*This piece was written a few weeks ago. I started it the morning I came back to my Mysore practice after taking a step back for a while. It took everything I had to go to that class that morning. And when I got home, It took everything I had left to write this blog.
I know that somewhere deep inside of me, I am meant to write. I supposed to be writing and sharing these written snapshots of the most meaningful aspects of my life… the parts that are most beautiful, and also the most challenging, because these are the parts were I learn and grow the most.
But like Mysore, my writing practice has also been something I’ve walked away from for a while.
On the surface, writing and yoga might not seem to have much in common. But if you’re willing to look a little deeper, you will find that stepping onto your mat is a lot like sitting down to the blank page.
They both invite us to do some introspection and to do some processing. They both require an authenticity that cannot be faked for anything to feel right. They both flip flop between exhilarating and excruciating, sometimes from a moment to moment basis.
But for me, and I believe for many others, they are both my soul’s best medicine — giving me a means and a method to connect with my truth, and the voice to share it with others.
Back to the Mat…
This morning was my first time back on my mat for almost a week. I’m a yoga teacher, so it’s not that my mat and I haven’t at least seen each other in passing. But let’s just say we haven’t spent much quality time together lately.
Not only was this a general reunion for my yoga mat and I, but more specifically, it was my first time back practicing Mysore Style.
If you are unfamiliar with Mysore, it is the traditional way Astanga Vinyasa Yoga is taught, learned, and practiced in the lineage’s home — Mysore, India.
When you show up to a Mysore class, you won’t hear the instructor calling out pose names to the entire group. You won’t see students moving synchronistically in response to those orders. You won’t even see them doing the same poses or showing up and leaving at the same time.
In a Mysore class, each practitioner shows up and does their own personal practice, which in the Astanga Vinyasa system, is one of the six set sequences of postures.
These sequences are extremely powerful — physically, mentally, emotionally, and energetically. Some of the most obscure poses, requiring the deepest strength and flexibility I have ever seen, exist in astanga. The most graceful expressions of power I have ever witnessed, have been expressed by astangis.
Despite the allure of these impressive physical displays, the real power of the practice doesn’t have anything to do with the poses. It has to do with the inner work required to achieve them.
Sometimes the work is physical…
And sometimes its not.
Sometimes the work required to move forward on your mat…
…can’t, in fact, be done on your mat.
It was my own internal blocks that Mysore forced me to face that drove me away from the practice. When I was unable (or unwilling) to work through these blocks on the mat, I had to face them in other ways. I needed to strengthen other aspects of my practice so that when I was ready, I could bring that strength back to my mat.
And on my first day back to Mysore — though my body did not feel strong physically, I felt stronger and more committed to my practice than ever.
My teacher helped me to understand that just because I walked away from my mat, I never walked away from my practice.
The Astanga Yoga System, he reminded me, means eight limbs. The Poses, or asanas, only represents one of these, and there are seven more that deserve an equal amount of diligence and dedication. What’s more is that if blocks exist in one, they will show up in all of them.*
My teacher explained that in the West, we try and condense our entire yoga practice to fit inside of a 90 minute class. But the practice is intended to last all day long.
For me, this condensed orientation made my physical practice rigid and even painful at times. I was trying to do all of my growing and face all of my challenges while on my mat. But the challenges I really needed to be facing weren’t happening on my mat, they were happening in other areas of my life.
The point of yoga has nothing to do with your your yoga mat. It has to do with how well you apply what you learn on your mat to the rest of your life. The mat is the training ground. But you’re life is where that training counts.
It took my teacher’s comment to help me realize it…
but while my yoga mat was rolled up in the corner over the last few weeks…
I did more practicing then I ever did when attending studio classes was a daily occurrence.
Without asana as my only outlet for my practice, I intuitively sought out other ways to experience yoga in my daily life – and I began incorporating several of the other limbs of Astanga Yoga into my daily practice.
What I Learned…
For instance, during my time away from my mat I developed a stronger saucha practice. Saucha means cleanliness, and is a part of the niyama limb of Astanga yoga. Saucha refers to the quality of space we hold for ourselves both internally and externally. How do we treat our inner and outer space to facilitate the best flow of energy, to keep us feeling light, clear, and free from clutter?
One of the many ways we can practice saucha is through the foods we choose to eat. As someone who has struggled with disordered eating habits, body image distortions, and food anxiety for much of my life — the relationship I had with myself through food was definitely something that needed to be examined. And this examination couldn’t be done from my yoga mat.
