For many of us, life changed in an instant when the pandemic hit, and at its one-year-anniversary, we’re reflecting on how life was upended. We might be looking back at all we’ve lost—people, time, travel, places, serenity, sanity, individuality, space (mental and physical)—and we might also be taking stock of all we’ve gained—a new perspective, quality time with our closest family members, the chance to slow down.
And then there’s the start of spring, which is a hopeful, bright time. It’s a time of new beginnings and fresh air.
That’s why this spring in particular is a really special, powerful time to hone in on what’s worked, what doesn’t, and what we can change.
I invite you to really reflect on your practice. Maybe you lost your way to your mat over the past year. I know that this might be especially true for working moms and dads faced with working from home and homeschooling children. This might be true for those who had to take on more responsibility around the home and also for those who felt the mental crush of isolation.
Maybe you went in the opposite direction and met your mat way more than ever before. I invite you to ask yourself if this is working for you. Is the way you’re practicing now in line with how you want your practice to unfold?
I first want you to know that either way, whether you lost your way to your mat or have a solid, consistent practice, everything is just as it should be, and you are exactly where you need to be.
Now marks the perfect time to revisit what you want from your practice, and try to think about it in a new way. As if you were viewing the practice through a new lens. Life looks drastically different than it did a year ago. How can your practice help you?
Rather than thinking about the ideal practice, which is what we usually envision, I invite you to really hone in on what a doable practice looks like for you in this day and at this time.
The Ashtanga practice is really special in that it can be modified for any “body”, and it can be modified for any life circumstance. If you only have 15 minutes to dedicate, Ashtanga can work for you. If you want to dedicate 30 minutes, the structure of Ashtanga can be modified to fit within that time frame too.
This is your opportunity to really look at how you can find a sustainable way back to your mat.
The Benefits of Short Practice
For so many of us who love and practice Ashtanga, it’s easy to feel like if we’re not dedicating the full 90 minutes to the practice, then what’s the point?
That’s a pretty common thought process, but as I’d mentioned last week, the beauty of the Ashtanga practice is that it can be made to fit your life. That includes shortening the practice if you need to. In his book, Ashtanga Yoga: The Practice Manual, David Swensen includes variations of the Ashtanga practice that are 15 minutes, 30 minutes, 45 minutes, and 60 minutes long.
No matter how little time you have, the practice is still here for you! I invite you to consider the following words from one of my students, Nicole Slaughter Graham, on the benefits of her short practice…
Nothing really compares to the feeling of being in the Mysore room, breathing alongside my fellow yogis, receiving guidance from my teacher. But when COVID-19 hit, I was faced with some pretty serious life changes (weren’t we all?)
All of a sudden, I was working and teaching from home while simultaneously trying to entertain my 4-year-old, whose school had shut down, and help my 13-year-old navigate online middle school.
My husband’s job continued on as normal, as he works in the medical field in a local hospital, so the brunt of all of the responsibility of our children fell on me. On top of that, I have a medical condition that makes me high risk for COVID complications, so my family and I took the suggested safety measures to heart.
Making it into the Mysore room wasn’t possible anymore. I kept up my virtual practice and my private practice for a while, despite it all.
But then in October, I was hit with some emotional turmoil that did me in, and my practice came to a complete halt. Honestly, the standstill didn’t let up until the last few weeks. From October to early March, I didn’t make it to my mat a single time.
That said, I knew I couldn’t just jump back into my full practice— I still didn’t have the time I once did and physically, I’d lost a lot of strength. So I decided to explore an abbreviated practice. I set out for 30 minutes at a time. I moved slooooooowwwwww. I started with 3 Sun As and 2 Sun Bs and made my way through a really modified, partial standing series and then transitioned to some floor-based asanas. I took an extra long savasana.
And I felt like a new person. After just one session of this. I realized right then that no matter what, some practice is better than none— for my mind, my body, and my soul.
That’s the practice I’m sticking with right now because it works and it makes my body feel good. One thing I’ve realized through all of this is that my practice is definitely going to look different in different seasons. It might even look different from one day of the week to the next. And it’s all okay. If I’m feeling stagnant, I’m going to switch it up so I can refocus. If I’m feeling extra weak or tired, I’m going to honor that. And on the days where my body moves with strength and fluidity, I’m going to hone in and take advantage of it.
Making the Practice Work for You
A lot of people think the Ashtanga practice is set, and by that I mean rigid. The Primary and Intermediate series is laid out in an intelligent manner, and ask that you practice it in the order of how it is sequenced. This is a good map to follow, but it can also lead us to roadblocks, resistance to change, and defiance to showing up.
As we’ve talked about in the last couple of weeks though, within the practice, there’s so much flexibility and accessibility. It really is possible to make the Ashtanga practice work for you. I’m a true believer in honoring the teachings of this amazing, powerful practice, and over the years I’ve realized that it’s far more than a postural (physical) practice.
