Achieving a calm mind
From the Yoga Sutras: “yoga is the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind.” Quieting my mind often feels insurmountable – my mind races around constantly categorizing things, working to solve things, worrying about things, wondering if I could do this or that thing better. Ashtanga helps us overcome that spinning mind by asking us to focus through the tristhana. From the KPJAYI website: Tristhana “means the three places of attention or action: posture, breathing system and looking place. These three are very important for yoga practice, and cover three levels of purification: the body, nervous system and mind. They are always performed in conjunction with each other.” We cannot achieve the tristhana if we are constantly reaching for a water bottle, glancing at our cheat sheet, or letting our mind wander to other thoughts. In our studio – we are growing new ashtangis every day – and this process of eliminating distractions is definitely a process – a calm mind does not happen overnight – but we are going to start by asking everyone to leave the cheat sheets outside with their water bottles.
“Owning it” starts with accepting my body – the physical entity that I will move into asana. Just the other day, as I was finding garbapindasana – feeding my arms through my lotus legs, I was having crazy thoughts like “maybe I should cut out bread”. That is useless in the moment. Perhaps I could address my diet, perhaps I should eat less bread – but in the moment the best thing I can do for myself is just breath, slide my arms through and look at my nose tip. Because the goal is not perfect garbapindasana – the goal is not the asana. Yoga is the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind – for me that means self-acceptance which means joy. Self-acceptance is not a state in which I care about the size of my thighs because it’s totally irrelevant to joy. Joy comes from acceptance. Acceptance looks like owning the state of my body and working with it in the moment as it is.
“Owning” the state of my body includes accepting my hydration, what I’ve eaten, how I’ve slept – all of the factors that go into how I “feel”. Johnna once said something to the effect of, “we come in with whatever hydration we have already prepared ourselves with – if I come in dehydrated, I accept that state of my body and I will take care of it later.” This is owning it. Trying to catch up with hydration during class will take us out of our flow – literally. We lose our dristhi, our asana and our breath. We also lose our heat by putting water that is a different temperature into our body. To me, we are also finding an escape – a way out of the moment we are in that for some reason we don’t believe we are able to handle. If we find that we feel dehydrated in class, perhaps tomorrow we will come in better hydrated. I have to be OK with how I show up. Acceptance is the key to peace.
No “Cheat Sheet”?
Calming the mind and finding that magical flow with asana, breath and drishti all linked also means studying to learn the practice. We have to take ownership of memorizing the practice. If we rely on our teacher or the “cheat sheet” to tell us where we are or what is next we are perpetually interrupting the tristhana. The teachers are there to help, correct and guide – but Ashtanga provides the student with the opportunity to own their own practice by memorizing it. “Cheat sheets” are like water bottles – they are for before or after practice. Let’s call them “study sheets” from now on. Let’s accept that they are for home study and leave them outside. On my journey to “owning” my practice – I wrote the poses down over and over to remember what came next. Once we have it stored in the mind – the mind tells the body what to do – and then eventually – the body starts to remember and the mind doesn’t have to be so bossy. This is when the calm happens – when we can find some peace. If we rely on the study sheets we rob ourselves of the opportunity to find peace. It is of course, completely fine to forget something. That’s the normal learning process. If we forget something the best thing to do is stand and wait at the top of the mat so the teacher knows to come help – and be ready for them to tell you to repeat some things so that the sequence begins to sink in. All of that is okay. All of that is an opportunity to practice just accepting ourselves and knowing that it’s all part of the journey.
Ashtanga yoga lives in the space many of us consider “tough love”. The tough love part asks you to show up and also to bring your best, to try your best, knowing full well that some days our best is 3 sun salutes and a shoulder stand. All you have to do is accept what state you are in, don’t look for distractions or stories to analyze. Just accept yourself. Own your self and all your stuff and then the magic begins to happen. And, if you love yourself, and you want to find your flow – study.