It’s not always clear how the asana yoga practice makes us better people or our world any more peaceful. At least, not in a way that is easily put into words.
Certainly, in looking back over the past decade plus I’ve been practicing, the changes are far more than just physical – still, it’s not so simple to explain that connection. Add social media in there, and now the whole idea that yoga asana is even remotely spiritual … well, it’s more than just confusing.
For example, I made the mistake of watching the start of the first awful episode of Yoga Girls, a show that is not a parody (as much as I’d hoped) and rather, an attempted reality show, pitting the Instafamous yogis (as in, legends-in-their-own-lunchtime kind) with Traditionalists (the kind that apparently don’t mind reality T.V. shows). I only lasted 15 minutes, but it was really a terrible 15 minutes I can never get back.
Anyway, then I pick up Kino MacGregor’s new book, The Yogi Assignment.
THE TRUE-TO-LIFE YOGA GIRL.
Kino happens to be one of the most celebrated Ashtanga yoga teachers on social media, with over a million followers on Instagram alone. In fact, the idea for the book actually came from Instagram and so accordingly, the cover plays like a post: Kino smiling, doing her signature backbendy handstand … in a bikini … on the beach.
I won’t lie. Part of me sighed heavily. But that was before I cracked open the book …
Of course, I should know better simply because I know Kino better. And sure, she is beautiful, charming, and physically talented – but also incredibly smart, disciplined, well studied, and dedicated to the Ashtanga yoga practice.
Which is precisely why I have turned to her for advice in the past, during moments of unfocused weakness … and also why I invited her to contribute to the Ashtanga Dispatch Magazine as well as be a guest (twice now) on the Ashtanga Dispatch Podcast.
Because the true brilliance of someone like Kino – she can lure us in with her winning Insta-package – but then also knows exactly how to draw that line, connecting the physical practice to something much deeper. And in language we all can understand.
Kino is the original Yoga Girl. Only she understands that in today’s world, tradition and the various social mediums aren’t to be pitted, one against the other. They both have a place, so long as we know ours.
The Yogi Assignment
SIX DAYS OF CONNECTING THE YOGA PRACTICE TO EVERYDAY LIFE.
The Yogi Assignment presents as a 30-day program, though it also doesn’t have to be read that way because every chapter is meaningful all by itself. So I took the liberty of jumping around, choosing the topics that personally resonated – creating my own mini-week of yogi assignments and learning:
DAY 1: PRANA // THE BREATH BODY
“There may be times when you will not be able to perform asanas, but there will never be a time while you’re alive when you are not breathing.”
If you know me, you could already predict that this is where I’d start. I’m a bit obsessed these days. As someone who suffered from asthma most of her life, to hike without an inhaler now is a tremendous and meaningful connection between my yoga practice and life. Such a gift to be able to breathe!
Interestingly enough, the asana is often what distracts us from our breath – but if we can stay stubbornly committed to it, it’s the breath that can also unlock the yoga’s magic.
While I generally skipped the homework and asana portion of each day/chapter (and yes, I have always been that kind of student!) I made time for Kino’s Constructive Rest Pose. You lie on your back with your knees bent, hip-width apart, and belly breathe for ten. I did this every evening before bed. Crazy how something so basic can quickly calm and put me to sleep. Like I said, magic!
DAY 2: TAPAS // HOLDING MY HAND TO THE FIRE
“Only with consistent, sustained effort will the real work of yoga happen; that is, old negative thoughts are replaced with positive ones.”
There isn’t a teacher or friend (including Kino) who hasn’t said this (or yelled it across the practice room – thank you, David Garrigues): Discipline! You need discipline. It’s the story of my life, though I’ve definitely gotten much better. Like most things, staying focused takes practice.
abhyāsa-vairāgyābhyāṃ tan-nirodhaḥ (YS 1.12)
According to Patanjali, we need to practice (abhyāsa) not attaching (vairāgyā) to all the thought distractions. And through a sustained, devoted, and committed practice – over time, we might find the stillness to see my own true nature. Or at the very least in my case, I might muster up the determination to actually finish something I start.
Ironically, Kino’s three example postures are perhaps the very three I like to come out of early: chaturanga dandasana (low push-up), urdhva dhanuarasana (wheel), and pinchamayurasana(fore-arm balance). And for the homework, Kino took on cursing. I think I better stick to chaturanga first.
DAY 3: VIRA // A BRAVE HEART
“Essentially we must become like Arjuna in our daily lives – filled simultaneously with the strength and magnificence of a warrior prince and the peace and sanctity of a spiritual aspirant.”
More and more lately, I find myself turning to the Bhagavad Gita as a way to understand my place in the world today. The battle is real and it’s inside me. How do I stand up for what’s right without being consumed by the injustice? How do I maintain a righteous relationship with God all the while, staying humble and open?
I have been in real life situations where I have been personally threatened – a victim of abuse. Part of changing this was in fact, learning to stand up and fight for myself. Not exactly the peaceful warrior extolled in typical vinyasa classes, you know? And yet, cultivating my own sense of power was vital – as was having the grace later to forgive (not forget).
It’s all very complicated sometimes and Kino makes no attempt to simplify. Which I appreciate.
DAY 4: PRATYAHARA // SENSIBLE TRAINING
“While it may be tempting to think you can just turn of your senses, much like you would switch off a television, the yogic training of pratyahara is achieved through a conscious redirection of the faculties of the senses to the inner body.”
My daughter, Meghan, was trying to withdraw her senses (as pratyahara is often defined) and concentrate on a black hole. It didn’t work – but did give us both a good laugh!
Of course, the cool thing is, our practice is that yogic training by limiting the distractions that take us away from the real work at hand. The drishti gives a looking place … the breath, a sound to follow … the shapes and movements bring touch … and provided we showered and have empty stomachs, there is no smell or taste to distract. The method shows us how to shift our perspective from the outside world to within.
DAY 5: SANTOSHA // I AM ENOUGH
“Busyness is addictive … Most busyness operates from a sense of emptiness; there is a void that drives you to throw yourself into activities and achievements to prove you are ‘worthy.’”
People who are truly busy never complain about being busy – because they are usually too exhausted to complain. You never hear a single mom, shuffling her kids from school to daycare, working two jobs trying to pay a stack of bills or put food on the table, complain about being busy.
No. Our busy schedules are by choice. They make us feel important. I know, I do it too. Finding contentment where I am, as I am, is a full time practice. But at least it’s one I am privileged enough to enjoy.
DAY 6: SHANTI // FINDING PEACE
“Try to bend someone to your will, and it always goes wrong. Try to bend the world to your will, and it will fight back.”
We can’t will or force peace. Not on ourselves and not in our world. It’s like trying to will yourself to sleep – the harder you try, the further sleep becomes. If you want to sleep, you have to simply let it come and trust it will.
This is the piece (or peace) I’ve been missing. I keep thinking I have more control than I actually do. Of course, our actions hold meaning and make a difference but the outcome is something we need to allow, and not force. It’s like at the end of every practice, we take rest. Do what you need to do, then rest.
Which on Day 7, I did.
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The universe is funny sometimes. Here I am, forever struggling with the whole social media scene that I’m also very much a part of – even going so far in making the decision to step away my personal Facebook … and then just this past week, three students show up to their very first week of Mysore practice because they follow Kino.
Seriously, one of them traveled all the way here to Montana from upstate New York. These are the kinds of students Kino inspires to practice Ashtanga through her posts, videos, and books.
That’s pretty freaking amazing, right? And perhaps a bit ironic, don’t you think?
Well, life has a funny way of sneaking up on you
And life has a funny way of helping you out.