Friday, April 23, 2010

Guest Blogger, Josh Beisler: The Struggle to Practice

I hope you enjoy this piece as much as I did… written by friend and fellow Philly Ashtanga practictioner, Josh Beisler.

The Struggle to Practice
Josh Beisler

The Ashtanga practice is deliberately designed to remain perpetually challenging. The way that you respond to these obstacles will teach you a lot about yourself. It will mold you in ways that you never expected and which are often life-changing.

All of this is great. But, more mundanely, sometimes it’s really hard to get out of bed in the morning and go to practice. Or to miss hanging out with good friends so you can get to bed early enough to wake up at 5:30 in the morning. Or in general to be ever-vigilant about what you eat and what you do over the course of the day because of how it affects your practice.

It's difficult and unpleasant to practice Ashtanga casually because the practice is so physically demanding that anything less than a three times per week daily practice gets painful. You have to stick with it to keep your strength up and this can create stress when your resolve wavers because it can very quickly feel (whether it's true or not) like you're on the verge of losing your practice altogether, or at least risk losing the ability to do that new cherished asana that you finally twisted into last week after months or years of trying.

I felt my left hamstring pop in kurmasana a couple of weeks ago and slowly things have started to change. It's not a particularly bad injury but obviously I have had to take it easy and not push anything, especially forward folds, which is potentially dispiriting and tough on that ever-fragile ego that we're all trying to transcend. Right around the same time a wave of awesome concerts rolled through town and I missed a couple more classes. We've been having heat issues at one of the studios where I practice and it's made it harder to stay warm and so I've felt the injury more distinctly. All of these events have come together at more or less the same time and so recently I have skipped classes, slept in late, or showed up late and only practiced half primary. Which is very unusual for me.

The question is where to go next. Do I let go of my practice a bit by going to class more infrequently and by cutting my practices short so I can stay up late and be more social and do more of the things I've been missing, or do I redouble my resolve to maintain the status quo? I'm not sure but right now my gut is saying back off.

~Josh Beisler


  1. gut is good... it's ok to take it easy for a few days. the key is to be careful, as you mention, when you do practice. A few days rest then getting back to consistent, modified practice (to accomodate your hamstring) will be good. The goal is, when you go back, to gently increase blood circulation to the area without straining the muscles. Blood circulation = healing as long as it's not over the line. Gentle entry and going to 10% at first is what I do with injury. Then everything past that is at the will of the body. take care! hope it heals soon.

  2. I'm glad you shared this, Josh, since I almost walked away from this practice in January, totally frustrated and pointing the finger at my age, thinking I had to be crazy to think that I could keep this up on top of academia, etc. But working WITH the injury has taught me so much about who is practicing. What I actually do on the mat, no one really cares, and I've begun to care less and less. It's exciting to conquer another ledge of the mountain, or to actually ski down it!! but the sweetest days are when I don't worry about what at all, and just feel like I'm tuning in deeply, walking away from the mat with such a feeling of affection in my heart that I don't really have any doubts about anything, at least for a while. I don't think I would have met myself honestly at this juncture without the injury and sensitive instruction that led me there. David said during my most difficult time that it's not about how you can serve the practice (the sacrifices you mention in your piece that hurt such as not seeing your friends at night) but rather how the practice can serve you. This opened up new possibilities for me. I remember, too, when "K" mentioned how she felt that her practice identified her and that as she aged how that was stressing her out. I never want to be that yogi, but rather the one ever at peace with the challenges, and never at war. Go drink some beer and hear the music. The pieces fall into place as long as you're strong, healthy and happy. I always love seeing members of the committed group at the "shala," but your absence is meaningful, too.

  3. I am currently going through similar (if not exactly the same) issue. Maria's comments help a lot. I'm now trying to stop serving the practice and let it serve me. I agree you should drink beers, go to concerts and then come to practice only if your feel it can serve you. I think you know what you need at this point in time. It will probably be different than what you need a month from now.

  4. Yo Josh
    I really like how you understand this stuff

  5. Regarding skipping practice/socializing:

    1. Females traditionally take ~3 days off in a row each month for a "Lady's Holiday", and they do not lose their practice. I recently took my own “Lady’s Holiday” because my injured knee just needed some rest. I probably could have just as well taken off to spend the weekend drinking or concert-going or whatever, but I think the result would have been the same: a couple days later, it was as if there had never been a break in the action. Lose a day or two of progress? Perhaps. Or maybe just give my shoulder muscles musclesm elbows, wrists, etc. a much-needed chance to recuperate.

