“Don’t think that perfecting an asana makes a good practice. Don’t think like that. Many students say, oh today, I caught my ankles in backbending, today is my good practice. Don’t think like that. Getting up and being on your mat, and just doing what you can, that is sufficient and that is your best practice.”
I came across the Instagram page of Ashtanga Yoga Vancouver last week and saw this quote beside one of the photos there. I’ve heard Sharath say something similar in response to a question during one of the weekly ‘conferences’ at the shala in Mysore.
I love how simple Sharath makes everything when he talks. It sometimes seems so unsatisfactory to people because they want everything to be detailed and complicated. There’s always the temptation to say “Yes Sharath, I know all that, but what’s the REAL thing that I need to know in order to progress”. But it’s simple. It really is.
Did you practice today? Yes or no? If the answer is yes then you are on the right track and you are (infinitesimally) closer to the state of yoga than you were yesterday.
Unfortunately these, instead, are the questions that we ask ourselves regularly: Did you catch your hands in Marichasana D? Cross your feet in Supta Kurmasana? Jump back without touching the floor? Get both legs behind your head?
And what happens when we achieve these ‘milestones’ in asana practice? We get another, usually more challenging, asana and the process of striving to achieve that starts again. Exactly the same. Why can’t we recognise this cycle? And the inescapable fact that it’s never-ending?
One of the first things we hear about ashtanga yoga is that there are six series of asanas and that nobody, except Sharath, practises, or even knows, the sixth series. Why, then, can’t we seem to immediately come to the conclusion that achievement of all the asanas is almost impossible and, therefore, that it can’t be the point of the yoga practice in the first place?!
Why do we continue to miss the point, over and over and over until we are broken?
This ashtanga yoga system is a trap. The progression of the primary, intermediate and advanced series fools us into thinking that we must master the asanas. The fact that the asanas get more challenging as we go further seems to suggest that we have to be able to perform extraordinary feats of acrobatics in order to gain the full benefit of the yoga practice. But it is just that, a trap. The asanas are not the point.
It’s fun to learn new asanas of course. And sometimes we need the challenge of mastering a new asana to give us the motivation to continue to practice day after day. We learn determination and, if we’re lucky, patience. So, don’t get me wrong; I encourage you to enjoy the journey of learning new asanas and to attempt to find comfort in each one.
But again, the asanas are not the point! We’re mistaking the tool for the function. The asanas are just a way of creating the conditions for the mind to spontaneously settle into stillness. We can cultivate that stillness in the crucible of daily practice but we have to be careful to keep reminding ourselves that the goal is not achievement in asanas but rather equanimity in all aspects of our lives.
All of that progression through the different asanas and the different series is irrelevant in terms of your progress in yoga. People are way too focused on the achievement of asanas.
If you read last week’s moon-day news you will have seen that I mentioned Sutra I:14 “The mind is stopped (brought into stillness) through practice (abhyasa) and detachment (vairagya).”
Whatever happened to the varaigya part of the equation? And how do we cultivate that? I suggest starting with the above quote from Sharath. Especially these eight words:
“Just doing what you can. That is sufficient”