The first six years of my ashtanga yoga practice have been my most formative. It was shortly after I joined a local yoga shala that I met my first true ashtanga yoga teachers who were holding a workshop there. They are based on a Greek island, which meant I had to travel to study with them. Their shala is small, dark, very hot and very crowded. The floor is concrete and the ceiling low. No props and blocks tolerated, no wall for handstands allowed. You practiced handstands with the teacher and when it was deemed fit, had to do it on your own – no wall. You only moved along in the series when an asana was mastered comfortably, no variations and excuses. I was totally hooked. Every year, for roughly 6 years, I travelled to Greece to sweat and suffer in that shala. In addition, I followed my teachers on their workshops throughout Europe. I soaked it all up.
For the rest of the year, I practiced alone at home. Just as I learned it from my teachers. No probs, no wall and no messing around with asanas beyond to what I was given. I never questioned this approach. For years I got up at 3 am before work and went on my mat to face my demons. At the beginning, I felt very rigid and vulnerable and my mind was on party overdrive. At times there was so much stiffness and pain that I cried in savasana. I swore I would quit, only to get up again the very next morning for more of the same.
I don’t know why I carried on but eventually change came. Since I was on my own with no-one to turn to, I had no choice but to look within. Slowly and reluctantly my busy mind silenced. My focus turned deeply into the pain and stiffness. It was then that I found complete stillness. It was then that I found relief. I thought nothing and I felt nothing. I was floating in stillness and surrendered. My muscles relaxed – I was home. I faced my weaknesses relentlessly and then let them go. It was a slow but steady process. Whether it is complete I don’t know but part of me is always resting in that sweet stillness – that is my home. Asanas come much easier now but matter much less. I have grown unattached to the world.
In the years that followed I travelled beyond Greece to India including Mysore as is expected from a dedicated Ashtangi. I participated in major workshops and obtained a teaching certificate. I met many lovely people and generally had a blast. The ‘Yoga Community’ is fun and supportive just like any other interest group. I used to be a passionate sailor and the community was the same and that is fine. It is good for people who share the same interest to come together and support one another.
Yet unlike sailing yoga is not a social affair. It is a journey deep within that if you want to succeed you have to eventually undertake alone. It is where fear ends and love begins. To practice with likeminded people is a joy but can quickly turn into a comfort zone. To deepen the yoga practice and go beyond asana it is important to have that ‘alone time’ as much as possible. This is tough for sure. It is tapas. Yoga in practice is tapas, self-study and surrender. So it says in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. The Ashtanga Yoga System is a wonderful tool that when learned correctly and then practiced mindfully will take you all the way to the center of your soul. But you can only go there alone. It is your soul.
Yoga is an internal practice. The rest is just a circus. - Pattabhi Jois
Most of us know that feeling. A strange sense of unease that something is not right. That something bad could happen but we can't quite put our finger on it. A feeling of insecurity ... of anxiety, even fear. It is always there lurking in the background. Some of us are so used to it that we don't even notice it anymore. We live with it or rather spend our live living according to it. It has become normal. We have plans for the future that we hope will make it go away. Once we have more money, a better job, more stuff etc., everything will be perfect and we will be ok .... we will be safe. This kind of living is extremely limiting and disquieting, particularly because the future does not exist. It is a just a concept - we are chasing a ghost.
Have you ever asked yourself what you would do in your life right now if you weren't scared? Worried about consequences? Are you truly living your life or are you being lived by your fears?
This fear has nothing to do with the world around us. Most of us are seldom in immediate danger. It has something to do with the world within us. The source of this obscure unease is our own mind. Most of us are not aware of this which is why we seek relieve in the outside world. And this is also why we fail to get it. We have a constant thought monologue running in our head that takes up most of our attention. We identify with it. We believe we are it. For most people this monologue is negative. It paints a bleak picture of the future and/or laments over the past. It creates all sorts of drama based on our personal conditioning. That's why it is so successful in keeping our attention. It knows how to push our buttons. We're living a bad dream.
The question is whether we are ready to leave the comfort of our treadmill. Yes, there is also an element of comfort in suffering, complaining and procrastinating. If we have identified with our fear and drama we may even want to protect it. We get angry if it is questioned. Many people are so scared of change that they rather stay in the comfort of the familiar drudgery and suffering.
But it is not human nature to be negative, judgmental or anxious. That is ego's nature. There will always be challenges in life. It is how we grow. But they never last. By transcending our conditioned thinking, we can free ourselves to meet life's challenges in the present moment where they can be dealt with. We cannot deal with an illusory problem. We have to suffer it. To free ourselves is simple but not easy. It requires much discriminative power to get out of this mindset because we've been stuck in it for a very long time. But it can be done. People are doing it all the time and so can you. Are you ready?
I'm a seasoned ashtanga yoga practitioner and I practice in solitude. Everyday, I set the alarm early in the morning, sometimes very early, and half an hour later you'll find me on my mat. Many people find that strange and even call me extrem. But this has nothing to do with extremism. I am very passionate about my yoga practice, this is true. This is why.
Early mornings have a certain atmosphere, a stillness, that speaks to me. It makes me feel at home. I step to the front of my yoga mat in samsthitih and chant the ashtanga mantra. I begin the ujjayi breathing and see how it feels. Sometimes breath comes easy and sometimes my chest feels a little tight. On the inhale, I press my feet into the mat, pull in my lower belly and stretch my arms up towards the ceiling - drishti thumbs. And so practice begins.
