Cultivating Kindness In Ashtanga Yoga
By Scott Johnson
The world seems like such a crazy place at the moment. Things are happening that are like shifting sands daily. What to do? Keep practising, right? But what are we practising for? To become numb to the outpouring? We need a practice, but why? Perhaps to help us look after ourselves through all of this.
My last post was about softening into practice, about letting go. What happens when we soften? And what can we become open to when softening occurs?
Ashtanga yoga practice has many, many layers. All these layers are, in some small way, unique to the practitioner and evolve in their own time. You need drive, purpose and resilience to keep going on this particular path of personal self discovery:
- Drive: to continue to turn up each day to discover something about yourself.
- Purpose: to have the inclination to be open to discovery as it arises.
- Resilience: to be able to keep going when things get tough.
This is how I see the practice. Making the same shapes with this body day after day, month after month and year after year allows for a deep intimacy with yourself to evolve. “Allows” being the operative word because it is up to us to see how the practice changes us and moves us as we develop through the years of our lives. To develop a practice over a long period of time is to cultivate awareness as we change, as our bodies change and as the world changes around us.
We have a particular student here at SYL who I have been working with over the past few years. Her name is Tina and she’s happily agreed to let us share her story. She has really taken the practice on in a powerful way and it has been such a pleasure to work with her. Last year, in 2016, she came on retreat with us. I delivered an afternoon session on mindful practice and she took on board some of what I taught into her own self practice the next morning. It was a revelation for her. And not an easy one. She fed back to me that for the first time she had experienced the breath fully in her practice and that it was powerful enough to have moved her greatly. That for the first time she had felt what practice meant in her body.
And the outcome of all this, the teaching for her? She had to protect her breath. Rather than trying to achieve a posture through stretching, reaching or pushing herself, she discovered a need to achieve the posture and not let it affect her ability to breathe fully. And not affect her ability to feel.
Protecting the breath
This changed her practice completely. She realised that her trying to achieve a posture and make it look a certain way was getting in the way of her fully feeling the breath coming in and coming out. Her practice now was to protect this ability to breathe fully, and make it not so much about achieving a pose a certain way.
What a beautiful way to understand oneself! What a beautiful way to understand and develop your practice! Tina was upset that she hadn’t seen it like this before. I supported her with the understanding that her whole practice had brought her to this point. Understandably, after that experience she had a number of powerful realisations and these have now empowered her life greatly. She came up against the thing that we put aside first: the ability to feel. It is the ability to feel in our practice that can move it beyond the scope of just trying to make shapes, to really opening us up to our lives.
Tina realised that coming to practice is about making time for herself so that perhaps new discoveries can open up in her life. That for each of us taking the time to contemplate through a physical, embodied yoga practice offers us the ability to look at ourselves differently and notice what arises. It took a number of years for Tina to discover that for her the practice was about protecting her breath. Now she is able to take her practice further with this very powerful and deep realisation.
Importantly, she had to go through a personal crisis to see this, but it has ultimately allowed her to feel kinder and more compassionate to herself. That now, even though she may feel that some days are really tough because of an unknown fatigue limiting her practice, she knows that turning up allows her to find herself. To feel her breath in her body, even if doing the standing poses are hard.
Protecting the breath, letting the breath be the thing that we cultivate rather than pushing into postures, allows there to be a gentler quality to how we notice our practice. When there is this gentler focus we can then see ourselves in a more open way.
Practising with kindness
So, ultimately Tina found that when she turned her quality to protecting her breath it changed something in her. It allowed her to take more care of herself. To be kinder to herself. This was a great realisation for her. She really noticed for the first time that she was important. This then transformed the way she moved through her world.
It takes a moment to change the way we look at ourselves. It takes practice, though, to realise we have the ability to make that momentary change in our lives. That we can develop the quality to be able to look at ourselves in a kind and compassionate way. Can we develop a quality in our yoga practice that allows for kindness to arise? Importantly, can we cultivate a quality that allows for kindness to be the base of our experience of the world? If we can be kind to ourselves, we can then be truly kind to others.
Starting the day with the focus that we are cultivating a quality of kindness can transform how we move, how we act and how we relate. That we are truly important. That not only are we protecting our breath, we are protecting the quality of the most subtle part of our life. We can perhaps then learn to protect ourselves from the negative things in the world, and open up to the world in a kind and compassionate way.
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