    2. Last time my boss’s boss invited the office out for an open-bar happy hour, I came to practice the next day more hung-over than I had been in probably several years. I was surprised, then, that I not only managed a full practice, but I was able to do some of my deepest back-bending, better than what I sometimes do on a good day. Some days, I feel sluggish and have trouble with far easier poses without the Open-Bar Effect at play. The point here is that it’s tough to predict how practice will go, so just show up when you can. Sometimes I feel good and end up struggling in practice; other times I feel like crap and surprise myself. If you go home early from your night out (or just stop drinking early) because you have practice the next day, let it be because you want to peace-out early, not because Ashtanga demands that you must. If you have to skip a day or two, no harm done (see #1). But if the practice makes you give up everything else and you resent it for its demands, it will not, to borrow the phrase, "serve you." You will just get stressed out, and I'm pretty sure that defeats the point of the yoga--at least for most people.

    And now I need to go to bed so I can wake up for practice….

  6. Josh - am also in the busted hamstring club. a couple of practices have been really hard; not because of pain but my attachment to what i think i can do. it's hard to get my far-out endorphin buzz when i have to go slow, steady and careful. (same thing that led me to booze and smokes led me to ashtanga)

    I want the injury to go away but i have had some good moments and insights as a result of my seriously modified practice. I have been very attached to the physical power and flow of the practice. This is forcing me to pay attention to my breath and my concentration.

    have also been obsessing about losing my practice. am sure there is a lesson in here. hate lessons.

  7. Talk about taking it off the mat... I am an "injured" academic in that I can no longer work 24/7 during the semester despite administrative "duties." I've started thinking more in terms of who am I serving and how working like a dog at mind-numbing tasks (about 70% of my job) is "molding" me as a practice. A lot of the language we're using to discuss our Ashtanga practice can be applied to our work lives as well. It takes discipline, affection for some aspect of it and, hopefully, respect for our mentors/teachers. I'm beginning to wonder if I'm just pushing through an injury that will leave me exhausted rather than ready.
    You are all so damn so cool...

  8. I always wondered why what's being practiced in Mysore today is referred to as "traditional" Ashtanga--I mean, isn't it *contemporary* Ashtanga??? Coincidentally, I just found this article called "The So-Called Tradition of Ashtanga Yoga":

    Thought some of you might be interested.

  9. Cool comments on Herst's post, Frank. Thanks for sharing it. I'd heard that British gymnastics were incorporated into the system of asanas as a means of increasing the tapas aspect. And I've been privy to similar lamentations from folks in the Iyengar community who back in the day left once Iyengar and his head teachers started packaging practice as "a system" rather than pursuing the more individualized instruction. There is the wisdom of the practice, and the wisdom of the age we're living in. I think western approaches to anatomy and the like have really helped the pursuit overall. And I've been to Mysore (just observed a couple of classes) and it's madness in some ways. So crowded, so much desire to "be there." It was fascinating and a tad shocking. Turned me off for a couple of years until the attraction proved too strong...

  10. Wow. You are all brilliant and lovely and articulate. These words hit me in all of the right places (selfishly), and they also inspire perspective. I won't repeat what's already been said (I, too, have been struggling with an injury), but I will just thank each of you again and feel -- yet again -- so fortunate for the practice, yes...but SO fortunate to know you.

  11. Thank you everyone. (Another one on the injured list here...) As I was walking out of the shala today (after a very modified, frustrating practice), David stopped me and said, "Keep your practice. Don't give up. You can learn from this." And tomorrow, when I return to my practice, what I learned here from each of you will keep me company while I focus on my breathing, my bandhas, and my patience... Thank you, thank you, thank you...

  12. Frank, thanks for posting that article, a very interesting read. The whole notion of what constitutes 'traditional' Ashtanga is very problematic. I'm not convinced that such a thing really exists.

    Maria, Alex, Asako and anyone else who is injured-- hang in there! Writing this blog was very therapeutic and I've been struggling less with practicing although I'm also more comfortable with curtailing my practice if that's how I'm feeling.

  13. Hi Josh - I'm glad to hear things are going better for you now. I think you were right on when you wrote about how difficult it is to do this practice casually (but I also think Frank is right that if you generally practice regularly, a few days off won't matter). I always notice that my first day back after being sick/lazy/busy is wonderful, probably because I feel well-rested and not sore yet. It's the second day that I start to pay for the time off...

    Asako - glad you are hanging in there! I've had to do those sun salutations at the wall once before and I know it's frustrating. It does make you realize how much you love and crave the real, unmodified poses though.