While I took my break from asana, my saucha practice with food seemed to strengthen all on its own. Suddenly something I struggled with for so many yeas — just feeling my body, my hunger, my fullness, and my contentment with food — started to get easier.
After so much time of learning to feel my body of my yoga mat, I finally was able to apply this lesson to something that was keeping me limited and blocked in other areas in my life. I just needed to step back from my mat to finally establish the connection.
Another yogic limb I began developing while my mat stayed in its bag was svadyaya, or self-study. Svadyaya is also one of the niyamas; it asks us to look inward to examine ourselves in order to gain insight on our true natures. Through this introspective gaze, accompanied by reference to sacred truths acquired from teachers of all kinds — we tap into our own inherent wisdom.
When we practice asana, we are practicing svadyaya. When we step onto our mats, we have the opportunity to truly face ourselves — to examine all of our blocks and all of our potential. This creates a powerful learning experience, if we are willing to take that honest look.
That my practice drove me from my mat tells me that I wasn’t willing or ready to take that look – at least not from the perspective afforded to me on my yoga mat.
But there are other ways to practice Svadyaya that allow us to look inward from different angles and to learn about ourselves in different ways. Even though I wasn’t willing to practice svadyaya on my mat, I found myself practicing it in another way that is every bit as important to me as yoga itself…. writing.
Maybe it’s because somewhere deep inside I recognize both yoga and writing as exercises that can help me peel pack even my deepest layers…
Maybe it’s because I view them both as being a part of my life’s purpose…
Whatever the reason, I have a long history of avoiding both of these things.
But while I put my mat aside, it was like my soul naturally reached out for a pen and blank page so it could be expressed.
I found myself journaling, and through this process, slowing down my thoughts, understanding my emotions, and coming back to my center. All of the things that asana has helped me to achieve in the past, but in an entirely different way, and affording me an entirely different perspective of myself.
This realization helped me to develop a more consistent writing practice, and it also helped spark the motivation within me to sit down and write this blog post and to share the inner wisdom that I was able to unearth through this writing process…. through svadyaya.
Pratyhara and Dharana
I also found myself practicing pratyhara and dharana in new ways while breaking from asana. These two limbs mean “the ability to tune out the senses,” “the ability to concentrate,” respectively. When we get lost in asana, when suddenly we stop hearing the music, the teacher, or even our very own thoughts, and we are 100% focused on each and every intricate movement — we are practicing pratyahara and dharana.
But the mat isn’t the only place to explore these limbs. In fact, we can practice them during any activity. Think of the practice of mandala making, where monks and lay practitioners sit for hours, even days, creating the most intricate and mesmerizing displays of artistry. This too is a practice of tuning everything out, and intensely concentrating.
When I took a step back from my mat, I found an opportunity for pratyahara and dharana in exploring a creative interest in jewelry design.
I would sit down with my pliers, precious stones, beads, and cording — and before I knew it hours would pass by. Though to me, it felt like mere minutes.
Instead of rising out of my state of deep concentration sweaty and on my yoga mat, I would arise with a few new pieces of jewelry that I created. The creative process is an excellent way to practice these two limbs and allows me to experience the intrinsic nourishment that comes from such deep concentration both on the mat and off.
I might be going out on a limb here (pun definitely intended), but I believe that while taking a break of asana I spent a great deal of time practicing samadhi, or “complete happiness,” “bliss,” “enlightenment.”
As I let go of my practice on my mat, I also able to let go of the feeling that I had to practice, or that I must accomplish this or that.I was able to simply trust in the universe — more so than I ever had before.I felt more connected, more supported, more like I was exactly where I was supposed to be then I had in a long time.
To be sure, I didn’t always feel like this.
It took work and I had to choose, over and over and over again, to believe in the strong faith I was building.
But the more I practiced this, the more my faith became real, tangible, and something I called on moment after moment to hold me up — and keep me in a state of happiness, bliss, samadhi.
On my first day back to my practice this morning, my teacher reminded me that the point of yoga is not the poses you can perform, or the sequences you master. The point is to remember that we are all, already divine. No fancy poses required.
This morning, I received the message loud and clear — that sometimes we “stop practicing” in order to truly start practicing.
I needed to pull back from my mat for a bit so I could let go of my attachments to what it means to be a yogi. With out gripping so tightly to my mat practice, my soul intuitively guided me to practice yoga in other ways. And because of this, I believe my practice is stronger. The difference is that this strength doesn’t come from my muscles — it comes from my soul.
*All eight limbs, by the way, are The Yamas, The Niyamas, Asana, Pranayama, Pratyahara, Dharana, Dhyana, and Samadhi.
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Om shanti xoxo