The most common cause of frustration amongst us students of Ashtanga Yoga is getting ‘stuck’ on a certain asana. We have been given this system which specifies that you can’t learn the next asana in the series until you can at least make a good fist of the previous one. That’s all very well until we come up against something which seems physically impossible. The mind tends to go into overdrive at this point.
“I’m not making any progress. Why can’t I just skip this asana? Some of the later ones are easier than this one anyway! What if I can never do this asana? Will I just be stuck here forever? Maybe I should give up yoga and do something that I’m good at, or at least something that is less frustrating”.
So what is it all about?
Well, from my experience, it’s all to do with limits.
Most of us remember our first yoga class. For some of us it was an ordeal of sweating, stretching, balancing and basically just trying to survive until the teacher said it was time to finish. For others it was a blissful experience of opening, and releasing our bodies and allowing our minds to relax. Somewhere in between those two extremes lies the ‘average’ experience (for the record I fell into the first category, but I felt so fantastic AFTER the class that I came back again and again and again, and now it seems less like an ordeal….most days!)
To the uninitiated in asana practice it would seem like the person performing the asanas more easily was ‘better at yoga’ (I hear this expression more often than you would believe!). The beauty of the Mysore Style method of learning is that that person would be given more to do over the first few weeks and months of practice until they found their limit. The person who is struggling is, of course, already at (or near) their limit.
Now this is where the real work and the real benefit of yoga practice happens. At your limit. So, as we can see from the very simple example above, we are all operating at our limit in the yoga practice. And, in other words, we are all having the same experience; some days positive and some days negative.
The trap is that, because the six series’ of Ashtanga Yoga seem like a linear progression, it is easy to get frustrated when we are not getting through them as quickly as we would like. Rest assured, the fundamental experience of the practice changes very little, the more postures you learn. The fundamentals of breath, posture and dhrishti are still just as elusive, and the feeling of operating at your physical and psychological limit is the same, regardless of whether the practice you have been given is half primary or the entire third or fourth series. Although it seems counter-intuitive, reaching your limit quicker could be seen as something of a blessing as you don’t have to go through all of those advanced asanas in order to see the truth; that the most important thing about the yoga practice is the attention which you bring to it, one vinyasa at a time.
So the idea of progress in asana practice becomes something which we didn’t expect it to become. That is, we are progressing in our asana practice when we bring a more single-pointed focus to it as the months and years go on. When the asanas start to become easy we are given more challenging ones, but only because that’s the best way to re-focus our minds and stop them from wandering.
Frustration is a part of this practice, and it can be an important one, because it shines a light on the real reasons we are practising in the first place.
Remember; what is your limit today will not be your limit next week, next month, next year or ten years from now. But to experience one-pointed attention (called ekagrata in Sanskrit) is one of the main goals of asana practice.