Finding Softness in Ashtanga Yoga

There is time to reflect in Mysore, and I’ve been reflecting on the balance of will and softness in Ashtanga yoga. In a practice where we are applying so much effort, where is the receptivity? How does this practice teach effort without tension?

It would seem to come back to the Bhagavad Gita, wherein Yoga is described as action without attachment to the fruits of the action. Sharath recently noted at conference how the element of Ashtanga yoga that brings personal growth is the act of showing up for practice every day. Getting up early and attending to yoga daily builds character. The quality of the asana practice itself is secondary. This is where so many of us can become attached to the action of taking yoga practice. It is a great reminder that showing up is more important than performing asanas, that being willing to try every day without being attached to the outcome is the yoga itself.

The action of showing up can also continue into the practice. The past few years I have often been mired in an attitude of defeat due to the asana practice feeling like it is sliding backwards (oh, you know that feeling).  Then there comes a fear of pain and ageing. These stories often overshadow the act of showing up in the practice of asana, for whatever subtle fruits may be growing. There is a self that is listening to the stories of pain and defeat, holding back, and somewhere another self that longs to give freely to the practice. It is not as much about doing as it is about giving. Action as the Gita describes is a duty, and an inescapable karma. To the amount that we approach our lives with contentment and generosity, we will sow more of the same. As always, the asana practice becomes for me a window into the mind and heart, informing not just what happens on the mat, but how I am acting in Life. I have learned when the practice starts to feel like a struggle, its time to take a look at my attitude.

The Gita describes action with a “mind full of faith” as the way to success in yoga. This is where softness lies, and results in effort without tension. In my own journey, it’s when there is pain that faith can be elusive. My practice is to show up daily and be receptive to the pain- do I need rest, do I need to move slow, or do I need to get warm and bend, what do I need to do today? What action is the body requiring? I then have faith in the intuition and follow it through a practice, of some sort. If I put my faith in this, instead of listing to the angry or afraid voice, the one that wants to mindlessly perform some version of the practice without consideration of the present moment, the practice becomes an expression of Faith, softness, and beauty- even while I work.