Ashtanga Yoga With Antonella
"PRACTICE AND ALL IS COMING" - Sri K. Pattabhi Jois
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May 2012

DOES YOGA HAVE TO BE FUN?

Where did we get this idea that your yoga practice has to be fun? That if you're not leaving the room with a big grin that it's somehow not a "good" practice or class?

My teacher, Sharath, says you should enjoy your practice; but finding joy in something, and needing it to be "fun" are very different things, in my mind.

One puts the onus of your happiness on you: you choose to find pleasure in an activity no matter what it may be. While the other makes it about the practice being a source of entertainment for you. One feeds the soul, while the other feeds our endless drive for distraction.

Now, we know I'M no fun. I'm strict and disciplined. I practice and teach Ashtanga, for God's sake! I believe that yoga is about more than twisting yourself into poses, or looking cool while in brand name spandex.

I make my students work where they're supposed to (gasp!) rather than letting them make excuses or do things that might end up injuring them in the long run. I ask them to be introspective, to dig deep into themselves, even if it's not comfortable.

Maybe that's a function of having teachers that always made me give my all. Maybe it's a function of believing that there's more to Yoga, with a capital "Y" than making you feel good. There’s nothing wrong with feeling good, don’t get me wrong, but is that our ultimate goal?

My yoga practice nourishes me. It supported and strengthened me when I went through a very difficult and somewhat public break-up and subsequent divorce. It provided me with a sense of stability and determination when I had to leave the studio and community I'd helped build. It teaches me life lessons every day, and in the process I have literally left blood, sweat, and tears on my mat.

Most of the time, I would hardly categorize these things as "fun".

Through it all though, however, my yoga practice was there. Like an old friend who knows you better than you'd like sometimes. This friend will tell you what you need to hear, not what you WANT to hear; but they will also open their arms and embrace you when you're down.

That doesn't mean I don't laugh, and play, and LOVE my practice. I do, every day. But it's up to me to find that sense of levity; to notice the endless waves of emotion and distraction that would pull me down . I choose how I view my life, day in and day out.

In making these conscious choices I've also selected a particular style of practice. Do I think my practice is the ONLY way to do yoga, meditate, or achieve enlightenment? No.

I advocate for this style because I've lived it, tested it out on MY body for 9 years. I know it's worked for me (as well as countless others), so I believe it'll work for you too. But...if you follow a style, then you have to do it right. "Do or do not, there is no try", to quote the great Yoda.

Not many people know that my Great Aunt was a devout Kriya yogi. She followed the teachings of Paramhansa Yogananda and was a member of the Self Realization Fellowship (SRF). She was my first yoga teacher. With her I learned to do shoulder-stand and talked about karma. With her I went to the SRF's headquarters in Encinitas when I was 12.

My aunt was a brilliant light, a true yogi at a time when it wasn't popular or lucrative. She lived the precepts of yoga, was a vegetarian, helped those in need, and gave yoga and meditation classes in her office (in the 70's!). She believed that yoga was about enlightenment, self-realization, reconnecting with a higher consciousness, or however else you'd like to phrase it.

What she didn't believe was that yoga was about getting buff triceps, or picking up girls/guys. She didn't believe yoga was the same as dancing, running, knitting or underwater basket-weaving. Though all of these things can have meditative qualities, you can't turn any mindless activity into yoga just because you say so or because it helps you “tune out”.

Yoga is about choice, every day. It's done CONSCIOUSLY, that's part of the difficulty. The meaning of Buddha is " the awakened one" and what's another way of saying awake? Conscious.

Enlightenment begins by us waking up. We must do away with the distractions that we need to entertain us, that keep us in the slumber of maya.

I don't want my yoga to entertain me, I want my yoga to transform me, from the inside out. if I want entertainment I can go to a movie.
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WHY CHOOSE ONE PRACTICE?

During the first yoga class I ever took I was amazed to see all of these seemingly graceful and limber people doing things that appeared like something out of a Cirque Du Soleil performance; they were moving, jumping, twisting, sweating. Unbeknownst to me, I had walked into a beginning Ashtanga class. Ashtanga or Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga, for those unfamiliar with the term, is a practice known for its fast paced and physically challenging style that links a set series of poses with your breath in a seamless flow. From that first day I was hooked. Determined to be able to move with the strength and fluidity it seemed everyone else but me had, I returned to the same studio and took classes with many of the wonderful teachers for the next four years. Over that time I studied only Ashtanga, and slowly I saw my practice grow and mature.

