A lot of people quit Ashtanga yoga. While life can certainly get in the way of practice, I’m going to suggest that there’s a different reason why people sometimes walk away from the practice. That reason boils down to having expectations about practice.
It takes some time with the Ashtanga practice, often some years, before we start to see through the form (the poses) to see what we’re really practicing, which is cultivating awareness of the present moment. Initially in the early years of an Ashtanga practice, it can appear linear. It can appear as if we are trying to achieve moving our body into progressively challenging shapes. It is actually this appearance of linearity that acts as one of our tools for cultivating awareness of the present moment.
Expectations: practicing in the past and future
The idea looks something like this. We begin moving through some number of the poses in primary series. We see that today we are binding marichyasana C very deeply. At this point we have two choices with respect to what we do with this experience. We can: 1) notice what is happening now – we are binding marichyasana C – and then we can let that go and notice what is happening in the next moment. We have a second option: 2) We can notice what is happening now – we are binding marichyasana C – and then we can form expectations about the future. Those expectations often take the form of something like “I bound marichyasana C today, so I expect I will bind marichyasana C tomorrow and the next day.
At this point we have left the awareness of the present moment and moved our attention to the future. The expectations might also show up as moving our attention to the past – I bound marichyasana C yesterday, so I expect and feel I am entitled to have that experience today. When our expectations aren’t met we often experience disappointment, frustration, even anger. We might also try to blame it on the yoga. “The yoga’s broken!” Or: “If this yoga worked I’d be moving through all the poses with no road blocks.”
Practicing in the present moment
But instead of blaming the yoga for being inconsistent with our expectations, we could just notice that when we form expectations, we leave the present moment, and when we leave the present moment, we tend to experience suffering. This noticing when we are not present, noticing when our mind is either in the past or future, is the yoga practice.
The alternative to practicing yoga with expectations is practicing with an attitude of open enquiry and a sense of curiosity. That looks like taking each inhale and exhale and simply looking to see what is present. With each inhale and then each exhale, just notice what is there.
Using the tool of the breath
About 10 years ago or so I did an experiment one day while I was practicing which was very eye-opening for me. I decided for this one practice I would see what happened when I committed to fully completing each exhale before I initiated the next movement with my body. I was stunned to notice that even though I thought that I was moving on the breath when I practiced, I was really about half a step ahead of each breath. I was practicing in the future rather than the present.
Reeling that habit back and learning to practice in the present was initially uncomfortable and sometimes frustrating, but it was ultimately very rewarding. I stopped practicing with thoughts of whether I would “get” x, y, or z posture that day or the next day. I stopped thinking “it will be better when…” or “it was better when…”.
Instead I just show up on the mat each day with a sense of curiosity. I try to involve myself as deeply as possible in being interested in each moment as it is. With less expectations about practice, I spend considerably less time suffering. I’m not disappointed or anxious about practice. Every practice is a “good” practice.