There are several habits that students of Ashtanga are encouraged to cultivate, which extend beyond the hour or two in which they practice asana each morning. To undertake the practice of Yoga in this or any lineage is not simply to commit to a set of physical exercises or an amount of time on a cushion, but to reconsider the way we use this precious life we have been given. There are physical practices that we can develop to support ourselves and help us live more fully in harmony with the natural world. These include going to bed early enough to get proper sleep, eating nutritious food, ensuring we make enough time to take rest after our asana practice and taking time to do a weekly oil bath. (For more information on how and why to take an oil bath please click HERE.)
However, some of the habits we can cultivate go beyond the physical body and have more to do with how we train ourselves to relate to our daily practice in the context of our lives. With that in mind...
- Yama and Niyama (yoga's ethical guides to living) are the cornerstones of practice. They are also incredibly challenging. To truly embrace and embody these guidelines (which include non-harming, truthfulness, and contentment) requires that we be somewhat subversive. Modern society often does not support us in our attempts to be, for example, content. Treating your time on the mat as a place to refine your relationship with these principles and train your mind is a good place to start. However, once you have left the shala and are moving about your day in the "real world" see if you can continue that relationship.
- Consistency is the key to creating a lifelong practice. Intensity, length of practice and the number of fancy asanas performed in one day are far less important than the act of making it to your mat every day and checking in with yourself in an honest and compassionate way. It is far better to do what you can on a daily basis than to have a few "big" practices in a week and simply not practice on other days. Something as short as 5 Surya Namaskar A, 3 Surya Namaskar B, seated breathing and taking rest (about 20 - 25 minutes total) can change your energy in a positive way and support you throughout the day. Aim for consistency and the rest will take care of itself.
- Talking about practice is rarely a good idea. It creates fixed ideas around something that is going to be slightly different every day. It can lead to competition (mostly on an internal level) and can help give the ego process a stronger hold than it already has (yikes!) We are all guilty of it to a certain extent. Over the years this habit can become stronger or weaker. Aim for weaker.
- The path to yoga is ultimately an individual one. Keeping your eyes on your own mat, and your own path, is always advisable. Comparison is the thief of joy.
- Learn from the outset to celebrate impermanence. Equanimity is the key. Your body will change over time. Sometimes you will view these changes as pleasurable or positive. Sometimes you will experience them as negative or painful. They are inherently neither. As our teacher wisely said, "Do not practice to have a 'good' practice. Practice to maintain steadiness in yourself," R. Sharath Jois
Oil Bath 101
Relieve Aches, Pains and Stiffness with Oil Bath
This is article is reprinted with permission from Kiki Flynn.
Introduced to Yoga in 1982, Kiki began Ashtanga Yoga practice with Sri K. Pattabhi Jois in 1993.
She is a lifestyle and wellness consultant, yoga educator, and transformational coach. Learn more about Kiki here
Oil bath is a traditional, weekly Ayurvedic home remedy still practiced widely in South India. Sri K. Pattabhi Jois routinely recommends oil bath to his yoga students especially for the relief of back and knee pain as well as stiffness. Weekly oil bath reduces excess internal heat (pitta in Ayurvedic) particularly in the joints, liver, and skin. This heat is generated by poor lifestyle, including consumption of oily, processed, and difficult to digest foods, alcohol and tobacco, in addition to stress, air pollution and inadequate sleep. This imbalance increases with the heat generated by yoga practice and hot climate. Eating an over sufficiency of healthy foods that are deemed “heating” in Ayurvedic terms, also adds to this imbalance. Excess heat can be felt in the joints as pain and stiffness and in the back, often in the lower right-hand side and hip, as a nearly debilitating pain. This heat also contributes to a short temper, burning anger, red skin, pinkish acne and redness in the eyes. When a daily ashtanga yoga practitioner still carries extra weight, especially around the middle, has difficulty with weight loss or with digestion, and has a regularly sluggish bowel, these are all signs of surplus heat.
In India, oil bath is customarily taken with castor oil which is later removed from the skin and hair with a special paste made of equal parts soap nut and green powders mixed with water. Castor oil delivers the best results but is nearly impossible to remove without these powders. Guruji suggests that, after leaving India, the yoga student can replace castor oil with almond oil, which easily washes off with bath soap.
Daily baths in India are taken by pouring water over the head from a bucket while standing in the bath, a river, or other body of water. It is in reference to this bath that oil bath is so termed. In other words, the student is not soaking in a tub of oil; rather he or she is using oil first on the head. Oil is rubbed into the scalp drawing the heat upward through the body, where it finally exits through the crown of the head.
Pattabhi Jois recommends that a student takes oil bath every Saturday, on his or her day of rest. Oil bath should be taken once a week, at the start of the morning. After oil bath, one should rest for the day and avoid the following: strong sun, cold water, yoga or heavy work of any kind. For men, tradition prescribes that oil bath be taken on Monday, Wednesday or Saturday. For women oil bath is prescribed on Tuesday or Friday; Guruji provides that his female students can take oil bath on the day off, Saturday. A woman should never take oil bath during menstruation rather she should take it on the fourth day (following the first three days of menses, during which time she has abstained from yoga practice). If one is not able to take oil bath on a given Saturday, he or she may take it on one of the above appropriately listed days.
