Don’t give up.

By on Feb 17, 2015 in The Unruly Ascetic

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“Fitness can be a fortress built on good decisions, or a shack plagued by shortcuts. You decide.”

—Josh Bunch, of Practice CrossFit in Ohio


Okay, okay, don’t get your back up.  I know that Ashtanga Yoga is not fitness, it’s a spiritual practice, blah blah blah. I get that, let’s just head off all the nay saying at the pass, shall we?

Because asana is based in the body, just as fitness is.  For many badass friends (and family) of mine, they have a fitness routine that serves them psychologically, as any steady, dedicated practice will.  I can see all the yogic eyes rolling around in their sockets at the anticipated argument that “running is my yoga!” sure. I too have smirked inwardly (and outwardly) at the overuse of the word “guru” for a fitness teacher and the incorrect use of “mantra” for a thinspirational quote.

Whatever, Josh-boy knows what’s up whether he’s talking about kettle bell swings or lifting up in Karandavasana. He unapologetically addresses an idea that I have been looking at in my own practice and in my teaching, as of late. Ashtanga yoga is about integrating the different postures into the body, creating a dynamic system built upon the pyramid of strength and flexibility. Each movement or asana sets up the foundation for something yet to come.  Nothing is superfluous, nothing can be taken for granted.  Sometimes the work that needs to be done is obvious (my foot is here, I need it to be there), sometimes not so much (you want me to hold my what? using my what?). I know these struggles as most average, not-particularly-gifted ashtangis do. I also know the temptation to look for a shortcut, the vain hope that there is some magic cue that will make the impossible possible. As Josh notes, shortcuts and magic don’t amount to much at the end of the day.

So what to do, but try, try again and all is coming.

I did my work, alone in the blue bedroom recently vacated by my wayward little brother. Through steady repetitive attempts the work became more familiar and began to seem possible. With each little, teeny glimpse of potential I found the motivation and fortitude to try again the next day.  I would occasionally check in with a youtubed Kinogram for hints and reassurances, but mostly I just tried again and listened to what my body figured out. The important thing was that I faced this work alone (or with an equally confounded practice buddy).  There was no one to tell us exactly what was working or not, no one to tell us that something short of obvious success could pass for enough. No one we could look to for any information beyond the basic “you do” ashtanga instruction.

It was in the teaching (and the studenting… meaning practicing in someone else’s program) that things started to get weird;  I met students who had moved beyond transformative integrative postures without having done the work.

Sometimes enough work has transpired, without attaining total success, that one can be confident that the student will continue working effectively and can take on an additional project. Other times the teacher doesn’t understand the work that needs to be done (or doesn’t understand how to communicate it) and students get a pass when they really need to stick it out and muddle through. When I am alone I don’t give myself a pass. It doesn’t occur to me. When someone looks to me for guidance, I don’t give them a pass either. Sometimes we need to realize that we haven’t done enough work. We’re not strong enough, or flexible enough, or we just plain don’t understand. yet.

The question (I eventually came to dread) that came at these obvious holes in a student’s practice was, “what’s the trick?”

What is the trick?

When we start practicing we are encouraged to do all the necessary work to complete the primary series, but we are often given a little trick here and there (along with a wink and a sly smile) to make some challenging element of the practice more attainable. Sometimes this trick is a modification. More often it is an obvious, necessary step in the process that a beginner doesn’t have any awareness of. No problem, it can be simple enough to train students away from a dependency on modifications as practice develops. The teacher can be instrumental in inspiring students toward correctness and establishing proper technique as they become seasoned practitioners instead of beginners.

So here’s where it gets a little ugly: I think, unapologetically, that looking for tricks in intermediate means you’re doing it wrong. at least in your head.

The work of the intermediate series, especially the vinyasa and the postures in the second half, is testing and strengthening the integration of the body.  There are no tricks. The advice I am seeing offered around (and happily accepted) is frequently a shortcut to a shape, not a tool for growth.

While the practice initially teaches us to be humble and recognize our own limitations, eventually there comes a point in the practice where the ego has a chance to creep back in.  The work of Marichasana D and Supta Kurmasana is forgotten and we begin to think that our bodies have always been able to do everything. We forget the struggles of our practice-youth and see ourselves as invincible, capable of everything in front of us… all we need is the permission to try and the secret trick that the advanced students have.

With a good teacher we overcome this hubris.  We are forced to stop and look at what we are doing and admit our shortcomings. Unfortunately, sometimes there is no teacher to do that. Sometimes the person who is responsible for doing that, doesn’t.  and we, the self satisfied tricksters cheating our way through an approximation of a whole slew of postures, ignore the real work in favor of passable success.

and I’m not sure why.

I think sometimes it comes from a very sweet, naive belief that trying will be enough.  If only I could try to do those asanas, I could do them (and then I wouldn’t mind that I can’t do this one!).  The kind of ‘I can do the next one so don’t stop me on this one’ mentality/misunderstanding.  It’s sweet during primary. By intermediate you should know better… and I think most people do.

Here’s the ugly truth, what I think is the real reason people don’t try to do the work and look for tricks and passes instead: let’s be honest with ourselves, how many of us really ever expect to get through third?  What’s it matter if we cheat on Nakrasana, so long as we feel the success of finishing intermediate? Why catch heels in Kapotasana if there are no more backbends in second series?

Because ‘cheating,’ ‘tricking,’ or faffing through second series means you’ve given up.  Looking for tricks and accepting passes, instead of buckling down and doing the work, means that you don’t ever expect to get any further than that. I’m gonna go ahead an call bullshit on that.

Practice can be a fortress built on good decisions or a shack plagued by short cuts. You decide.

You don’t need a trick; you shouldn’t want a pass.  Don’t look away from the work and hope no one notices.

Don’t give up.