Looking both ways

Here I am starting once again by announcing that I’m 48. My age feels important just now. Right here, in the middle of my life, I find myself, like double-headed Janus, looking both forwards and back. I’m still leaning into the new, still learning, still acquiring physical abilities, still going to places I haven’t been able to access before in my body, getting stronger, releasing more restrictions; but at the same time I’m facing into the time of dissolving. I experience more pain; there’s more wear and tear in my body; there’s less and less certainty of what I will and won’t be able to do on my mat on any given day; I have to offer more respect to the crazy wisdom teacher of my body. At 48, I’m about to crest the summit, and what comes next is dropping onto the downhill slope, the path of letting go.

I’m not yet ready to abandon the physical aspects of my astanga vinyasa practice, and I may not be for a very long time to come, but my practice has had to become more responsive to how I am in the moment. If I’m stepping onto my mat with the intention of practising a particular series, I always have that structure in my mind, but what emerges from my body may be more of a creative interplay with the structure than a straight reproduction of it. Sometimes it looks pretty much 100 per cent kosher. Other times it really doesn’t. I don’t have a huge amount of control over that, nor can I predict how my body will be on any given day. Nor am I interested any more in imposing a rigid structure on my body; I’m more engaged by how my body is in relation to the structure, where it meets it, where it doesn’t, where it needs to go off on its own therapeutic loop, and what that loop looks and feels like.

All of this has prompted me to wonder how, as Mysore-style astanga teachers, we can hold space for practitioners in the phase of dissolving. Perhaps other astangis have less of an issue with this as they age: because I have Ehlers Danlos, my body has always been full of anomalies, and it is even more so now. Nevertheless, as astanga vinyasa matures in the West, there are going to be more and more of us working with it as a practice of disintegration of the body, letting go of physical capacities, and readying ourselves for death.

I mostly practise on my own, mainly because, for me, practice is primarily about the intimate relationship between me and myself. But there are also times when I want to share in the energy of the group breathing and moving together, and I’m finding it difficult to find spaces where it’s possible for me to do this without harming myself or compromising the truth of my physical experience. In some ways I understand why this is so. In any Mysore practice space there are usually many people who are still establishing and embodying the structures. I know from my own teaching, that it can be difficult to keep these people on course if there are others in the room following their own choreography. It can be hard to know from the outside why a person is doing what they’re doing. It’s easy to make judgements, to assume that they lack self-discipline or are being disrespectful. And sometimes this may be the case. But if we don’t allow space for experienced practitioners in the dissolving phase in our Mysore spaces, it seems to me that we are offering a skewed, one-halved version of astanga vinyasa, one that is about youth, about physical ability, about attachment to forms.

I don’t have a simple solution to these complexities. However, if you’re a Mysore-style teacher who feels able to hold the complexities, I’m always looking for places to practise that feel safe and respectful.