Oct 27, 2014

Why I Stopped Practicing Ashtanga Yoga

This post first appeared on Yogannina.

I have been out of the Yoga loop for a good six months now. Before I left my studio and mat, I was an avid and dedicated practitioner of Ashtanga Yoga: I had a regular, six day a week practice, had completed 150 hours of Yoga teacher training as well as a massage and injury prevention certificate, was an assistant teacher and wrote a popular enough Yoga blog. I was a vegetarian at first, then a vegan, and in the middle of developing an interest in macrobiotic cuisine. I was part of a dedicated community and a student of a well-known teacher. I even found myself a Yoga teaching husband. I thought that whatever would happen, I would do Yoga.

And then, weirdly, happiness happened. And by happiness, I mean the kind of contentment that will let you rest and relax. Calmness and ease unfolded, and I started seeing my daily practice in a different light. Here are some of my thoughts:

Ashtanga Yoga is a relationship outside of your relationship

It has become my conviction that anyone who practices Ashtanga religiously, and by that I mean six days a week, all year, every year, is missing something vital in their personal life. These people - and I know I was one of them for a long time - are looking for something they will not find on their Manduka mats. Ever.

Exercising on more than four days a week is unhealthy

Studies like this one show that exercising on six days a week for a prolonged period of time is actually detrimental to your health. Every health professional, coach and personal trainer on the face of the earth would agree. No wonder Ashtangis look skinny and tired and hurt themselves all the time.

There is no wisdom in practicing through injuries

No wisdom at all. When you are injured, you need to rest, and probably anti-inflammatories. Surely you can stretch your legs while dealing with a wrist injury, but you should definitely not put any weight on your hands. Again, any health professional would agree. You only have one right knee, one left shoulder, one set of lower back vertebrae. There is a reason why doctors suggest you should rest. There is also mass intelligence. If Ashtanga really had all the answers, everyone on the face of the earth would be doing it. Guaranteed. You are the only expert on your condition, and if something hurts, you are telling yourself to hold off.

Ashtangarexia is alive and happening

The definition of addiction, as I have recently learned during one of Emory University’s online lectures on coursera, is: “A repeated behavior with a negative impact (causing distress of some sort or health problems, for example), where you are unable to stop, require an increased frequency or dosage, and display symptoms of withdrawal avoidance.”

Now, I don’t know about you guys, but after a certain point in my practice, I could check off all of these indicators. I had lower back problems, the pressure to maintain my daily practice caused distress, but I wasn’t able to stop, either, because I was too afraid of taking a day off and losing all the ‘progress’ I had made. The fact that my practice had turned me a into an ascetic hermit without a real social life wasn’t even something I worried about at the time. With hindsight, however, some of what you say and do as an Ashtangi really is a bit cuckoo. I mean, let’s not kid ourselves: You can’t balance your chakras by chanting mantras in a language you don’t speak. Eating garlic when you’re healthy doesn’t make you a bad person. Be kind to yourself. Don’t fall into the rabbit hole of Ashtanga obsession, only to never be seen again.  

If you know you have an issue Yoga cannot solve, seek help

Very maybe, you are trying to work through some intense trauma. Perhaps your upbringing was terrible, or maybe you suffer from an eating disorder nobody knows of. Yoga can have amazing positive effects on our mental health, but there are certain situations in life that point you towards professional help. Both you and your teacher need to admit that while Supta Kurmasana might release day-to-day stress, it’s not at all an adequate treatment for PTSD. Neither are shopping sprees at lululemon.

Authorization equals a frequent flyer reward

This is a line my husband came up with, and he is so right. These days, it seems, what you have to do to get recognized as a teacher is go to Mysore often enough (read: pay enough money), and someone will bestow upon you the reward in form of authorization. This is irrespective, of course, of your level of experience or teaching skills. On average, if I’m not mistaken, authorization will be granted after four or five trips of several months each, at a monthly cost of €400 or so. There are so many students going through the shala these days, that Sharath himself can’t keep track anymore. I have heard of people who were offered authorization twice. Not for free, of course, the authorization itself comes at a price. Later, there’s the added cost of certification, and psssst, it’s expensive. While I understand that everyone needs to make money, a hierarchical fee scheme seems pretty… unyogic.

The tradition isn’t evolving, it’s arbitrary

Sunday as the new Saturday? Changes in the sequence just so that the student traffic in Mysore can be handled more efficiently? Come on! No problem with making changes to your own organization, but why does the whole world need to follow? If you are serious about your Yoga, you will not brag about what pose you’re on, how many trips to Mysore you have taken in the past, how many you will be taking in the future, or how many people came to take your class on any given day. On that same note:

Teaching Yoga isn’t a profession - it’s a side job

I have been warned about this, and I will do my duty and warn you: Do. Not. Quit. Your. Occupation. For. An. Unlikely. Career. In. Yoga. Don’t do it! Yoga is like blogging. It is something that is best enjoyed in small, fun doses on the side. Unless you will be moving to a town where there is not a single Yoga teacher within a radius of at least 50 kilometers, do not open a Yoga studio. You will be losing all your money, and you will be left with no perspective after 35. Do yourself a favor and trust me on this one.

So - do I miss my practice? Sure, sometimes I do. What I miss about it most are its superficial aspects, though: being strong and flexible, looking fit. These days, I prefer to take my dog on forest walks and go for runs. I enjoy the fresh air, and that I get to make my own schedule. When I will return to the mat, it will be on my own terms, in my own time.


Other articles you might be interested in:

Notes on Mysore Rooms, Mindfulness, Feminism and Sex
Why Kino MacGregor's Choice of Clothing isn't Feminist, but a Feminist issue