I found myself wondering why there are six series in the ashtanga system this morning as I lay in Savasana on the floor of the girls changing rooms at the KPJAYI shala. Although I have ceased to feel that I care if I ever add another asana into my practice as I’m so content with what I already have to work on, I used to have a craving for more and I know many others do see the more advanced series’ as something they are working towards achieving – as a personal (egoic) goal.
An answer came immediately – as answers often do when your mind is all clear and open to receiving them. Because yoga is for every BODY. The series are not there to taunt those of us with stiff, challenging bodies, they’re there to offer the opportunity of self-discovery to those with strong, flexible bodies!
If the role of Ashtanga yoga is to work the impurities out of the body, by bringing it to the edge of it’s muscular, nervous and postural comfort zone, while simultaneously allowing the practitioner to develop their skills in concentration on one thing, the breath, which is the vehicle for life energy (prana) and to therefore be able to still the fluctuations in the mind whilst the body is subject to challenging circumstances (difficult postures), then there need to be progressively difficult series’ otherwise people with really flexible, strong bodies would never come face to face with any of their demons. If you can comfortably work through Primary and Intermediate series’ because of either the natural structure of your body, or many years of concerted effort to achieve this level of comfort, then how are you going to keep working on the mind through the body? You can’t, so the postures are going to have to get harder, and harder and harder.
Ashtanga yoga is the work of a lifetime, it is our masterpiece, our journey to the centre of our Selves. And as we ourselves are so deep, thus the practice needs to be very deep so there is continuously something to work with.
Which brings me to the competitive aspect of Ashtanga. Many, many people – myself included – have competed, if not directly with others in the room, but at least with their idea of which asanas they ‘should’ be able to do. Many still do and many will in the future.
This crazy human tendency to look at other people and compare ourselves to them. That inner dialogue that either mocks, berates, judges, criticises, self-aggrandises or congratulates. All of it is utterly pointless. Yoga is for SELF transformation. SELF. The body on your yoga mat and ONLY the body on your yoga mat, so why we feel the need to look round the room seeing what other people is doing is utterly beyond comprehension. Anyway, once we move past that with strict self discipline and drishti, then we have to confront the competition on our own mat.
My internal competition went like this “I’m strong, fit, healthy, I should be able to do at least do the first fricking asana properly.” But years of too-much too-soon asana self-practice without the guidance of a teacher have left me with a long-term hamstring tendon injury and a hyper-mobile and slightly unstable left shoulder. So no I haven’t perfected Surya Namaskar, I can’t touch my nose to my knees in Uttanasana and I can’t always hold Chaturanga if the shoulder isn’t very happy.
And so arises the dissatisfaction with the current asanas you’re working with, and the eagerness to get to the next one, as if that one will somehow be miraculously way better than the ones you already have!
We’re missing the point here as well! What lesson is the current asana that you are not happy with trying to teach you? What fear are you afraid to face, or habit are you refusing to break? Change that, learn that lesson first. Then you’ll be ready for the next asana.
I am very, very tempted to start again. I am three years into my asana practice and part of me wants to start over. To stop practicing full primary and go back and PERFECT every single asana, one by one. Maybe I will, maybe then I’ll know I’m really not competing, but truly offering my practice to the world as an act of devotion to the higher good.
And then this lesson (as with all the lessons we learn on the yoga mat) translates so perfectly into society at large… if we all stop competing and being greedy for always more and more, then we can each focus on doing our thing as perfectly as it is possible for it to be done for our own higher good and the greater good of all.