Practice Reflections: Three Years of Mysore Style Ashtanga Yoga

LondonCottageGardenPracticeThis month marks the culmination of three years of daily Mysore style ashtanga yoga practice. It has become a bit of a ritual for me to reflect each year on the fruits of this healing practice for which I am eternally grateful. After all, most ashtangis do tend to like ritual and routine, and I am no exception. I also reflected on year one and year two and have found it a useful exercise – I hope others find these reflections useful as well.

My ashtanga yoga practice has really been the gateway for my mindfulness practice. Learning to move mindfully opened the door to my sitting meditation practice. This rigorous practice helped tame my restlessness, gave me an accessible way to cultivate single pointed concentration, and opened my body for more comfortable sitting. It has also helped me have a much friendlier relationship with my body, learning to appreciate its capabilities and embrace its limitations and imperfections.

I get a little choked up when I think about the impact of this practice on my life – especially when I think of the teachers who show up every day, holding space for us all. They observe us muddling through the same struggles, week after week, month after month. My learning tends to be slow, incremental, millimeter by millimeter, barely perceptible to the human eye. I know my teachers must harbor some ambitions for us students and they want to see us all grow and succeed, yet they show such patience and restraint in accompanying us on this journey that often moves at a snail’s pace.

Speaking of a snail’s pace, my yoga journey has felt a bit like sculpting granite with a spoon, or as one of my teachers would say, “like wiring a bonsai tree”. I am working with the experience of dread around urdva dhanurasana (wheel pose), which continues to elude me. I do my best to make this posture five times most every day and yet can only now pretty reliably imitate a coffee table. Yet, I trust in the practice and believe that all is coming if I am not greedy or impatient. Another teacher once told me that an open armpit-chest region indicates an open heart, so I also remind myself to practice compassion and lovingkindness in mediation and daily life. Its not only the body that blocks access to certain postures – the mind also holds the keys.

Last year I began to dabble in intermediate series and now I realize each time my body was telling me, “You are not ready”. As soon as I worked up to 3-4 days per week alternating with primary series, I would inevitably suffer some sort of minor injury. I believe this was my sign. Govinda Kai taught an ashtanga yoga workshop in April and his words gave me permission to let go, telling us our bodies will inform us when it is time and this is different for everyone. David Williams during his workshop this October, reminded us that a sustainable practice is an enjoyable one and that hurting yourself more won’t heal you. So, I am now back to focusing exclusively on the primary series. I figure there are endless possibilities for refining this practice.

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A highlight this year was practicing with Astanga Yoga London. I am so grateful to have the privilege to travel abroad and experience different teachers and cultures. AYL is a sweet little shala tucked away among the ethnic eateries and wellness centers of Drummond Street. If you blink, you might miss it. Students practice in queue, packing the tiny studio with mats fitted jigsaw puzzle style. There are 2-3 teachers assisting Mysore style classes all day long. Other than this, they offer only 1 led primary series practice per month, which I was fortunate to experience. Despite the fact that there are no introductory or basics classes, the practitioners are quite skilled, reinforcing the idea that if you practice the intended way, “all is coming”.

At AYL, I was stopped at bhujapidasana and decided  to honor that until I can reasonably execute it. Before this I always did the entire primary series. This has freed up some energy and time to refine this posture, start to execute the slightly scary setubandhasana,  and of course to continue to work on the ever-elusive urdvha danurasana. Surprisingly, this has not hurt the postures I pass over, which I get to try out once per week in led primary series. They continue to deepen and improve despite the fact that I am not doing them daily.

Another highlight of the year was attending the Trini Foundation’s Ashtanga and Addiction Forum at Ashtanga Yoga Columbus learning how to offer Ashtanga yoga as a tool to help people achieve long-term sobriety. You can read about forum director Taylor Hunt’s incredible journey in his book, A Way From Darkness. I am interested in finding a way to be a part of the solution, helping to share my love of the practice and my new learning with those who are suffering.

My trips to other shalas made me so very grateful for the spacious, clean and flexible studio in which I am fortunate to practice every day. My home studio, Maya Yoga, is large and bright with lots of windows, room to sweep my arms out wide, roll backwards into chakrasana, and find a wall for practicing handstands. Students can show up at different times and don’t have to wait in queue. We have the luxury of time to practice pranayama or to meditate after savasana. There is a spacious women’s restroom with two stalls and room to change clothes. I can always find somewhere to park my car. This is not so in some of the other shalas I’ve visited. How easily we take for granted our privileges.

If the fates allow, I hope to be practicing ashtanga yoga for many years to come. For me, my movement practice has been essential to cultivating my mindfulness practice and this particular style of yoga has been the right fit. Next year promises new adventures, including an ashtanga yoga retreat in Thailand with Kathleen Kastner and Wade Mortensen and a workshop with Kino MacGregor. Barring any unforeseen obstacles, I am looking forward to sharing my reflections on year four with you all!

Tracy Ochester, PsyD, RYT is a psychologist, Certified Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy Teacher, and registered yoga teacher who occasionally teaches ashtanga yoga classes in the Kansas City community. Please visit the events calendar and services page to learn about upcoming offerings.

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