Home

Question Answered – Practice, Addiction & Obsession

3 Comments


I wonder if there is any relation between a 6-day practice and addiction (if the practice can somehow turn into another way of purging the body for the people with eating disorders, or another addiction for those with addictive personalities)… What do you think? I’d love to hear some comment on this. I love my practice (5 days a week) but I do not want to turn it into an obsession or addiction, or a way to prove something, either to myself or to anyone else…

Thank you for your question.

I can’t speak from personal experience about how the practice can be useful to those who are overcoming or coping with addiction. However, there are several very qualified teachers who can.

I would recommend visiting the Ashtanga Parampara website and perusing the interviews. You could then reach out to specific teachers/practitioners who have had this experience. They might be happy to share with you.

What I can say, though, is that it is almost impossible to simply stop a bad or unwanted habit. The same goes for negative or unwanted thoughts and emotions as well.

What we can do, however, is replace negative thoughts, emotions, habits and behaviours with positive and productive ones. In the practice of doing something more positive, we can slowly reduce and mitigate the effects of the negative until we ultimately replace existing predispositions, patterns and samskaras. It takes a lot of effort and diligence to make this kind of change.

Ashtanga yoga practice is such a useful tool because it is a practical, nuts-and-bolts means of examining and reconditioning ourselves. Looked at in a particular light, ashtanga yoga is a new habit creation laboratory where we seek to forge a better version of ourselves.

This may be one reason that those with past addictions have found the practice beneficial.

That said, yoga practice exists in our imperfect world. Despite all of the positive benefits that can accrue to those of us who practice, and despite the best intentions, under certain circumstances, it can be just another arena where our egos assert themselves and our predispositions and other crap can run wild.

Every method of practice is imperfect and has its blind spot. Ashtanga yoga’s blind spot is the tendency for many to get lost trying to perfect and master asanas.

How then do we prevent yoga practice from devolving into an activity that causes obsessive or addictive behaviour?

First, we need to make sure we have a good teacher who understands that the practice is just the means or vehicle for us to create more balance, peace and equanimity in our lives. One’s yoga practice is primarily a tool for mindfullness, self-analysis and self-awareness. A bad teacher who emphasizes the performance of asanas as the ends in and of themselves will not be doing his/her students any good whatsoever.

A good teacher will help a student cultivate a greater self-awareness using the asanas and teach in a manner where the other limbs of ashtanga yoga can be experienced using the asanas.

Each of us must also remain vigilant and aware of why we are practicing and what we get from practice beyond performing asanas. If you are worried about not wanting daily practice to turn into an obsession or addiction, or a way to prove something, don’t lose the forest for the trees. This understanding is ultimately a difficult practice in and of itself. Think of positive ways that yoga practice helps you that would still be there if you never perfected or learned another asana. Perspective is the most important thing.

I have already written about The Obsessing Ashtangi, which looks at the problem of students overworking in a desire to perfect asanas and advance. It may lend some insight as well.

Thanks again. Hope this helps some.

Namaste, Paul

Lady’s Holiday and Ashtanga Yoga Practice

6 Comments

Lady’s holiday refers to the convention of women taking rest during the first three days of the menstrual cycle. However, I have it on good authority from my wife, Rachelle, that it is no “holiday” at all.

Guruji and Sharath have always encouraged women not to practice while on their periods, and to take “lady’s holiday”.

It recently came to my attention that an ashtanga yoga teacher here in Toronto has been pressuring female students to practice while on lady’s holiday and making them feel guilty or bad about themselves if they took rest.

I vehemently disagree with this behaviour. It makes me very angry to learn that an authorized teacher is spouting such garbage that contradicts what Guruji and Sharath have always taught.

There is a very eloquent answer to why women should take rest during their periods at http://joisyoga.com/practice/ladys-holiday/. I’ve also included it below. The italics are mine.

“It is recommended that women take three days of rest – often referred to as “ladies’ holiday” – during their menstrual period for several reasons. The purpose of the menstrual cycle is to prepare the body for pregnancy; when conception does not occur, the thickened lining of the uterus is shed through menstruation.

“One reason to take rest during the menstrual period is that the downward and eliminating flow during this time may be counteracted by inversions such as sarvangasana and sirsasana.

“A second, more subtle, reason is that engaging mula bandha may be more difficult and/or may counteract this downward flow. Without engagement of the bandhas, vigorous practice can be physically unsafe.

“A third, more general, reason is that excessive activity can lead to an irregular menstrual cycle or the cessation of menstruation (amenorrhea).

“Menstruation may therefore serve as a convenient time to rest as the body begins the next cycle. Though taking rest is recommended, it remains an individual choice. As the external and internal practice changes over time, the physical and spiritual importance of taking rest for a particular woman may change as well. If a woman decides to observe ladies’ holiday, she is still very much practicing yoga during this time, as yoga is far more than just asana.”

