29 Feb Lessons from the yoga mat #3: why I practice Ashtanga Yoga
My yoga teacher in Lille was Jean-Marc Skalecki, a two time world champion of French Boxing. The Vinyasa class that Jean-Marc led on Tuesday and Thursday mornings was strong and acrobatic. It was also powerfully centring. I left those classes knowing that my body had worked – but that I had been completely present and aware, doing yoga not exercise.
So what is the difference? What turns a Yoga Posture Workout into a Yogic Practice? Ashtanga Yoga was my entry point into yoga fifteen years ago. As a teenager with a mind high on life and worry, Ashtanga kept me busy enough for my manic brain. There was no time to get bored. After many years practising Iyengar and gentler Vinyasas, returning to certain Ashtanga classes felt more like a workout than a yogic practice.
In a class with Jean-Marc I was attempting a bendback from standing and I wanted someone to spot me. It was a posture that physically I “should” have been quite capable of doing – at circus school I did much more complicated and bendy moves – but I was scared. I tried to opt out.
“This is the posture you must work,” said Jean-Marc. “It’s easy to stay in a yogic state when you’re doing what’s comfortable. You need to do what’s not.” I realised why challenging myself physically in yoga class was critical to my growth outside of the yoga room, and why a powerful yoga class was something I wanted to pursue.
My practice as a physical performer continuously takes me out of my comfort zone. My interest in trying new things has seen me move countries several times in several years, changing career each time. There is something in a yoga practice that lets me do this healthily, pushing my boundaries so as to grow and contribute, at just the right pace.
Rather than swinging wildly from adventure to adventure, I can rest calm and alert in the flurry of excitement, grounded in a sense of purpose. As an alternative to forcing my body into postures and training regimes I can treat it with awareness and respect, trusting it to know its capabilities.
The yoga class is a place to test this out. When you find yourself forcing your foot behind your head in Eka Pada Sirsasana just to prove you can, you might ask where else in your life you do something just to prove you can.
On the other hand, when your teacher tangles your legs around you in Supta Kurmasana and you remain connected with your breathing, doing something you never imagined possible, can you emulate that effortlessness the next time things are difficult in your relationship or at your workplace?
And how does the full body awareness you find halfway through your yoga class – when you realise you are not thinking about your day, or the shopping you have to do after class – how does that full body awareness bring a new quality to your morning run, your evening swim or afternoon lovemaking?
The body is here to be used. It is also an incredible source of learning. Bring the presence and connection of your yoga practice out into the world and listen to what reveals itself in the awareness.