“One of my goals in life is to do the slowest Primary Series anywhere… rather than the quickest”. Richard Freeman

Saturday, 7 November 2009

Why I don't go to a Shala

The question of my not going to a Shala has come up a couple of times in the comments. It's been put quite strongly a couple of times and also quite reasonably. Given I've titled this Blog Ashtanga at home I think it's a fair question. I know there are a lot of readers of this blog who practice at home, many have emailed me or commented saying they appreciate the focus of practicing at home.

First logistics.

I live outside London. It would be impossible for me to travel in every morning to practice at a Shala. It's possible for me to go on a Sunday, but given my Partner gets home late most evenings the only time we have together is Sunday. I could of course go once or twice a month though. If the trains run well I can just about make it in time for a full practice. Anyone who reads Globie's blog knows the problems of travelling into London for an Ashtanga class on a Sunday morning. I'm in a similar situation but I admit it's possible. I could perhaps go into London and catch an evening class on my day off and there are always workshops, although I work Saturday which makes even that difficult.

So even if I did go to a Shala it wouldn't be possible for it to be a regular thing. I've thought in the past though that it might be useful to go occasionally, we have some excellent teachers in London, it would be good to have my practice tidied up a little, I know I would learn a lot. As Susan says it would be nice too to have a coffee and a chat with some other Ashtangis.

So why dont I.

This is were it seems to get difficult for people who do go to a Shala regularly to understand and where perhaps I might strike a chord with other home practitioners.

I went to a shala twice. I found it interesting, the room really is quite a remarkable and inspiring place. The heat, the sound of the breath, the concentration and focus of everyone as well as the generosity of the teachers, believe me I get it.

That said I found it too hot, really too hot. No doubt it's fine if you go every day but once every couple of weeks, your probably not going to get used to it. I found it hard to regulate my breath in that heat. I really didn't enjoy my practice and Sunday being a day off is a very big yoga day for me. I have more time to practice and like to make the most of it on Sundays. The other thing was space, I felt cramped and self conscious of those around me, paranoid I would kick somebody in the head. When I got home after the first visit I cut my extra long Manduka down to regular size so I would get used to it.

But that wasn't the main reason and this is where my 'protective of my practice' comment comes in.

We get into our practice routines, we create strategies that help motivate us and get us on the mat every morning. I hate breaking that routine in any way. I want my mat in the same place, exactly the same place. You've all seen me smoothing my towel just so. I want to practice at a set time and like to have a set amount of time free to practice. All the extra stuff I do, working through new asanas etc is done separately, in the evening or on my day off. After I finish I have a half a grapefruit and a cappuccino, every morning, I'm sure we're all like this to lesser or greater degrees. Bit OCD perhaps.

But I'm also protective of my state/frame of mind, my approach to my practice and I see that as part of the motivation that gets me on the mat. Anything that impacts on that makes me uncomfortable, unsettled and I have to force myself through the first half of my practice. When I went to the Shala those two Sundays, although it was a positive experience, throughout the rest of the week I felt unsettled. I wasn't enjoying my practice. Somebody said this week that I fear going to a Shala and in a sense that's true I fear losing it, losing the frame of mind that allows me to practice as I do.

Does that sound nonsense? I taught myself to play saxophone and practiced everyday, obsessively for six years. It was the first thing I did when I got home. In Japan I would go down to the river every morning to practice. Then about three years ago I was burgled, had seven saxophones stolen and my frame of mind changed just like that. I've only picked the saxophone up a handful of times since then to play for pleasure. I think I fear the same thing happening with my Ashtanga. That's what I mean about being protective of my practice, it's not so much protective of how I practice, quite happy to toe the shala line out of respect when I'm there and then come home and do 3rd if I feel like it, but it's protective of my attitude to practice, to being able to practice at all. Overly defensive?Perhaps, but it's worked well for three years and I don't feel inclined to mess with what's working for the odd day a month.