Any women who have experienced regular menstrual cramps can testify that engaging bandahs would seem an obvious common-sense bad idea during one’s period.

It is a woman’s individual choice whether she wants to observe lady’s holiday. However, I always encouraged female students to take lady’s holiday regardless of their menstrual symptoms. Even in a scenario in which individual women may not have strong symptoms of fatigue or cramps, I still have suggested rest as a way of practicing non-attachment. In rare cases when a student came to class while on her period, while I wouldn’t send the student home, I would encouraged going very easy, not engaging bandhas, not doing invesions. I would let her do what she could without pushing deeper, etc.

So, if there are any women in Toronto who have been feeling that practicing during their periods is counter-intuitive, physically exhausting and/or making their menstrual symptoms of cramping, etc. worse, you need to listen to your bodies and take rest.

There is not now nor has there ever been any prescription in Ashtanga Yoga practice for women to practice during the first three days of their cycles.

Hope this helps. Just trying to do my part to encourage sane practice in Toronto.

My Interview on Ashtanga Paramapara

Leave a comment

paul_cow

My interview is live on the Ashtanga Parampara website. Thanks Lu Duong for the opportunity. It was a lot of fun to participate in this project.

To read the interview, click the image above.

Balancing Practice and Life

7 Comments

Not too long ago, I received a question asking about practice and ageing. Without going into the details, I answered that since ageing affects each person differently, it all depends on the individual’s energy level measured against one’s responsibilities off the mat.

I replied that if you feel like practice is exhausting, depleting or leaving you without the energy to fulfill your other life responsibilities and activities, then it’s time to look at whether your practice suits you or whether you have pigeonholed yourself into a practice that is no longer appropriate.

Then, I thought that this is good advice for anyone in just about any circumstances, not just with respect to ageing. It can apply to school, work, family and traveling to name a few.

Ultimately, the question is one of balancing Practice and Life and it made me think of two attitudes on the uses and benefits of yoga practice.

On one hand, there is the attitude that practice needs to be intense and challenging so it can press our buttons, shake us up and give us insight into the workings of our minds, emotions, etc. Put another way, practice needs to produce a lot of tapas to be effective. In this case, practice is a crucible for our personal evolution and the breaking down of old, conditioned responses and patterns. The catch is that this type of practice is very high maintenance and can be very tiring because of the tapas generated.

One of the great things about taking practice at KPJAYI in Mysore is the ability to “leave everything on the mat” because there are very few if any other commitments outside of practice. It doesn’t matter how tired we are because we can dedicate a lot of time to taking care of ourselves afterwards. Without the burdens of running a yoga shala or holding down a job, we have a lot more time to rest and recuperate. Nevertheless, trips to Mysore end and we all return home eventually and have to reintegrate into our “real” lives.

As best I can, I’d like to preempt comments from Ashtanga parents who will assert that, since starting a family, their days in Mysore post-practice are no longer simply about long rest and recuperation. I wholeheartedly acknowledge that your days in Mysore with your family are radically different from how they were before you had children. That said, from discussions with parents in Mysore, it still seems like things are relatively more relaxed than they are back home where one has to juggle jobs, shalas, kid’s activities etc.

On the other hand, one can also approach practice in a way that it functions as a support to our daily routines and responsibilities. Practice would still give us an awareness of where our minds and emotions are as well as keeping us honest about what we’re thinking and feeling. However, it would leave us with enough energy to fulfill our other responsibilities.

There must be balance between these two attitudes.

A person who tries to leave it all on the mat without budgeting the time and energy required to fulfill one’s other responsibilities will probably find oneself unemployed, injured, sick, burned-out or any combination of the above.

That said, a yoga practice that isn’t enough of a challenge could start to feel empty or boring. Without enough tapas, our time on the mat isn’t going to serve the role of practice. Put another way, practice needs to be challenging enough to create the conditions for awareness and insight without exhausting us. If taking it easy were a viable yoga practice, we’d all be enjoying long hot bubble baths rather than sweating on our mats.

Holding down a job, raising a family, having meaningful relationships automatically create tensions between practice and life. Practice requires a level of intensity to be practice but without being so intense that we cannot function off our mats. It’s a duality and a paradox, but certainly not the only one that exists for the Ashtanga practitioner. Ashtanga Yoga forces us to recognize, integrate and find balance between many dualities such as Strength vs. Flexibility or Determination vs. Non-attachment.

Finding a happy medium so we can have a meaningful practice and a meaningful life off the mat is just another balancing act that we can master if we remain open to the idea of change and adaptation.

