I get lots of questions from both students and prospective students about how to practice yoga. Some amount of answering that question about how to practice yoga means first deconstructing some often held assumptions about what is necessary for practice. All that is really necessary to practice yoga is the will and desire to practice. It is also helpful to have some kind of direction. Usually that is provided by a teacher who has traveled that way and can provide a sense of the map and waypoints. What is not necessary is the perfect mat, the perfect studio, or the perfect body.
How to practice yoga — cultivating equanimity in a practice context
No matter what the context is surrounding each yoga practice, something will not be perfect. Maybe it’s a little warmer or cooler that you’d prefer. Maybe the space isn’t ideal because you’re practicing at home and the dog is barking or you can hear the neighbor’s stereo. Maybe you’re feeling a little stiff or bored. And that is the yoga practice. “Yoga citta vrtti nirodha” = Yoga is a practice of not identifying with the context of the moment as more or less perfect — it is a practice of cultivating equanimity. Every day when we step onto the mat and things are not perfect, those are the opportunities that we can use to practice not getting caught up in our own preferences. The more we can manage not to get caught up in our own likes and dislikes, the more awareness and space we can hold. The more awareness we can maintain, the more discerning we can be about what is truly important to us and what is just flotsam and jetsam of the mind.
So once we have established that we are going to practice yoga, due to the vagaries of life, we will probably spend some time doing a home practice alone, and some time practicing in community. There are benefits and challenges to both. Having both of these experiences over many years has provided me with a lot of different kinds of learning opportunities.
Solo practice – home practice
Challenges to home practice can include:
Some self-motivation is necessary since no one is there to tell you to get started.
You’ll need a willingness to set your own boundaries based on what you are feeling in your body, since no one else will be there to notice when you seem tired and need to shorten or modify your practice.
Sometimes the home practice space can be feel more distracting as there may be dogs/kids/roommates who are occupying that space as well.
The space itself may seem less ideal depending on what kind of space options you have. You may have to be more creative to find a flat space large enough for a yoga mat.
Benefits to home practice:
The space is yours. You can set it up however it feels best to you.
The time is flexible. You can practice whenever it works best for your schedule.
You can gain confidence in yourself and in your knowledge of your own body by working on your own.
Long-time Ashtanga teacher, Eddie Stern has this to say about self-practice: “So I would go home, practice on my own for nine months or so, save money, and then when I had enough money together, I would go back to India to get some help with my practice. There were no Ashtanga yoga schools in NY for me to go to everyday. I was on my own, and had to build up self-reliance, independence, and a little spirit of experimentation in order to figure out how to make some of the postures work. Jocelyne learned in the same way. It was a great way to learn yoga. I learned about balancing self-reliance with the importance of having a teacher.”
Practicing yoga in community
There is a zen proverb about the benefits and challenges of practicing in a sangha, which is the Sanskrit word for a practice community. Practice in community is said to be like washing a big pile of potatoes in a bowl. The potatoes bump up against one another in the washing process and there is friction. It’s that friction from the potatoes bumping into one another that results in the whole bowl of potatoes getting washed faster than if you tried to wash them one at a time.
That zen story is a good metaphor for both the challenges and benefits of practicing in community. When you are practicing in community, it’s not all about you. It requires accommodating others — making space for others and whatever it is they need to practice. Practically, that might mean you need to adjust your mat or how you do a pose in the Mysore room to accommodate others. Energetically, it’s also an opportunity to lift one another up — to support one another’s practice. We all benefit from the uplifting energy of practicing in a group, especially when we are feeling low energy or less motivated. This is the yoga practice — the practice of yamas — the first limb of yoga.
It’s all practice
Ultimately all of the contexts in which we do practice will not be perfect. This is how we learn to stretch ourselves, and if we choose to, how we can work to cultivate equanimity on the mat that will translate into equanimity in life off the mat. Rather than trying to change the context or the environment in which you have the opportunity to practice, consider what you can change about how you respond to it. Decide that you are comfortable and content doing your practice despite the dog barking or the sound of the neighbor’s stereo and comfortable and content will start to become your experience.
Almost to the end of practice. Breathing. Setting up for my nonexistent meditation practice. Then rest which I love and hate. Baddha padmasana to Yoga mudra. Sometimes the ones Manju showed me to padmasana. Hand forms chin mudra. Chin mudra, connecting myself with the true-self. Control over the three gunas: sattva, rajas, and tamas —
What are the three gunas?
A brief description of the gunas if you’re not quite sure of them. I’ll start with just translating guna. In English it’s merit, quality, virtue. Our habits. It’s the thread keeping our personal mala together. They’re the aspects of us that in varying degrees create our personality. Each of us containing all three gunas no matter how much we tell ourselves we’re missing one or don’t need one. We attach ourselves or define our lives around the ones we seek. The ones we have aversion to tell us deep secrets if we can just break past our own blindness. Then it gets deeper.
