said, the foundation for this is in the opening Surya Namaskars.
If you do nothing else but them everyday, you’re doing enough!
2) THE STANDING POSES IN THE ASHTANGA PRIMARY SERIES DON’T DEVELOP MUCH STRENGTH IN YOUR CORE.
If you’re practising more of the series than just the surya namaskars, then here’s something interesting I discovered, when I did a strong practice of just standing poses after several weeks of nothing. All the following day the entire body was stiff and sore… except for my core muscles. Apparently not one of my abdominus rectus muscles had participated in the previous day’s yoga blitz!
Now if in your practice you do loads of jump-backs and jump-throughs every day then you’re probably already doing enough. But if not, start doing some additional stomach/core workouts on a regular basis – they’ll help your back in the long run!
3) IT’S REALLY IMPORTANT TO VARY YOUR BODY MOVEMENTS IF YOU’RE A COMMITTED PRIMARY SERIES STUDENT.
This one is big; when I used to practice Ashtanga yoga consistently, I did very little other exercize. The primary series, on a purely physical level, is all about forward bending and upper body strength with very few good side stretches or real backbends (at least not until closer to the end and I never used to get that far).
For my body type and for most other westerners, our tight rounded shoulders could really use some back-bending movements to counteract the effects of our hunched modern lifestyle.
The Ashtanga yoga system is a powerful and deeply transformative method of self-practice – there is no need to mess with it!
However, if like me you do little other exercize in your day, then you need to add in some extra things and pronto.
Take ten minutes each evening to do some gentle shoulder stretches and backbends; take a weekly dance class; go swimming… Incorporate at least three of these sessions a week into your schedule, it will leave you feeling fresh as a daisy, sustain good mobility in your body as you get older and even enhance your daily Ashtanga practice.
4) EAT A HEALTHY SERVING OF HUMBLE PIE AFTER PRACTICE.
This was an important one for me. I used to be someone who could power through an hour of physically strenuous yoga; someone so dedicated and committed to the Ashtanga yoga method I would get up as early as 5:30 am if I had to, to get my practice done each morning.
I experienced the somewhat unpleasant realization that my smug superiority was built on a deck of cards the day a little breeze came along and sent those cards flying – the day I finally listened to my body and took a break from Ashtanga.
Some time into the break, I discovered I had lost all of the the above-mentioned qualities.
My morning routine was gone as were my discipline and will-power to get it back; my strength and stamina were like that of a wheezing mouse and my flexibility took the most severe beating, my hamstrings apparently having shrunk about two inches.
It was a powerful reminder that the physical practice is completely and utterly impermanent. We need to remember that the magic of the asana practice is not in finally getting your leg behind your head, it’s in the daily discipline, consistent effort and humility of getting on your mat and working towards that point, day in, day out. That is where the growth happens, not in the pose itself but in the journey made towards it.
Which isn’t to say that you can’t enjoy your hard-earned physical achievements, just don’t become too attached to the physical element of your yoga practice.
Which is basically the point of my next and final lesson:
5) DON’T BECOME ATTACHED TO YOUR ASHTANGA YOGA PRACTICE.
I had an unhealthy, obsessive compulsion around my daily routine, feeling bound by my own inner seargent major to get onto my mat each day at all costs (hence my ability to get up at 5:30 am on required days).
The discipline I developed was a good and useful tool but my attitude towards it was not. I had simply created another reason to be hard on myself, something I do too much of already.
So now that I have recently returned to my Ashtanga practice I am doing it from a radically altered perspective. I no longer try to do it six days a week; I no longer fret and worry that I’m not doing it first thing in the morning; I no longer believe that if I’m not doing a ‘proper’ yoga practice of the primary series exactly as taught in Mysore, that I’m a failure.
Instead, I’ve eased way off, doing only an occasional self-practice at home and going to a group practice one evening a week (the only Mysore-style class on offer in my town).
My mornings now begin with journaling and meditation, which feels like a softer more nourishing practice for me. At least for now. I also do more varied exercizes on the days I don’t do a practice, which is very satisfying and refreshing and, if I’m totally honest, a whole lot easier than the strict rigours of the primary series.
I still haven’t found another form of mindful movement that creates quite the same transformation as Ashtanga but I’ve had enough of struggling on my own with a practice that really requires the supervision of an experienced teacher and ideally the supportive, nourishing energy of practicing alongside fellow Ashtangis.
Letting go of my Ashtanga practice has been utterly liberating but that being said, I would like to get back to a consistent daily practice some day.
Who knows what other lessons this demanding practice will teach me in the future, but for now, I feel like we’re in the healthiest stage of our relationship yet. And that’s good enough for me.