With a couple new books out about the history of yoga in America and this year's yoga/music Wanderlust festival pending, the discipline once again has been making its rounds through the media.
And in most of that coverage, this Ashtanga aficionado has been sad to see what looks like a uniform dismissal of the discipline, one that I've found to be the most centering and spiritual practice I've tried.
Slate and The New York Times, both of whom group the books The Subtle Body and The Great Oom into joint reviews, respectively describe Ashtanga as for devotees who seek a "profound intensity" and as a "demand(ing,) grueling regimen that their upper- and middle-class adherents were only too relieved to surrender to." A profile of Anusara yoga founder John Friend in this week's Times Mag describes Ashtanga as a "demanding flow" akin to "boot camp" while Anusara is a "classical ballet lesson." (Disclosure: a former teacher was an Anusara teacher in training, and all the talk of heart opening and radiance felt like new-agey hokum to me.)
The judgers do have one thing right: Ashtanga, the eight-limbed system of practice pioneered by K. Pattabhi Jois, does include a rigorous asana practice, one that flows without pause (David Swenson begins series by saying "the train is leaving the station"). It's given me arm muscles, and I'm damned proud of them.
But the asanas are just one component of a broader physical, mental and spiritual blueprint for reaching samadhi, or spiritual enlightenment. Physical postures are traditionally practiced to cleanse the body and prepare it for the experience of sitting in meditation. Jois' book, Yoga Mala, demystifies what looks like a graceful, stationary dance by explaining which postures wring out which digestive organs and the like.
But at the studio where I've been practicing—which, granted, is mostly populated by normal-shaped middle aged folk who can't expect to achieve the ideal form of most of the postures (with the exception of one normal-shaped, middle aged woman who is a total rock star)—the focus isn't on sweating as much as possible or toning the abs. The focus is on each practitioner learning the postures and the philosophies at whatever pace works for each. People whose practice inspire me are those who are there every day and who practice with faith and focus, not those who can do the second-series headstands. My own practice, most days, is more about teaching my mind to empty and focus—and to accept it on days when it won't—while the physical benefits are an added perk.
The practice is different things on different days; sometimes, in stereotypical, type-A American fashion, all I want is some stress relief. But there are days when bumper-sticker phrases: "live in the moment," "today is a gift, that's why it's called the present," become real ways of existing, and I really can look at all things as they are and then move onto the next thing when the moment passes. (Doesn't mean I'll be investing in bumper stickers anytime soon.) I'm learning that, while getting mired in minutiae is painful, having faith is simple, and it's a starting place to which I continually return, currently realized in my almost-daily return to the yoga studio, where a community of like-minded people practice on their mats, give their neighbors heart-melting smiles and then disappear into their own lives, bringing that practice of faith with them even as they left a little bit to share.