How a Return to the Beginning Deepened my Practice.
~ Noel Koh
I distinctly remembered the crowning moment of my practice when Shirly walked over to my mat one evening and said: “Ok, let’s try Setu Bandhasana today.” “This is IT!” I thought to myself. At long last, that elusive pose for me in the primary series was within reach, my personal Mount Everest in the landscape of other valleys. During that mountaintop experience of finally seeing the “end,” I could not hide my pride and joy that evening.
You see, in my long and arduous journey to reach Setu Bandhasana, I also attained many “impossible” feats that were deeply personal to me, such as binding poses and clasping my hands with ease, learning to extend my legs straight, doing assisted drop backs and jumping back without touching the mat.
And so that night I went home more animated than usual, enlivened by the mere prospect of being able to embark on the intermediate series sooner than I thought.
The above scenario took place about three years ago. I should be on the Intermediate Series by now. But life, like our practice, is never linear nor neat. My life circumstances changed suddenly, and I stopped Mysore practice for about two years. Needless to say, I lost all of the above “achievements” after such a long hiatus.
These days, I can barely wake up for practice, let alone strive for consistency. And when I do show up, my body rarely cooperates with me. In fact, every single pose has become a challenge, and completing half the primary series is a feat.
But something unexpected occurred each time I struggled, either to show up mentally or during my wrestle to get into a pose. In fact, my practice seemed to deepen unexpectedly even when my forward bend could not; my mind became clearer even when I struggled to clear the mat in my jump throughs.
Ironically and interestingly, my inability to do the poses I could earlier and having to start all over again taught me many things about myself, the practice and about life. While I do not wish to universalise the particular, the following are some precious lessons I have learnt in my journey of starting over on the mat.
1. The idea of having a “good” or “bad” practice on any given day is a self-debilitating myth.
Before my hiatus, I used to measure the “success” of my practice according to how “well” I “performed” the poses. If I could bind easily, and/or jump back properly, I was having a “good” day. Failure to do them meant that I had regressed in my practice. The long break from the practice meant that every session since I returned inevitably became a “bad” one.
A mini epiphany occurred one day during Samasthiti, of my tendency to label experiences. A critical corollary of this disposition is that I found, and still find, the liminal and the indeterminate space between binaries defamiliarising, uncomfortable and crucially, unsafe. But growth is often the result and the fruit of dealing with discomfort and the uncertain. However the truth is, learning is often found in the struggle.
Simply put, to struggle is to learn.
2. From discipline to freedom.
By extension, the obsession to demand that things go the way we want them to go is one of the greatest bondages in human society today. By having an expectation of how my practice should go, I was setting myself up for an either/or experience, enslaving myself to an illusory dichotomy.
I used to judge how well I “did” in my last given pose as an indicator of my progress, as a litmus test for self-approval and validation. Like a manipulative canine, the dual purpose of my “successful” practice was to bend the will of the teacher and be rewarded with the metaphorical bone of a new pose.
How much more liberating it is for me now to luxuriate in each pose and care less about the next! While I still desire to start on the intermediate series one day, I have come to appreciate Ashtanga for what it is: a means to an end rather than an end in itself.
3. Doing versus Being.
I also grasped that my inability to bind/extend/flex/fold/catch/twist in a certain pose does not mean that I am not doing the pose properly. Instead, I have (re)discovered several subtleties of the practice I overlooked earlier, such as the quality of my breath, the placement of my hands, or my point of focus.
In fact, the quality of my breath and attention has formed the foundation of my practice these days. I no longer care about the binds or the extensions. All that matters now is that I am breathing well and evenly throughout the practice.
I feel that this subtle yet significant shift in attention has allowed me to be in the pose rather than just do the pose. And the unintended consequence is that when I lead the practice with my breath, my binds, extensions, twists, and the like become fuller in their expressions.
4. Demystifying the cult of the self.
While yoga is a deeply personal practice, it dawned on me that I have taken it too personally over the years, creating what some call “the cult of the self.” The unholy trinity of “me, myself and I” coalesced into a self-centric practice, which manifested itself in many ways, from the subtle to the less than so.
For instance, I used to obsess over having the same spot in the studio for every practice. I liked to be near the window for light, yet not too near the fan in case the wind cooled me down. Further, I disliked being next to the mirror because it made me too self-conscious, and there should be sufficient space behind me for Chakrasana. Heaven forbid if I found myself in a spot next to both the fan and mirror!
In other words, my practice was solely to serve the Self. By freeing myself of these self-serving ideas, I found myself more compassionate and accepting, of both myself and others. In fact, one of the many benefits of practising together is the creation and enjoyment of a shared space, regardless of age, gender, and many other socially constructed identities.
As a case in point, years ago when I first started yoga, I once had to practise in my least favourite spot in a studio. I moved begrudgingly next to a stranger, telling myself that life sucked. It was only when I started doing my Chaturanga that I saw that the said stranger had no hands, and he was doing the Chaturanga with whatever remained of them. I was immediately humbled, and above all, grateful.
A philosophical inquiry of late that I ask myself these days is this…
Am I practising to create an indestructible cocoon of my “Self,” or does my practice lead to a more expansive understanding of my “Self” and others?
4. Sharpening and refining the WHY of my practice.
Most importantly, starting all over again has allowed me to rethink and reshape the reasons I turn up on the mat. Who or what am I practising for? Will binding in Marichyasana D make me a better person? Does Supta Kurmasana make me like myself more? While the physical benefits were clear, what had become murkier before my hiatus were the reasons for my practice.
A return to the mat from the beginning has allowed me to both feel and be grateful. I feel grateful for the ability to just breathe, to hear others breathe, or to see someone next to me do a drop back. We may not realise it, but our presence on the mat is a tacit encouragement to fellow practitioners.
Above all, I am grateful for the teachers who first introduced me to Ashtanga, and the teachers whom I practise with now. As much as I love adjustments, an teacher’s presence is the definitive expression that silently says, “I am here to support you today.”
Epilogue (of sorts)
My insecurities surfaced when Shirly asked me to share my practice experiences. The truth be told, I am not sure if anyone will read these musings of mine. But if you happen to, thank you for taking the time.
I do not lay claim to possessing a deep knowledge of yoga philosophy, of the sutras, or even the asanas. But what I do know is that every valley you encounter on/off the mat is an opportunity to learn more about yourself.
Yoga, and in particular Ashtanga, has shown me strength I never knew I had, created flexibility in both the body and mind, and most significantly, directed me to people whose unconditional support on/off the mat I do not deserve yet nonetheless received.
For this and more, I offer my heartfelt thanks to both Shirly and Adeline for creating a nurturing and safe practice space.