I started my home Ashtanga practice when I was 38, seven years ago, holy balls, how did that happen. I’ve practiced nearly every day for most of that time, five or six days a week for the first few years, then fourish practices a week, then a break last year for several months (buried under life stress) then back to three or four practices a week since. I started asking myself the other day, what have I learned from all this home Ashtanga practice as an increasingly middle-aged *cough* woman? Anything I might pass along?
Well, the biggest lesson that informs my practice these days is probably that yoga is a long game. You have to stick with it over heaps of time to reap the real rewards. Look, when I first started, my yoga goals were fun, exciting, short term things like, “do a backbend!” “Achieve lotus!” “Impress the hell out of my self!” Back then, I pursued fancy poses like a BOSS. Which is fine. But I soon came to realize there was only so far the fancy poses could take me. In other words, asana has a marginal utility.
If you can’t sit on the floor with your kids because your hips are too tight or your back is too weak, doing dandasana every day will give you a massive happiness spike in the graph of Actual Life Improvement. Adding some baddha konasana and maybe even a half-lotus, and it’ll change your life. Suddenly you’re sitting on blankets at a music festivals, sitting on the ground around camp fires, your body isn’t stopping you from having adventures. It’s awesome. But once you hit full lotus in the progression of hip-opening-asana-difficulty, you really aren’t going to get much additional value in your life from going further. Leg-behind-head poses don’t really add anything to your day (except maybe some of the edgier pages of the karma sutra?). That happiness/utility line, after spiking up, flattens out. It even starts going down, because the probability of injury goes UP in extreme asana. And injury stops your practice, cold.
As William Vanderbilt said at the end of his life (then worth two hundred milllion dollars and the richest man in America), “I have had no real gratification of enjoyment of any sort more than my neighbour on the next block who is worth only half a million.” Asana is the same.
Listen, I have hit some of the difficult poses. Marichyasana D for example, with a full wrist bind even, and here is what I learned: there is nothing there. Getting the wrists really isn’t that different from grasping the fingers, or using a strap, or just holding onto my knee. The initial work (the steep part of the happiness curve) of just being able to have one leg in half-lotus and twist till my eyes roll back with pleasure—that is where 90% of the goodies of that pose are. The “full expression of the pose” didn’t really give me anything. Maybe it gets a little more relaxed—but you can have “relaxed” by just backing off. Maybe because I practice at home, I didn’t even get the competitive dopamine hit of being the bendiest yogi in the room (well, I mean, I’m always the bendiest in the room, because I’m, um, the only yogi in the room…). Maybe if I’d had a teacher, I’d know what the fuss about the “furthest expression of the pose” is. Maybe if I had just gone further, my third eye would have opened up and I would have seen god. It’s possible. But it’s risky for my 45 year old (and counting) body.
And note, I talk about injury prevention as someone who fucked up my left hamstring attachment early on in my practice, proud of myself for flattening my forehead to my shins in foreward bends. I Could do it, so I thought I SHould do it. Dumb. Wish I could go back in time and tell myself to cut it out. So. Not. Worth. It. Because that injury has remained a weak link, ready to go out if I push it, all these years later, and it will probably never be right again. Now I practice forward bends with my hands on ankles, arms straight, just to be safe. And here’s the secret that doing that taught me: straight arm forward bends are just as fun, just as useful, and give 90% of the goodies that forehead to the shin bends do. In other words: I’m not missing anything.
Is this yoga maturity?
But fancy poses look so cooool! I will not lie: it was sad to let the fantasy of achieving some of them go.
But then I started to think how amazing it would be if I could do a respectable primary at, say, 70.
If, at 70, I still had hips that could sit in lotus, arm strength to do a bunch of chaturangas, and a spine flexible enough to do a decent backbend…well, I’d be a very rare 70 year old! I’d have my vitality intact. That would be INCREDIBLE. That would be a gift to blow anything any advanced asana can offer me out of the freaking water. A hell of a lot more incredible than doing kapotasana or whatever for a few seconds a couple times a week. I’d be mobile. I’d be independent. I’d have my life.
I believe a low-end-of-the-difficulty-continuum Ashtanga practice—that is, a modest Primary—regularly practiced, can give me this.
Partly I believe this because I’ve met one of the original American ashtangis, David Williams, who now practices Primary and looks like a trim 50 year old (at 65!). Partly I believe it because I’m forty-five now and after putting in only seven years of primaries, my doc says I have the mobility and health markers of someone 15 years younger.
That’s not trivial.
That’s worth the investment of an hour a day! And if I keep doing primaries, I’ll keep that lead, as long as I practice gently, consistently, and without injury. Which means this: focus on a conservative practice. Unless they come to you unasked for, unworked for (the way some asana do, you just suddenly, without having been “working on it” can do a pose you never thought you’d be able to, it happens that way sometimes!), let the asana envy and asana ambition GO. Never work in a pose, never struggle. Instead, do variations that feel fantastic for you and your body TODAY. I really believe that 90% of the return on investment can be had in a conservative, safe, enjoyable practice done LONG TERM.
And I’m just leaving that remaining 10%, the fanciest poses, the second hundred million dollars, the fullest expression of the asanas, out because maybe more advanced yogi’s know something I don’t. That seems probable, doesn’t it? Maybe they can levitate, maybe they’re omnipotent, they look so powerful in those lovely photos. I dunno. I do know, that, in some asana, I’ve been the yogi in those photos, done the fancy pose in its fullest expression, and, for me anyway, there was nothing there.
So, first major lesson learned in my seven years. Enjoy your practice where it is and don’t quit. Which means don’t get injured (which makes you quit). Stay the course. Because the really real good stuff comes later and you can’t get to later if you have to quit. Keep at it for decades. The compound interest I’ve received so far is fantastic. The bennies I hope to get in the future: VAST.
And whoops, I started this post as a list, but number one got too long! So I decided I’d break it up into a few posts. Look for part two, coming soon.