I'd already got into a routine and approach to my practice before I went to the Shala. For six months I'd been working things out myself following my own inclination. I'd notice something about my Navasana and work on that or my Mari B say, and work on that. Working it out like a puzzle was part of the attraction (remember I repair Musical Instruments for a living, work out what's wrong and fix them, that's what I do). When I went to the Shala I was quite properly picked up on a couple of things and throughout the following week I felt like those were the things that I should be working on for next time. That's what I meant ages ago when I said I started to feel like I wasn't owning my practice anymore.

That said if I was to move to London I probably would start going to a Shala and knowing me I would probably go every morning and that would become the new routine. I've thought about going to Mysore for a month, it's long enough and then when I came back I would no doubt shift back into my routine once again.

And besides, I figure I've done OK without going to a Shala. I have the DVD's which I fish out occasionally to keep me on track. Kind of like going to a led class. I ordered the Kino Intermediate so I would be up to date on how 2nd is practiced now in Mysore rather than a bunch of years ago with the Freeman and Swenson. Yes I do want to know how it's practiced now just as I want to know how it was practiced then in the Mysore palace ( SKPJ's Yoga Mala is sitting her on top of Krishnamacharya's Yoga Makaranda beside me as I write this) I have all the usual books on practice and anatomy, I'm well resourced. And Of course I have my camera and my blog which allows me to reflect on my practice on what's going well and most importantly what isn't. I've learned the practice from Primary to Third on my own and practiced six days a week for three years. I've come to focus on the breath more fully as well as the bandhas. I've developed a healthy Pranayama and meditation practice and even started chanting the sutras. All these elements of the practice I've developed here at home.

Reading this through I find my reasons for not going are, except for the logistics aspect, quite personal. But then no doubt that's how it is for everyone who practices at home, everyone has their own reasons and situation. It amazes me sometimes when I hear how some manage to fit their practice around their family, finding little corners to practice in. I heard of one home Ashtangi whose practice lasted five hours because she was constantly being interrupted by her kids.

But she still practiced.

15 comments:

  1. 5 hour practice due to interruptions. That is fantastic.
    I'm of mixed mind about the home practice. On one hand, I don't really have a choice since despite Seoul being in the top 5 of the world's largest cities, Ashtanga doesn't exist here except for one place that I know of and it doesn't have weekend or evening classes and it is over an hour away by subway/bus. Despite that, I had been going through a phase of "I wish I could go to a shala" even though my reality didn't permit it.
    If I did have a choice, I would like to visit one at least twice a month to tune up. There is so much going on in a Mysore class that it's impossible not to learn from pure osmosis even if you don't get adjusted. Unlike you, I love the heat and the sweat that I get in a class setting. My yoga room in Korea is pretty small (that's why any video I post is me really close to the camera) but it does heat up to the point that I can fully fog up the windows even when it's not that cold out.
    Thirty years ago, you had to not only go to an instructor, but go to India to learn Ashtanga. Now, things are different with DVDs, tons of books, internet, and a world full of Ashtanga teachers. And of course having an instructor everyday is invaluable, but not always a possibility. I'd like to think that that everybody does the best they can with what they've got. I'm sure if you ran into some questions, poses, issues that you couldn't think your way through, you'd be taking that train in on Sundays. And perhaps those days are coming, but as long as you are practicing and happy with your progess both on and off the mat, then (like you closed with) "at least you are practicing".
    I've also noticed at many classes at just how unpresent some people are. They rely on the instructor for everything and don't know the next pose, or the names or even seem to have any internal motivation. These are all key components of being able to practice alone and at home. I think if nothing else, at home you really have to dive into the practice and don't have the "luxury" of being able to coast along.
    Nice topic for a post...cheers

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  2. I don't think you owe ANYONE an explanation. And I also don't think you need a bookcase full of books on anatomy and various approaches to get what you need out of yoga. And you certainly do not need a teacher to teach you yoga. You learned it. You are far more advanced than I am for all of the many many hours and thousands and thousands of dollars I have spent being taught.

