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Ashtanga Journey through the East

July 14, 2012

‘Have no expectations. And then what is left but to experience the beautiful surprise of each moment as it is’ – this was a great piece of advice shared with me by a fellow yogi. Much like the yogic ideal of “non-attachment”, however, it is so much easier to profess the inherent truth of such a statement than it is to sincerely implement it into one’s everyday existence. Well, for me at least. As I set out for three months of immersion into the Ashtanga teaching tradition of three sets of ‘famed’ Ashtangi couples, I attempted to keep a completely blank slate and just be open to whatever the Universe had in mind for my journey. Of course in the back of my mind, I hoped to come back tanned, healthy and inspired. Oh and if these teachers could help to magically transform my handstands, jump backs and back-bends then that couldn’t be such a bad thing, right?

You see, my yoga journey started as a primarily physical pursuit. Ashtanga yoga, infamously (mis)interpreted as a system preoccupied with the perfection of asana and consequently striving and achievement, fulfilled my physical needs absolutely. But serious practitioners will know that the physical practice is only a door and sooner or later the you are bound to drop deeper into other dimensions of the self and consciousness whether you intend to or not. I was already touching on these other dimensions before embarking on my journey but the physical was still very much my principal preoccupation. Correspondingly, my practice was intense and aggressive. I now see that I needed to embrace the yin to balance out my yang, to absorb the cooling light of the moon to counteract the vibrant energy of the sun within me; I needed to surrender to the feminine to soften the masculinity of my practice. It sounds absurdly obvious when I write it now but I know that I am not the only one who struggles with ‘ambition’ and ‘striving’ within the practice – Ashtanga practice particularly has a way of exposing the ego in all its “glory” as if to say, ‘Well here I am again in the space where you want me least, so what you going to do about it?’

The Universe, as always, delivered exactly the lessons I needed on this journey, bringing me ever so slightly closer to the light. Below is a short synopsis of the beautiful and inspirational teachers through which my lessons were presented.

1) Rolf and Marci Naujokat in Goa, India.

It a great experience to simply practice in Rolf’s quiet and almost reverent presence. He exudes stillness and completeness and when I looked into his eyes, I felt like I saw a rare light of knowing. I got the feeling that he is already far beyond this world. His words are few and because of the large amounts of students that practice with him, his adjustments rather scarce. When I did get an adjustment, however, it was more than just a “squish” in pashimottanasana, it was a connection to his deep energy – it is hard to explain but it was like I could share something of his knowing in those moments. This is the main thing I took away from Rolf – the inspiration of his mere presence. Marci has a different energy – grounded and firm. She focuses on the detail within the asana, correcting alignment, often just subtly, to support the optimum experience with, as the website aptly puts it “a non-aggressive approach” to the practice. I could talk to Marci about my injuries and received practical guidance for softening my practice and fostering awareness to understand not only my injuries but how my body is uniquely structured and functions.

The Goa Shala with Rolf and Marci

Marci, me and Rolf

2) Kirsten Berg and Mitchell Gold in Koh Phangan, Thailand.

This Ashtangi couple is an absolute inspiration to me, not only as teachers and practitioners but especially as yogis living a balanced and beautiful life. They work together like magic; they create an amazing energy in the shala and hold the space with such grace and integrity. This, together with the breathtaking location of the shala, facilitated a feeling of gentleness and flow in every practice.

If I had to have a role model, Kirsten would be it. She is strikingly dignified and although she has an almost ethereal energy she is simultaneously so down to earth. With more than 30 years of bodywork experience behind him, Mitchell almost intuitively understands the anatomical idiosyncrasies of each student. Because of the small community where the shala is situated, us as students got to talk to Kirsten and Mitchell regularly and they joined most of the social events, including Saturday night dancing at Eden. There were no airs and graces or preoccupation with maintaining an ‘Ashtangi’ image as with some other teachers I have encountered. They were honest about their own experiences and practice and shared openly with us, something not many advanced teachers do. I feel truly blessed to have met these two great teachers and people.

Kirsten and Mitchell at the Why Nam ‘pink party’

The shala situated right on the rocks overlooking the crystal ocean, the waves chiming in with our Ujjayi breathing

Sunrise view from the shala platform

3) Prem and Radha in Ubud, Bali.

It was a hard transition for me coming from the quiet paradise of Why Nam beach in Koh Phangan and landing in the bustling town of Ubud. The energy was quite different from the idyllic island – cars, people, colours, music, art, high vibrations and noise. It was beautiful too, don’t get me wrong, but just very different to the slow-paced living I’d gotten used to in Thailand. Prem and Radha’s style of teaching was also very different from Kirsten and Mitchell’s and I needed some time to adjust. I found their approach to be very technical and they were strict in their adherence to the traditional method. The smaller classes and two teachers with eagle sharp eyes meant it was impossible to get away with even one sloppy chaturanga. Nothing got past these two dedicated teachers. There was a gentleness and kindness in their firmness, however; I felt nurtured by their teaching. In much the same way, perhaps, that a child could come to understand a parent’s scolding as ultimately for their own good, so I began to see Prem and Radha’s commitment for injury-free yoga and their ardor for guiding students towards their highest potential being through correct practice. In the end, I learnt an incredible amount from them.

Yoga shala entrance in Bali

Prem and Radha (photo off their website )

So all in all, I feel totally inspired in my practice and in my life, (which are in fact one and the same, really). I feel extremely blessed and grateful for this most amazing opportunity and hope that one day I will be able to share all the beautiful things that I have learnt with others.

By Carryn Smit

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