Sattva, rajas, and tamas
Sattva, सव, goblin. Ha! I’m not kidding, but that’s not the sattva I’ll be talking about here. I do love though that it can mean goblin, demon, and monster. Sattva is the guna of balance, harmony, goodness. Sure, sounds good. That’s all I need, right? Peacefulness, creativity, positivity. I can get attached to that. Come to me balance. Set your roots here. Rajas the guna of hot. Moving towards action and having passion behind it. Something to get that ego behind. The drive that keeps us an individual. That since the world centers around us and that’s how it should be. Sometimes good. Sometimes bad. Sometimes neither. Cold? Don’t want to move today? Tamas, the guna of down. Darkness rolls in. Chaos disillusions and we fall into inactivity. The imbalances show through the widening cracks and I can’t decide if the laziness, anger, or anxiety make me dull. These are our three gunas. Our hot, cold, and just right. Then we rest just a bit too long and the family of bears devourer us in that comfy bed.
Three gunas in practice and life
I sit in padmasana, hands in chin mudra, and the brain works. My gunas I’m attached to are sattva and tamas. I strive for harmony. Strive so much I don’t think about how I am trying to achieve it. Usually ends up thinking of others far over myself. If I do what I think they want peace will stay. I have to listen though. What I assume is helpful is sometimes just me not listening correctly. Not really listening for what would really help. I cower behind false positivity because I think that’s what others want to see. Not showing feeling and locking it deep inside. So deep I can’t see it. Forgetting that I feel. That my feelings matter and won’t get in the way of peace. This is not balance. Not harmony. I am imbalanced. It slides me into inactivity because I don’t know what to do with myself. I don’t know myself. Anxiety rolls over the darkness inside me that hides all I need to pay attention. I want nothing. I do nothing.
Then the past that shapes us. I grew up in South Florida. Heat and humidity abound. My father’s hot temper. So passionate that his passions blinded him to the happenings around him. Maybe he used them as an escape from the things around him. Self-absorbed to occupy the mind from trouble. I built a tolerance to rajas. Heat don’t bother me. Passions leads towards bad habits. Yet my ego stays strong blinding me to the true needs of others that I thought I was providing for.
I have no control. I don’t know myself let alone a true-self. Seeing this is a start. I guess I’m figuring out who I am. Reaching total loss of control means the only change from there is a bit of the opposite. Control of the gunas. They make up who we are. We view ourselves truthfully and don’t hide from what’s inside. Life is scary, I know, but it can continue and get better.
In January this year, all of the teachers at Ashtanga Yoga Asheville took some time to be students and do some svadhyaya (study). Christine and Jared attended a Yoga and Science conference and Jonathan spent some time practicing with Manju Jois (son of Pattabhi Jois). Read on for a summary of what we learned.
Yoga and Science Conference
Christine presenting her poster on research from the science team
Eddie Stern, long-time Ashtanga practitioner and coordinator of Ashtanga Yoga New York, hosted a second conference on the topic of ‘Yoga and Science’ in January this year. Jared and I attended the conference and this year and it was fantastic!
Nine scientists presented the results of their research on various aspects of yoga. Researchers discussed research on asana practice as well as pranayama and meditation practice. Topics ranged from benefits of yoga on the nervous system and the cardio system to the potential for yoga to reduce stress and increase the experience of compassion. An over-arching theme to many of the presentations given by the scientists was the importance of the breath in practice and the highly positive effect that slow, even breathing has on the nervous system. If you’re interested in learning more about the individual scientists and their presentations, you can find more details here: http://yogaandscience.org/2019-conference/
I also had a special opportunity to contribute to the conference presentations! I’m one of four members of a science team headed by my teacher, David Keil, which is conducting research into what practitioners are actually experiencing in their yoga practice. I presented a poster summarizing the relationships between the way in which students do an Ashtanga practice and the benefits that they experience. It was exciting! It was not surprising that our results showed that those who practice consistently (5-6 days per week) experience more benefits than those who practice less often.
Aside from the fact that the Yoga and Science conference was simply full of fascinating discoveries about yoga, it was very encouraging to me to see yoga embraced within the science community. If we are to continue to see yoga practices evolve into the most effective tools they can be, and if we want to see these tools embraced by the mainstream medical and health professions, then science must be part of the picture.
Here are Jonathan’s notes from the Manju Jois workshop:
Manju Jois: Teaching Primary(1st) and Intermediate(2nd) Series Some of you may know that I went to my once beautiful hometown of Palm City to participate in two Yoga workshops. The workshops were two five day trainings on how to teach and assist. First five days are focused on the Primary Series of Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga and second on Second Series. Makes sense so far. One Yoga Planet in Fort Pierce hosted the workshop and becomes the main studio for Manju’s workshops in the future.