    Anyone who says that you "fear" going to a shala is clearly speaking out of bounds. They can't possibly know what you are feeling. And anyway, so what if you were? It should not call into question anyone else's choice to GO to a shala. Anyone who has a problem with what you do on the mat would be far better served by looking at themselves and asking, "what is this bringing up in ME?"

    That's all I'm going to say on the matter.

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  3. I found your post interesting in light of what happened to me this week. I was misinformed that morning mysore was cancelled in my shala for the week. I was at a bit of a loss so decided to do some home practice !

    Must say I like the flexibility of practising at home - no travelling time or worrying about finishing practice at a certain time, and I can also skip poses I don't like ( purvottanasana !) I also enjoy exploring poses that I normally get adjusted into. Kapotasana felt less scary and more satisfying that way.

    On the other hand I do value and am grateful for my shala practice. If it wasn't for my teacher my scoliosis will probably be worst now. Also I don't think I would be doing dropbacks without my teacher hassling me ! On the other hand I believe in not being too reliant on the teacher and I believe in taking ownership of our practices.

    As for your situation - I say 'if it ain't broke why fix it' !

    As far as other people criticising your not going to a shala - hate to say - life's too short for that kind of sxxx

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  4. I agree with Yoga Chickie. You don't owe an explanation, but nevertheless I was happy you did, because I found your post really interesting. I have just start practicing Astanga and your commitment are a font of inspiration for me

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  5. Thanks for your thoughts Craig, makes me wonder how Ashtanga gets established in a country in the first place, how does that happen? They practice yoga in Seoul right, Do you have to wait for a korean yoga teacher to take an interest in Ashtanga and start offering a couple of unofficial classes and develop it that way or do you have to encourage someone to come over to Seoul to teach. My feedjit feed shows people visiting my blog from just about everywhere, how does that happen.

    Thanks YC for this comment and your other your other recent ones and for not taking my moderation personal. I appreciate your support and encouragement even when tempered with the occasional criticism. I think on the whole the suggestion I go to a Shala is meant in a positive way, and they are right, lots of benefits but as I've tried to explain here it's not as easy or even as simple as that.

    I try to explain it here not just for myself, because to be honest I really don't care that much what people think, but I know there are a lot of other home Ashtangis who visit here (given the blog title) and when I'm attacked for not going I'm sure they feel it too.
    re books, I'm a sucker for them, what can I say and I like anatomy (studied sculpture from a while in my youth) especially how Maehle plays with it in his books though I wonder how up on their anatomy Krishnamacharya and Jois were.

    'if it ain't broke don't fix it', my feeling,speaking as a repairer, exactly, Floss. That said I have a month off in the Summer and am trying to decide between Mysore and LA. Everyone talks about the benefits of going to a Shala and I'm sure they're right but I like here that you mention the benefits of a home practice. It's as if the ideal is always considered to be the Shala, that you only practice at home because you have to. But I've found home practice to be ideal, no doubt a balance of the two would be even better.

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  6. "It's as if the ideal is always considered to be the Shala, that you only practice at home because you have to. But I've found home practice to be ideal, no doubt a balance of the two would be even better."

    Yes, like home practitioners are the poor cousins, haha. I really love my home practice. I love how deeply I can go in, without the distractions of someone moving things along (as in a led class). I love how my curiosity can take me wherever I want to go. I love that I can make my kids a part of it, rather than it being something Mom does away from them. They are learning yoga, too--yesterday I heard my five year old counting in sanskrit, lol. Ekam dve trini... Also, I find I do not get injured when I'm on my own--in a class I'm more outwardly focused, keeping up, holding poses as long as the instructor calls for, noticing the guy on the next mat, yada yada--I don't mean to be, but it happens. I haven't been to a Mysore class, so maybe that would be better--only I would have to drive 45 min and find childcare for 3 hours (class plus driving) to do it, plus the expense. And it isn't even an authorized person. Crazy hard! I'd rather just kick some toys aside, unroll my mat, and do yoga. It's hard enough as it is. I think I will make the trip at some point, but it hasn't seemed pressing yet.

