I did not start practicing Ashtanga Yoga one year ago; in fact, I first got in touch with Ashtanga Yoga about nine years ago. But while there was a time when I did practice quite often (like maybe three or four times a week), I never came close to having a daily practice until about one year ago.
This is a write-up of my experiences during this first year of daily Ashtanga practice and the lessons I have learned along the way.
It became easier to practice in the early morning. I have always hated getting up early (and what I considered early in the past is now about the time I finish my practice) and had severe problems doing so in the past. It is still a struggle every morning, but altogether it seems that a continuous practice does ease the struggle a bit.
Also, in the past when I practiced Yoga in the morning (even as late as 10 o’clock or so), I felt extremely inflexible, much more so than in the evening (another reason I didn’t like to practice in the morning). While this is not surprising (after getting up, the body has been almost motionless for many hours), these days, I don’t think there is a big difference in my flexibility whether I practice in the morning or in the evening. Then again, I cannot really compare since I don’t practice in the evenings any more; still, I know that I feel much more flexible in the mornings now as compared to the past (which of course might also be due to the fact that I simply did become more flexible over the course of the last year).
The practice feels shorter. In the past, it often felt as if it never ended (even though I only practice half of the Primary Series). This is most likely the same effect as when, for instance, you walk the same way every day — it feels very long in the beginning when you don’t know it very well yet, but after some time, it starts to feel shorter and shorter.
I became more aware of the importance of the drishtis, i.e. the specific visual foci in each posture. They really do help to keep me focused and not get distracted by surroundings or thoughts. I am still not very good at maintaining a continuous focus on the drishtis over the course of the whole practice, but I try to pay more attention to them.
I used to almost fear certain postures I perceived as particularly unpleasant, like Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana, Navasana or Urdhva Dhanurasana. While I’m still certainly not looking forward to them in my practice, I can handle them better. And I even developed a certain appreciation for these postures. What helped to reduce my aversion to them is certainly the knowledge that I will be able to endure them, which in turn results from the experience of doing them every day.
While in the past I was very focused on the goals I had for my practice and on advancing with it, i.e. improving postures or being able to do entirely new ones, this has become much less important for me. I am now much more focused on just doing my practice, no matter what postures I can do or how I am doing them. What counts is exclusively to practice at all, and to practice seriously and with dedication. The only goal with my practice has become to practice daily, and to practice diligently; consistency is everything. This can be succinctly summarized as follows: It’s all about abhyasa and vairagya.
I enjoy practicing in solitude. It helps me to focus on my practice and on myself; there is no distraction, just me doing my practice. This, together with the calmness of the very early morning, provides for a very serene atmosphere.
There is no bad practice. Of course, practice can feel bad (and often does), but if I can manage to complete it anyway, I have achieved something good. And, just as importantly, I have confirmed to myself that I am in fact an Ashtangi — as compared to someone who practices Ashtanga only if he feels like doing so.
I caught a glimpse of what Sri K. Pattabhi Jois meant when he said that “Body is not stiff, mind is stiff.” For quite a long time, I was not able to do all five instances of Navasana in a row; every time, I had to make a short break after the first three instances. I thought that my body simply was not yet ready to do all five. As a consequence, I stopped focusing on doing all five in a row; instead, my goal became do the first three, and then another two. And it seemed that I always had just enough stamina to do the first three, but could not do any more. Then, at some point, I said to myself: “Just try to do a bit more.” And I was surprised to see that I could, in fact, do a bit more. Not the full final two instances, but I was maybe able to hold the fourth instance for two breaths or so. After that, I was able to make futher progress, and it did not take long until I could do the full five instances in a row.
I experienced something very similar with Urdhva Dhanurasana. Here, I used to lay down flat on the floor after each instance, instead of keeping the backbend and just bending the arms and resting on the head for one breath. I thought I simply could not do more than one instance without getting out of the posture and have a short break. After letting go of this thought, I was able to do all three instances in a row without getting out of the posture in between. I still find it very challenging, but doable (while before, I thought it was impossible).
The important lesson here is that Ashtanga Yoga is a mental practice just as it is a physical practice. I unintentionally and subconsciously created a blockade in my mind, which, once it was established, reinforced itself: I thought that I knew that I could not do more than three instances of Navasana in a row, and my body seemed to confirm that knowledge every time. But in fact, that knowledge turned out to be a kind of false knowledge, of avidya, by which I restricted myself in my practice.
My practice feels much better when I am not having small breaks in between. I am not talking about breaks of a few minutes here; I mean the ocassional few seconds (or breaths) between two postures that I sometimes take when I am not fully focused. While this might not sound like a big deal, I found that it actually is to some extent. It breaks the rhythm of vinyasa, and it amounts to a certain loosening of concentration and focus, which, after all, is one of the key points of the practice. While I have not completely removed these small breaks from my practice, I have at least become aware of their effects on it and therefore try to minimize them (which is actually not that difficult once the awareness is there).
Practicing daily has profoundly changed my practice. It is difficult to explain how exactly my practice has changed, but it feels much deeper now than it did before I started to practice daily. I think this is somehow connected to the shift of focus from achieving something with my practice to just practicing mentioned earlier.
Every morning after having finished my practice, I know that I will have done at least one good thing on that day!