This post was originally published on Prana Das Yoga's blog. Read the original post here.
Last month, I was fortunate to learn and practice with David Swenson. Swenson is as close to the source of Ashtanga yoga as I will probably ever get. Listening to his entertaining and inspiring stories opened my mind to self-reflection. As he shared his insights, I thought about the evolution of my own practice over the last decade, from its inception at my college fitness center to the Mysore-style practice I have developed today. Throughout every step in my journey thus far, I find that the closer I get to the source, the more I feel empowered to build a practice that will work for the rest of my life.
Over a weekend-long series of workshops hosted by Prana Das Yoga, Swenson repeatedly emphasized two seemingly conflicting, but actually harmonious ideas. The first is the importance of maintaining the integrity of the practice. To me, that means respecting the teachers who have come before you and upholding the structure and essence of their teachings. It means devoting genuine effort to learning the practice as taught. If, Swenson stresses, the practice doesn’t work for you – for whatever reason – and you need to change it, that is fine. He has no qualms with Power Yoga or even Goat Yoga. After all, if these get more people in the world to quiet their minds – aren’t we all better off? But if you change the Ashtanga practice too much, Swenson says, don’t call it Ashtanga.
Still, he simultaneously emphasized the importance of creating an Ashtanga practice that works for you, acknowledging injury, age, and other factors that may influence our body’s ability to twist, turn, and fold. He tells a story about a blind and seriously disabled student who, when assisted into vriksasana, starting swaying and crying at the beauty of the practice. My tears of joy probably won’t come until I can get in and out of kapotasana alone. The point is, this practice is deeply personal. And the level of enjoyment it brings us does not, by any means, correlate to how deeply we can bind. I’ve known that for years, but it helps to be reminded that if today all I can do is a few sun salutations and closing asanas – that’s more than alright.
Which brings me back to my own journey. I practiced yoga for the first time at my university’s fitness center. When I moved to Tel Aviv after college I continued practicing in classes at the neighborhood gym. The classes were okay, but lacked physical and mental challenge, so I never really connected. Travelling around India exposed me to a broader variety of teachers, different styles of practice, and the spiritual side of yoga. This piqued my interest, leading me to sign up for a teacher training and join a yoga studio for the first time in 2015. The training was a turning point in my practice. Not because I intended to teach – I never did, and still don’t (maybe one day?) – but because it provided a deeper understanding of concepts like bandhas and breath, offering the tools to tap into my own strength. Mysore-style practice, which I started shortly after the teacher training, allowed me to refine the use of those tools. I built a practice that felt more cohesive, meditative, and powerful.
But my ego got the best of me. Within a year I was practicing full primary series 5 times per week. I would practice after a long work day and get home at 8pm, completely depleted of energy. While my body was growing stronger than it had ever been, I felt that I never had a second to breathe. This routine ultimately caught up to me when I hurt my knee, and eventually stopped practicing all together for a few months. As I think about that experience, I realize that I was following the physical practice as it had originally been taught. But I was following it mindlessly and no longer listening to myself.
Today, I have found a happy medium that works for me. I practice in the Mysore room 3 days per week and try to also do 2 short and easy practices at home. I meditate more, which I find is wonderfully complementary to physical practice. I was worried that when I returned to Mysore at a lower intensity, my practice would not advance. First off, what does it mean for your practice to advance? And secondly, well, it is advancing. In this practice there is something new to learn every single day.
We live in a very demanding world, and it is hard not to carry its pressures for excellence onto our mats. It is therefore empowering and refreshing to be reminded by someone who has practiced for over 40 years that sometimes we can take it easy. I will be the first to admit that on days when I have one of those energized, flowing, bendy practices, I allow myself to bask in the sense of accomplishment. But lately, I also challenge myself to feel that same sense of deep gratitude and joy from a 20-minute practice of sun salutations and breathing. And furthermore, to remember that those occasional energized, flowing, bendy days are a result of many more average, uninteresting, less bendy moments. There is value in all parts of a yoga practice. When we let go of our ego and honor the practice for what it is in a way that works for us, we can continue to cultivate it for the rest of our lives.