The Babbling Lotus

Jacqui Nash's Musings on Yoga, Food & Parenthood


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The Case for the Ashtanga Supplement

Mondays for me have recently become Ashtanga Mondays. It’s a relief, a sense of supreme joy to know that I can come to the mat, get an amazing practice in, become immersed in a deep meditation through my own personal practice, without having to think about what posture should come next. The sequences are ingrained in my mind and my body and breath flows fluidly through the postures, from the opening prayer and first sun salutation to the closing prayer and then the blessed savasana. (Click here to read more about Ashtanga Yoga.)

Me in Virabhadrasana A during the third trimester of my first pregnancy.

Me in Virabhadrasana A during the third trimester of my first pregnancy.

My relationship with Ashtanga has not always been this ecstatic. I did practice Ashtanga maybe once weekly, or every other week, for about a year (or maybe more accurately on and off once weekly for about a year) until I became pregnant with my first child. As soon I became pregnant, reflecting back, I’m thinking that I probably used the pregnancy as an excuse to remove this physically and mentally demanding practice from my routine. I mean, how can you do all those up-dogs, all those chaturangas, all those half-lotus and lotus forward folds with a growing human in your abdomen? It’s not physically possible, right?

Sri Pattabhi Jois in Padmasana, lotus pose.

Sri Pattabhi Jois in Padmasana, lotus pose.

The interesting thing is that while I started Ashtanga Mondays in January this year, I found it even more comforting to continue once I found out I was pregnant with our second child (big pregnancy bomb drop there) in early March. What a relief to know that during my daughter’s afternoon nap time, I am guaranteed a quieter time to myself than most of my other Vinyasa home practices can grant me. During my Ashtanga practice, I don’t play music, except every so often a repetitive chant that continues the length of the practice, I’m not mentally preparing sequences for body, I’m not focusing on a particular posture or body part. Every inch of me is involved meditatively, which, I’m assuming, is exactly what Krishnamacharya and Pattabhi Jois would want from their students.

Ashtanga can often be thought of as an unforgiving practice. A demanding practice for the body known to cause injury to the shoulders, knees and hips. But what has brought me closer and deeper to this practice has been practicing with this “limitation” of pregnancy. There are strict Ashtanga teachers who might lean deeply on the backs of their students or crank their arms into binds to bring them fully into the posture, but now more so than ever I have learned that being kind to our bodies each time we step on the mat should always be more important than tackling and pretzeling into the deepest of twists and binds.

This doesn’t sound like mind-blowing, original yoga fodder, here. I realize that. But even we as teachers can say this to our students until we are blue in the face, but I’m not sure how many of us heed our own advice 100% of the time. I know I am guilty of pushing myself beyond my limits. In a Vinyasa practice, since there is that element of the unknown, not knowing which posture is about to come next, which is so seductive about that style, a posture might seem like a good thing to attempt, but because it might be new to us or our bodies might not be warmed up enough, we enter incorrectly, or go in too deeply which could potentially cause some crankiness or worse.

Again, not super-authentic writing going on, but I will make the case that Ashtanga Yoga has brought me to a new level of understanding my body and my practice that I had yet to discover in my regular Vinyasa practice. Because the posture progression and sequences are so methodically thought out, and because it’s the same postures every time I step to the mat, I’ve been able to better gauge how tight or strong my muscles feel that day and work within the parameters of modifications so I can complete the practice in its entirety. It has helped me hear my breath as a louder mantra than in any other practice. It has more effectively erased the the sporadic babbling in my mind.

BKS Iyengar in Kukkutasana

BKS Iyengar in Kukkutasana

And this not to say I can’t get to these blissful places in my Vinyasa practice, but the stronger connection between my mind and my body that arose during my weekly Ashtanga supplement have translated quickly to my Vinyasa practice, making each session even more valuable than it was before. I’m not sure if I could have experienced Ashtanga so euphorically without the feeling as if I was practicing for two (that statement works here, unlike the phrase, “eating for two”). Unlike those practicing for one who feel stronger and more flexible as he or she practices Ashtanga, the humbleness I feel as I cut out some vinyasas, or loose a bind one week or kukkutasana another week because of my changing body, has made me appreciate the entire practice of yoga, all styles and on and off the mat, at a new level.

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Who Are We Teaching For?

At The Yoga House, my studio in Kingston, NY, I teach the Beginners Yoga classes, which I love because I get to expose people to this amazing practice that I’ve chosen to dedicate my life to. I have a wonderful relationship with many of my students and for the ones that are new to my class and to yoga, I find so much joy in introducing them to this practice that is grander than what we see on the mat.