Directions for Oil Bath
- Apply ample amount of oil to your head, rubbing into the scalp and through to the ends of your hair. When using castor oil, first place the bottle in warm water to thin out the oil for easier application.
- Leave oil on the head for the allotted time. For your first oil bath leave the oil on your head for only five minutes and the following week increase the time to ten minutes. Continue increasing weekly by five minute increments until the oil is left on the head for a full two hours (a 6 month process); this is the maximum recommendation. At this juncture, you should practice two hours weekly, not exceeding this time.
Years of accumulated heat should safely be relieved in stages therefore it is essential to carefully follow the time recommendation. Inappropriately increasing the prescribed minutes may lead to a cold, vomiting, chills or diarrhea, all of which are symptoms of too much heat rising too soon.
- Having completed your allotted time for oil on the head, now generously apply oil to the whole body. As you rub oil over your body, take time to rub and massage elbow, knee and shoulder joints, along the spine and into any areas that are chronically sore. You need not apply oil to the face. This step should take an additional five to ten minutes.
- Take a very hot shower, or bucket bath. Let the hot water run over the scalp as you massage the existing oil deeper into the crown. Continue to rub the oily skin particularly the joints and spine. This is an important step as the hot water opens pores and draws internal heat from the skin and joints. This shower may last five to fifteen minutes.
- Apply soap and shampoo, or soap nut and green powder mixture to remove oil. After turning off the shower, lather up with soap on the skin and shampoo in the hair to remove almond oil. If castor oil is used, then apply soap nut and green powder mixture rubbing the paste over the whole body and through the hair and scalp. Be careful and avoid getting soap nut powder, dry or wet, in the eyes or nose, as it will cause a burning sensation. As you rub the paste over the skin, it will turn from dark to light green which indicates that the oil is being absorbed.
To make the paste, in a large bowl mix equal parts soap nut powder and green powder with enough water to create a paste with a honey-like consistency. Soap nut is active in absorbing the castor oil and can make the skin feel very dry. Green powder leaves the skin and hair feeling soft and smooth.
- Take a second shower or bucket bath to remove oil and lather or special paste. Take this shower at a warm, comfortable temperature and use enough soap and shampoo to remove the almond oil. If you are washing off soap nut paste and castor oil, be sure to close your eyes when rinsing your hair; you’ll probably want to follow up with shampoo. This shower lasts up to ten minutes.
You have successfully completed oil bath.
- Wash the shower/bath area. The shower floor will be very slippery and the drain may be clogged a bit. Scrub the shower area well to avoid slipping and pour a kettle of boiling water down the drain to keep it open. If you have used soap nut paste, you may be faced with a muddy mess. Clean all surfaces and be sure to pour boiling water down the drain.
- Rest over the next few hours, avoiding hard work, strong sun and swimming in or drinking cold water. For the daily ashtanga practitioner it is important to take a full day off, allowing the body and mind to rest and rejuvenate for the coming week of practice, study, work and family life.
If the desired results of oil bath are not felt at first, don’t give up. Continue to include this time-honored treatment in your weekly schedule and be confident in the radiant health benefits it bestows.
The practice of taking rest from practice during menstruation is sometimes referred to as “Ladies Holiday”. It is recommended that women take rest from the Ashtanga practice during the heaviest part of the menstrual cycle (generally thought of as the first three days, but this can vary from person to person.) There are several reasons that this is important. According to Ayurveda, the sister science of yoga designed to keep the body functioning optimally, the downward and eliminating flow during this time may be counteracted by inversions and application of bandhas in the asana practice. Applying bandhas redirects the flow of "apana", which is the downward flowing energy that governs acts of elimination such as menstruation, and to practice vigorous asana without proper engagement of bandha can be physically unsafe. Additionally, excessive activity can lead to an irregular menstrual cycle or the complete cessation of menstruation (amenorrhea). Taking rest from vigorous practice is a wonderful opportunity to rejuvenate and honor the natural ebbs and flows of energy inherent in being a human being and in particular in being a woman. Alternative practices that are recommended include restoratives (which we are glad to teach any student interested in learning), chanting, japa and walking.
For more information about this topic, listen to a very informative podcast featuring authorized teacher Christine Hoar
Practice and Pregnancy
The Ashtanga tradition encourages taking rest from the asana practice during the first trimester and for three months after giving birth. A modified practice can absolutely be undertaken and is very beneficial during the second and third trimesters. The choice of how, what and when to practice during pregnancy is an extremely personal one and we encourage any female student who is interested and feels in need of guidance to speak to Meghan directly to formulate a practice plan that supports your individual needs.
For more information about practice and pregnancy consider reading the incredibly comprehensive book Yoga Sadhana for Mothers
Practice and Menopause
Menopause is one of the three times (in addition to the onset of menses and following childbirth) that a woman is able to "reset" herself physically, mentally and energetically or spiritually. It is a time where old patterns that do not support us can be reassessed and changed. It is also a time of great physical change, and like menstruation and pregnancy, is an extremely individual and personal experience.
For more information about practice during this stage of a woman's life, consider reading this interview between Certified teachers Lousie Ellis and Sharmila Desai: Embracing Impermanence