The drive every day to the studio was a relaxing tour along the shore of the intracoastal waterway. No traffic and bird friends to sore with on the way up and down. It’s about a half hour drive to the studio and I didn’t know I would enjoy it so much. Better said, the way I thought I had to drive to get there I wasn’t looking forward to. I thought traffic and traffic lights or the highway. So wrong I was. Thankfully my mother enlightened me about another option. Only a short trip up US 1 then onto the back roads that bring me to Indian River Dr. A slow speed limit but no lights and no traffic. And the view like I mentioned. I miss the water. I miss the saltwater. Growing up here I told myself and others that I hated it but now looking back growing up here was a grand time. Special time. With a pleasant drive, temperatures in the 60’s, and tunes turned up loud the workshop begins and ends.
Everyday arriving in the little, I’m sure “historical,” downtown. A sparse main drag like an abandoned mining town. The free parking is in the multi-level cement garage just on the other sides of railroad tracks down from the studio. An easy walk to the studio and the workshop. Tall ceiling, large colorful not my taste paintings cover the walls, warm, and a super friendly greeter. Students wait on their mats while others arrive and pick out their spot before I can remember what I’m supposed to do when I come to a studio. Sign my life away on the waiver. Sign in on the workshop attendance sheet. Spin in circles. Put my shit in a cubby. Spin in circles. Wonder if I should ask for a toilet or look around for one. I spot the sign. Shorts replace pants and I join the rest of the eager beavers on the mats. I take a second gander at the wall art. My eye lids shut and I sit quiet. The beginning of each day.
Opening mantra. Call and response. “Om.” Let’s workshop. Wait. Why are people Surya Namaskaring? Everyone is. Are we practicing first? Mysore before the workshop? I guess I’ll just practice till I’m told different. Maybe I should have read the workshop email better. I bring myself through first series. A wondrous experience. I was not expecting to practice this morning and planned on trying to get up early the next several days to practice before heading to the workshop. Don’t have to do that. We’ll be practicing first thing before the workshop every day. Starting the day with practice is a joy when it starts at 9. It releases me of burdens that I want to hold onto, so I suffer. Don’t ask me why I want that. The day seems clearer after practice, freer. Warm, close, and not to wet. The temperature is near perfection. I could probably wear the shorts I practiced in tomorrow. For practicing in Florida that’s an amazing feat. In fact…I’m not going to practice in them but for workshopping they’re fine. That was not always the case with each new day.
The workshop focused on hands-on assists for most of the asanas in 1st and second series. From the standing sequence to a cow’s face. Padangusthasana till gomukhasana B. “What about Surya Namaskar?,” you ask. That’s yours. That’s your “prayer.” Time to bring one’s self to practice. No assistance necessary. Of course, the teacher still teaches the movement, breath, and focus of the Sun Salutation but this time is for the practitioner to come to practice. Set their intention. Worship the Sun. No need to bother them with your hands and feet. Let them find a center for the days practice. Let them be. Hands can help when padangusthasana starts. The hand becomes a focus. Manju brings the warmth of the palm into the assist. Manju brings the three great goddesses that reside in the hand to the assist. Lakshmi, Saraswati, and Govinda directing the direction of the spine with a massage up the strong muscles of the back.
First finding evenness and stability with a pull that might be a little strong for someone blind to ashtanga. The strength used differs between each student. Everyone is going to be different. The stiff get a lot out of a little and the long term practitioners change throughout their life time of practice. A bit of awareness must be had when going into a physical assist. This is helping people not doing all I can to put them into a position I think “correct.” It is moving them to a position suitable and helpful for them. Secure the student in their asana. Move their spine in the direction the asana asks. And keep the student clear of threat. There’s more. Hands push hips one way. Legs help the student’s balance. Simple movements remind the student to give up on holding shoulders so tight. An arm around the ribs helps twist. Hold. Be a steady point. A reliable pillar. In the end the student needs to feel secure. Needs to feel assisted not assaulted. It needs intention not tentative limp fingers that show no direction.
Simple, if the student’s discomfort grows inside them that they need to escape the asana an assist can help. The assist can make it worse. “Pain is not gain. Pain is pain,” Manju said. The assists he showed on his helper are the end points of each assist. There’s a whole spectrum of points until then. Between being there for the student and placing your body weight unto them. The teacher needs to know how far a student can be assisted. Which is why hands-on assist can work in ashtanga. During a Mysore class the teacher and student build a relationship. They learn about each other so no harmed comes. Each learning. Each bringing their messages to the yoga world. Which is our world. The workshop was great. I love Florida. I don’t like that it is slowly being covered by concrete.