One recent evening at the Beginners class I had an experience that I’m sure I’ve had before, but this time seemed particularly troubling to me. There was a gentleman there that had never practiced yoga and was coming along because a friend asked him to. I could tell from my first interaction with him that he was very skeptical about being at our studio. His overt skepticism made me question, does he have those stereotypical notions about yoga? A lot of flighty people, omming, meditating, and contorting their bodies into unreasonable postures for no specific reason? (Side note: we are omming, meditating, and sometimes contorting, but there is purpose to it all.)

Hands in jnana mudra during meditation.

Hands in jnana mudra during meditation.

The class began as many of my them do, with meditation and pranayama. Eyes closed, sitting tall, breathing deeply. I opened my eyes to glance at postures and to check in with students. All had eyes closed, and here was this newcomer in the back of the room, also with eyes closed, and sat in the “stereotypical” yogi seat with crossed legs, hands in what he probably did not know was jnana mudra, and although his eyes were closed, his brow was raised as he held in his laughter. I tried not to take his gestures personally, but my mission for this class was clear: Convert this man into a yoga lover.

I tried to make the class fun, which they often are, but the pressure was on. I tried to show that this practice was a physical challenge that had its very sweet moments. I found myself forcing jokes, forcing sequences, forcing everything. I had stopped teaching to the class and was teaching to this one individual who had become my focus of attention for the duration of the class. I knew it was a lost cause when we came into ardha matsayendrasana, or seated twist, and this student was struggling. With forcible niceness, I offered modifications and he wanted none of my “expertise.” I knew at that moment he wasn’t converting and wanted nothing to do with the thing that I held most sacred. I was deflated and, to me, the class was a total failure.

After class, the man rushed out and waited for his friend on the back stoop. I didn’t chat with the newbie, as I usually do. And it was confirmed: I’m not good at my job. I had failed to turn this person into a yogi.

The evening left me feeling very empty. Not only had I been unsuccessful at making this person love yoga, I had also let my other students down by concentrating so much on this one student’s experience in my class; in other words, not checking my ego at the door. Bottom line, the class was off, and even if the other students didn’t noticed, I recognized that it just didn’t feel like a good or true yoga class.

When we teach we have the responsibility to help ALL students to self-discovery.

When we teach we have the responsibility to help ALL students to self-discovery.

I will mention here that it is ok to have off days for teaching, or whatever your job may be. It happens to us all and we need to forgive ourselves and recognize that we’re human beings, not perfect beings. But with this class, what felt wrong was my intention for teaching. At the beginning of many yoga classes, the teacher has the students set an intention for practicing yoga that day and the teacher should join in with the intention-setting, reminding himself/herself why we’ve chosen to share this spiritual practice disguised in a an exercise regimen. We’ve gone through our trainings and discovered that through this practice, we’re unlocking a divine presence as we learn more about and connect deeper with ourselves, and it is the teachers responsibility to remind students that this is most important when we roll out our mats.

At the yoga studio where I truly “found” yoga, (and when I say “yoga” I mean union with something bigger) Ashtanga of New Paltz, and where I eventually received my  teaching certification, there is a quote on the wall that has stayed with me almost every time I come to the mat. It reads, “When we do yoga for ourselves, it is good for us. When we do yoga for God, it is good for everyone.” This statement no doubt extends to teaching as well, because teaching is part of our yoga practice. I’m not saying that everyone needs to get on the God train, but we must recognize the greater power behind the teachings that we’ve chosen to share.

You might hear teachers often tell students to “check your ego at the door,” and that is as useful advice for the teacher. We are not teaching to convert or to convince people that we’re the best yoga teacher, and while, sure, we do want people to like our class, that should not be the reason that we stand at the front of the studio. We need to extend our hearts, the deepest part of who we are where the external factors of ego play no roll, to the hearts of the practitioners in the room so we can all communally connect with the divine presence within.

The experience that I had with the newcomer is going to happen to all of us teachers once in a while. And we might react the way I did, or we may choose to understand that this person isn’t ready to accept the practice of yoga. Whether we’re able to stay true to our intention of teaching or bring our ego into the studio is up to us. However we respond to the situation, I hope we can get back to the thought that if we teach yoga for the higher being, the divine presence of peace, love, and knowledge, that it will be good for everyone, even those potential future converts.


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Ashtanga Yoga–A Sacred Practice

meditation, drishti, focus

As yogis, we know that there are countless reasons why we incorporate a yoga practice into our lives. The calm, the meditation, the stress relief, the strength, the flexibility, the energy….we could recite an endless list with a blissful grin on our lips. And we can’t deny that many of us are creatures of habit; we enjoy the discipline and the routine that a regular practice adds to our lives.

There isn’t quite a more disciplined yoga practice than that of Ashtanga Yoga. There is very often a cloud of mystery around the meditative practice that might make some uneasy at the site of its listing on a studio’s schedule. To most it seems more physically demanding and rigid than other yoga practices. And the truth is, well, it can be, but in reality Ashtanga yoga is the very foundation for all styles of hatha yoga. Based on a systematic series of asanas, or postures, the Ashtanga format and postures are the building blocks for the different yoga practices that each of us know and love.

