A student recently told me about how she has noticed a pattern in her Ashtanga practice. Just when she feels like she is making progress, going deep into the postures and finding the rhythm of her practice, her ladies' holiday comes around and she is forced to take a break. The first week back, she feels strong and ploughs through her practice with vigor and joy. This new found enthusiasm causes her to spend the following week nursing and cursing the resulting stiffness.
Her story sounds all too familiar, both in my own experience and in what other students and friends have shared with me. Aside from the myriad of physical and emotional benefits that a committed, six days a week practice can bring us, is the wonderful gift of insight into our patterns, tendencies, and cycles. Because in the Ashtanga system, you generally practice the same series of postures six days a week, you have the benefit of the practice as an unchanging constant with the only thing that changes being you. You, with your hormones, your genes, your work, your relationships, your eating habits, etc. Against this mirror of the practice, not only is it easy to notice your progress in postures, but also, how you show up each day for your practice. Is there a pattern to your energetic engagement? Do you start strong around the full moon? Does your energy wane with the new moon? Are you erratic and all over the place? Are you static and unchanging? How do you shift with the seasons? What are the contributing factors?
All of this self-awareness can be a powerful tool in moving towards balance. For example, after you have established that you generally tend towards a high energy, strong practice in the beginning of the month, or, after your ladies' holiday, then you can use this knowledge to titrate the effort with more softness, so the practice becomes more calming and sustainable. If you know that you tend to be more lethargic at a particular time in the cycle, check in to see if you can modify the practice to have longer, deeper holds, and do fewer postures instead of your regular, full series. The idea is to find the challenge in being present in the postures, in the breath, and not risk injury because you are imposing the practice onto your body.
It is also important to notice how your practice leaves you. Are you exhausted and can't be bothered to do much after you're done, or, are you pleasantly tired, but energized and alert? Again, the goal is moving toward balance, moving toward a practice that feeds and supports us energetically. For this to happen, there needs to be a period of experimentation and observation. You need to give it time, and watch the many sides of you that show up on your mat from day to day. In many ways, as another student pointed out today, this practice is much like a meditation practice: watch, and return to the present moment ad infinitum.