Ashtanga Guilt: How To Silence Your 'Yogi Conscience'

Note: This article first appeared on Do You Yoga on 27 May, 2017. 

I tend to do things back to front – in the reverse order to most people. My introduction to yoga came via three years of passionate Bikram Yoga attendance. I loved the heat and considered myself something of a masochist, so Bikram was perfect for me at the time. After a few years I moved to a new area, and couldn’t get my Bikram fix any more – so I fell into Vinyasa classes and practiced in that style for the next 4-5 years. When I began to feel a pull towards yoga teacher training, like many others I didn’t really know where to begin. I did my research as best as I could, and for a variety of reasons I selected an Ashtanga Vinyasa training in Bali. I was in for a shock: I had never practiced Ashtanga yoga before. Therefore, in the space of a month I went from somebody with absolutely no experience of the primary series, to somebody who was basically ready to have ‘I heart Ashtanga’ metaphorically tattooed onto her thigh. Despite the ever-present aches in my hips and hamstrings, I fell in love with this rigorous series of postures, and the way they demanded focus, discipline and mindful breathing from me. However, when I returned home to Melbourne I realised that spending 2 hours a day, 6 days a week on my asana practice was not entirely feasible – and that’s where my Ashtanga Guilt set in!

Like many lovers of Ashtanga yoga, it could be said that I have an inkling of the ol’ Type A personality. When I find something that I’m interested in, I feel drawn to learn everything about it, and I want to do it wholeheartedly and perfectly. This translates to my attitude towards yoga, too – I’m eager to use it exactly as prescribed, doing every repetition of every vinyasa, being able to enter each pose to the same depth as I did yesterday, regardless of mood, illness, injury, hell, even death! And if I have to shorten my practice, or skip it completely, I feel like a Bad Yogi. I let thoughts creep into my mind like, ‘You’re not committed enough’, or ‘How can you teach this stuff if you don’t practice it every day?’ It’s guilt. And it’s pointless. Sometimes I even find myself projecting this guilt onto my teachers, imagining that they are sternly disappointed in me when I skip a 6.00am Mysore class. In reality, the only person who is affected by this guilt is me. 

I attended a workshop with Kino MacGregor recently, and I was amazed at how many people expressed similar feelings of guilt or shame when it came to their level of engagement with their asana practice. Kino’s advice was simple and sensible: don’t flog yourself.  Yes, there will be points in your practice at which you will need to sit with discomfort. But don’t endure self-loathing or physical pain. Keep in mind that one of the ethical rules is ahimsa – non-violence, also translating to compassion. And who do you think we’re least likely to be compassionate towards? You guessed it – ourselves. Sometimes it’s just not possible to practice the entire primary series 6 days a week. Maybe even 2-3 times per week is a stretch, and that’s completely okay. The frequency and duration of your asana practice is dependent on so many different factors, and Ashtanga shouldn’t feel like a club where we are judging each other, and ourselves, for how often we rock up, and how hard-core we are when we do. I work long and variable hours in my day job as an event manager and musician, so there are weeks when daily asana practice just isn’t a thing. At the moment, I’m working on absolving my Ashtanga guilt by allowing myself the freedom to explore the enormous universe of yoga that we find beyond the physical asanas. If I am breathing mindfully whilst sitting in traffic, am I improving my jump throughs? No. Am I making the best effort that I can to experience conscious living, and practice compassion towards others and towards myself? Yes. Yoga is a tool that allows us to experience a more connected and heartful life. By taking an outcomes-based attitude towards it and beating ourselves up with a concept of what we think our practice should look like, we’re robbing ourselves of its benefits.  So, if you’re like me and you’re prone to the occasional yogi guilt trip, I encourage you to take some deep breaths, smile, and tell that guilt exactly where to go.

Namaste yogis, enjoy your practice!