Ashtanga Yoga: Do Your Practice and All is Coming

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This morning, as I was coming home from yoga practice, I came across this beautiful lotus in the picture. It seemed to me that it was saying, "Yes!!!" In spite of the muck of life from which it grows, this lotus wanted to spread itself wide open, to blossom in all of its fullness. In Hindu and Buddhist symbolism the lotus represents purity of body, speech and mind because it emerges from the muddy waters of attachment and desire from where it was born. This isn't very different from the "Yes" that we Ashtangis say each morning on our mats. We're saying, "Yes" in spite of the fact that we may feel like shit; in spite of the fact that we may be shut down; in spite of the fact that we would rather be nestled in bed. But what we're saying, "Yes" to is the transformation of those stuck, shitty, shut-down places. We're saying, "Yes" to life.

A Mirror for Ourselves

It takes incredible determination and courage to show up in practice on a day-in-day-out basis. Ashtanga Yoga is a mirror. Because we practice the same sequences of postures--more or less--each day, it's easy to see misalignments both physically and emotionally.  

Yesterday, I had had a disagreement with a vendor I buy supplies from, and I was pretty pissed last night, but I felt pretty clear when I went to sleep. However as soon as I was into the second surya namaskar this morning, I could feel myself fuming, again. And while I tried to ignore, overcome or distract myself from the irritation, I couldn't help but just keep spinning stories of vengeance the whole time. I can't say that I handled the anger with what the Buddhists call "skillful means," but that's what the practice can do. It puts you face-to-face with your stuff, whether you're ready to acknowledge it or not.

And those are the moments when you are really learning the deeper aspects of practice, those moment when you're caught in guilt, anger, grief, or any other powerful emotion that just triggers self-loathing or that comparison game we do.  You know the game,"She's better than I am." "I am more flexible than her." "I wish my butt was less flabby." That whole conversation is an invitation to look deeper, not at the content but at the underlying emotion that's running it.  

Yesterday a dedicated student of mine was complaining in class because, in spite of the fact that he'd been working on his backbend for several years, it lacked the mobility he thought was required of a practitioner of his status. The big learning for him was not having a physical breakthrough but in the recognition that what drove the need for a breakthrough was an underlying, anxiety that didn't just pertain to his backbend but to all aspects of his life.  Now that we've uncovered the anxiety, he can start to work with that rather than the need to "beat it" with a better backbend.

Showing Up in Spite of . . .

The "Yes" that I am speaking of is that in spite of all the bad news we see on 24 hour news channels, the onslaught of information coming our way through the Internet, the bills to pay, the loneliness and isolation we face, we still show up.

Like the lotus, when we step on the mat, we're saying, "Yes, I want to blossom. I could just watch TV or sleep a few more hours. I could give in to inertia or the anxiety or sadness or boredom, but I know that I am more than this. And these feelings are fodder for a breakthrough."

Do Your Practice, All Is Coming

Showing up is a stand for transformation. Through practice, we meet those stuck, tender, painful, and often lonely places within our being that we typically try to avoid. We run away in hot pursuit of things that we think will make us feel better, like sex, money, or the perfect partner.

Instead of the practice being about the performance of beautiful acrobatics—which, by the way, Cirque du Soleil does so much better—it's really about meeting our painful places with warmth, kindness, and compassion. It's through this courageous and loving act that we transform that which is stuck.

I'm often asked how long it took me to "be with" the painful things without turning away or distracting myself. Admittedly, there are lots of places I am still struggling to acknowledge in myself. As you read above, I am not particularly masterful with some forms of anger, but then if I look at my capacity to hold feelings of grief or boredom, I can say that I have gotten so much better.

Essentially, all practices cultivate our capacity to stay and be with whatever shows up. That staying really is about staying in relationship to yourself as distinct from the suffering that's showing up. In addition, the staying is about creating a relationship to the suffering. It's a relationship of your choice. If you want to be pissed off that you feel pain, then you get to be pissed off. If you want to see the pain as the key to your awakening, then you get to choose that. My experience is that the more empowering the relationship you create, the more you say, "Yes" to that which you are staying with, the more possibility there is for a breakthrough.

To give you an example, a student at Mission Ashtanga, where I teach Mysore three mornings a week, was promoted to a huge project in her corporate job that required that she create coordinated communication throughout the company. The project was stalled for one year, which left her feeling guilty and irresponsible. Behind the self-criticism, a feeling of unworthiness was driving her. For a year, she practiced primary series, and her intention was to untangle the self-criticism and to meet the underlying feeling with warmth, compassion, and kindness. About a month ago, she mentioned to me that the sense of unworthiness was waning, and the project had just begun flowing with ease.

Ashtanga Yoga is a lifelong practice. Those tender places cannot be repaired in a day or a few years. What I can say with certainty from first hand experience is that slowly, slowly all things are healed through the cauldron of practice. The bottom line, though, is that this transformation needs a "Yes!!!" from us. All we need to do is show up, do the practice and stay awake.  As Pattabhi Jois used to say, "Do your practice and all is coming."  Say, "Yes" and the practice will do the rest.