I recently spoke with a fellow Ashtangi who was having trouble making it to practice more than once or twice a week. She felt so utterly depleted by the full primary series that it would take her several days to recover and ready herself to do it all over again.
Often, I think we get caught up in this go-big-or-go-home mentality. We think that unless we Do It All, we’re not really doing it. But the practice of Ashtanga is not akin to doing a full primary series every so often. The sequencing of the primary series is a big part of what makes Ashtanga so special, yes, but the magic is there in smaller doses. Inch by inch, surya namaskar by surya namaskar, changes happen. And if we are struggling with every pose east of uttitha hasta padangusthasana, if our knees are hurting so we modify every half lotus, if our breathing is short and fast just to get through it, if we are forgetting postures and skipping vinyasas, then doing a full primary series is not doing much, except for wearing us out.
2.46 Sthira sukham asanam. Yoga poses should balance stability with ease.
If stability and ease are nowhere* to be found in your practice, then it may be time to consider scaling back. And this does not make you a bad Ashtangi, nor does it mean that you’ll never be doing a full Primary, or that you’ll never transition into Intermediate series. In this intelligently beautiful sequence, each pose prepares you for the ones that lie ahead. Plus, it’s not really about the poses. We know that, right? Doing a full primary, or a full intermediate series, or wrapping your leg three times around your head and sticking your nose through your elbow, will not get you to enlightenment quicker. (Actually, maybe that last one will. Let me know if you get there.)
So try this**: go through the series with the correct vinyasa count, until you get to a pose that you simply can’t do. Take a bit longer with it. (Or go until the pose you always forget.) If at this point you want your practice to be longer so you feel like you’re working, repeat! Start again. Ekam inhale. Go through to the same pose. Then do your finishing postures. Keep at this, five or six days a week, until something changes. It is more important to establish consistency in your practice than it is to reach some arbitrary end point.
1.14 Sa tu dirgha-kala-nairantarya satkarasevito drdha-bhumih. This practice becomes firmly rooted when it is cultivated skillfully and continuously for a long time.
*We want some stability and ease in our practice, but some struggle is ok too. The purpose of Ashtanga is not to completely bliss out, and it’s meant to be difficult. Just not can’t… catch… my… breath… the… entire…. time difficult.
**This advice does not in any way override the advice your teacher gives you, if you have a teacher whom you trust who sees your practice on a daily basis. Sometimes we need to work a little harder than we think, and sometimes we need to back off, and sometimes it’s hard to see that for ourselves.