Habits Make Or Break Your Practice

We may not think much about our daily habits especially the small unnoticeable ones, but yet all the habits we have acquired define who we are.

Waking up early and committing to daily yoga practice are the two most common challenges most practitioners face on the practice path. Not easy but possible.

One student told me she practices every night before bed as the practice relaxes her body and helps her sleep better. While it is unconventional if it works for her why not? Good habits are supposed to make your life better, aren’t they?

Recently a few students have been asking how I find the motivation to maintain a daily practice and do I ever feel lazy? Yes I have my good days and my not-so-great days but regardless I make time to practice even if it is just a Sun Salutation (which will eventually lead to a half / full practice, it works every time!).

I have never heard anyone say ‘I wish I did not practice yoga.’ Most practitioners know how the practice makes them feel afterwards.

Inertia and laziness are present in everyone, the only difference is how we choose to overcome them. You have to make a choice, decide and take on the consequences that come along with it.

If you beat yourself up after deciding not to practice then obviously you need to make a different choice the next round. Otherwise it is simply a repetition of bad habits (poor choices) and soon it will become hard to break.

The key is regular, consistent and uninterrupted practice. Here are some quick tips:

  1. Start small – although the Ashtanga Yoga practice focuses on 6 days a week practice, start by committing to 2 times a week. Stay for a month and increase the frequency eventually leading up to 6 days with rest days on moondays and ladies holidays.
  2. Same time same place – dedicate a spot at home / yoga studio to practice at the same time. This simple habit helps to condition your mind and body just like brushing your teeth upon waking up.
  3. Buddy motivation – partner up with another friend to share your struggles and encourage one another. Or commit to your teacher to hold yourself accountable for your practice.
  4. Focus on how you want to feel – think about how the practice will make you feel – stronger, calm, focused, centred, grounded, patient, kind etc. Create your motivation manifesto to encourage action and repetition.

Most importantly if you fall off the practice track, get back on again and don’t beat yourself up. I have done it so many times and each time I am always grateful to have the practice to keep me going forward. The less you resist the more changes will take place eventually. Being patient is part of the non-physical aspect a good yoga practice as well.

The favourite habit is the hardest to break and yet the one that will give you the biggest breakthrough.

Is Your Yoga Practice Working?

Coming to Mysore has always been surreal and at the same time coincides with a much needed reality check after months of teaching back home.

I noticed Gokulam getting more busy than before with more cars, more businesses, more cows and shalas opening up. It is a good sign. Ashtanga Yoga is spreading and more people are attracted to the practice.

Ashtanga Yoga has gotten a ‘bad’ reputation for being tough, demanding and boring for some. On the other hand there are over 5000 practitioners all over the world applying to practice at the main Shala every year.

What is it about Ashtanga Yoga that is both intriguing and intimidating? What makes the Mysore pilgrimage a must for all Ashtangis although some people never want to visit India ever? It’s a love-hate relationship that is at times distinctive as well a gray area.

Ashtanga Mysore style is one where each student practices within a group with the same sequence given to them. However, each student will practice at their own pace and to the point of the last pose that was given by their teacher.

The act of stopping students at a particular posture in the Ashtanga system is not to force everyone to conform to a set standard, but to make sure that each individual develops the posture to their own maximum potential, in a way that is healthy for them. ~ Iain Grysak

Practicing in the Shala with 70-80 practitioners is mentally and physically challenging. Everybody is moving, shifting, adjusting and breathing at their own pace. It calls for your utmost focus and concentration. You literally mind your own business on your mat. It trains you to be self aware of your own body and breath.

That’s the beauty of this practice. You are competing with no one but yourself. You learn to hear your own inner voice and critics. You learn to watch your own mind and apply self control and mindfulness.

Anyone can do asanas (poses) but to practice (real) yoga it take more than just touching the toes, having the leg behind the head or floating up into a handstand. It takes many years of uninterrupted practice, devotion, dedication, discipline, determination to self realization. Simply put yoga is for self transformation.

My personal favourite story of all time comes from David Swenson – ‘Jump back, I am a good person. Step back, I am still a good person.’ Your asana practice doesn’t define you, your actions do.

Parampara – One Guru One System : Have You Heard Of This?

Me: The teacher told me to do this in this pose.
Shirly: Oh but the teacher told me to do that for this pose.
Shirly & I: hmmm

Have you gotten into the same situation in Mysore-style practice too? Many people don’t quite get the idea of an Ashtanga Mysore-style practice.

You enter the Shala and you may notice the teacher is threading among the students giving adjustments. Instructions are given like a conversation to one student instead of shouting across the room to the whole group at a time.

“This instruction is for her not for you.” Sometimes you may hear this from the teacher when someone makes a brave attempt to imitate another’s practice.

While all those little discussions between the student and teacher are going on, the others continue to do their own practice in auto pilot mode.

How is this possible? One man’s poison is another man’s cure. Mysore-style practice brings us back to the most traditional way of learning.

