It’s no secret that diet and exercise are the keys to good health. What seems to remain a mystery to many people is how to implement that philosophy in daily life. There are many matters vying for our time and attention all day long, and my best response to this fact – both with regard to making time for exercise and in dealing with the overstimulation, stress and fast pace of modern life – is my daily Ashtanga yoga practice.
My practice is an integral part of my lifestyle. I wake up early in the morning to practice six days per week, which is the prescribed regularity according to the tradition shared by the late guru, Sri K. Pattabhi Jois of Mysore, India, the father of Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga. Every Saturday is a day off, but I was also taught to take additional rest (no asana practice) on the day of the New Moon and the Full Moon, and for the first three days of my menstrual cycle.
In my opinion, having a community to practice with is a crucial source of motivation and inspiration to maintain my daily practice. If you have a teacher, that’s even better, but once you memorize the series of postures in the Ashtanga system, the practice itself becomes the teacher. The practice is also very healing, evening out the very common physical asymmetries we all tend to have, as well as detoxifying the body and making it stronger and more flexible.
One of my favorite aspects of the Ashtanga system in particular is that every day my practice is the same. Sure, it has gotten longer over time, as I have become capable of practicing more postures, but the order of those postures has been carefully determined and designed to prepare me for the ones that come later in the series. This is the case as I move through the practice each day, and as I progress through the series over time. The steadiness of the practice is one of its most educational aspects. Every day when I step on my mat, I am the only variable in the equation; the practice remains constant. This means that if I care to pay attention, the practice will reveal to me how chatty my mind is today, how strong my body is, how stiff my muscles are, how well I’ve rested and if I’ve eaten food that was less than optimal for me. These observations have been extremely valuable in gaining body and mind awareness, and over time, although I did not notice that it was happening at first, they began to guide my lifestyle choices to an increasing degree. I attribute my slow and natural transition to veganism to this very process.
The Ashtanga practice is physically rigorous, and increases in intensity over time. It has very favorable effects on the body, but these benefits are merely minor side effects compared to the life skills a practitioner gains in terms of self-discipline, concentration, body awareness and eventually stillness of the mind.
The practice is a tool rather than an objective. When a person practices with a focus on achieving a goal, such as “perfecting” a particular posture or “getting better” at a given transition, he or she is practicing with misplaced emphasis. It is not uncommon to occasionally forget the true objective, which is to move into a posture to the best of one’s ability and focus on a calm, deep, steady breath, thereby quieting the mind. Yes, there have been times when I have focused on a physical objective. But the more mature my practice becomes, the less often I fall prey to this trap of the ego. The purpose is not to be thin and fit, or to look beautiful in a given pose, or gain the admiration or approval of fellow practitioners; it is simply to try, to breathe, and to try again the next day. Physical ability increases naturally as a result of this approach.
Difficulties arise, of course. I am presented with challenges and even the occasional injury, and on some days I feel great while on others my body feels stiff and unwilling, or my mind is chanting at me to stop or reminding me of a thousand other things I “should be” doing instead. When practice is challenging, I try to notice this fact with detachment (without getting down about it, without berating myself), and most importantly, keep going, with patient persistence. This is where the lessons are learned. This is how I practice sitting still when I am uncomfortable, not just physically, but emotionally or spiritually. This is how I learn to breathe when I am sad or afraid or frustrated, where I learn that even though today feels like a bad/sad/irritable/unlucky day, that the unpleasantness is temporary. I have faith that it will pass, and I can be calmer in the meantime.
Of course any kind of physical exercise releases stress-relieving endorphins, increases circulation, burns excess fat and keeps the body strong and healthy. Many kinds of exercise, such as long-distance running or swimming or rock climbing, can be very meditative as well. For me, to a much greater degree than with any other form of physical activity, starting my yoga practice in the morning feels like a return to “home base,” a chance to push the reset button. Each day it gives me a new opportunity to focus on my breath, quiet my mind and experience the physical, energetic, and spiritual manifestations of a deeper connection to my truest, most essential Self. I don’t always succeed in reaching such a state; I am human. But I have that opportunity. It is this explicit purpose of a yoga asana practice that makes it simultaneously my exercise of choice and the spiritual practice I intend to maintain for the rest of my life.
For further specific details on the Ashtanga Yoga system, see:
K. Pattabhi Jois Research Institute in Mysore, India
Kino MacGregor on Ashtanga Yoga
Tim Miller on the Alchemy of Yoga
Description of Ashtanga Yoga by the Jois Yoga Shala