Friday, June 15, 2012

"Are you ready to be a beginner?"

Me and Chuck. Do I look happy? Because I was.
This was the question that Chuck Miller asked us again and again over the course of the 5 days I got to study with him at Babylon Yoga in Vancouver. It's an important question that forced us to re-evaluate our personal practices and our reasons for showing up to these workshops. In effect, he was asking us if we were willing to tear down the practices that we had built over months and years, letting go of our ideas about progress or achievement, and slowly, painstakingly start over — assessing with an unflinching eye all of our bad habits, lazy tendencies, misalignments, and ego-driven striving.

It was tough, tough work. But so incredibly rewarding.

Even for me, as a relative newcomer to Ashtanga, it was difficult to mentally let go of any notions I had about how far I am in the primary series and to be exactly where I need to be in order to do the work that I need to do. Am I over-flexing my back in Paschimottanasana to compensate for tight hamstrings, reaching for my feet with my chin because that's what I think the pose should look like? Is this where I need to be, or am I ignoring the real work I need to do because I'm striving to go farther...maybe farther than I should? It's very humbling to admit to your shortcomings and it takes a lot of control to back up and fix what you've been avoiding — but isn't that why we're doing yoga? Chuck reinforced in us the idea that these "shortcomings" (i.e., stiff back, tight hamstrings, weak arms) are in fact "gifts", as they illuminate the places where we need to work to unravel tension, release blockages and repair our bodies to a "yoga normal" state.

Chuck working his magic on another "beginner".

Ashtanga yoga, at its core, is a tool for self transformation. It's not a display of our physical attributes. It's not even physical exercise. The vigorous exercise and resulting physique is a byproduct of an intense process that we choose to engage in to clear mental obstacles through the conscious linking of breath and movement. Letting go of the idea that progress means obtaining the next asana in the sequence is incredibly liberating, and as this started to really sink in (around the third day), I felt a massive shift in approach to my own practice occur. After hours of painful, intensely focussed work on the absolute basics, I had never felt like — or been ready to be — such a complete beginner.

I'm not going to go into all the details of what he showed us this past week — it turned out to be a week of incredibly personal inner transformation and growth — but I will encourage you to seek him out if he's teaching anywhere near you and allow him to show you how you can take your practice deeper, not farther. I'll give you a hint though — the answer lies in that very first pose, Sama-sthiti.



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