In this modern society where most people prefer quick, efficient, short-cuts and expressway method, it is not surprising that this system is not well liked by the crowds.

Parampara – an uninterrupted succession which denotes the direct and unbroken transmission of knowledge from the teacher to the student. The experience of the student with the teacher is very singular and vice versa.

Every student comes into the practice with his or her own story. Nobody has similar stories thus nobody should be given the same instruction across the board.

1 Guru 1 System

I remembered Sharath pointed out during one particular conference – “A student with many teachers is always confused, has a dangerous yoga practice and is the one who loses. ”

We often hear teachers encouraging students to follow one teacher, one method, one system for a long time in order to fully understand the practice and thus benefit from it.

This always reminds me of the saying – “Jack of all trades and Master of none.” Just like every student who has just stepped into this unfamiliar ground, we were all once an explorer.

I was very fortunate to be introduced to this ancient method at a very early stage. Hopping from teachers to teachers, attending conferences and workshops, I finally decided to dedicate myself to just one method.

If you ask me how do I know if this is the one? I don’t know, I just know.

On a very experiential basis I could share that I took upon the hint of experiencing mental clarity. It is a bet. It is a leap of faith to just keep opening door after door. And so far so good!

If we keep switching route we will never know which leads to somewhere and which leads to a dead end.

Being a teacher I often have to remind myself to be very patient with exploring students. We all need to start somewhere, soaked into some merry-go-round before deciding a spot to reside.

A Zen proverb well said – “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.”

Are you ready?

Why Do We Repeat The Same Sequence?

Many students often wonder why we repeat the same sequence over and over. Ashtanga Yoga is a systematic, structured sequence-led practice. One remembers the sequence and practices up to the last pose given to them by the teacher. Everyday is the same sequence.

The intention is to train the mind and the body to attain steadiness and cultivate mindfulness over a period of time. As there is no anticipation to the next pose so this will allow the student to focus on the breath and gazing (dristhi) point. This minimises distractions and anxiety to what’s coming next during the practice.

Practicing the same sequence will also allow the student (and the teacher) to observe the progress of the practice. At the start of learning a new pose, one may struggle with the breath and remembering the proper vinyasa. As the practice progresses, the same pose may be more manageable and one will experience breakthroughs – more flexibility, strength or ease with the vinyasa (jump back or jump through). We become better through (mindful) repetition.

Students may also find themselves caught in a rut of boredom. Often this is when the mind starts to get distracted and that is when self doubt sets in. ‘Is the practice working for me? This is getting boring! Why do I have to keep repeating the same sequence?’ It is important to remember repetition builds habit. Perhaps you should ask – ‘How is the practice making me better? What is the practice helping me to cultivate? Am I more calm and happier after the practice?’

Do you question why you have to brush your teeth, eat, sleep or drink? You don’t because these are daily acts that keep you alive. Similarly practicing the same sequence daily will help you to cultivate focus, concentration, increase the quality of your life and build a healthy body. Boring (maybe) at times but an essential for your mental and physical wellbeing.

How Long Are You Willing To Stick To The Practice?

Ashtanga Yoga is not popular. It is hard and only for the ‘elitist’. You have to be fit and strong. You have to be flexible. You must have a strong core (strength). This is what most people think.

Do you know the difference between ‘ideal’ and ‘reality’?

Ideally, anyone who practices Ashtanga Yoga is fit and strong. In reality anyone can practice the sequence except ‘lazy people’.

In the beginning, you need to learn the sequence. Then watch the challenges come in – poor memory, fear, frustration, repetition, boredom and confusion etc. You will struggle with the poses. You will encounter stumbling blocks – arms too short, hips too heavy, core muscles are weak, no strength in the arms or legs etc. Every imaginable excuse comes alive as if we never knew that they existed.

Maybe you might sustain a Ashtanga Yoga injury. Perhaps the practice is too hard or not suitable for you because you are too ____________________ (fill in the blank).

After many years of uninterrupted practice, one day the mysore magic takes place. Something within will click and the pandora box opens. The once impossible becomes possible. You wonder why? The practice is still the same (remember it is a structured sequential practice) but somehow you have changed.

Your body changes. Your mind is open to possibilities. Suddenly it is not about touching your toes or bending backwards. You begin to enjoy the process (although it is still challenging) and look forward to that day of the practice. You start to see the practice as a way of your weekly routine. The one hour on the mat has become your little oasis to rest and explore your body. Savasana (corpse) feels much easier and peaceful.

The practice will teach you about patience and connecting with yourself. It is like the wifi connection. You don’t see it but you know it is there. It is a transformational journey and everyone goes through the same process. Nothing happens overnight.

The practice doesn’t favour anyone except the willing. The strong bodied will learn flexibility, the bendy bodies will need to build strength and focus.

Ashtanga Yoga is for everyBODY as long as you are willing to step on your mat and work through the challenges – physically and mentally. Some days are good and some days not. But stay with the practice because it will change your life in a way you would least imagined it to be.