    I keep thinking of that story about the learned monk walking along who comes upon a poor fisherman, praying to god in this heartfelt, simple way, talking to god as if he is a dear friend. The learned monk says, "You can't pray like that, that's not proper, you're doing it all wrong." And proceeds to instruct the fisherman in the traditional prayers and chants. But the next morning the fisherman can't remember the chants, and having been admonished, does not pray. This goes on for several days until god says to the monk, "Why have you stopped one of my most devoted from praying to me? He had a daily practice and now I hear nothing from him. How is this better?" So the monk goes back to the fisherman and tells him to go back to praying the way he had been. That if your mind is turned to god, there is no wrong way to pray.

    I'm sure I'm telling the story wrong, but that's how my brain is kicking it out this morning.

    Grim, thanks again for your blog. Reasons are interesting. Justifications are certainly unnecessary.

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  7. I have to say...Your blog definitly Inspires me.
    I live in a rural area a bit south of Atlanta, Ga. Some yoga friends & I collaborated to open up a small studio here offering just beginning vinyasa classes. However, for my personal Ashtanga practice I have to travel 1 hour (if there isn't traffic) into Atlanta to see my teacher. If I am lucky I can get there 2 times a month. PLUS with taking paycuts keeping up a class card can get pricy.
    I too have The Swenson Book, Kino's DVDs, Yoga Mala and Sharath's practice card. I often think I am not experiencing Ashtanga at home bc I've learned in a studio. I felt that I wasn't pushing myself enough at home. But now after reading this I wonder if I was pushing myself more in the studio for other reasons (ego?)
    I've been off of my ashtanga path for several months now. Just lost...thinking I couldn't practice on my own by myself. I moved more to just a flow practice. Thinking Ashtanga was too hard for me to do on my own without a teacher.
    You however have shed some light on the home practice and I truly appreciate your post!

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  8. What an interesting topic!

    Like you, I practice at home, but I don't really have a good excuse to. The Shala, with good certified instructors, is a 15 minute bike ride, 30 minute streetcar ride from my apartment. I *could* go. I don't.

    Cost is one reason. I'm a full-time teacher and not exactly raking in the dough. $200/month is a lot of money to invest in a practice that I can easily do (and enjoy very much) at home.

    Time is another reason. The time I spend commuting would likely cut into my meditation practice, which I've come to value.

    Also, I appreciate the flexibility I have to mix things up, experiment with different poses or styles and choose a practice that meets my needs on a given day. Ashtangi one day, Yin Yogi the next!

    I'm puzzled by people who leave sternly worded comments telling others how to do their practice. This is *your* practice. I tell this to my students, I assert it to myself. Ultimately, we're all 'alone' on the mat.

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  9. Those who insist you go to a shala should probably stay at home for awhile.Those who always home practice should probably go to a shala for awhile.I've had enough years of living with myself and others to be quite aware of the foibles of humans, I dont need to go and experience it at a shala but perhaps the younger crowd gain that experience quicker at the shala.Everybody needs to accept at some point that they are abit of a fuckup and get on with things.

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  10. This is about the 10th time I've popped in to try to comment, but kept getting pulled away by other stuff.

    It's all been said now. It's your practice. And your practice seems, from here, to be just fine. Better than fine. Spectacular.
    What YC said: Anyone who has a problem with what you do on the mat would be far better served by looking at themselves and asking, "what is this bringing up in ME?"
    I'veb een enjoying your blog for a while now; as well as the discipline and thoroughness you bring to the mat, I love your sense of humour and playfulness. It's hard to be adventurous like that in a shala!

