Love Letters

Love Letters

A few months ago, I was invited to give a talk at Kinship, a gathering of ashtanga yoga practitioners and teachers looking to forge connections as we move through this turbulent time together. Whenever I’m asked to share in this way, I tend to reach out to the shala community so that I can incorporate the real thoughts and feelings of the people who are the beating heart of our little practice family. I sent out a call for reflections, seeded by these three questions-

-What do we do at the shala that allows you to feel safe?

-How do you feel when being physically touched/assisted/adjusted?

-What has been your experience of moving through the series quickly and not being ‘held back’?

The responses that came in floored me in their depth, vulnerability, and love. I shared them in my talk, and now I share them with all of you. So much of what has been written online over the last few years, in articles and on social media feeds, is filled with bitterness. Here I offer an antidote to that. Not out of a desire to look away, but as a glimpse into a community that has been bucking convention since its inception. A community that is fostering emotional safety, consciously destroying the shackles of perfectionism, using touch wisely, encouraging autonomy, and prioritizing relationship. Here we are. 

On fostering emotional safety

I feel safe because I am allowed to bring the person I am (that day, that hour) to the shala. Even if that’s someone who can’t do all her asana, or is tired, or giggly. So long as I’m respectful of other people’s practice and their feelings, I can be who I am. And I know that everyone else in the room can be themselves also. I think you cultivate this by consistently asking how we feel whenever a question arises during practice. This encourages me to know my motivations and my present state of mind, body, heart.

I feel that there is no hierarchy at the shala. There’s no sense of- here’s the remedial students, stay in the back, here are the good students, come up front. There are also no goals or accomplishments that we put that much value on. Yes, it’s nice when somebody finishes second series and you guys high five, but it’s like- oh great, what a cool shared journey they’re on. Not like, my whole goal is to do what that person does because that person’s “good” and I’m not. The general lack of labels, and lack of valuing “correctly” done asana, and lack of a comparison-focused/competitive environment is what makes me feel safe. 

What makes me feel safe in an emotional sense is that it’s a very judgey-free zone.

The shala is a safe and non-judgmental space where people unapologetically come to take care of themselves, which naturally leads to a space that radiates compassion. Despite the varying physical abilities of practitioners, it’s a safe place to try something new and be supported when you fail. I think it’s really encouraging because you know that everyone is either going through the same thing, is going to be going through it, or has already gone through it and they understand the struggle. That way, it feels so much more genuine if they show concern, don’t blink an eye, or even laugh a little or make a little joke. It’s such a shared and intimate space because even though there aren’t deep personal conversations while we practice, we are all here for the same reason and somehow are all affirming each other’s experience. 

The fact that the Shala is quiet makes me feel safe. The dedication to practice makes me feel safe- that while we each may be going through whatever we may be, it is the dedication to practice that connects us each morning or afternoon we are there. It is the container that holds us. This is very unifying for me and it gives me a deep sense of safety and peace. 

From the day I started going to the shala, I have felt comfortable and safe. The set up where we face one another makes it feel more intimate. No one is placed or set up in front because of one’s advanced skill level. We practice next to each other regardless of where we are in practice and it feels less intimidating. You are always smiling, laughing, and welcome humor from us as well. That helps me to feel good in the space regardless of how I felt before I came. 

On destroying the shackles of perfectionism

I have never felt pressured to do/not do anything, or present myself or my practice in any way that feels wrong or in authentic. The emphasis on exploration vs. perfection in asana gives me the chance to listen to my body and make smart choices. Overall this approach is humble and welcoming.  Also laughter. The shala is silent most of the time but when the silence is broken it is usually with a bit of laughter. This levity can help disperse the intensity of the practice, which I think ultimately makes people feel safe on an emotional level as well. 

I started this practice because I had read and listened to people share about it. I thought it would be a practice I would like, and I also wanted to be in less back/neck pain.  Now, after a little over two years, I do enjoy the practice and I am in a lot less pain. Some days I have no pain. And that’s not because I mastered a certain pose. It was because I just kept practicing.  And that’s my goal for myself. Just keep practicing, even if some weeks I can barely make it to the shala, or I get sick, or I’m out of town. Just keep coming back. I can take the pressure off myself to practice ‘perfectly’ because that isn’t the focus of the shala.

I was very intimidated by moving forward in the series in the beginning, because I had deeply internalized the idea that I was “not ready” based on what my past teachers had told me. It had really been drilled into my head that until I “got” the half-primary asanas there would be no point in moving forward. Given that I struggled so much with half primary and everything was a stretch and a reach and my toes and my hands were a million miles away from where they were “supposed to be,” I felt overwhelmed at the idea of moving forward. I’ll be honest- finishing primary didn’t really change that. I think it was only when I really got into second series that things started to change. Postures that I had struggled with for years in primary got easier and deeper. Nothing has helped my progress in primary more than learning second series. Second series is challenging, but it feels like a much more attainable challenge to me than the many postures I have been stuck on in primary. Second series also taught me about my personal strengths, and how the series of asanas do not really exist in a line. While there are many postures I still modify in primary, there are postures in second series that, despite what conventional wisdom would say, I can actually do! It’s been an incredibly liberating and gratifying experience to discover new possibilities for my practice that I had been previously told would probably never be open to me. 

I’m kinda shocked I am where I am in the practice. Some of the asanas are still a mystery, others are developing, and some are stuck. I agree with the method. Not going on because one asana is stuck strikes me as harsh and not productive.