K. Pattabhi Jois, padmasana

K. Pattabhi Jois in Padmasasa

Developed by the father of Hatha Yoga, T. Krishnamacharya in the early 20th century and popularized by his student, K. Pattabhi Jois in Mysore, India, the practice was named for the eight-limbed (literally, ashta-anga) path outlined in the Yoga Sutras by Patanjali in the second century CE. It is through this committed hatha yoga practice of Ashtanga Yoga that each limb can eventually blossom and unfold, leading to Self liberation.

What should you expect when you come to the mat for an Ashtanga practice? You will do the same exact postures every time, beginning with Sun Salutations A & B, then standing postures, then seated postures (if you’re doing the primary series. There are actually six series, with the last series including mind-blowing displays of what the human body may be capable of) and last are inversions and finishing postures. Sound boring? Well this practice is anything but that. Filled with numerous vinyasas, or flows, challenging binds, arm balances, hip openers, and most importantly an emphasis on pranayama and drishtis, or focal points, the practice can challenge your focus and commitment like no other practice.

While it’s definitely fun to notice how your body evolves as you do the same asanas at every practice, one can easily forget that we should not be fulfilled by the feats of body contortion and physical strength. The practice offers a myriad of postures from accessible to challenging, from the ones we love to the ones we aren’t too hot on. We cannot avoid running into ourselves—our frustrations, our elations, our falls, our accomplishments—and it takes a concentrated mind to not get caught up in the emotions that might accompany the development of your physical practice. Pattabhi Jois said it best: “It would be a shame to lose the precious jewel of liberation in the mud of ignorant body building.”

It’s hard to believe that Pattabhi Jois didn’t place any emphasis on the physical body when he, as a teacher, would not allow a student to advance beyond the posture that he/she was not able to get completely into. What does that mean? Basically, if you couldn’t quite meet the demands of a physical posture, that’s where your practice ended that day. Seems counterintuitive to the previously mentioned quote from the master, however, he wanted to emphasize that the limitations we inevitably encounter in our body are actually a mirror of the personal limitations and mental blocks that stop us from experiencing real freedom and personal contentment. As we move past these physical blocks through our practice the higher consciousness is revealed so we can eventually separate our ego from that being.

Students practice Ashtanga Yoga in Mysore, India.

Students practice Ashtanga Yoga in Mysore, India.

To help keep our focus on our inner development and not the external, there is the deliberate incorporation of what student of Pattabhi Jois, David Swenson, calls “The Internal World,” which consists of breath, locks, flow and gaze, or prana, bandha, vinyasa and drishti, to guide us through this moving meditation. The sound of the breath is your mantra, the rhythm that keeps a single pointed focus for the mind. The locks and bandhas assimilate the prana or life force and help feed the subtle body and balance the gross nervous system. Flowing through the postures becomes a physical dance that connects our body with the music of the breath. And while the drishti connotes the fixation of our vision on an external point, it reaffirms our attention to the subtle or internal aspects of our practice.

As a rapidly increasing number of people are drawn to the practice of yoga, different styles will continue to emerge to meet the growing demands of the “yoga marketplace.” Although we can appreciate how accommodating this entire practice of yoga is, it’s comforting to know that the direct Krishnamacharya lineage will not be forgotten through the Ashtanga Yoga practice. Yes, the postures and the flow are mesmerizing and visually stimulating to a passer-by, but the progression of the mind and ultimately the spiritual path can be life-changing to the practitioner. Like the postures themselves, the deep benefit of this authentic yogic process may not reveal its extent all at once. It is through repetition, discipline, focus and compassion that all will be revealed.

I’m so honored to teach this practice at my studio on the second Sunday of each month (Second Sunday Ashtanga) 7:30am. Although we only offer the class once every month, the students might be surprised to find that even monthly exposure to the discipline of Ashtanga yoga can awaken and invigorate their regular yoga practice. I hope you also have the opportunity to explore the challenges of the body, but most importantly, the mind through this sacred practice.

~The Babbling Lotus

Krishnamacharya, Utthita Parsvakonasana

T. Krishnamacharya in Utthita Parsvakonasana

Ashtanga Opening Chant

om
vande gurunam charanaravinde
sandarsita svatmasukhava bodhe
nihsreyase jangalikayamane
samsara halahala mohasantyai
abahu purusakaram
sankhacakrasi dharinam
sahasra sirasam svetam
pranamami patanjalim
om

Translation

I bow to the lotus feet of the Gurus
The awakening happiness of one’s own Self revealed
Beyond better, acting like the Jungle physician
Pacifying delusion, the poison of Samsara
Taking the form of a man to the shoulders
Holding a conch, a discus, and a sword
One thousand heads white
To Pantanjali, I salute.