    I've had a part-time home practice before, and used to think a full-time home practice would be incredibly difficult, but really, it just kinda fits in where it fits in. Maybe we have a tendency to think other people's hurdles are higher than our own. I tip my hat to anyone who works full time and still squeezes in an ashtanga practice - I can't imagine doing that.

    Oh, and those 5 hour practices - thankfully, they're few and far between. Most days I have the luxury of doing my thing while the kids are at school. And if I get those occasional multiple-distraction days ... meh, so what? I'm incredibly grateful even to have the yoga. It kept me sane through an illness which should have reduced me to a puddle.

    Where did you track down Yoga Makaranda? Did you download the pdf? Of do you have a published version from somewhere? I've been hunting for it...

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  11. Well, I hope you don't really feel under attack from me, as I'm the one that kind of called you out on the shala thing.. but I don't think you really do.. I mean you were going to come to our shala and didn't make it and haven't rescheduled.. we're friends and I guess I could've asked you that in a private email. But you probably would've posted about it anyway :) Your reasons all make sense of course, and your practice is 100% your own, but sometimes we're here to make each other think, right?

    For the record, in my 15-odd (total) years of practice, I've had periods of home practice and having no teacher to check in with - or desire for one - although I did initially learn from teachers. I understand the beauty of practising alone (did so, today, a nice change). So for all you readers who think I'm belittling home practitioners, the 'poor cousins', that's not the case at all. Most people start in classes and it's a very big, usually difficult step, to get on the mat at home, just get on the mat. It's an achievement to practice at home. I think that ideally a practitioner should be comfortable practising alone or in a shala, or in a cold gym with loud music or, to take it to the extreme... well, let's just say 'bad conditions'. The less special conditions we need around our practice, the better. Of course we would opt for ideal conditions most of the time, but sometimes it's healthy to stray out of the comfort zone. I'd like to see people who are teacher-dependent be capable of carrying on their practice on their own, and people who are attached to their solitary practice be able to benefit occasionally from a good teacher and group energy.

    I think there are moments in your blog that do make a teacher kind of shudder.. we spend the days trying to see into each individual and teach to THEM. And they can go home and read on someone's blog, hey why not throw in some handstands here or do xyz.. it kind of makes you despair because students often seem to want to do what's not good for them, but such is the nature of the internet.

    I think how the situation arises is that you perhaps don't realise what an uncommonly gifted practitioner you are.. very VERY few people would be able to integrate what you have in such a short time.. everyone can progress to postures they think are impossible, but your progress has been lightning fast. So what is appropriate for you is not appropriate for everyone. Again, it's up to readers to know this, plus you've already taken on board to be a bit more careful with 'advice'.

    Well that's all, I'm finding these conversations difficult but just feeling like I have to explain myself.

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  12. In bed and about to fall asleep, will respond to comments tomorrow, thank you everyone for taking the time, but just a quick note to Susan, of course I don't feel under attack from you, anyone who read your comment on this the other day would probably realize that yours was the reasonable one I was refering too. I know you only have my best interests at heart ( that probably went for the harsh one too). I love how you write about your Shalaband your relationship with C. And I'd still like to come sometime, possibly when Karen is here, but don't hold me too it.

    Will got on to the rest of your comment tomorrow, thanks again for everyones supportive comments. Need to sleep want to try sharath's Uddiyana Karandavasana tomorrow that Skippity mentioned in the conference post.

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  13. Massimo, Maya, Flo Kai, Old dude sorry I didn't get to acknowledge your comments before now, thank you for taking the time to write. I think your fisherman story Maya sums this up very well, as long as we're practicing, right?

    But of course Susan has a point, we should be able to practice anywhere, feel comfortable practicing everywhere. We can get too tied to our routines and can get locked into them, and then of course we get spoiled by the flexibilty of home practice.

