On the face of it, the practice of Ashtanga Yoga seems like it is progressive. And it is. The asanas, as we go further into each series, get progressively more physically demanding. The names of the different series’ even support that. Primary series, intermediate and advanced A, B, C, and D.
So, if it’s a progressive system, how long does it take to get to the end? And what are the rewards of getting further through the series?
The truth is that it doesn’t work in this linear way at all. Quite the opposite in fact. A complete beginner to the practice is just as likely to experience yoga (defined as the stopping of all thoughts) as a student who has been practising for a long time. The beginner might not identify the experience in the same way as the ‘advanced’ student, but the experience is the same.
As an aside, there is a famous concept from Zen Buddhism called beginner’s mind. The idea is that, in the mind of an expert in any field, the possible outcomes of any action or stimulus are mostly predictable. The expert thinks “I have done/seen/experienced this a thousand times and I know what’s going to happen next”. In the mind of the beginner, however, the possibilities are endless. Not having any frame of reference for a particular experience means that we can fully participate in the experience without expectation of the outcome. We are encouraged to try to adopt this beginner’s mind. In other words, to live without expectation.
Getting back to the ashtanga practice, we can be fooled into thinking that an expert, or an advanced student, or your teacher (what I’m trying to say is; anyone who can do more asanas than you can, or can perform the asanas like you saw Kino McGregor doing them on youtube) can tap in to this experience of yoga much more readily than you.
This is not true.
The experience of yoga (stopping the mind, remember) is an experience which is deeply rooted in the present moment. The asanas are just a method to cultivate this. They are designed as a distraction for the mind, so that it discontinues its normal thought patterns. In the same way as some mindfulness practitioners meditate on the flow of breath in the body, or transcendental meditators meditate on a mantra, ashtanga practitioners meditate on the asanas.
The reason they get progressively more difficult is so that the mind doesn’t creep back in once the particular asana upon which you are meditating becomes easy (or easier anyway). Or, in other words, the series’ progress in difficulty in order to make sure that the student is always operating at the limit of his/her physical capability. In that way, complete concentration is required to perform the asanas.
It is only afterwards that we realise our minds stopped just for an instant. And that is yoga.
The beginner trying to touch his toes is having the exact same experience as the long-term practitioner trying to balance on one arm. The experience of yoga is just as readily available whether it’s your first time on a yoga mat or your ten thousandth.
So there is no pot of gold at the end of the sixth series. The gold is in each individual breath, if only we can bring our one-pointed attention there.
I came across two clips which illustrate this point much more effectively than I can. Neither are overtly related to yoga practice. They both agree, though, that it is the journey, not the destination, which is important.
“Don’t hurry” – Pattabhi Jois and Sharath Jois