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Ashtanga Yoga

Get It When You Can

In the real life of a householder, sneaking in 30 or 40 minutes of uninterrupted yoga is about all Neal Pollack can hope for. It may not measure up to his former Ashtanga practice, but it's enough.

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Recently I was watching an interview on YouTube between Ashtanga master Eddie Stern and the actor Russell Brand, where Brand proudly announced that he does an hour and a half of asana every day, and anywhere between 20 and 30 minutes of meditation to boot. For this reasonably considerable feat, Brand declared himself “hard-core.” Stern looked at him calmly, almost with pity.

“They say you have to practice at least three hours a day to be considered really hard-core,” Stern said, so quietly and matter-of-factly that it must have been true.

You could see the stricken look in Russell Brand’s eyes. Clearly, he was going to have to work harder.

Stern’s perspective is pure Ashtanga, where ascetic discipline rules, where yoga commitment gets measured in years, not hours. In that lineage, no sacrifice is too great, no pose too extreme. There’s always someone who wakes up earlier, pushes the envelope further, and works harder. You can never be pure enough. It’s oppressive. I know from experience.

A few years ago, I did a month-long Ashtanga teacher training with Richard Freeman, the most important teacher I’ve ever had on any subject, yogic or otherwise. But Richard’s encyclopedic expertise didn’t save me from blowing out my hamstring so badly that I couldn’t do the simplest forward bend without wrapping my thigh tighter than Ptolemy’s embalmed corpse. I was incapable of leaping around and throwing my leg behind my head like my fellow teacher trainees were doing. Richard and his wife Mary Taylor had to custom-design a program. It was kind and therapeutic, and included trussing me up like a holiday bird in Baddha Konasana for at least five minutes. After that, I was done, and retreated into Savasana.

These days, my practice takes place largely at home, in a small corner of my living room. My wife works at home as well, and is always wandering through with an understandably non-yoga agenda. By 3 or 4 p.m. my son is home as well, hogging my practice space with his Scooby-Doo reruns. People knock on the door. The phone rings. If I can practice an hour uninterrupted, it’s a miracle.

In other words, I have a very short window in which to, in the words of Larry The Cable Guy, “get er done.” I could rise at 3:30 a.m. like the real Ashtangis, and grind it out for hours. But if I did that, I’d die of exhaustion within a week. In the actual world, not some yogic fantasy, three hours of practice won’t happen until the year 2020 at the earliest.

This isn’t my ideal. I’d rather sleep until 10 every day, wake up, and do two hours of yoga before settling into an eight-hour session of writing. There have been occasional times in my life where that’s happened. But it’s not happening now. I’m in what the yoga philosophers call my “householder” phase. My life is about domestic responsibility, making sure I’m in the carpool lane at the appropriate time, negotiating, organizing, arguing about cable bills.

I’m still committed. Every day, I carve out 30 yoga minutes here, 20 minutes there, a sneaky 45 minutes while the rest of the family is at the grocery store. To get some fresh yoga air, I’ll open whatever window I must. Would the true Ashtangis consider me hard-core? Definitely not. I’m just an ordinary guy trying not to lose his mind.

Regardless, the house is quiet right now. I’m going to finish typing these sentences and go unroll my mat.