    Of course we home Ashtangi's would no doubt have to adapt our practice to the Shala we wanted to visit. I don't suppose I'd be able to turn up at Yogaplace during Mysore self practice and do my Full Vinyasa Primary or Intermediate, or Kai to explore other poses.

    Maybe part of the problem is that the home practitioner wants to consider their practice to be Ashtanga and have it taken seriously but what we're really practicing is Ashtanga +

    I understand why the Shala's focus on teaching how Ashtanga is presently being practiced in Mysore, but here's a thought, what would it be like to have a room that was Mysore self practice but without the Mysore . A place where we are free to interpret our Ashtanga practice, Self practice Ashtanga.

    On one mat someone is doing Full Vinyasa on another extra poses are being added here or there around the traditional poses. On yet another, half the series is being cut out from different sections of the practice to allow time for long long headstands or some extra Pranayama. Perhaps in the corner someone is working on the backbend section of Intermediate, some preps and followed by dropbacks. All the while the teacher and assistants are working the room, familiar with most but asking what your practicing today and assisting where and when required. Basically the freedom of our home practice but in a Shala environment with experienced teachers trained in this flexible approach to assist, encourage and give advice. Still Ashtanga but Ashtanga + John Lennon enough for ya?

    Susan I guess I have a difficulty with being referred to as a gifted or talented practitioner. I've always just figured that I was merely disciplined and focussed with the freedom to try different approaches, and that's why I've progressed. I've always figured that it's just a case of finding the right approach to a pose, try this, try that and eventually you find the way that works for you.

    I suppose following the grabbing the heels in Kapo I'm staring to begrudgingly acknowledge that I seem to have an aptitude for it, that my body doesn't seem to be holding me back as much as I thought it might. If thats so, then of course things I can get away with aren't going to be for everyone, but then how do you know that unless you try. How would I have know that I was able to do this stuff three years ago when I was overweight and unable to reach my shins let alone my toes.

    I just put my own practice out there, it's up to those who visit here to decide if it's for them.

    The thing is, and this play on my mind, Ashtanga is taught traditionally through assists and adjustments no? But I never had any assists or adjustments (apart from the handful from the two visits) and yet I'm able to practice at this level. Isn't it too easy to brush it off as my just being gifted. Doesn't it suggest that there are other valid ways to approach the teaching of the practice that may be just as effective as the Mysore way.

    But then maybe that's the thing, we understand that the practice is being preserved and forget that how the practice is taught is also being preserved.

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  14. Although it wasn't the main focus of your post, I was curious where you found your copy of Krishnamacharya's Yoga Makaranda?

    I find going to yoga class helps prevent bad habits but I practice at home a fair amount, too.

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  15. Someone else asked about that but I forget who and on which comment so this for both of you. I just got lucky and was given a copy for study. I don't believe it's in print at the moment although I heard there were plans for it to be published in the near future.

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A Reminder

from Kalama sutra, translation from the Pali by Bhikkhu Bodhi This blog included.

"So, as I said, Kalamas: 'Don't go by reports, by legends, by traditions, by scripture, by logical conjecture, by inference, by analogies, by agreement through pondering views, by probability, or by the thought, "This contemplative is our teacher." When you know for yourselves that, "These qualities are unskillful; these qualities are blameworthy; these qualities are criticized by the wise; these qualities, when adopted & carried out, lead to harm & to suffering" — then you should abandon them.' Thus was it said. And in reference to this was it said.

"Now, Kalamas, don't go by reports, by legends, by traditions, by scripture, by logical conjecture, by inference, by analogies, by agreement through pondering views, by probability, or by the thought, 'This contemplative is our teacher.' When you know for yourselves that, 'These qualities are skillful; these qualities are blameless; these qualities are praised by the wise; these qualities, when adopted & carried out, lead to welfare & to happiness' — then you should enter & remain in them. Buddha - Kalama Sutta
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