Ashtanga Yoga – The Art of Restraint, Surrender and Play by Tiffany C.
Often times, when people hear the words ‘Ashtanga Yoga’, the word ‘play’ is one of the last associations one would offer - especially, if they are not a practitioner or perhaps, they have never even heard of this cosmic mind/body technology.
Over the past couple years of my early engagement with the practice, I have been faced with a diverse landscape of opinions regarding my commitment and discipline to this physical expression of yoga. It appears that many find it to be “too hard”, “too regimented”, “outdated” and/or “unsafe”. Surprisingly, or maybe not so much, majority of these opinions are developed out of hearsay and without any true experience with the tradition and ultimately, overlooking the many faces of the practice. Alternately, there is a network of individuals that see its power and offer their unwavering support as one embarks on this winding, sometimes rocky and steep, staircase of self-discovery.
As the article unfolds, just like the path before me, my goal is to brush upon your mental canvas the beauty and wisdom of, what I like to call, ‘the most honest practice I have ever engaged in’ and how the yin, yang and space of beingness are continuously revealed to me each and every day, breath and movement I take within the micro universe of my mat daily. Sometimes the reveal is sweet, full and open. Other days, it’s a heavy and dark corner that only my breath can usher me out of. Regardless of the shape it may take, it’s just another face, another splice and ultimately, another reflection of the mind’s pallet of all that’s within. Ah, yes, the reward of remembering, refining and most importantly, honoring.
So, how is it that we cultivate the space to find ourselves suspended in the stillness of consciousness on our mats? Let’s talk about the ubiquitous nature of restraint laced throughout the practice. For me, it is within this yang aspect of restraint that the other gems of surrender and play swoop in and offer some comfort and softness within the demands of discipline.
Restraint can show up in many ways in the realm of Ashtanga and for me, I first began to notice its power within the standing series of primary when all I wanted was to bring my hands to the floor in prasaraita padottanasana C. In some ways, I am what others have deemed an “able body” and admittedly, I was after the highest expression of each posture I was learning – all I knew was to push myself towards this idea, this “expectation” of accomplishment.
In the quest of bringing my hands to the floor without toppling over and somewhat keeping with the count, the light bulb in recognition of restraint turned on. I had to learn to put on the breaks and dial it in. If, I were to find a little grace as I lowered to the floor, I had to maintain my foundation with its shifting center and well, maybe not tumble into the person or stand of props before me.
However, that was just the surface of what was happening in the mind field of my experience. As my bodily awareness deepened in efforts to find physical restraint, I was also dismantling my devious attachment to control and releasing my hold on to the high of accomplishment. In my efforts to slow down, I was able to take in the experience of checking in with my body more fully, honoring the space and its daily variance. I found stillness in the movement because I allowed myself to be wholly apart of the shape I was taking with my body and I opened the mind so that it could become a doorway to allow whatever me, whatever shape flow through it.
Funny, isn’t it? The action of restraint was the key to open the door of acceptance and in the acceptance, the shining light of clarity (the fine tuning of action) – a simple snapshot of how rewarding it can be when we let the dialogue of the mind fall away in offering of presence and beingness. After all, all is of the mind and the Yoga is ‘the restraint of the modifications of the mind-stuff’.
However, I suppose that the restraint really began in the beginning trials of the practice. I had to show up (restraining from old patterns to carve out space/time for engagement), memorize the asanas (relieving the mental chatter to one topic), drishti (offering that one pointed focus in between the energetic charges of the practice) and down the road – the bandhas (feeling the manipulation of energy within the container of the body that’s been worked to remain spacious). Anyway, I digress and all too often, but as you can see, this notion of restraint is ever pervading within the practice (and life *winkwink*).
So, within that field of restraint, the practice of showing up and doing the work from a place of intention and not expectation, surrender emerges with her yin waves of embrace from an ocean of receptivity. Personally, I feel that the art of restraint sets the stage so that we can see all that we are working to surrender and ya know, ‘let go of that which does not serve you’.
Restraint taught me to slow down in my responses to my environment (in the physical and mental landscapes of my experience) and in doing so, I could then allow for investigation from a place of equanimity. Surrender on the other hand, divulged in the beauty of breath whenever the challenge within the container of the body or mind began to stiffen. It was here, in those tight, small spaces where I felt I couldn’t possibly give more that I could probe the edge of sensation and inquiry allowing for the authenticity of my practice to be disclosed.
