I got a letter from a girl that used to practice at Yoga is Youth.
She had been practicing long enough that she didn’t want to ask the actual question, but she was being held at a pose by her current teacher and wanted my thoughts. She didn’t ask, but the question was there.
Why is he holding me back?
It is a hallmark of this practice that many of us come to it full of energy and motivation and raw material. And this is a practice that done correctly takes time. Channeling that energy isn’t always easy, and this question often can come up, especially in the beginning, when it is possibly that we might not be practicing as much of the series as we would like to be practicing.
After a while in practice many people cease caring whether they “advance” or not. Maybe they have never been ambitious. Maybe they are ambitious, but after a while start to see that there’s more to this practice than getting the next pose.
When I was first teaching I was very concerned about when it was the right time to move people on in the practice. I talked to a certain senior teacher that was visiting the studio at the time.
He said essentially that holding the person back was the gift. His attitude was that it’s easy to move a student forward. It’s a sign that you care for them that make them go slowly, slowly, and experience the practice.
And the reality was this was exactly what Guruji and Sharath would do. The practice, which seemed so linear, was doled out in a very insightful fashion. From inside, it would feel like they seemed to know. If you were on top of the world/ full of desire to move on, they would give you nothing. If you were finding your ease and steadiness and really couldn’t care less about the next pose then you would hear them, usually as you were already starting your backbends, Anne, Pashasana you took? Pashasana binding? Krounchassana you take.
Aside from those moments on the awesome day you were given a pose, there was time to be. Time to breathe. There was time to work on yourself. And I found that the setup, of a less defined nature, was actually extremely helpful. It allowed me to work on everything. It allowed me to not know, and find a quality of emptiness, rather than structure. A quality of letting go, rather than trying to climb some imaginary ladder of achievement.
And they would move us through. Sometimes I would wonder because I certainly didn’t feel like I was floating through. It didn’t always seem very fair. Some people moved through more quickly and some more slowly. Some were expected to do the vinyasa perfectly and others were not. But there was a logic to it, and it wasn’t solely external.
For me Guruji was giving us that gift. He was giving us more than the physical asanas. If he gave poses solely based upon our physical practice he wouldn’t have given us all that was possible to receive from our practice. Likewise if he followed an exact formula, for me it wouldn’t be the practice that for me it was (and still is). To quite another of my favorite senior teachers, Peter Sanson, “There are no rules. Guruji didn’t have rules.” A method, perhaps, but rules, no. And Peter is one of the most traditional teachers I have ever met.
What was my official response to the student? I told her something else that has been brought home to be again and again and again over 17 years of study and practice.
If you aren’t getting where you want to go, look at your breathing. Look at how you embrace vinyasa. Because this is what makes the practice come alive. And if there’s a missing piece, if you are binding and not being moved on, it will never hurt to look at that. Some of us are breathing. Some of us aren’t.
There is a magic when you really embrace what vinyasa is, when you really intertwine breath and flow. When you learn the vinyasa count, it will calm you down and take your somewhere new. If you don’t slow down, let go, and allow this to happen, it’s like using an airplane to drive down the street. You might be going through the movements and going through the practice, but not using the practice to it’s full effect.
And again for the linear types out there: This is not to say breathe and your teacher will give you the next asana. This is to say breathe and see what happens next. Let the process of practicing, really practicing, let it happen.
Ashtanga yoga can so look like a linear practice. When I do a b and c then d will follow. If I bind my hands or cross my feet then they will give me the next pose. Anyone who has done this practice traditionally will tell you, tho, this is much more than a linear practice. This is a chance for you to come to life and greater awareness. And for a teacher to stop you at a pose and challenge you is not to hurt you or hold you back but to attempt to show you more of what can happen if you take it “slowly, slowly” and allow it to unfold.