Ashtanga is not just asana and Manju does many things that make people like him but that’s okay. He tries to not hurt anyone and tries to make it so we don’t either. Yoga is a lifelong process. Multiple lives long process. We’re in it together. We are just yoga messengers spreading what we have learned, heard, to others. We try with all that we can to keep it safe, fun, and doable.
Lately, I’ve been thinking about the concentration aspect of practice. Is concentration something that one can practice and develop? How is what we are doing the rest of the day affecting our ability to concentrate? How does practicing concentration translate to the rest of our lives?
When I first started practicing the Ashtanga asana sequences I was in grad school. I spent a lot of time in front of my computer analyzing data and writing. It required sustained concentration and there was time pressure to finish my dissertation. For a time, I was working late nights on lab work and waking early for practice. Especially after short sleeps, concentration (or lack thereof) in practice was painful and frustrating.
For the past five years or so I’ve been working with a meditation teacher, John Churchill, who has given me language and context to approach concentration practice. John has worked with me to shift my basis of operation to subtle awareness and to develop a sense of kindness and compassion as I work on these practices. Over time and through practice, I have also come realize and clean up habits that hinder my quality of attention.
Shifting the basis of operation to subtle awareness
When I was first learning the Ashtanga practice, I realize that I was subtly projecting externally derived ideas on how practice should be done onto my practice. These ideas included sustained concentration on the movement linked breath. When I could not perform these techniques to my expectations (like after short sleeps), I became frustrated.
It has helped me to shift my basis of operation from effortful concentration to subtle awareness. Awareness encompasses the self-structure, thoughts, and sensation. It is our very sentience. It has the properties of being lucid, empty, and ungraspable. Awareness is readily experienced here and now and requires no special powers to know. It is so fundamental that I easily overlooked it at first and then realized it’s been there running in background the whole time. After asana practice each day, I sit and recognize awareness. Lately, I’ve been periodically recognizing awareness off the mat while going about my daily activities. Over some years of practice, I’ve noticed that it has required less effort to steer concentration back to the breath with the consistent recognition of the subtle layer of mind.
Developing secure attachments
Visualization of a kind, compassionate, and brilliant mentor is a component of the meditation practices in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition that John teaches from. Curiously in the Ashtanga practice, we also recognize the value of the mentor in the opening mantra to Patanjali. It has taken me some time to grasp the meaning and efficacy of the mentor visualization practice. Then, I reflected on how often I have been anxious about not having enough time, not being able to do it right, not being desirable to other humans, etc. With that baggage in mind, it becomes easier to see the value of visualizing or feeling the presence of a being that sees me fully and is infinitely patient and compassionate.
Coincidentally, my inner teacher has become more curious and kind over the years. I bring more of my authentic self to the mat. The one who is distracted, a bit stiff or injured, and didn’t sleep well last night. I apply a process of inquiry of emptiness in the practice. Where are the thoughts coming from and where do they go? Are the thoughts solid and can they be located? Applying this inquiry to the body: where are the edges of sensation? Where is the tightness coming from? Compassion and skillful means arises with the sense of curiosity into the quality of experience.
Removing a major obstacle to concentration off of the mat
I am addicted to my phone and recently have been trying to break the habit. The light and information stimulation interfere with my sleep. The social media feeds and hyperlinks have trained me not to sustain attention. Furthermore, I find myself getting upset about things I have no control over that I see in the news or on social media. This leads to thought spirals in practice. Christine and I have been reading a book called “How to Break Up With Your Phone,” which has been inspirational to me.
To break the addiction, I’ve blocked my vices, the New York Times and Facebook, on my phone altogether and I have limited viewing of these sites to 15 minutes per day on my laptop. I set my screen time app on my phone to put roadblocks to viewing the internet between the hours of 7 PM and 8 AM. This prevents me from looking at my phone before morning practice. It has been a good practice to not pick up my phone until after I am clothed, fed, and ready to work, post-practice. I get out of the door and to the office sooner. I’ve noticed that I am calmer and more free to relate to those around me, read books, or recognize awareness without the constant barrage of information.
Where is quality sustained attention leading?
I recently heard at an organizational leadership training that your most valuable resource is your attention. I couldn’t agree more. Attention is the means by which we perform in our work. Attention brings quality to our relationships. Attention is how we recognize patterns of cause and effect and change the course of our lives. Attention is how we recognize the fundamental nature of consciousness. Improving the quality of our attention is well worth our attention.
