Being an ashtangi black sheep
And finally accepting that I am worthy
This was originally part of THE GREAT LETTING GO OF 2020 blog but I deemed it worthy of lopping off and elaborating on as it got a bit personal. Truth is last year I actually had practise experience and scripture knowledge combine in a profound way and it turned my world upside down and me inside out.
I didn’t always have this relaxed easy attitude to practise,our relationship was not so steady all these years, and so this article stems from thoughts and feelings of mine that have been embedded in my psyche for years.
I had aspired to be the perfect ‘ashtangi’ for so long, and yet now I begrudge being labelled in that way. By ‘perfect’ I mean to be like the ‘purists’ , those having the six days a week continuous practise, having a teacher, going to a shala and generally working by the precise correct method as prescribed by the tradition’s lineage to progress systematically through the Series’. I always felt a bit of an oddball, the ‘ashtangi black sheep’, an outcast even, when I would meet new fellow practitioners and they would ask questions like ‘so who is your teacher? ‘Where do you practise?’ ‘How long have you been practising?’ or ‘What pose are you up to?’ as if I was being measured up or placed into some invisible hierarchical standing. I am sure they did not mean it that way but that is how we are as humans, to understand a thing we think we must label it and organise it methodically. Our 'reason' overrides our ability to 'just be' with a thing. I never had a clear answer to any of these questions as I didn’t fit into the classic linear box or labelling system, and that made me feel ashamed, or lesser somewhat, as if I should be endorsed to have value or be accepted in 'the club'.
Truth is as you know, I am in fact my own teacher, mostly self taught and I practice at home! How very unorthodox no? I used to think so. Why would anyone take me seriously? Or was it that I just expected them not to? I was different, or thought I was, and just like at school, that didn’t always feel nice. Home practitioners are slightly off radar right when you see Ashtanga presented online, we are like the yogis on the dark side, and yet yoga is a lone, solitary work. Maybe it is because we are overshadowed by the great characters and idols of this practise, notice I don't want to say 'celebrities' as they do great work, but it i s easy to forget that most practitioners are indeed working quietly in the shadows each day! 'Not much to see there' though, as my dad often comments on my 'real practise' videos on Instagram when I post them!!!!
Also I felt that this quest that I was going solo on was so very difficult and yet dear to me that it took so much of my strength and mental effort to grapple with it and nobody seemed to realise that being a home practitioner is so hard! Even just making yourself practise everyday is hard! Dealing with samskaras and kleshas alone is hard too, especially when tackle them without training or guru wisdom. Hence the copious amounts of yoga scholarly study! Laziness, dullness, fear, doubt, confusion are traits we all must learn to deal with out there, or is that in there. These are enough to deal and yet there I was beating myself up because I could never manage to practise 6 days a week or very early in the morning or a full Series, I have to Iaugh now looking back. Especially as I have opened my eyes and mind to the fact that we all have very different body make ups and constitutions, diets, etc... What works for one will not work for all, human beings are all so uniquely miraculously complex. Practise happening is better than practise not happening, who cares if late morning is when it works best, or if that is three days a week, or a practise that doesn't comply with all the rules. Practise was and still is in flux, some days i’m on a roll and really in love with it and other times I just don't see the point, or hit a plateau or get dulled out by it, these phases can last days, weeks or even months in one case. I have come to realise that this is the nature of the natural world, it goes through natural cycles of change, it must! To renew and expand and continue right? I am OK with this now, but what I have learnt doesn’t help is comparing my practice to others, which happens as a direct result of viewing others practising, whether we intend to or not, and others comparing my practise to theirs. We are all on a hard path if we practise yoga truly and we must respect the intensities and devotion of our fellows without judgement. There is a vast league between traditional purist practitioners and many modern students who practise sporadically among daily life, family and work commitments.
Last year we all learnt to do what we can and be OK with that. Many discovered the challenge and beauty of the home practise this year (2020) as shalas and teachers either closed their doors or managed with virtual rooms. But in my case I always felt that I was getting myself ‘ready’ for the real thing, for ‘the teacher’ at ‘the shala’. And year after year I would have this same intention of building my practise strength and consistency to feel confident enough to put myself in the Mysore room with the best teacher in London or in the hands of a teacher or practise 6 days a week because I thought that was something I had to do if I was serious about the practise. I was blind to the fact that the work I was doing was not prep work at all but possibly much more real and profound than I gave it credit for! Personal experience is the one true teacher. I didn’t have to prove myself worthy by fitting the linear mould, I was doing real yoga on my own just fine! Proof of this is how hard it all is! I remember last year chatting with a practitioner from the US at a Manjus Jois event here in London, and she was surprised and astonished that I thought I had to be like the others, she said ‘you seem fine on your own’, maybe you don’t need a teacher’ she may have also uttered ‘wow’ !
This year, five years in, I finally learnt to accept that I don’t ‘have’ to do anything at all to prove myself! I am a valid practitioner, and a very truthful one!!!!!
'There is a spirit that is mind and life, light and truth and vast spaces... he enfolds the whole Universe and in silence is loving to all'
- Chandogya Upanisad
Interestingly enough this acceptance of myself this year also coincided with a few events. Whilst everyone else in lockdown number one started baking bread I had altogether different pursuits! One; I started to give myself the backbend ( heart- cracking- open) postures in the Intermediate Series, Two; I fell in love, and Three; I dove into (probably way too much) contemplation and yoga scriptures. With so much time on my hands I got to know the teachings of The Bhagavad Gita, The Upanisads and the Hathapradipika very deeply, let’s say they struck the target! They pierced straight through all of my ‘stuff’ and got me in the heart.
'Take the great bow of the Upanisads and place in it an arrow sharp with devotion'
- Mundaka Upanisad
'But how do we fall in love with this very humble moment where the great show of the Universe is always playing? Do your asanas with DEVOTION!'
- David Garrigues
And now the wisdom of yoga seems to shine forth! I have no doubt that I am doing the yoga not only correctly and in the value of my personal practise, but that I am firmly established in the spiritual reasons for ‘why’ I practise. I no longer feel this great desire to get somewhere or acheive something in my physical practise, I appreciate it rather than depend on it, or need it. I have room in my life for, well life! I cut myself some slack through this acceptance and that is liberating. I feel lighter, looser and happier. Ram Dass talks a lot about giving up attachments in his book Paths to God and that really helped me to make sense of this realisation of the truth, and there is a little anonymous poem that I will leave you with,
The freer I get, the higher I go,
The higher I go, the more I see,
The more I see, the less I know,
The less I know, the more I’m free
Thank you for reading my musings, I do help they encourage and inspire you to contemplate and continue your own path,