That first step onto my mat, closing my hands to offer thanks...
vande gurūṇāṁ caraṇāravinde...
I breathe in, I breathe out.
Ekam - inhale - I lift my hands, starting my first surya namaskar or sun salutation - the first one on this day.
I go through my movements as skillfully as possible on that particular day, attempting not to judge anything as „good" or „bad".
The gaze following the prescribed method - keeping the focus in the present moment.
I watch the mind jump between thoughts like a monkey between trees, I observe my emotions being quiet, rising up, calming down again.
I feel the physical body strong, or weak, sometimes tired, sometimes surprisingly skillful, then on the edge, sometimes joyful in a particular position, or crying under pressure. Nothing stays, all is changing.
Just breath, movement, gaze - following the sequence of breath-aligned movements and finding wonder in the present moment, finding joy in the exploration of pure awareness.
I have been practicing Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga for well over 10 years, most of the time as self-practice alone or within a small group, only occasionally returning to my teachers for a month or longer to check in, to make sure that I am on the right track, to clean up and refine my practice.
Ashtanga Yoga, traditionally taught as self-practice in the so-called Mysore-style asks us to develop our own unique self-practice, following the prescribed method of breath, movement and gaze. Postures are learned one-by-one directly from the teacher, when the practitioner is ready to work on them. Ashtanga Yoga's focus on self-practice makes it a particularly challenging practice, as we are constantly confronted with the same thing: ourselves, as we step onto the mat every day. Whether we practice alone most of the time or in a Shala and with a teacher, regardless: we will be with ourselves, facing everything that comes up through this self-explorative process. Through years of practice, body and mind slowly change - along with the eyes that you see life through. It's hard not to adjust your perspective when we spend so much time looking within, working on ourselves.
What then, with self-exploration as the core of Ashtanga Yoga, is the role of a teacher?
The role of the teacher is two-fold: inspiration and guidance.
Inspiration, as in igniting that fire, curiosity and perseverance that keeps us moving forward, that shows us that there is yet another layer to peel back, yet another, deeper level of being purely present. Inspiration to stay on track with our practice, day in and day out.
And Guidance as in shifting the focus of our practice over time and knowing when and how to adjust the practice to our evolving needs.
An external teacher can provide inspiration and guidance especially when we are starting out, and will then keep us on track, not letting our ego lead us astray. The external teacher knows when we are ready for new techniques and knows what’s best for us, simply because they are on the same path, just more experienced. They have the outside perspective and don't allow our ego to make any excuses. But they can only function when we learn to trust, surrender and follow along using our internal teacher.
And who then is the internal teacher?
The inner teacher also provides inspiration and guidance: it's our inner fire and willpower to step onto our mat every day again, to stay curious and determined. It's the guidance of our gut feeling telling us to take it easier on some days and to challenge ourselves and play our edge on other days. It's our inner observer pointing out our laziness, stubbornness or narcissism.
Only when our internal and external teachers work together in a long-term committed relationship will our practice actually lead us somewhere. Where to - that I am still waiting to find out. But the journey has been an amazing one, so far.
For Zagreb-based Yogis: you can join the Mysore classes at Gaia Yoga Shala with Tom and his partner Sandra for your daily dose of Ashtanga bliss. If you want to get back into your practice to prepare for David Robson's Mysore Week & Workshop in October, then participate in the upcoming 3-week Mysore Challenge at GaiaYoga, starting on September 25th!
Photos: Sandra DB