I’m late to the table for this discussion, for a couple reasons. One, because I’m not on social media. And two, I made a conscious decision long ago to focus on developing my own teaching rather than looking around to see what everyone else was doing. But, by not keeping up with the Jones, sometimes I also come late to relevant conversations. If you also haven’t been following this news, then the very short version is this: Several female students came forward to report sexually abusive contact by Pattabhi Jois, the patriarch of Ashtanga vinyasa yoga, during hands-on adjustments while they were practicing in Mysore. I would rather not step on the words of those who have been more directly impacted. I would prefer to let them speak for themselves. You can follow the thread from Mary Taylor’s post here and here.
After I learned of the abuses by Pattabhi Jois reported by several female students, I took some time to think and feel through what that meant to me. Everyone will have their own suite of feelings to process based on their own context, their relationship with Mysore in general, their relationship with Pattabhi Jois in particular, and their relationship with the Ashtanga practice itself.
What is our Ashtanga story?
What has been on my mind now is what we as an Ashtanga community will tell in our story going forward. As human beings we are myth-makers. It is our nature to frame ideas in the construct of story. In the disassembling of the myth of Guruji (Pattabhi Jois), the Ashtanga community has been forced to see some part of our story as empty. We are left to look around to see what is left if the story is not solid. Angela Jamison wrote a beautiful and thought-provoking post that got me thinking more about the idea of our Ashtanga story. On the one hand I feel sad and disappointed at the loss of our myth. On the other hand, by disassembling the myth from the top down, the whole hierarchy, in this case, patriarchy, crumbles. What we are left with is the practice itself. The practice that survives will be one that is fluid, evolving, and not dependent on a patriarchal myth to hold it up. In letting go of the patriarchal myth in which the practice was held, we have a chance to re-oxygenate it and critically evaluate it on its own merit. The practice itself has a structure too, but it is a dispassionate one. The practice is a neutral tool; it’s not out to lose or gain from anyone’s use of it.
We all have a shadow
As a teacher, learning of the abuses of power by Pattabhi Jois was hard to hear. Students have asked, why do you think he did those things? I really have no idea. We all have a shadow. As I never met Pattabhi Jois, I have no idea what he was like as a person or what the roots of his behaviors were. But, as a teacher it still serves to remind me of the importance of having checks on my own shadow. In amongst the conversations about how we move forward as an Ashtanga community, I’ve felt a sadness at crumbling of the Ashtanga origin myth, and I’ve also seen in that mirror aspects of my own failings as a teacher, all my own moments where I didn’t get it right. Always, my job as a teacher is to hold the space and then to get out of the way. I hold the map. I point out the road signs, but the student must be driving, always. The structure is in the practice itself. The Ashtanga practice doesn’t need patriarchy to create the structure.
New life from an old myth
Although many teachers have taken down their images of Pattabhi Jois, I have had one up still. I will forever be grateful for the Ashtanga practice as it most certainly changed my life. Pattabhi Jois was part of passing that practice on for a time. What I’m looking for now is new life for the practice from the ashes of an old myth. It is time to move that energy with intention and bring the phoenix up from the ashes. My intention in the new year is to replace the old photo of Pattabhi Jois with a shelf that will hold items of meaning to our community at the front of the room. Some time ago, a student sent us a beautiful stone that will grace our new space. We’ll add her stone to the shelf and I invite anyone who would like to, to bring something that holds meaning to you to place at the front of the studio.
Last time on Yoga Blog: Brahmacharya brought us love through acceptance and surrendering to the greater Self. The journey through the yamas continues, and as always, the others are still around to reread and ponder on. Now for the last yama. “Atha Yoganusasanam.” Fifth yama! Aparigraha…
What is aparigraha?
Aparigraha: non-greed, non-attaining, renouncing all but the necessary, rejecting. Aparigraha returns to the yamas of non-something or not doing a certain action. “A” as you remember is the “not” or “non.” Then there is parigraha a word of so many endless meanings that I could dig myself into a research hole and die there unaware of the depth I’ve reached. Here are just a few meanings that stick close to what we’re looking for with this yama: taking, attaining, acquisition, gift, possession, getting. Parigraha gives me hesitation when looking up Sanskrit words in a translation dictionary. If you are curious look for yourself and find meaning like: origin, marriage, force, grace, punishment, help, etc. To look at these other meanings is a fantastic thought-provoking exercise, but for now, to lessen confusion and my rambling, I will stick to the more understood meaning of aparigraha when talking about the yama.
Non-attaining, non-greed. Living at our means. No more no less. Figuring out what necessities one needs to live is hard with advertisements, peers, teachers, and talking heads telling us what we need and how we should be living, looking, enjoying. Through the fog of life, the false paths of propaganda shine steady. The lighthouses are out there. Warning of threats just beyond our perception and showing the safe waters to pass them by.
