Back before I discovered Ashtanga, my practice was whatever that hits my fancy. Before I knew what a daily practice felt like, I rolled out my mat whenever I felt the need to stretch out or to move my limbs. Eventually, I came to a point where I needed structure because all these random sequence I was pulling off the top of my head doesn’t seem to string together in a way that makes any logical sense to me, even if I knew the therapeutic benefits of each of them. And the logical, structured, type A driven part of me finally found a home in the Ashtanga practice.
I have never looked back and I am happy occupying the 72″ by 24″ space of my mat in any given room whereever I can. But after much reflection over the years, on thoughts and feelings that arise from and within the practice, I believe Ashtanga should come with perhaps a little side warning.
Caution: May cause temporary madness
And I don’t mean this in a funny kind of “ha-ha, you’re crazy” kind of slapstick remark but in a serious kind of way. Yes, there is everything beneficial and magical to be gained from the practice. But there is also a dark side to it that people should be aware of. This is what I think a consistent and committed Ashtanga practice can do to you – on the physiological and physical perspective, it could make you stronger, toner, flexible and healthier; but on the emotional perspective… well that’s a whole entire journey on its own.
I believe this practice has a way of magnifying personalities or characteristics that already exists within you during your pre-Ashtanga days. If you were a perfectionist, you may have the tendency to turn up on your mat no matter how sick, injured or drained you may be. Or if you were already an obsessive person to begin with, the tendency to scrutinise and dissect every single tiny movement endlessly. Both of which I have been guilty of.
But what if there are instances where this practice begins to feed the ego within? The one that has always yearned to be better than others? I have seen this happening within me (it took many months of reflection for me to actually realise and admit to it) and I have seen it happening to others around me too. I can’t speak for others, but I know I went through a phase of what I can now easily call sheer madness. The kind that is quick to judge, and a dedication to the practice that bulldozes through and ignores all pains and injuries. The kind of madness that goes against all of what yoga intends for which is to understand union in everything and everyone. Instead it draws you inwards into your darkness and calls on all of your demons to come forth and make themselves be known as special and better than others.
This practice can make you stronger, so can it harden you. In a way that suddenly things that do not fall into place as it should would irritate you to no end. It makes you snap at situation and people that deserves more compassion than anger. Or worse, it causes you to draw judgements on others and the way they choose to practice or even live their lives.
I don’t know if others can identify with this phase or perhaps I am the quirky one that has to go through such things (then again I am convinced I’ve got genetic predisposition to a short temper too), but I also believe despite all that, if one remains aware through it all, it is a necessary phase to go through in our quest of attaining self-knowledge. Tapas, or the burning and cleansing of ourselves inwardly is what I would call an ‘internal detox’ in which all that does not serve us for our greater good is burned and cleansed out of our system. Practice without awareness feeds the ego, it leads one down the path of temporary madness that appears as if everyone is wrong and you are the only right one. Sometimes it takes a major injury or illness to serves as a wake up call from this huge ego trip and make it possible for one to acknowledge and release such negativity.
I like what the late T.K.V Desikachar (son to Sri. T. Krishnamacharya) had to say when asked about the ultimate goal of yoga:
The ultimate goal of yoga is to always observe things accurately, and therefore never act in a way that will make us regret our actions later