My friend, April, is known to say that "a flexible spine is a flexible mind". This morning during Kapotasana (a deep 2nd series backbend) neither one wanted to cooperate. It was almost like watching a movie screen; I saw myself doing the asana, saw myself judge my progress as "not good enough", and proceeded to feel like a kapotasana failure. The only good news was that I was totally AWARE of this as it was happening, which I know is the first step to change.
I finished my practice and enjoyed the rest thoroughly, yet I was still hung up on this one pose. Not feeling okay with the fact that I couldn't let it go, I decided to take a deep, hard look and ask myself why this was still coming up? Most yoga practitioners know that this is not an easy thing, as the poses typically stir up those parts of us that need examining. For me Kapotasana brought up my deep seeded fear of failure. Failure of not being good enough, whether in my back bends, in my teaching, in my marriage, in my family interactions, etc. I spent much time probing deep into my mind and asking myself a string of "why" questions until I found the root cause of this fear. After meditating to find stillness and practicing acceptance throughout the day I finally feel I have come to peace with it. Here is the kicker though:
THIS WAS NOT THE END OF THE EPIPHANY!!!!
Being a dedicated Ashtangi I try my hardest to pass on the teachings of Guruji and the lineage to all my students, as most teachers of this tradition do. Somewhere though, the western translation has been muddled. The poses are a means to strengthen the mind. Yes, they will strengthen the body as well, but that is simply a by-product of the practice. Yet, for many of us this is where we get hung up (Kapotasana anyone?). We understand that we need to be adaptable and accepting and find a balance between our practice and daily responsibilities. Yet, we STILL judge ourselves when we don't bind or feel guilty if we cut our practice short once in a while. The deeper I dig the more I realize that this is not what Guruji is trying to pass on.
Sharath tells us that doing advanced asana does not create enlightenment. It is the mental absorption that brings transformation. Sun salutes, if done with the right state of mind, can trigger self realization. Advanced asana, if done for egoic purposes, will not. Saraswati, Guruji's daughter, recently gave an interview discussing how to mesh one's practice with having a job, a home, and a family. Frankly, she doesn't emphasize the asana as being super important. Rather, strength of MIND is what makes the difference. This can be practiced with or without a yoga mat. Guruji himself is known to say that Ashtanga Yoga is a "breathing practice and the rest is just bending". So if these are the roots of the Ashtanga method, then who the heck put so much emphasis on doing the poses perfectly? Drumroll please......US!!!!!!!!!
Many feel that Ashtanga Yoga is only for the physically strong, young, fit, and healthy population. To this I pass on the answer that Sharath gave to me when I spoke to him in person about this very issue just a few months ago. "Teach to your audience. Advanced poses do not equal enlightenment. Who says that one cannot become self-realized doing sun salutes and standing poses only? It is a state of mind that dictates the outcome of practice."
My conclusions are these: Ashtanga Yoga did not inject me with my fear of failure. Rather, it brought to the surface something it might have taken much longer to work through had I not been doing this practice. The next time I am struggling with attachment to our asana practice I vow to recognize it for what it is: weakness of mind. Ashtanga Yoga, just like anything else, is what you make of it. If it is about having a great asana practice you will face those issues. If it is about strengthening your mind you will be able to practice it for a lifetime.