Meeting aparigraha in life
Living as one. Living for all. Not taking more than is needed so that the others can partake of their share. I remember being denied access to experiences as a child from another child’s greed over the activity. Children cannot be blamed. They are learning, but as we grow and build awareness and the capacity to share aparigraha spreads through our hearts. We begin to recognize the differences between need and want. We see through the shady obligations expected by greedy gift givers. How big does your closet need to be? Who uses the third bathroom? We live without striving for an insatiable acquiring of want. Balance. Not denying ourselves, but accepting, being aware of, what we use and have and why.
Aparigraha is the last yama of Ashtanga yoga, but Yoga continues. Yama is just the first limb. There are seven more. First, we uphold a moral code towards all without forgetting to care for ourselves. If our shell cracks how can we be the shining example existence needs. How can we stand up for truth? We can stand together. We stand as one with your person helping my person and my person helping yours. It’s not easy. I know it’s not easy. Thank you for listening. Be well.
Students practice Mysore-style Ashtanga in our West Asheville space.
First, a big thanks to everyone who has come out for Mysore practice since the opening of our new space. We’re very excited to be sharing our dream with all of you.
My Mysore History
When I first moved to Miami in 2002, I had no idea that finding a Mysore style Ashtanga studio was going to change the direction of my life. When I began practicing Mysore-style Ashtanga in Miami, I had already been doing various kinds of yoga for about eight years. When I moved to Miami and went to my first Mysore-style Ashtanga practice, I knew this was REALLY different. The one-on-one coaching and the space to go at my own pace were not something I had ever experienced before in a yoga class. That approach changed how I understood a yoga practice and it changed my understanding of what was possible in a yoga practice.
If I could learn the Ashtanga practice then anyone could learn Ashtanga, provided it’s broken down into something that’s accessible and works in their life. The only requirements for learning Ashtanga in the Mysore method are a willingness to learn a little at a time, a willingness to practice consistently, and patience to allow practice to evolve.
When I moved to Gainesville, there was no Mysore Ashtanga program. One of my early Mysore teachers encourage me to teach, so in 2007 I did, starting with a group of three students who really wanted to learn. In reality we learned from each other. Teaching Mysore is in itself a practice.
Over the years our Gainesville Mysore community grew. Just when I was realizing that the teaching commitment was more than I could maintain on my own, Jared joined our Gainesville Mysore community in 2009.
When Jared accepted a job in Asheville after graduate school, we had a shared dream of continuing to teach together, but most importantly, a dream of continuing to offer to others all of the wonderful things that we had experienced in being a part of a Mysore community. We wanted to provide a space for Mysore in Asheville.
Jared and I first met Jonathan when we were visiting Asheville in 2015 and looking for an apartment to get Jared settled here before I could move. We connected right away with Jonathan over our shared love of the Ashtanga practice. Jonathan was enthusiastic about our dream for Mysore in Asheville. We’ve valued Jonathan’s friendship and all his contributions to how we understand and share the Ashtanga practice in all the years since that day!
Going Forward: Mysore in Asheville
I share these bits of history with you, because when going forward, it’s good to know something about where you’ve already come from.
All three of us are excited to see our dream of Mysore in Asheville come together. Our intentions are to offer all the things about this approach to yoga that we ourselves value as students:
A safe space for yoga practice just as you are
One-on-one coaching for YOUR practice
Space and time for your practice to evolve
Skilled teachers who practice what they teach – we are all students first!
A student-centered and practice-focused program – there’s no boutique to sell you fancy yoga pants and there is no instagram photo challenge. It’s just practice.
Meeting students where they are is my teaching philosophy. Our focus is on supporting you in your practice.
If you haven’t been to practice in the new space yet, sign up for class and come check it out!
Thank you Asheville Mysore community. We’re glad you’re here!
There’s been a lot of negative press lately about teachers, particularly yoga teachers, with many voices on social media and elsewhere deciding that they don’t, in fact, need a yoga teacher. Perhaps they don’t. It is not for me to decide anyone else’s path. There is sometimes a lot of rhetoric in the Ashtanga community around having a yoga teacher, so let me say that I don’t think there is any one “right” way to go forward in this practice. There are as many approaches as there are practitioners. In my own experience, having a teacher to guide and set boundaries for my practice has been life-changing and I will be forever grateful. In this post then, I’ll share a different voice and add a different perspective to the conversation around the question: What’s a yoga teacher for, anyway?
Teachers and Students (from left to right): Gretchen Suarez, David Keil, Christine Wiese, Jared Westbrook, and John Scott
When I started an Ashtanga practice I could never have imagined where the practice would take almost 17 years later. I had no strength when I began and am hypermobile. It was a difficult place to begin from. I had an idea that I would find strength in yoga. In my first Ashtanga class, I found what I had been looking for.
