5 ways to soften your ashtanga yoga practice
How To Soften The Edges And Nurture A More Gentle Side Of Your Practice
By Scott Johnson
It’s obvious to say that ashtanga yoga is a very physical practice. That it develops deep focus, a strong will, stamina and a vibrant and healthy body. But it’s worth remembering that these attributes really help to change the awareness we have of ourselves, both in positive and negative ways. Positive because it helps wake us up to new feelings, sensations and processes in the body. Negative because if we are not careful it can reinforce old subtle habits. But to develop a daily, or very regular, personal ashtanga yoga practice shows a high commitment and regard to changing something about ourselves. And either way, with the right intention, that’s no bad thing.
In my experience of teaching daily Mysore self practice classes for the last 7 years, I have seen many people undergo real change in their lives. I have also seen those who can give themselves a really hard time. Just as ashtanga yoga can help wake us up, if we are not careful it can also help to reinforce the things that we find negative about ourselves. We can actually use the practice as a stick to continually beat ourselves up with.
So, when people come to share their practice with us at SYL we help them to nurture the practice in a strong and focused way. But, at the same time, we see if we can help them to soften the edges around the intensity of how a traditional ashtanga practice can be. We help them to cultivate a softness in their strength.
When I say soften, I’m not saying that the ashtanga practice doesn’t stop being strong, direct and focused. As I mentioned earlier, it will always be a very physical practice. But it’s a practice that we use to wake us up to the body; its limitations as well as its possibilities. I’m saying that we can use our intention to stop pushing ourselves so much and nurture our practice in a different, deeper way.
We can gently nurture our attitude and use the practice to listen to what our body is saying. There is deep intelligence in everything that we feel, everything that we see, everything that we are. We can practice in a way that is always uncovering this process.
Perhaps, then, it’s about how you practice. About your intention. About deep listening rather than blind faith. One of my favourite quotes from my long term teacher and friend John Scott, who has just spent two weeks with us here at SYL, is when he says that the ashtanga yoga method has 3 faiths:
Faith in the method | Faith in the teacher | Faith in yourself
I believe that faith in the method of the practice is not only about trusting that the method of ashtanga yoga will work for us, but also having faith that the internal intelligence around how we cultivate our yoga practice will arise too. Remember, this practice is challenging us to wake up now rather than meeting some far-off point in the distance when everything will hopefully be okay.
So, here are 5 suggestions that you can perhaps integrate into your practice to bring a softer, lighter and more open quality to how you feel and experience your ashtanga yoga practice.
1. Begin with stillness
Sit. Breathe quietly before you begin your practice.
So, rather than putting your mat down and going straight into the chant and sun salutations, sit quietly before you practice. Whether counting your breath or just noticing its rhythm and flow, allow for mental space to be noticed, acknowledged, accepted and perhaps spaciousness to be cultivated.
This spacious feeling, with breath awareness, can then be channeled into your practice and allow you to gauge when you slip away from that breath connection. Postural, physical yoga is there to trap our awareness and challenge our perception of the present moment. Sitting at the beginning and nurturing presence sets a beautiful tone to experience a fuller connection within your practice.
2. Widen your listening
Go beyond the inhale/exhale and notice the quiet space between the breaths.
One of the foundational practices of ashtanga yoga is free breathing. We use this as a tool to tie our awareness to the sound of the breath. But there is no end to how we can become awake to breathing in our practice.
A lovely way to keep your intention wide and open is to focus on the spaces between the breaths, or what I call the pause. When you focus on the pauses between the inhale and the exhale you expand how you connect with your breath. This cultivates a wider but softer approach and inevitably leads to experiencing the breath in a fuller, more complete way. This also helps to nurture the physical, spatial transition between vinyasas, where the movement actually blends into the next movement. See if you can hold your attention there too. Where the vinyasa meets the vinyasa, cultivate space.
3. Let go
Notice when you are pushing and stop. Let it go, feel the body, then start again.
Drop the ‘trying to get somewhere’ idea in asana. Stop forcing into postures and feel your way in. Remember, a yoga practice is a long term thing that has no end. The beauty of the practice is it will take care of you if you let it. Forcing a body into position can create negative patterns that can lead to injury.
Observe when you are forcing, when there is pain, and know that this is a trigger to change something. Pause. Notice. Then move differently. See if there is a different, more open way to achieve, and sense, a position. Use the exact feeling of forcing the issue to stop and notice the opposite. Let go.
4. Slow down
Slow the practice or vinyasa down.
There really is no rush. Feel. Take your time. Sometimes we can lose our way in our practice by moving too quickly. We can notice this by the way our breath and body lose synchronicity, or we struggle for breath. We can skip vinyasas or perhaps sidestep a certain position we don’t like. Meeting a posture or vinyasa with awareness helps us to open up into it. If you’ve bypassed a certain position, acknowledge it, then meet it again with a fuller, wider focus and try accessing the breath. This allows there to be more presence cultivated around it.
5. Remember why
Remember why you are practising yoga.
Every now and then, drop into the experience of the practice as it moves through you. Because that is what it is doing – moving through you. You eventually don’t practice ashtanga yoga, you become ashtanga yoga. Notice the moment. Witness the breath and body united in motion. In harmony. Then become that experience without pushing, forcing or harming yourself. Let the practice unfold in a beautifully open way. Importantly, remember what you are cultivating the practice for. What are the fruits of practice to become in your life…?
These are my suggestions. I have personally found them to be a profound way to deepen something that is already deep. And to help me meet the world in a more honest and open way.