As time passed I began to notice subtle changes and new sensations in my body, and I realized that my yoga practice had helped calm my typically overactive mind. Circumstances that would have once bothered me no longer seemed to phase me and I was able to let go of people and situations that no longer seemed to be in my best interest. Somehow this more thoughtful, self-aware way of being seemed to go hand in hand with my yoga practice, so I continued to go to classes regularly. The more I went the more I felt like something was missing from my day if I happened to miss class.

As the fourth anniversary of my first class neared, I decided to take a month long teacher training intensive to further my knowledge of yoga and explore philosophy and anatomy as it related to my practice. In that training I was suddenly exposed to a range of different perspectives and styles of yoga which I had never considered exploring. As soon as the course was over I went out and took as many different types of classes as I could find. I thought that because I had “only” practiced Ashtanga that I had somehow limited myself.

In trying these new classes over the next few months, I came to the realization that although the teachers were good and the yoga was challenging, they didn’t satisfy my body, mind and spirit the way my original Ashtanga practice had. In a funny way, by trying a number of classes my commitment and love of my original practice was reinforced. This may seem like a contradictory idea, but I view it as a good example of “the grass is always greener”. When you venture into new pasture you see your own terrain in a clearer, more objective light. Likewise, with a change of perspective my practice changed from just a routine to a way of experiencing my life in a different way.

Many people who do yoga jump from one class, teacher and style to the next the way they change their clothes from day to day. Their practice is generally viewed as physical exercise and subject to their particular mood. Whether they feel like working or taking it easy, yoga is just another commodity to be utilized for a student’s own purpose and to reinforce the wandering mind that our modern world seems to cultivate.

Not to be misunderstood, having a yoga practice, whatever it may be and for whatever reason a student chooses for doing it, is by far better than doing no yoga at all. Just by attempting the poses and focusing on the breath a student gains the benefit of a more flexible body and quieter mind. However, constantly changing styles sometimes keep students from repeating poses for weeks or months at a time; it feeds the need for variety but doesn’t let the student measure their progress in a consistent manner. One teacher will tell you to put your feet, hands, or legs in a particular way in one pose and in the next class another teacher will tell you to move your feet, hands and legs in a completely different way in the same pose. One then asks: “Who’s right?” The truth, no one, or everyone, depending you your point of view.

If you believe that yoga is more than just physical exercise, then treating it the same as going to the gym and lifting weights is nonsensical. Yes, there is a definite physical component to the typical practice we do in the West, but most practitioners are also aware of additional benefits of doing a yoga regimen that go beyond having nice triceps. If we then delve a little deeper and suppose that yoga has an effect on our nervous system so that our bodies and minds can relax, we need to ask ourselves what is the best way for creating that relaxation response. The answer: training. In order for something to become engrained in the body it must be repeated, over time this repeated pattern becomes a habit. Likewise by repeating yoga postures again and again, trying to keep your breath even and mind still, yoga teaches our nervous system to react calmly to stress when it is encountered.

According to the Yoga Sutras, a yoga practice “becomes firmly grounded when well attended to for a long time, without break and in all earnestness“ (1.14). So in aimlessly flitting from one style and teacher to another we’re actually avoiding the point of a physical yoga practice, to be grounded and stable in both mind and body. It is obviously up to interpretation what “a long time” and “in all earnestness” could mean. A good analogy, though, is to view your yoga practice like learning a language. How long would it take for someone to become truly fluent, understanding the subtle aspects and nuances of that language? If you immerse yourself in a culture where you hear and speak the language every day, it could take 5 years, maybe more? If you only practice the language once a week when do you think you would become fluent? And if you only did it once a month and tried to learn another language at the same time? You get my point.

Although there is something to be learned from trying many styles of yoga, when a student finds one that resonates with them, they should stop and examine it a little closer. Examining not just the physical aspect of that style but the philosophy and reasons why a teacher may do things in a particular way versus another practice. Only in this way can a student truly move beyond the introductory stage to speaking the language of the practice. What style one chooses is up to them, and how someone interprets that style is also up to their individual discrimination, which, to me, is one of the greatest gifts a dedicated yoga practice can give: a better knowledge and connection to ourselves.
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