Finding a yoga teacher
I practiced with a couple of teachers in my first few years of Ashtanga practice, as my work schedule at the time meant that I had to do an evening yoga practice, and there was some turnover among teachers covering the evening classes at that studio. When the last evening teacher was ending her classes, she sent me to do a week of Mysore classes with David Keil, one of her teachers. That was 2005 and David has been my yoga teacher ever since.
What drew me back to working with David after that first Mysore workshop was the balance I experienced in his approach — I mean balance in a big-picture way. David struck a balance between setting clear intentions for how I would work on the practice and hearing and seeing where my edges were in any given moment. More importantly than anything else, David believed in me over and over again when I didn’t believe in myself. He demonstrated this when he didn’t rush me ahead with a bunch of postures, but instead patiently waited and supported me as I worked through difficult postures. Multiple times I’ve spent a year or more not adding anything new, but intentionally working on one or two difficult things. What made this transformative was David’s unwavering confidence that I could learn these challenging asanas — all I needed was time, space, and encouragement. I will be forever grateful for this approach to asana because, after many years of practicing yoga this way, I began to practice the rest of my life this way too.
The message I took into my life was this: Try to do hard things that are rewarding. Take your time with hard things. Have confidence that with time they will come. And as Sharath says, “Why Hurry?”
Surrender is not a lack of critical thinking
My own experience of having a yoga teacher, now for 13 years, is that it has never required a loss of self. I have never relinquished critical thinking or set aside the necessary moment to moment awareness of how I am experiencing my practice. On the contrary, David considers both of those to be part of the practice and the responsibility of each practitioner. At the same time there is surrender.
Surrender is not a popular word — and it’s perhaps very misunderstood.
Eddie Stern puts it so eloquently in his post from earlier this year when he said this, “Surrender does not mean giving everything up including your own sense of agency; it means giving up the idea that you are the only source of agency.” (emphasis mine)
Surrender requires that, while I never set down or dismiss the experience that I’m having in the moment, I do set down my own ideas of where or how I think the practice should go. My experience of that process is that, when surrender is set upon a foundation of trust in my teacher’s experience of practice and in the relationship that we have developed over time, there is so much more open space for practice to go in unexpected and surprising directions.
The role of a teacher in pointing out
Aside from yoga asana, I also have a meditation teacher. In the lineage he teaches from, the style of insight practice is called, “The Pointing Out Way”. The title is as much a description of the teaching approach as it is a description of the meditation methods. It captures so well what I understand the role of a teacher to be.
When I am doing yoga practice, my experience is my own. But, just like there are many routes you could choose if you were, say, driving from Asheville to Chicago, there are many routes that you could take from where you are now to where you might go to have a deeper experience of yoga.
If I were traveling from Asheville to Chicago in the days before GPS and google maps, then I would likely benefit from asking the guidance of someone who has driven that way many times before. They could share what they think the best route is and why. They could point out the most efficient and effective way to get there. If I insisted on driving on my own with no guidance, I might get there and I might not. If I did get there, I would probably have wasted a lot of time wandering ineffectively.
If we’ve never been somewhere before, then it’s hard for us to know what it is we’re actually seeing as we go. It’s hard to know where exactly we are or what landmarks are key. If we head out imagining that we already know everything that is relevant to our journey, then we’re apt to miss things that we don’t expect to see.
I’ll close this out with a story that my meditation teacher shared in our last intensive week. The story goes that when the large ocean-going sailing ships from Western Europe first starting arriving on islands whose native people had never seen ships like that before, that the ships simply did not register in their perspective. The native people saw the strange looking travelers, but just blanked out the ships. The ships were so far from anything that they knew, that their minds just didn’t see them.
It can take a teacher to whom unexpected things have been pointed out by their teacher to be able to point out what we don’t expect to see ourselves, or don’t know to look for.
Last time on Yoga Blog: Asteya reminded us of all the things we steal and a small bit about letting go and allowing freedom to happen. A freedom found through true purpose. Asteya, non-stealing. Need a refresher? Treat yourself to a reread of any of the blog posts (Ahimsa, Satya). Then, continue your journey towards Yoga. “Atha Yoganusasanam.”
Fourth yama! Brahmacharya…
What Is Brahmacharya?
This post will have sex in it. Time to bring on the clicks. Brahmacharya, continence, chastity, moderation. But this is a compound word. Two words put together to make a bigger more meaningful one. Word one, carya. The wonderful word carya brings motion. Meanings from activity, conduct, and behavior to wandering, walking about, and visiting. Word two, brahma. Brahma, the egotistical god that we do not worship because he does enough of that to himself. Thankfully, not the brahma we’re speaking of here. This is the greater brahma. The supreme, the absolute, the ultimate form, true legendary super saiyan. The thing that can’t be more for it is all.
