Wait, This is Supposed to Be Spiritual?
By Liz Potter
Through the years I have come to the conclusion that I like my yoga doled out in simple, disciplined instruction. This thought came to me today when reading an entry on Mysore Musings- one of my favorite Ashtanga-related blog. She had a video clip of yoga in Mysore and at one point there was a guy explaining that yoga in India is different from the States because there's no "fluff". I like that. Fluff irritates me. Don't tell me to let my muscles drip off my bones in savasana. Don't tell me to feel the energy spiraling through my spine as you crank me into something my body isn't ready for. Just show me the way, simply, no "hoo ha". The rest will come. I think it all boils down to the well-known quote that sums up asana practice: "99% practice and 1% theory" - Sri K. Pattabhi Jois. He outta know. Why not just trust that?
It's easy for me to get carried away with obsessing on how to do a posture, especially if it's really challenging in the strength area. I feel like my shoulders should be able to power me through anything (my teacher has actually accused me of this!). It easily becomes 50% practice 50% theory after doggedly studying other people doing it, relentlessly asking the teacher "how???", and so on. I'm not saying that there haven't been times when some critical information about a pose has made me miraculously get it, but for the most part I find that too much information- too much yammering- about a pose can bog me down. In the first year of my practice in led primary classes, if I had known what the postures were supposed to feel like or where my gaze was supposed to be, or even that the breath is the key, I would have gone insane and felt defeated. On the surface, I think Ashtanga can come across as a simple practice; it’s just a bunch of poses set up in a sequence you do over and over and over again, right? But over time, I realized it's really a rather complicated practice. In the beginning, knowing nothing was my saving grace. I stumbled along, la la la, slowly picking up information when I was ready for it, not having a clue as to what I was doing. I just knew that it was fun. Eventually, it started to come together in ways that are paying off now and making me say, "oh! I get it!”
The whole idea of Ashtanga as a "moving meditation" also stumped me. What? I'm supposed to be meditating? But how? I'm trying to figure out the breath and remember the bandhas and I'm trying not to die. And that stupid guy really smells. And what's with the woman in child's pose? Get up you big wuss, restorative yoga is in the other room! What's meditative about that? The meditative quality of the practice eluded me for years. So did the "spirituality" of Ashtanga. It felt so forced and fleeting.
One of my first teachers, who I learned a lot from in many ways, was known for being the "spiritual teacher" of Ashtanga. People flocked to her because of her addition to reading inspirational and thoughtful passages from books at the end of each practice. It's not that I didn't enjoy it (I loved it, it felt spiritual …), it's that it never resonated with me as the real deal over time. It felt like it was similar to going to church on Sunday, getting worked up with the singing and praying and community- hallelujah!!!, and then going back to the grind of life on Monday. Road rage, complaining about the boss, gossiping with friends, watching trash on TV. Why was the spirituality so fleeting? Why wasn't the spirituality and meditative quality of Ashtanga sticking with me after class? And who is that bald, Indian guy we're all supposed to be worshipping? Is this a cult? Oh god.
I feel like so many yoga teachers get carried away with trying to lead students to the spiritual part of yoga. That's nice, and I'm sure the intentions are pure, but I don't think it's necessary. Or at least, it isn't for me. It took me a long time to understand this. For a while I thought I must be doing something wrong. Or maybe I'm just not the type of person to be spiritual. Soul-less Liz, doomed to stretch and fake that I "get" yoga. Then I met my current teacher and things started to clear up for me. It's not that he teaches in a way that is fundamentally different from my first teacher, it's that I relate more to his interpretation of spirituality. He's like the Christian who never preaches about the religion, but rather focuses on leading a good life and living his belief. It made a huge impact on me. I finally got it! Yoga doesn't have to punch you in the face with spirituality, it slowly reveals itself through... and this is all bringing it home: PRACTICE.
Maybe it takes a person 15 years, maybe 30, but so what. Is there a timeline for finding spirituality through yoga? Is there a timeline to advancing in the asana practice? From the beginning of my yoga adventure, I've heard that the asanas are meant to prepare the body for meditation. Okay, I get that. I had my own interpretation: asana practice will prepare me for sitting long hours behind the sewing machine. And it works. But now I'm starting to see another way of interpreting that description. Maybe asana practice prepares you for meditation not by its obvious physical benefits, but also by its slow and sneaky way of preparing your mind to begin to understand what meditation and spirituality are for you. After flopping around in class for a year or so, I started to get curious about vague mentions of the other "limbs" and the lineage of Ashtanga. And really, who IS that Indian dude? This led me to do a little research. It also led me to want to know more about spiritual teachings- to actually buy books on it and find them interesting! Hey, I may watch Days of Our Lives, but I crack open Joseph Campbell or Lama Surya Das too!
This slow progression of understanding, and the seemingly effortless way of doing it (just showing up on the mat every day), is my kind of spirituality and meditation. When a personal interest in learning more and going deeper is inspired by a seemingly mindless action like stretching (my original, ignorant definition of yoga!), it feels like a more natural and sustaining kind of spiritual growth than trying to adopt another person’s version of spirituality. The wonderful thing about it all is that no matter how you find your spirituality and what that looks like for you, it can all be found following the same path. Maybe Ashtanga yoga isn’t so complicated after all.
When Liz isn't practicing in Austin, Texas, she's either writing her blog (http://accidentalashtangi.blogspot.com/) or sewing purses.