why the shala? Why practice at a shala at all? At least in my case, where I possess the self-discipline, as well as the time (due to my stay-at-home mom-ness), to practice on my own each and every day, my entire practice, and then some.
As I was saying in yesterday’s post, which life so rudely interrupted, that I came to Shala X, and the Mysore style in general, in order to deepen my Ashtanga practice, particularly the asana portion (since I had studied and continue to study Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras at Om, Jivamukti and on my own, since I had already taken courses in Pranayama and Meditation, and since I had no expectation of being taught any of that in the context of Mysore style practice at a traditional shala, knowing, as I did, that Pranayama is “withheld” from traditionally-taught Ashtangis until well after Primary Series has been mastered).
And I had much deepening to accomplish, believe me. As I said, my practice was quite rough around the edges in terms of the form of my asanas and the flow of my vinyasa. My breath was choppy. My pace was erratic. These days, I believe I know how to breathe properly and can do so when I apply myself. And I think that my form is generally quite nice, at least up through Kurmasana.
But now, I stand here in front of a giant wall. A wall whose name is Supta Kurmasana. Beyond the wall is a paradise of postures that feel like they were literally made for my muscular little body and my blessedly open hamstrings and hips. Smooth, flowing postures that release the back from the work of the Primary Series, postures that set it all straight again so that backbending can be done with a modicum of comfort. At least that is how I experience it. But alas, I can only experience it when I practice outside of the shala. Any shala. After much deliberation with teachers and with students of other teachers, I have come to the conclusion that there is not a traditional Ashtanga teacher on God’s green earth that would “give” me any poses beyond Supta Kurmasana at this point. I just haven’t mastered Supta K yet, and I haven’t been trying for long enough to make any sort of case for being the exception to the rule. Even Tim, who lets his students explore Primary as they desire, would not likely “give” me Garba Pindasana, I believe.
And what is my rush anyway, right? Who cares if I practice up to Supta Kurmasana and then moan and groan (“OH! My aching back!”) my way through a really long downward dog and a couple of bridge poses before hitting the backbends? And who cares if I drop back or stand up from my backbends? It’s not about how many asanas you get to practice, right?
Truth is, I really enjoy the entire Primary Series, the gestalt of it. I enjoy the way it builds up to a crescendo and then achieves a gentle denoument, followed by a few moments of excitement once again in backbends, and then truly slowing to a march to the finish. It’s like a good Hollywood thriller: it slowly builds up the story, creating set-ups for later excitement, the excitement happens, the bad guy goes down, the bad guy comes back up, and then the bad guy goes down again, smoothing the way for a peaceful roll through the credits.
I can’t pretend not to know the Primary Series. I can’t pretend to understand why just because I can’t bind in Supta Kurmasana, I shouldn’t be able to lie on my back and to Uttitha Hasta Padangusthasana in the Supta (reclining) form, why just because my chest is really freakin’ tight, and I mean really really freakin’ tight, I shouldn’t be able to enjoy the deep hip opening of Badha Konasana. I can’t pretend to see my being forced to finish my practice with my spine knotted up into a dome shape as anything short of nonsensical, when the very next posture would de-dome me, and bring my spine back to neutral.
I’m sorry, but the Emporer is wearing no clothes.
So, then, why go to the shala? If I am practicing on my own without motivation issues, if I have no hope of being given any new postures any time in the next decade or so, if I get precious few adjustments in the postures I am already doing fairly well (I suppose because I am doing them fairly well), if I am not learning philosophy and pranayama beyond what I have already learned, and if going to the shala means that I have to suffer through backbends because I didn’t have the last postures of Primary to soften and neutralize my turtle’s shell into a human spine again…….then…..why? Why go at all?
I keep trying to write an answer to my own question. But everything I write feels kind of hollow. Except for this one thing: Sangha. Community. A meeting of the minds. A meeting of kindred spirits.
I miss the place. I miss my shala friends. I kind of even miss Sir and Madame even though anyone who has taken an Intro to Psychology class at any halfway respectable university will be able to read between the lines and see major parental authority issues in my struggle to stay with the program as taught by my teacher. If I don’t go to the shala on Sunday, I won’t be able to have an excuse to meet my “anonymous shala friend” for brunch afterwards. If I never go to the shala, I will be “out of it”. I won’t feel like an Ashtangi anymore. I will feel like a yogi. But not an Ashtangi.
There is something else, now that I think about it: the challenge of not being “the best”. It’s hard to be at the shala, where so many people are so incredibly lithe and limber and strong and beautiful and who have years and years of practice behind them or years of dance or gymnastics experience that came before their yoga. It’s hard to be in that environment and feel like, well, like I’m not all that. I like to be all that. Damn it. I do. And it’s humbling and ego-smashing to realize that I can’t be. No matter what I do. But to miss out on that humbling and ego-smashing experience would make me a coward, at least in my mind. And it doesn’t really teach me anything about loving myself the way I am. Practicing on my own and giving myself high fives for being the best student in my class of one doesn’t really give me the opportunity to acknowledge what’s really amazing about my own particular practice – the fact that I get up and do it despite not being the best, despite the challenges.
So, I am going tomorrow. I am I am I am. And if I don’t, you can personally crucify me here, anonymously if you wish, and I won’t even delete you.
See you there.