Ashtanga Myth: Ashtanga is hard.
“Ashtanga is hard.” This is one of the myths about the practice that I enjoy disassembling and dissolving. It’s a often a myth spread by those who don’t actually do the practice or by those who haven’t experienced Ashtanga in the traditional little-by-little way of learning. Actually, Ashtanga is about cultivating ease and equanimity.
Really, Ashtanga doesn’t have to be hard. By “hard”, I mean something specific. By “hard”, I mean unyielding and inflexible. In fact, I would venture to say that if these qualities are present, then practice ceases to be Yoga of any style.
Patanjali on Ease and Effort in Ashtanga Practice
Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras (2:46) say : sthira sukham asanam
I understand Patanjali to mean that practice is only, truly “Yoga” asana when there is a balance of effort and ease. Ease doesn’t mean lazy. And “not hard” doesn’t mean easy. Ashtanga can certainly be challenging and uncomfortable. How would we learn to cultivate ease and equanimity without practice under differing circumstances, that sometimes challenge us?
Mysore Style Practice is Adaptable
The beauty and brilliance of the Mysore style Ashtanga practice method (you might think of the Mysore method as the one-room-schoolhouse-style of learning), is that the amount of challenge that you take on is up to you. This is the difference between practicing “on the mat” and practicing in life. In life we may have limited control over the circumstances that we meet each day, in which we aim to practice steadiness, kindness, and equanimity. Some days life may ask for more than we can pull together. But, on the mat, we can change the circumstances. We can make practice shorter, gentler, or whatever is needed. We are all in a different place mentally, emotionally, and physically everyday, so it makes sense that the practice should be adaptable and fluid, not rigid or unyielding or hard.
Cultivating Ease with the Felt Sense
Each day when I step onto my mat to practice, I reach into a felt sense of my body to see what is there. I don’t dictate from outside of myself what I “will” do. I reach into the inside to ask what I am truly available for on that day. I begin practice and I never stop checking in. A practice of compassion and gentleness should start in my own body. Forcing is not yoga. I don’t practice with the same body everyday. In fact, everyday it is new. Something that felt very doable yesterday may feel like something I’m just not up for today. And that is okay. Part of yoga is cultivating the awareness to actually answer the question: “How do I feel right now in this pose?” When the answer is “I don’t feel right about something in this pose”, then it would be the antithesis of yoga to ignore that niggling feeling that I became aware of with the awareness that I worked so hard to cultivate.
Mysore style Ashtanga practice allows us the space to work in the present moment. It also allows us to work in the space between doing and being.
If you’ve been practicing with an idea that Ashtanga practice must be hard, then I challenge you to approach practice for a time with greater softness. Set an intention for cultivating ease and see where that takes you.
Cultivating Ease with the Breath
One way to gauge your approach to practice is with the breath.
How are you breathing?
Are you “doing” breathing, forcing it, pushing inhales and exhales?
Try an experiment.
See how much ease you can bring to the breath. Consciously allow yourself to take a full inhale, then relax as you allow for a full exhale. Don’t hurry. Take a couple of breaths in that way. Now approach the asana movements in the same way.
How does it feel?
What do you notice?
With each breath, ask yourself:
How relaxed and at ease can I be with my breath in this posture?
What muscles am I holding in this posture that I can let go of?
Where am I working harder than necessary?
See how you go as you bring the idea of cultivating ease into your Ashtanga practice.