I count each movement - each vinyasa - in my head. I feel my breath moving through me and energizing my body. I keep part of my awareness fixed on the muscles of my lower belly and feel control of my center of gravity. It becomes the center of my universe. My eyes follow the proscribed looking places and my mind clears. There is no thinking. I perceive my breath, my muscles and I see my looking place. My head is filled with numbers: ekam inhale, due exhale, trini inhale ..... I can feel my spine stretch, twist and bend. It tingles, it feels alive. There are butterflies that ever so lightly touch the muscles around my spine when they move. When they stretch it feels so good that I want to linger. All the while my body is filled with air, with lightness. As I get warmer my movements become like liquid, smoother and sometimes faster - more energy.
After a while my chest opens and I flex my heart to the world. I love all life. I am fully present. I am happy. I am free. Thinking is reduced to a minimum. My physical organism takes control and I am the watcher - that's all. I am alert. I am aware, I am moving with my breath. My world is simply reduced to what is and that is fine. After practice this feeling lingers through the day. The time on my mat is real, it is life, it is the now. The world I enter after practice is transient and volatile. It often lacks depth. I can easily accept that because I can feel the depth inside me that is the happy place which lives in all of us. Always.
I am not an important person. My life is not very exciting. Nothing about me is special or particularly interesting. I don't have much stuff and nothing of great value. Yet I wake up in the morning with peaceful stillness in my mind. I delight in feeling my breath move through my body. I stretch my spine until it tingles. When I get up I move mindfully and enjoy each motion. I find pleasure in the little things. I see magic everywhere - I see nature everywhere. I don't linger on past events and I spend little thought on the future. I don't worry much because I don't need much. I love all life. I am happy.
Happiness is the ability to consciously feel the eternal bliss of life. This is what everyone is unknowingly searching for. To feel life or to feel alive. Dancers feel alive as soon as the music begins. Skydivers feel alive as soon as they're in the air. They are in the present moment. Their focus is completely in the now. They are happy. A moment of simplicity. These are just two examples of many. But what if the music stops or when back on the ground? We are quickly drawn back to life's drama: the virtual world of our thinking mind. This upsets our connection to life's energy.
Is it possible to be happy all the time? Sure. Even when challenged by life, if you can keep your connection to life's vibrancy, you will be able to meet your trials from a much more confident place because you feel your own potency. To keep the connection you need to be aware when your mind tries to draw your attention into the drama world of speculative thinking. Resisting this pull requires strong power of concentration and mind control.
We have been conditioned to believe that happiness comes with a price tag. The more money, power or stuff, etc. we have the more joyful we will be. This is largely how our world functions. But happiness cannot be found in the outside world. It is a matter of our inner world. It is available for free. Nobody has the power to sell it to you and nobody has the power to withhold it from you. It is already in you. Happiness is not having a Porsche or a Gucci bag. Happiness is not needing a Porsche or a Gucci bag.
Every year Lino Miele gives a workshop in Kovalam, India. It takes place over the months of December and January and students from all over the world welcome the opportunity to study with one of Guruji's most senior teacher. Because it takes place in India, it is more affordable to go for the entire two months should you be lucky enough to get the time off. Although the shala is fairly sizable, it can get pretty crowded during peak season. So students get time slots when to begin their practice to cope with the sheer number of them. It's a bit like Mysore - only a little smaller. I am usually put in the first slot early in the morning which is fine as I'm used to practicing early and the temperature is still pleasant at that time. When I go to the shala, there is always a number of students warming up with stretching exercises. It feels like coming into a gymn rather than a yoga shala. The atmosphere seems filled with expectation...
Pattabhi Jois always used to say: "no stiff body - stiff mind". If you go to practice in Mysore, stretching before practice is a big no-no. If students waiting for their practice turn start stretching, Sharath is quick to tell them: "no stretching - just sitting." In the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, it says that posture is mastered by reducing the tendency for restless-ness and meditating on the infinite.
We "modern" practicioners are always quick to say that a little stretching and warming up the body can't hurt. But can it? Don't Patanjali, Pattabhi Jois and Sharath know what they are talking about? Is it ok to just dismiss what they are saying? Will yoga still work or is it even still yoga?
Yoga chitti vritti nirodah- We practice yoga to gain a one pointed mind. To control our mind and to stop random thinking which results in needless suffering. To train our mind we practice the asana system. With total focus on moving with the breath, control of bandhas and observing the drishtis. Doing this slowly and mindfully our muscles with strengthen and lengthen in their own time. The focus is in the present moment without the desire to achieve anything in particular. If we feel the need to stretch our muscles before practice, maybe we should ask ourselves why. Is it because we want to avoid pain because we are practicing too hard? Do we want to achieve a certain kind of asana level?
Are we shying away from were the real stiffness sits? How can we learn to control our mind if we avoid going there?
If when doing asana we concentrate too much on muscle and too little on the mind our development is going to be very limited. Our body will only go as far as our mind will let it. A good teacher may be able to coax you into letting go so far but in the end it's up to you to challenge the rigidity, fear, and doubt that is your thoughts - your thinking mind. It takes honesty, strength, faith and patience to do this. But first and foremost we need to be willing to face the reality of our stiff mind. After all, who tells the muscles to tense in the first place. It is not the muscles themselves that decide to do so. Our body is neutral. It reacts to messages from the nervous system which in turn gets its instructions from our very own brain. So to do warm-up stretches or even preparatory asanas in the yoga practice is avoiding the issue. It is a comfort zone. A knowledgable teacher will know this and (try to) stop their students from stretching prior practice.
Maybe that is why all the stretching stops the second Lino enters the shala ...