Having the full experience of the primary series quickly helped me understand what this practice would require, how much stamina physically I would have to build in order to sustain it. Then by having a sense of the full physicality of the practice (at a novice level), I can feel the whole body going deeper into each pose- rather than, I imagine, if I was held at a particular section until it was judged that I had ‘perfected’ it. It has seeded in me a deep appreciation for the fullness and completeness of the series and created the opening to take every pose to its next level, and encouraged me to take responsibility and apply self-directed attention to every pose I enter. There’s humility to approach my practice as a whole (or a particular pose), with honesty.  I think it helped me develop my practice as opposed to the practice- a certain standard. And I never feel like I have to perform or strive to prove anything externally, other than when internal judgements or expectations pop up here and there. It’s really been personal from the get-go and a really, really beautiful experience.

I have found myself to be capable of more than I had believed myself to be. But, more importantly, one benefit to moving students more quickly is that, in doing so, the room loses the negative energy of competition and status. As a student and teacher of other traditions, I am accustomed to seeing many variations on the same pose. It is beautiful and inspiring to see people of different abilities working in the same shapes. When students are progressed only if/when a teacher decides they are 100% physically capable, the message is that we are working to elevate our status rather than our consciousness. I don’t think this is helpful or particularly yogic. If a student is only used to seeing an advanced pose performed at its deepest/fullest expression without modifications or props, then the pose itself assumes a certain amount of power beyond what it deserves. Of course, a particular student’s desire to progress might be limiting their ability to work deeply with poses that don’t hold their interest or challenge them in some way, but this is an assessment that can only be made on an individual level. Overall, by moving students quickly through the sequences, the ashtanga method is demystified and democratized. 

It was a surprise to me being allowed to move on. A delightful surprise, for I felt I’d never in life get to experience poses that are beneficial to me now. Overall, it lends a feeling of support and encouragement, instead of judgement or a feeling that I must prove myself or perform a certain way. 

On using touch wisely

I deeply appreciate being adjusted and feel there is a consideration when being adjusted that allows me to speak up regarding an injury or something that I may be moving through. I like that it is during adjustments that it is common that teacher and student communicate with words. I also appreciate that if nothing needs communication via words, it is silently understood that you are to receive the adjustment without needing to say ‘thank you’…or to expend energy that takes one out of practice. This is very respectful.

I feel supported. Often I feel release or encouragement. Sometimes receiving an adjustment breaks a tension I didn’t know I was holding. Like a bubble popping! And my practice becomes more easeful after that moment.

I feel warm and cozy, like I’m being cradled and held. Your hands are always really warm and the adjustment is always very gentle. Sometimes some joints crack, but that feels good, not forced. I never feel like I’m gonna be adjusted until something happens, like until my forehead hits my knee or anything. I feel very safe, very in control of where the adjustment is going, and a sense that my teacher and I are listening to my body, not forcing anything into place. 

I quite love physical adjustments. I feel that they’re given gently with slowly increasing pressure. And I feel that the direct feedback that physical assistance/adjustments gives me is so much more precise than a verbal cue. 

Your approach to adjustments feels very collaborative and non-judgmental. I have broken down many mental and physical boundaries in a short time (the congestion and stagnation is always in both places).

On encouraging autonomy

There is a strong sense of self-practice because you are there but do not adjust too often. This creates a culture in which everyone practices at their own pace without any competition or ego involved. It has nurtured a sense of self-observation everyday.

I feel responsible for my own pace and my own practice.  I only receive encouragement and sensitivity as my body ages.

It has enabled me to realize quicker that the postures are not the thing. I really long for the days of when I started yoga and those first few led classes of really losing myself in the series. At some point this changed and I began to strive, which allowed me to learn the three series I know relatively quickly. But they came at a really great cost. And I think the idea of even progressing through the series sits unwell with me now. I really am having a reformation of how I am approaching this whole thing.

Freedom. A way to take ownership over my practice. It also allows me to stay in the moment during my practice. I’m not stuck in the last asana or thinking longingly/fearfully of the next. Moving quickly through each series has been one of the most important elements in helping me cultivate a sense of flow that goes beyond simply connecting one posture to another.

I can see that being able to move through the series may give students more tools. I think that it gives us opportunities to discover what we can do or what is difficult for us at this moment, to learn the new, and also to re-learn the earlier series, without feeling stuck or held back. But I know I should consciously keep working on the earlier asanas which are still difficult for me, even after moving onto more advanced series- not just doing the same things every time.

On prioritizing relationship

I would say that your approach to moving through the series seems to reflect a partnership with students rather than a dogmatic doling out of postures based on aesthetic. I think that allows students to feel like their effort and dedication matter, and that they can gain benefit and deepen their experience with the practice at a deeper level than just through their physical ability.

You trust my process and also track my commitment, don’t hold me back, and trust my own growing edge- totally not in comparison to any rule or measurement outside of my own felt and lived experience.

First and foremost, the shala is a very considerate environment!  Your leadership fosters a culture where we strive to do unto others – as you would hope others would do unto you.  Every day, when I enter, I look for the kind notes by the door and near the check-in station for guidance. I think this sets the tone that we are all expected to be kind, patient, and polite with other students – and that the intimacy we share is a blessing.  The sharing circles are also very helpful- they allow everyone in our community to have a voice and this is extremely important.  

More than anything I am feeling an overwhelming sense of gratitude because I know my teacher and most of the students, most of the time, seem on the right path towards greater enlightenment. And that’s about all anyone can realistically hope for from a group of humans. 

Pranidhi here again. I’m blessed to be a part of our shala, and I know that there are other shalas around the world that have been churning underground, quietly doing revolutionary work. It’s time for us to get louder. If you find yourself rattled by the revelations of the last few years, perhaps even complicit in the harmful hierarchies that have allowed abuse, neglect, and resentment to fester, then I encourage you to make a change. Not by denouncing our practice, but by practicing and teaching with greater integrity. Because practice is how we reclaim our bodies. And it’s with our bodies that we love.