Once upon a time, in a land far away (India), I was sitting in a very hot room packed to the gills with yogis listening to a man on a stage talk about practice. The man was Sharath, grandson of Pattabhi Jois and lineage holder of the Ashtanga Vinyasa system of yoga. It was the beginning of Q and A time, that special moment during our weekly Conference when students shift nervously whilst waiting for someone to ask a question. Low and behold, someone raised a hand, and an inquiry was made: “How many times can you attempt an asana before you move onto the rest of your practice?” Sharath’s answer was simple: “Three times, more is obsession.”
Yoga is a tool to clarify the mind.
Obsession clouds the mind.
All obsessions, including obsession with yoga.
In the Ashtanga system, we practice the same sequence of asanas each day. Once we’ve gained “mastery” over an asana, more are added to the sequence. Eventually, we learn entirely new sequences rather than the one we started with.
I put “mastery” in quotes.
What does it mean to master an asana? The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali tell us that once an asana is steady and comfortable we will no longer be afflicted by the pairs of opposites that exist in the world (YS II.46 and 48). We will no longer be afflicted by pain or pleasure, cold or heat, sickness or health, etc.
Given this definition, I have mastered approximated zero asanas in the entire time I have been practicing yoga.
I prefer to view “mastery” in a different light. The chant at the beginning of each Ashtanga Yoga practice contains the line “samsara halahala mohasantyai.” It means, pacifying delusion, the poison of Samsara. Samsara is the process of being born, living, dying, being born again, living, dying, being born again……you get the picture. What does Samsara mean for this singular life? It means learning from your mistakes so that you do not have to repeat the same mistakes over and over again. Each time you attempt an asana, you can make mistakes. Mastery of an asana occurs when you’ve learned enough from those mistakes that you can perform the asana regularly, gain appropriate benefit from it, and not exhaust yourself in the process.
Why not isolate each asana until it is perfected? Students often ask me if there is something additional they can do to improve an asana.
Can I lift weights? Do sit ups? Warm-up stretches?
The answer is invariably the same – No.
This is a little white lie on my part. There are so many things that can be done to improve a single asana, but improving a single asana is not going to improve your yoga practice. One year, I became particularly obsessed with press-up handstands, and I decided that, by the end of summer, I wanted to be able to do a press-up handstand. I joined a gym, worked with a trainer, and practiced it every day. By the end of summer I could do a press-up handstand.
Yay for me!
Now I am a person that can do a press-up handstand. Unfortunately, that press-up handstand skill has done nothing to improve my chances at attaining a state of yoga: the state of total focus on one object to the exclusion of all else. Yoga practice builds this skill, the skill of focus over a period of time. This skill requires consistency, the consistency of showing up every day, making mistakes every day, and accepting your failures and successes every day.
Consistency will build steadiness and comfort throughout your entire yoga practice, not just one isolated asana or group of postures. That steadiness and comfort attained will slowly spread itself, quite unconsciously, through the rest of your life. You’ll find that you smile more in general and that difficult situations don’t affect you adversely. Your steadiness of mind will spread to those around you, improving family life, work life, and your community, in general. Your yoga practice will affect all those you come in contact with and even extend to those that you do not have direct contact. Hence, the final line in the closing chant after an asana practice in the Ashtanga system.
Lokah Samastah Sukhino Bhavantu
May all beings everywhere by happy and free
It matters not how many perfect handstands I can do. My handstands are doing very little for the happiness and freedom of all beings everywhere. My yoga practice, on the other hand, through its consistency and steadiness, is putting me in a position to make improvements into my own life and to those around me.
Om Shanti Shanti Shanti
Peace for the Divine, Peace for All The World, Peace for Myself
Michael runs Mysore Style Ashtanga programs at Sacred Sounds Yoga and Land Yoga in NYC. To read more of Michael's work, click here.