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Finding strength in practice

Sometimes the real fruits of your Yoga practice are not what you think – while your practice will undoubtedly lead to improved physical strength and fitness, there are much deeper lessons available if you know where to look…

My first Hatha yoga class was in a small community room – all I can remember is triangle posture, and pain the following day. I never went back to that class, but it was the beginning of something. The next class I attended was a different experience – still Hatha yoga, but this time a no-nonsense Indian teacher led the class through a dynamic sequence of sun salutations and postures – I don’t remember the postures, but I do remember the pace and intention. The next day there was pain, but not enough to stop me going back the following week, and for many weeks after. The joy was greater than the discomfort. These classes laid the foundation for the Ashtanga yoga I would later practice.

Discomfort is something you will often face in your practice

Discomfort in Ashtanga Yoga practice is something you deal with often. It arises in the beginning when the practice is physically challenging and memorising the sequence takes effort, and later in the form of a posture you’ve been stuck on for months, or you find yourself struggling with a posture that was easier the day before, or maybe your discomfort is ever-present because you are impatient, thinking ahead instead of finding contentment in the moment. All of these experiences will arise at some point, and from time to time may create a real sense of dissatisfaction with your practice.

How you deal with this often separates the short-term from the lifelong practitioner

This underlying sense of dissatisfaction (or, duhkha in Sanskrit) can spark all kind of responses, from anger and annoyance, to doubt and despair, and sometimes a desire to withdraw from practice. Ashtanga Yoga requires time and effort, both physical and mental, and patience. While the asanas of the practice present a sequence of obstacles to be overcome, it is in the emotional responses that the deeper lessons lie. If you feel infuriated and intolerant rather than compassionate and patient, or defeated and overwhelmed rather than encouraged and resolute, what challenges are being presented? How you deal with these challenges is often what separates the short-term from the lifelong practitioner.

Cultivate a strength of will that allows you to overcome obstacles that stand in your way

You probably came to Ashtanga Yoga because you want to change something about your life. Often the reality of putting change into practice is difficult, and while it’s normal to resist change you must strive to cultivate a strength of will that allows you to overcome the initial urge to turn away. In your practice you will uncover your strengths, which is empowering, but you will also face your weaknesses. Some days when you practice you will feel strong, and some days your Yoga mat is the last place you want to be. It is on these days, when you show up anyway, that you challenge yourself the most. In facing your struggles day after day, through your practice, you will begin to develop resilience, and humility.  You will begin to counter weakness with strength, and work through difficulties with effort and patience. Instead of berating yourself at every turn, or simply giving up, you will find a way to accept your inabilities as easily as you accept your abilities.

The best approach is to step back, breathe deeply, then try again

This is when you will truly begin to know yourself. This developing awareness of how you react to challenges on the mat will begin to influence how you deal with challenges off the mat. When you struggle with an asana in your daily practice, you find the best approach is to step back, breathe deeply, find some inner balance, then try again, day after day, week after week, month after month. In facing these challenges each day in the microcosm of your practice you learn how to conquer the inevitable difficulties that are a normal part of living. In Ashtanga Yoga, as in life, the only way out is through.

Letting go of the outcome is the only way to find peace

This practice isn’t going to get easier, in fact it will probably get harder. As you move from posture to posture you can choose to ride the wave of discomfort, or to jump ship. You will have to accept, over and over again, that things won’t go your way, and letting go of the outcome is the only way to find peace. Sometimes the challenge will be physical, and some days it will be mental, and some days those waves will be more turbulent than you could possibly imagine, but if you stick around for long enough you just might find your way to that big open stretch of beautiful clear water.

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