Ashtanga Yoga

The Practice of Self-Acceptance

Below, is an email exchange I had with a 40-something Ashtangi who read a blog I wrote a few years ago, reached out to me this morning to share what a struggle it it has been to accept herself as an aspiring teacher, especially given that she's not as agile or supple as she once was. She writes, "I am 46 years old and have been practsing yoga for 14 years. I had my last child at 42 years old and my back injury and arthritis in my foot seem to hamve acelerated since then. Not to mention the ever present exhaustion. My Ashtanga practise has been a source of solace for me, but lately I have experienced exhaustion and niggly aches and pains. The 32 year old in me strives to continue, to move on, to be able to do chakrasana, watching video after video. I am now training to be a yoga teacher. The inner struggle within me of achieving, reaching my full potential and realising this may be it, is a grieving process I was not prepared for. Ahimsa is hard to accept for yourself.

Dear D,

It touched me to receive your message this morning. I was particularly struck by your statement that “the 32 year old in me strives to continue, to move on…” Oh yes, I know that feeling. It sounds doubly hard given the fact that you’re training to be a yoga teacher, especially because the yoga culture we live in these days tends to put teachers in the category of "spiritual acrobats.” We have this misnomer that in order to teach, we have to be fit, flexible, strong, wise, compassionate, non-violent, etc. To have to fit all those expectations will send anyone into feeling like crap about themselves.

I personally fell in love with yoga because it initially made me feels so good. And then I started teaching because I wanted to share all the bounty I’d discovered with others. And when I did, I inadvertently found myself overlaying all of my old baggage I thought yoga freed me from onto my practice and myself as a teacher. I found myself feeling inadequate: Maybe I wasn't attracting enough students. Maybe I wasn't good enough. Maybe I just didn't have that special thing it takes to be popular. So the practice that once made me feel free became another place where I felt trapped in thoughts, feelings and behaviors that took me farther away from myself.

I discovered that this was an important milestone on my journey of becoming a teacher. It was not that anything had particularly gone wrong. On the contrary, it was exactly what was supposed to happen, except that nobody around me was talking about the "deeper work." It was all about “what pose you were on;” “what series you were practicing;” “how many times you’d been to Mysore;” “who your teacher was;” “whether you were certified or authorized;” and, of course, “how many students you had." This is the typical stupid shit that comes in being in community. Because nobody was talking about it at the time, the way I initially understood my dilemma was that it was an indication that something was wrong on my end. Like everyone, I'm wired to want to fit in, so it felt terribly isolating when I didn’t find solace in my community.

Through a lot of personal exploration, especially on the mat, I discovered that there was a lot to be uncovered here. In many ways, the yoga community represented a surrogate family. When I found my way to Mysore at the tender age of 19, I'd hoped that it would be the better, more enlightened one than the one I was born into. It turned out to be just as dysfunctional, if not more. It, like my family of origin, became another place to project all of the interior issues where I don’t accept myself.

Over the last few years I’ve taken a step back from teaching. That’s helped ease a lot of that feeling of inadequacy. I can just practice again without having to be a "well-liked" teacher. Likewise, my practice has become less and less about being able to “perform" asanas. Instead, it’s about using the asanas to find an embodied way into those knotted places that seek the light of acceptance.

Of course there are days where my vanity takes hold and I notice that I don’t look as fit as I used to, nor am I able to perform all the asanas I once could, and that can be a little frustrating. However, I have finite amount of time to practice, and I can see that I could either do the one that continues to take me further away from myself but helps me avoid my fear of sagging skin, or I can practice the one that takes me home.

Don’t lose heart. Keep seeking your own intuitive way forward. If all you can muster is standing asanas and restorative poses, then you’ve actually listened to the deeper calling. It’s inevitable and human that we compare our current situation to where we previously were. Unfortunately, whenever we compare, we come up short. To become the best teacher you can be, start with yourself. Keep listening to yourself with both honesty and gentleness. They’re both incredible capacities to grow. Ultimately, they will be great gifts for all the students you teach.

From the heart,

Chad

Ashtanga Mind, Beginner's Mind

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Some of the clearest and most open people I come across within the practice of Ashtanga tend to be new students.  They're filled with the excitement and possibility that the practice engenders in them.  These newer students are ripe with what Patanjali, the author of yoga's source text, The Yoga Sutras, calls vidya. Vidya is a lot like what the Zen monk, Shunryu Suzuki, called the beginner's mind. A beginner's mind is clear, open, alert, receptive and without limits. A beginner's mind isn't fixed in opinions, judgements, or beliefs.  Instead, it's like  an empty vessel for spirit to move through.  It sees from perspectives but isn't fixed in one as if it's "the right" perspective. In the beginning, the practice itself and the experience of what we discover on the mat can be exciting.  When I first began the practice, I was amazed by my capacity to respond to situations that previously might have appeared paralyzing with great calm and clarity.  Just showing up on that mat on a day-in-and-day-out basis began a clearing away of what had been blocking me for years.  I'd been living in an experience of post-traumatic stress for a few years after my brother's suicide without any effective means of working through the painful emotions.  Showing up on that mat everyday forced me to face what I'd been frightened of facing, but once I did, it somehow alleviated the suffering I'd been living with, and I was able to start to feel alive, again.  The practice gave me this direct experience that it was possible to transform avidya to vidya, by learning to be with and not be afraid of painful emotions.

Knowing and Understanding are Booby Prizes

Eventually, though, a sort of pride started to appear because I started to "know" something.  I'd learned and, thus, thought I knew that there was a process to transforming painful emotions.   Knowing anything is a booby prize within yoga.  Knowing is not what we're after.  Whatever we know creates a kind of fixity, and it removes us from the direct experience of discovery.  The experience of yoga is about evoking a profound curiosity to what is right in front of us.  We're awakening the capacity to meet mystery rather than trying to pack it neatly into a box of comprehension.

And when we've dedicated years to the practice, we can't help but understand a lot of things.  That's natural, but being an authority has the potential to steer us away from the experience we had when we first discovered the practice.  So when we start to "know more," we tend to end up boxing ourselves into fixed perspectives, beliefs, opinions, and judgements. When we already know everything there is to know about something, we end up strengthening muscles that we came to practice to let go of.

And so it's critical for all of us who stay with the practice--or any practice for that matter-- over a sustained period of time to be aware of how our approach to it is supporting our evolution or engendering structures of rigidity.  This inflexibility is a natural byproduct of anything we do repeatedly and yet is something we have to be constantly aware of so that it doesn't halt our transformation.  Below are some questions that we might employ to prevent this form of mental tightness from taking form in our practice:

  • How is my practice either growing me
  • How is it keeping me narrow?
  • Where am I caught in being right in my relationships with others?  Where have I shut down?
  • What situations in my life could use my curiosity?
  • What's the feedback the people around me are giving me on a regular basis?  What's the feedback I could take in that would benefit my evolution?

The longer we've been in any tradition the less others will question our authority.  And that can be a pitfall for any progress we hope to make on the path from avidya to vidya.  That's why it is critical for each of us to continue to seek wise counsel and to surround ourselves with people who trust enough to question us, no matter how much we know.  It's also important not to forget that whatever we know, whatever sidhis (powers) we've accrued in and through our practice, that that's not it.  What we're after is not the acquisition of more power or attainment but, instead, letting go, not grasping at anything, and opening so that we, too, can show up on the mat and into our lives as beginners do, with a mind that is limitless, boundless, and clear.