It’s not uncommon to falsely approach practice as a set-in-stone collection of asanas that remains constant. As yoga teachers, we will often say “no matter what is going on in your life, practice. It will benefit you.” But what does that really mean? If we consider the act of showing up on our mats and the generation of tapas as the important factor rather than the specific asanas we perform as yoga practice, we can find balance and practice diligently without exhausting ourselves or driving ourselves crazy with false expectations.

The Expectation of an Easy Asana

2 Comments

 

In a previous post, I wrote at length about how to approach kapotasana, a difficult backbend from Ashtanga’s Intermediate Series.

On the Sunday that this video was taken, I was tired, my body was stiff and the asanas were very challenging. It led me to think a little after practice about what it means to be “comfortable” and “consistent” in an asana, especially in one that is difficult and brings up a lot of physical, mental and/or emotional triggers. It also got me to thinking about how we can deceive ourselves into equating ease in an asana with the elimination of physical sensation.

After having practiced for nearly 20 years, I’ve seen many asanas become easier as my body changed in the sense that I don’t have as much negative physical sensation as when I started. I have also, however, accepted that some asanas might always be difficult. Having proficiency or even mastery of a posture does not mean that there will be an absence of physical sensations, thoughts or feelings which may not be positive. When students have asked me whether such and such asana will ever be “easy”, I say that it might still be physically challenging but it will be easier because it won’t cause the mental and emotions stress that it once did. “Easy” does not imply an absence of sensations. After all, we have central nervous systems so not feeling isn’t an option in this world.

So, how do we find comfort and consistency?
We can find comfort in an asana by learning to use only as much energy as necessary. If we use too much effort, it adds stress to the body and restlessness to the mind (chitta). It’s no coincidence that Sharath will say to relax when he’s giving someone a deep backbend. If we can relax, even a little, the asana becomes more comfortable.  For each individual in each asana, there is an optimal energy level that achieves “comfort” in the pose. Like I suggested above, comfort is not an absence of sensations or thoughts, it is the ability to hold the pose without generating stress despite the existence of strong sensations, thoughts and emotions.

The optimal amount of energy used in an asana is facilitated through correct regulated breathing. Over time, proper breathing also works to stabilize and strengthen the mind. Unregulated breathing makes the mind unsteady and increases any difficulties we have in challenging asanas. Activated bandhas and focussed dristhi are equally important to reduce strain and effort in difficult asanas.

Consistency comes slowly over time as we learn to manage the levels of sensation we are experiencing without panic, judgement or commentary. We gain a level of equanimity from doing an asana repeatedly and learning to breath correctly. Ultimately, we learn to trust that we can do an asana despite the strong sensations. We also internalize that we can do an asana despite how we are feeling (energetic vs tired) or despite the weather (January polar vortex vs July heat wave) or any of a myriad reasons that our minds get agitated.

Some practices will be harder than others for any number of reasons but we can still do difficult asanas if we use our breath, bandhas and drishti to minimize effort and strain and to keep the mind focussed.

Mayurasana Video

Leave a comment

A challenging asana from Ashtanga’s Intermediate Series.

It’s even more difficult with wrists that don’t bend. 🙂

My Comment to The Indifferent Ashtangi by Jason Stein

1 Comment

I shared the link to Jason Stein’s well-written blog post, The Indifferent Ashtangi. I thought I would also share the comment I left.

I am so glad to see Jason’s insights being shared with the greater Ashtanga community. They are too astute to be buried amongst the comments of my blog.

I couldn’t agree more that students need to be taught that practice is not just about asanas, adjustments and the myths of progress and completion. Students cannot be blamed if they get caught up in the physical dynamism of Ashtanga yoga and wrongly confuse the ends with the means. This is particularly true if instructors are not sharing the deeper elements of the practice.

Ultimately, the onus is on teachers to take the time and instill proper values in students. It is more work and more tedious than simply walking the room and giving adjustments.

There are many reasons why a teacher might over-emphasize the asanas – to be popular, to run a successful business, to pad their egos by having “advanced” students or just because they don’t have the depth of understanding themselves.

I differ with you on one point. I have observed the honeymoon or romance phase of practice to occur before the obsessive phase. When students are first leaning and they are being given new asanas regularly, they are quite content to go with the flow and just enjoy the positive experience of getting in touch with their bodies, focussing their minds, etc.

It is the experience of negative sensations – pain, frustration, judgement, fatigue – that first challenges students. It  is the first time they have to ask why they are practicing. It is at this moment that students leave the honeymoon/romance phase of practice. Once the initial shine of practice is gone, once they realize that the asanas, in and of themselves, are not an express train to samadhi, the student may start obsessing in the ways I described.

I look forward to more posts from you. I value your opinions and think they are a much needed service to the community.

Older Entries