Through the lens of surrender, it’s the moment to moment of the movement. I am in full acceptance of how every time I greet my mat, a new me is constantly emerging. I am not the same as when I began, during or even after. Every breath is a brand new experience curated by me and my very own awareness.
For me, surrender can be found in every exhale – that tangible pause we can all linger in before joining on in the next wave of rising inhalation. It’s the moment that can refresh us and reset us to face whatever feels impossible in that moment and my goodness, are there many of those moments in this practice. I’ll be honest, we make, how do I say, “interesting” shapes with our bodies but it’s not the shape we are after, it’s the carving out of the space (physically and mentally) to get there and how we do our best to maintain it (all while honoring the bodily changes we face). The more space we create, the more room we have to offer what arises and subsequently, the bigger the picture we can see and explore.
The faces of surrender are innumerable but it appears that the more we surrender, the more we are ignited by joy. It is the joy of breathing, being able to move through something and to simply feel. We can label the sensations as good or bad but it’s beyond that – it is merely a gift to be able to experience such a range of emotions.
In the surrendering, I remember that long is not forever and ‘this too shall pass’ (although, I’ll admit, I find it hard to remember this in every navasana). It is the breath that holds me in the moments of difficulty when I can’t seem to let go and it’s the whisper of surrender that’s inviting me to flow like the spirit of life that’s ebbing and flowing within me. I don’t feel I would know the gravity of this notion without the awareness that is strengthened and supported by the repetitious nature of the Ashtanga practice. Without continuously anchoring into the physical element of my practice, I wouldn’t have the same steadiness or this foundation of familiarity in strength, release, and acceptance. It is because of this constant reinforcement in convictions of self-reliance that I am able to find room to play in the shapes of space I am sculpting.
So, here we are, in the midst of fun in the realms of play that are certainly alive within this challenging practice. I had mentioned earlier, that it is ‘the most honest practice I have ever engaged in’ and here is why it relates to this idea of play. If you have ever practiced Ashtanga, you know that it’s just you and your mat. In the beginning, there’s so much to learn, and you’re downloading the guidance from your teacher, the room and sometimes, other students.
However, as you move on down the path, you begin to see, that it is only you who decides your intention of the practice. It is your ‘why’ that determines the vibe you will experience in this moving meditation. It is the feeling you associate with the practice that you are strengthening and giving breath to. So, as our awareness broadens (especially from the viewing points of restraint and surrender), we begin to explore and tailor our practice to suit the needs of our body and whatever it is we are moving towards (highest Self, source, God, etc). This customization of our practice is all about our intention – the intention we have when we breathe, move, transition, chant, etc.
How does this have anything to do with play? If, you’re still reading, we are approaching the bend and are almost there – just hang tight for a handful or two of words!
Everything rides on the point of intention and when we are on our mats, it is our intention that makes the practice our own – even if, we are in a room full of people doing the “same” thing. It is here that the face of play emerges. With a steady foundation, we can begin to find lightness in our movements by exploring different crevices of the practice. For instance, we can really root down into the earthly element of the practice and give special attention to the vertices we are spiraling out of with the planting of our limbs into the mat or perhaps, we shift our focus to the transitions and see that often times, how we transition determines how we feel in the asanas.
The dance on our mat is merely an invitation to discover another place for self-love every time something new is attempted. We are being open to whatever emerges in our time of play and we are pushing aside the second guessing so we can engage in the flow of being, living and experiencing. It’s the love that arises when triggers come to the surface and with every exhale we surrender and we kiss goodbye their power because we are rooted, open and aware.
The time of play is where I silently call out to my Self to release the unfinished stories of the ego, the wounds I’ve kept open and all the short stories with no endings. It’s in when I carry on and let whatever may be stuck inside the body, move around and be released with the fire of my passion to practice and to keep my love light shining. I release the doubts so that I can marinade in the present of presence and feel the ground and all extending from me, with me, and for me. It’s where I find conviction so that when the wave comes, I’ll stand up and ride it out til’ the end of new beginnings.
This practice is where I release the need to release so that I may ever be in the now. It’s where the remnants of the past fall away and carve out the space to be supremely awesome in the unknown. So, when someone asks, “why would you want to do the same thing over and over”? I reply, “because nothing is ever the same”.