My brother has been practicing Ashtanga for a few months now. Mostly behind my back, but lately he’s been coming to my class, willfully refusing my advice and getting distracted by badass ladies. It’s fun. He’s pretty cool: 25, super fit, into rock climbing and slack lining, building skateboards, riding his bike, and drinking craft beer. He’s smart and nice and generally a good sport.
He asked me during practice today if we can cater his practice to suit his interests and goals for his body. He is concerned that he will be expected to put a lot of effort into skills that he doesn’t see any value in (namely, the entirety of intermediate). I laughed and told him that’s what happens in a vinyasa class. He laughed, immediately recognizing his faux pas. “I wouldn’t be doing Ashtanga then?” I then proceeded to explain that the primary series is geared toward physical health, toward the development of a strong and supple body (which is in line with his goals). Intermediate is for energetic health and if he doesn’t want to push that far, no one can make him do it… but for those of us who persist with the practice, slow and steady, for years and wears, we get addicted to learning. When someone first starts practicing, it has potential to feel monotonous or pointless at various stages. When one hasn’t practiced long enough to have had any real breakthroughs, it’s hard to relate to the desire to be presented with the (seemingly) impossible.
For most people, practice brings immediate benefits: better sleep, better digestion, the positive feeling of working hard and maybe getting a little stronger or a little more flexible. But the real magic starts when things start changing. When the body starts having major shifts in how it occupies space and how it relates to itself, it can be mind blowing. When the body starts to learning something totally new it is incredibly fulfilling and potentially awe inspiring. Few things inspire me more than when I can see the results of persistent work. It reminds me that I have potential to learn anything about anything. All I have to do is be honest with myself about what I (don’t) know and find guidance in taking one step forward at a time. The practice teaches us that Rome was not built in a day, but patiently and persistently we are bound to be successful.
It was fun to chat with my bro about his goals for his practice and to see him acknowledge that he sees other students doing things that he is not interested in doing. He wants to be healthy to ensure that he can maintain his other activities (and he was tired of being the only one in our house who didn’t practice). He has a level of humility that I appreciate as a fundamental part of his character. He’s good at starting at the beginning and having reasonable expectations. Half Primary is a lot of work right now and he wanted assurances that he would not be expected to do something more that felt pointlessly advanced. His goals and reasons behind practice are pragmatic and grounded.
I teased him, reminding him that everything I expect him to put effort toward has a purpose, all building one piece onto the next. We discussed postures he found no use for (janusirsasana c, anyone?) and looked at what challenges may have left him feeling purposeless. While I was tempted to give him a hard time about thinking he knows better than the masters who systematized the practice, I realized that wasn’t what he was doing.
He’s so young to Ashtanga, he hasn’t had the exciting reinforcement that comes from observing the learning process start to finish. There’s something magical about knowing that you can’t do something, but trying anyway, persisting in your attempt day in and day out until your body and mind shift enough to make space for something you knew you weren’t capable of. It is the best possible way to be wrong.
So he looks ahead at the practice and sees things he knows he will not be able to do. He doesn’t see any value in them and wants assurances that I won’t make him spend time on things that don’t serve him. I felt okay assuring him that I would take his goals into consideration before making him try anything. He’s practiced with me enough to know that I am endlessly receptive to questioning and doubting and discussions of “why.”
I think (hope) he took rest feeling like he’d won, that I’d agreed to cater his practice to his needs. I am confident that when the time comes for him to look at the things that don’t ‘serve’ him now, he will have a different perspective. Mysore style practice inspires learning. The method is so catered to the individual that each student is able to work on exactly what they need in that moment and a good teacher can encourage, explain, or inspire when the work seems pointless.
All in all, the practice changes us and getting to watch the change in real time is one of the most grounding and uplifting things we can experience. It propels us forward from each point of growth toward a new opportunity to learn and change. So, while he may think I’ll never make him try supta kurmasana, I’m confident that once he needs to try, he’ll be interested.