This week, I want to expand on the modifications that are available to you so that you can really, truly make Ashtanga yours. First, we have to change our approach and practice with friendliness, kindness, and compassion towards ourselves no matter what we are up against. From this place, we begin to cultivate a deeper relationship with all of our practices.
Ask yourself: how much time do you have to dedicate to this practice? Then give yourself permission to adjust the practice according to where you are right now.
In Ashtanga, you CAN shorten the practice. You CAN also modify just about every pose within the practice if needed. Here are some examples:
If you find that you’re too tired for the Sun Salutations, slow them down and modify them to fit what your body needs at that moment. Rather than reaching for the sun and bending forward to touch the floor, rest your hands on your knees in a half fold. Instead of Full Plank-Chaturanga, come down to your knees and do cat-cow a few times. If you find that Down Dog is too much, move from Down Dog into Child’s Pose. In fact, make this whole sequence your Sun Salutation.
Here’s what Sun Salutation A normally looks like:
Reach arms overhead and look up – fold forward with head down and hands/fingers to floor – lift the chest to a half fold looking towards the horizon – step back into plank – lower chaturanga – lift the chest to up dog -lift hips to down dog
Here are a couple of variations of what Sun A can look like:
Reach the arms overhead – bend the knees as you fold forward sliding hands down the legs- place hands on knees – lift the chest and look forward – gently fold forward again – bring the upper body back up and reach arms overhead and then reset with hands by your side (repeat)
Reach the arms overhead – bend the knees as you fold forward sliding hands down the legs- place hands on knees, lift the chest and look forward – gentle come down to hands and knees for 5 cat-cows – press hips back into child’s pose – raise hips to down dog for 1 breath – start making your way back to the top of the mat in a gentle forward fold – rise back up as arms reach overhead – reset with hands by your side
The beauty is that these kinds of modifications are available for the entirety of the practice. Seriously! In his book, Ashtanga Yoga: The Practice Manual, David Swensen, has the various short practices listed out, but he also offers modifications for the asanas themselves.
So stop with the excuses, okay! You CAN practice Ashtanga. Sometimes, it’s our motivations and aspirations that get in the way of diving into our practice. Sometimes, we think if we aren’t doing the standing postures or sitting postures just as they were intended to the highest degree, then we shouldn’t practice Ashtanga at all.
In short, we get in our own way.
Ashtanga is not meant to be rigid and it isn’t a practice done with force. It is for ‘every BODY’ and you can make it exactly what you need it to be. It’s all about how you come to your mat, your attitude, and your willingness to listen to what your body and spirit need.
What Do You Want from Your Practice?
Yoga is an incredibly personal experience. Even though the Ashtanga series is laid out in a methodical way, how we show up to our mat informs our experience.
What we need informs our experience.
What we’ve been through informs our experience.
Where we come from informs our experience.
The practice is meant to be exactly what we need— whatever that is at the time. The only way we can figure out what we need is to check in with ourselves. A lot of us don’t spend any time checking in with ourselves. We’re focused on work, kids, pets, the house, outside responsibilities, getting out the door on time. We forget to take an extra breath in-between meeting or stretch our hips after sitting for a long time, let alone sit in the stillness and really check in with what we need.
So this week, sit with your journal, or in meditation, or even as you move through asana and ask yourself what it is that you need from yoga. How can the practice be of service to you?
One of the best ways to figure out what you need is to really ask yourself some questions and intentionally consider them. Here are some to get you started:
Why do I do yoga?
What does yoga do for me?
In this body, today, right here and now, what are its needs? My mind? My heart?
What’s missing or off-kilter for me right now, and how can my practice support me?
Accountability to Yourself
Now, it’s time to show up for yourself.
The only way to really get what you need from your practice is to commit to consistency. With discipline and accountability, your practice can really start to transform you.
One of the best ways to do this is to enter into a teacher-led space, and this is possible even if you’re practicing from home.
Having a teacher guide you can really make all the difference. Without realizing it, you might have been practicing a pose incorrectly, and a teacher can help direct you into the posture. A teacher can also help see when you need to be pushed out of your comfort zone or where you need to back off a bit. A teacher holds space for you so that you can explore your practice with trust and confidence.
Being in a room of fellow practitioners and committing to giving your energy to the room is another way to hold yourself accountable. After all, without the Sangha, the practice wouldn’t exist as it does today! You aren’t only committing to yourself, you’re committing to your community. Your individual practice contributes to the larger practice, and that’s pretty special.
I offer the traditional, in-person Mysore room and the virtual shala so you have options as far as where you practice and still have the advantage of a teacher present.
I encourage you to use these spaces in whatever way feels best for you.
Another way to hold yourself accountable is to have an accountability partner. When we bring someone into the fold, we’re more likely to follow through, and there’s benefit for that other person as well!
So today I ask you: what are you going to do to hold yourself accountable so that your practice can truly serve you?