What Does Brahmacharya Mean?
Brahmacharya, chastity or wandering with the absolute. “Brahmacharya pratisthayam viryalabhah.” “By one established in continence, vigor is gained.”* Self-control and knowing when you should give energy and knowing when you need to hold back. Keeping a store of power till just the right moments. Preserved energy aligns into creative energy, prana, mind clear so correct action can be taken. You build up a reserve waiting for the right time to burst forth and complete a necessity. But I said there would be talk of sex. Good old penetration… We must take into account the progress of existence. Things change. We have the means to help prevent disease. The life and death gamble of childbirth vanishes. Like all old texts their words must be looked upon in the age we live in now. This is not permission to do as you please but permission granted to ask and understand the other’s wishes. And respect them. Consent stays viable and consent can change at any moment. Brahmacharya, respect sex. But we all know that, right?
Applying Brahmacharya – Don’t Be A Vampire
What about the deeper meaning? The reality of brahmacharya, Love. Not losing your seed on everyone you meet. Not bowing to every hard body. For love reaches beyond the physical. Love perseveres without contact. Show love without performance. Not like a vampire. They fain love to quench their thirst of circumstance. Draining us of blood, vitality. Themselves never satiated. They fall into the same pattern of false love that never completes them but only continues the search for victims. Leaving the victim will-less and unmotivated to pursue a life of true fulfillment just like the vampire. The vampire has tricked himself and the victim into thinking they have received what they deserved. Blinded to true love. Love like a family offers. Love that a friend gives. Love of that special person that need only be present. Do as that supreme does. Move through life with higher purpose. Let that supreme guide you. That supreme that is you. That supreme that is everyone, everything. Provide love without theft, asteya. Without lies, satya. Without harm, ahimsa.
Move as the ultimate self would move. Intention in each step. Result with each stride. Brahmacharya does not mean we should never have sex. Sex is a wonder and Shiva would never restrict that for there is no Shiva without Shakti. Walk on.
*Just a note. The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali from Swami Satchidananda rest near me when I write these brief glimpses into living.
First off, let me say that there is no “right” time to do yoga practice. There are pros and cons to practicing at any time of day and the “right” time is the one that you can do. Even in Mysore, India, at the main shala, Sharath teaches both morning and afternoon classes. The visiting students practice in the morning. The local Indian students have a different class with Sharath in the afternoon after they are done with work for the day.
Why do yoga practice in the morning?
There are many good things about yoga practice in the morning:
Your stomach is empty, so you’re not digesting food. An empty certainly feels better for bending and twisting as well as for an overall feeling of lightness in the body.
The brain is usually less preoccupied with the drama of the day. Yoga practice in the morning is often mentally quieter than practice later in the day.
There are usually less conflicts and demands on your time. Most of the time the phone is not ringing and email and texts are not chirping at 6am. You might get to give this yoga thing your full attention in the morning because no one else is awake yet to distract you.
Even after almost 17 years of Ashtanga practice, I still don’t find getting up in the early morning to be easy! But, I do find that it’s worth it. Once I’m up, I enjoy the quiet of the early morning and the slower pace of things. I really enjoy yoga practice in the morning for the opportunity to do this one thing with my full attention without anything else competing for that time. It’s a great feeling to have finished the hardest thing I’m going to do all day (my Ashtanga practice) before most people are even awake!
So, if you’ve decided you want to give yoga practice in the morning a try, how do you manage it? …because, yes, it can be an uncomfortable transition if you are not used to being up in the early morning.
Adjust your schedule for yoga practice in the morning
First, accept that you will have to make some schedule adjustments to accommodate yoga practice in the morning. One of which is that you will probably have to go to bed earlier. (Just getting less sleep is not a great option if you want to be functional both in yoga practice and later in the day.) Figure out what time you want to get up to do yoga practice in the morning. Now count back 8 hours from that time and that is your new bed time. Adjust your dinner time according to your new bed time. This is important, as getting enough sleep will do wonders for helping you actually feel good when you get up early.
Morning yoga practice starts the night before
Once you’ve wrapped your head around that, prepare the night before. Each evening before bed, find your mat and towel. Put them by the door. Lay out your clothes for yoga. Organize your evening to support a great practice the next morning. Sharath said once, when I was in Mysore, that his personal yoga practice doesn’t start when he steps on the mat in the morning. It starts the night before when he’s winding down before bed.
Know that you might feel a little groggy and disoriented in the early morning. This is okay. If you’ve prepared the night before, then you don’t have to do too much thinking in the early morning.
Once you get going on the morning routine, be gentle with yourself. Every day is different. Just do what you can. And remember that there is a whole community of fellow practitioners who are there to support you in morning yoga practice.