I’ve been thinking this week about the Ashtanga tradition of practising six days a week and whether, if we’re not on that roll of getting on our mats every day, we are getting the full benefit of the practice.
It seems to me that the majority of yoga teachers who I meet don’t practise daily or necessarily encourage their students to do so. I don’t have enough knowledge of other yoga traditions to say if sporadic or irregular practice is prescribed by other schools as part of their system, but I would be very surprised if anything less than daily practice was recommended by any yoga traditions. We can, in some respects, consider ourselves lucky to have such clear guidelines in the Ashtanga tradition, which sets down six days a week as the ideal amount of formal asana practice. Of course, this is not possible for everyone, but at least it leaves little room for confusion.
So, as yoga students, what should we expect of ourselves?
Well I am of the opinion that we should practice as regularly as possible. That does not mean that every day we have to practise every asana we have ever learned, but as far as is possible, we should get on our mats (except for Saturday, because Saturday is oil-bath day!). Guruji was very clear about that. Ashtanga is meant as a daily practice.
Now, that is not to say that we should abandon our other responsibilities in the pursuit of advancing our asana practice. Yoga practice should improve one’s life, not hinder it. Most yoga students have to go to work every day (without falling asleep at their desk), look after their family, and function normally in society. Few, if any, of us have absolutely no responsibilities at all. In the lineage of Krishnamacharya (Pattabhi Jois’s teacher) yoga practice is said to be for householders (as opposed to renunciates), so it is possible to be a committed yoga practitioner and to maintain a normal life too (that’s a relief eh?).
But why should we practise every day?
Well the benefits of asana practice are first of all experienced physically. But as we go deeper and practice more regularly the more subtle aspects of the practice become apparent to us. Sharath, in the conferences we attended in Mysore, many times reiterated the point that, through the practice of yoga, “change should happen within you”. A daily commitment to practice accelerates that change and, in a very practical way, encourages the yoga student to make healthy choices in their life.
Simply knowing that you have to get on your mat every morning (or afternoon or evening) means that you have to treat your body and mind well for the rest of the day. Otherwise, as we all know only too well, the experience that we have on our mats the next morning is not a fulfilling one. If, on a daily basis we decide whether to practise or not, then we let ourselves off the hook of having to live a healthy life. Every time we have mistreated ourselves – physically, mentally or emotionally – we have the excuse to not bother with our practice the next day, because we don’t feel good and couldn’t possibly face that hour and half of contorting our bodies. So with the commitment already made that we will practice every day, regardless of whether we feel like it or not, then the choice is no longer “will I practise today or not?” but rather “what should I do (or avoid doing) today so that I will be ready, willing and able to practise in the morning?”. Heathy choices become part of your life. And when healthy choices become the norm we really begin to feel that we are in control of ourselves physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually.
So I recommend making a commitment to regular, or even daily, practice (at home or at class) and seeing what benefits it brings to your daily life. Even if your practice ends up being only twenty minutes on any given day, try to get on your mat. Peter Sanson, one of the most inspirational and experienced teachers I have had the good fortune to meet, puts it nicely. He suggests that we start with Surya Namaskara A each day and se how it develops from there.