Ask any Ashtanga Yoga practitioner what they think of the practice and I guarantee the word “tough” would be somewhere on their list. As well as the amazing therapeutic offerings, this practice demands a certain discipline because, traditionally, it should be practiced 6 days a week. Even under normal circumstances this commitment is enough to turn some people away. And with good reason. The general challenges of life, like balancing work schedules with family, whilst still maintaining some form of social life can take precedence over the practice.
But what about travel? At first glance, travelling should offer more freedom to practice and less of the day-to-day stresses distracting you from getting on your mat. However, it can be much more challenging than you might expect, especially if your aim is to stick to the 6-day-a-week program. Having recently put myself through half a year of travels and trikonasanas, here are my top 5 tips to help you stay grounded in the practice.
1. Accept the choices you make
My 6-month journey started in Mysore. It was my first trip to the Ashtanga Mecca, KPJAYI[http://kpjayi.org]. It was bit of a roller coaster but I can't wait to go back! Even with a daily practice back home, there's something about practising in Mysore that makes it much more intense, focussed and disciplined than I'd ever experienced before. So imagine my dismay when, only a few weeks after leaving, I couldn't even bind in Maricasana D anymore!
Immediately after leaving KPJAYI I spent 10 days on an intense silent meditation retreat (Vipassana) where you're not allowed to talk, read or write, let alone do any physical exercise like yoga. Ok, well that was the choice I'd made so I accepted that I'd have to suspend my practice for the 10 days I was there. But add on a couple of days either side for travelling, plus a violent episode of food poisoning in Delhi, and we're talking more like 2 weeks.
But there you have it - I’d made my bed and now I had to lie in it. I had to accept where my body was at based on the decision I’d made to explore a different discipline. At some point we have to work out what our priorities are, make a decision and stick to it.
2. Be prepared to compromise
My travels then took me to beautiful Thailand where I enrolled in a 5-week Thai massage course and had every intention of maintaining my practice, despite the full-on requirements of the training. With no morning Mysore classes available, I decided to settle for home practice, but I only managed one measly week of this before I lost my rhythm and the practice slipped out of my hands. So I tried to practice in the evenings instead, but a combination of the heat, the rain, and pressing homework needs soon curbed that idea.
I used to daydream about practising in sunny Thailand from the depths of winter in Brighton, UK and yet here I was, as creaky and stiff as anything. Was it being away from the intensity of Mysore or the new demands of the massage training? Whatever it was, I soon realised that it was impossible to attend all the social invitations and other activities I wanted to do, if I also wanted to maintain a steady practice. The vision I had of floating through paradise, becoming stronger and more flexible with the heat Thailand had to offer was far from the reality. I had no choice but to compromise and accept where I was in that moment, because the truth is, it could have been a lot worse!
3. Keep the faith
One thing a regular yoga practice teaches us is to have faith and devotion. Faith that no matter what life throws at us, we’re developing the tools and awareness to be able to handle anything.
As I had feared, the intensity, focus and commitment of a consistent daily practice that I’d built up so wonderfully in Mysore quickly withered away. And the anxiety and doubts started to creep in. I was so alarmed at how easy it was to stop practising. It made me start to doubt myself. Am I a true Ashtangi? Am I really as dedicated as I think? Could I actually lose it completely and go back to living a ‘normal’ life? And why can’t I find the determination and resolve to practice every day without fail? Have I not been practising long enough? Sharath says he gets up at 1am to practice wherever he is, regardless. Do I need to have been practising 10 years? - 15? - before it really sticks?
But somewhere underneath all the anxiety and doubt, I knew I was devoted enough to the practice not to lose it completely. I knew I had to have faith that this was just a phase and I needed to be kinder to myself; that I could get the consistency back once my circumstances changed again.
4. Remember: yoga is not just about asana
I’ve heard Sharath say many times that yoga is not just about asana; that you can still practice yoga even if you’re not doing the physical practice.
I tried so desperately to hang onto this notion and kept telling myself that I am still an Ashtangi, even if I’m not getting on my mat every day, or even every week. But the more time that passed the more I felt myself drifting away from the practice. And I knew how hard it would be when (if?) I eventually did get back on the mat. I felt lazy and sluggish and my mind was becoming far less focussed.
As Sharath said at a conference in February this year, “Without asana, the mind won’t be stable. Try stopping for 15 days and see how you feel.” I now know exactly what he means. The practice should support your mental state. It’s better to do a simple practice with steady breathing and a calm mind centred on self love and devotion than a practice focused only on performance.
5. Above all: surrender to the ebb and flow
So what did I do? I surrendered. Despite all the doubts and guilt, I accepted that I simply couldn’t maintain the same level of practice whilst also travelling, studying, socialising and nursing a bruised rib. I’d get my mat out from time to time and do what I could, even though this often served only as a reminder of what I was missing and added to my feelings of guilt.
On top of all this, my eating habits seemed to go completely haywire! I realised that when I’m in my usual practice rhythm I give myself this ‘get out of jail free card’ when it comes to my diet. I pander to my sweet tooth and justify this to myself by thinking “It’s ok, I practice Ashtanga every day, I can eat what I like”. But this logic only works when you are actually practising Ashtanga every day! Otherwise the calories start adding up, the fat starts developing and, in my case, my stomach and thighs become the first victims. So then I feel like I’m trying to drag a sack of potatoes around the mat, which really doesn’t help with the motivation!
But surrender I did. After all, what else could I do? The asanas provide an opportunity to practice being balanced even when we lose our balance. The only constant in life is change, and learning to be with these changes and understanding what they’re teaching us is our job as yoga students.
I’ve been on such an amazing journey and I’m grateful for every experience I’ve had. Dealing with injuries and setbacks and the added adventure of travel has provided me with some wonderful reminders and insights: how tough this practice can be; how it can challenge you in ways you never imagined; that you should never take your practice for granted; and that it’s good to look back once in a while to see how far you’ve come.
And, of course, that once this practice takes hold of you, it will never truly let you go.
Namaste! - Hannah
Find more articles on yoga, food and travelling from Hannah over at her blog Ashtanga and Angels