To structure or un-structure our yoga practice? 👀
I hope you are doing well these days as winter is present in its full glory. Seems like some people really like the winter vibe while others lean into some doom and gloom. Of course, the lack of sun, the cold, the short days, do affect our bodies and minds in different ways, but this can also be a wonderful reminder that the stories we create in our minds have a huge impact on the quality of our life, and that through continuous contemplative practice like yoga we can enjoy our full potential to choose stories that serve us better, and eventually maybe even let go of all stories and experience reality closer to what it is without any filters.
More on that in the next Yoga Masterclass on Dec 11th in Bodhicharya!
I want to share with you a topic that I had recently encountered during occasional chats after yoga classes. I was asked how I feel about a structured repetitive practice versus a freestyle dynamic one. In other words, doing the same practice again and again or a different one every time.
Over the years my own self practice changed quite dramatically and it still is an evolving work in progress. I've had long stretches of time when I committed to following a traditional school of yoga, giving it a fair chance. I started years ago with the Sivananda Yoga, which is a traditional classical Hatha Yoga school, and kept at it exclusively for about 2 years. In this method there is a set sequence of yoga postures and breathing exercises which one is expected to follow for a long while, until arriving to a certain phase.
After reaching what felt like a ceiling, I moved away from that and started experimenting with different classes and teachers, opening myself to different methods, approaches and points of view. This was a very meaningful and valuable period of time in which I had a rich and diverse yoga experience.
Then I got into Ashtanga-Vinyasa, which is a fairly modern system of yoga. I was an avid Ashtanga practitioner of for almost 5 years. It is mostly famous for being very vigorous and physically demanding style of practice, and also for the "Mysore Style" setting where one does a self-practice in a room shared with other practitioners while the teacher walks around offering guidance and assistance to anyone who needs it. This system is also made of set sequences that one is asked to follow in exact order and form, following a strict pattern of movement and breath. The "Primary Series", which is the initial sequence that one is asked to follow, happens to be quite challenging and demanding for most human beings, myself included. From my experience about 80-90% of humans are not able to complete this series with all its requirements, most of them either get hurt and quit or start modifying things if they're lucky to have an open minded teacher who isn't stuck with a dogmatic approach.
At some point during my Ashtanga phase I started modifying things on my own in order to be able to have a more holistic practice that contains different movement patterns, keeps me free of injury and pain, and leads me eventually to higher forms of yoga (Pranayama and Meditation). One day I realized that I modified so much that my practice was was longer Ashtanga. I naturally moved on.
I then decided to take the "Best Of" from all the different schools, methods and teachers that I encountered along the years and integrate all the different tools and perspectives. I started doing a practice that changed every day according to my needs, capacities, and various themes I wanted to explore. After about 10 years of dedicated yoga practice this new approach seemed to be just right, it kept me on a steady progress in the right direction, it felt like a potential sustainable life-long practice that can easily be adapted to different circumstances of life including the inevitable aging of the body. However, this kind of practice required a rich tool box and an attitude that is fully aligned with the essence of yoga, otherwise it couldn't work effectively.
About 2-3 years ago, during the peak of the first COVID lockdown, I realized that on a subtle level, despite being aware of potential pitfalls, I was actually creating an imbalanced practice. When I zoomed out I realized that over a period of weeks or months I was actually biased towards certain poses or movements, or breathing exercises, I had the obvious tendency to spend more time and effort on things that I liked or was "good" at and much less on things that challenged me in certain ways that may actually have real benefits. It was a very subtle tendency that took some time to notice.
I decided to find a middle ground. I created 5 sequences that cover all main movement and posture patterns in classic yoga, that include an equal amount of things that I am biased towards and against. I refined these sequences to the point that they were efficient and to the point, not containing any excess posture or movement. Currently I try to do all these 5 sessions every week, and whenever I have an extra day of practice I use it to freestyle like the old days. I also keep on tinkering and adjusting the sequences over time so that the practice keeps evolving according to changes in my body, mind and life. So far this is working great for me. Let's see what's next in the evolution of my self-practice :)
To summarize this topic I have to say that there is no clear answer to this question. There are times when we need a steady and structured practice that may allow us to be more present and develop a deeper sense of awareness to subtle levels of experience. A repetitive practice has the potential to be more meditative and less stimulating, but not for everyone and not all the time. At other times we may need to keep things more fresh and exciting, dynamic and adaptable. We may need that during stages of our life when we feel stuck, blocked or lethargic. And at some point, for some of us, it can be useful to find a middle ground where we can enjoy both approaches in an integrated way.
Last thing: this topic is probably more relevant to those of us who have developed a self-independent-practice which is something that I highly recommend for everyone. There are a few ways that we can achieve that goal and I will discuss them on one of the next Newsletters. In the meantime I can suggest that you start by developing the habit of practicing on your own, maybe using a video, or a template of a structured practice. Repeat the same practice regularly for some time and notice how it affects you on all levels ~ body, breath, mind. You can combine it with joining a group class once or twice a week and get some inspiration that you can take home with you. I am very grateful that I was able to develop a self-practice long time ago and wish the same for you.
Happy to hear your thoughts on that topic, and please drop me a line if you want some tips or have some questions regarding developing an effective self-yoga-practice!
Looking forward to sharing space, breath and yoga with you!
With love and gratitude
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