Anyone with a regular Mysore-style Ashtanga practice would probably agree that first thing in the morning is by far the best time to practice. Your body gets into the flow of the sequence before your mind has truly woken up and diverted your attention elsewhere. Connecting with your breath and directing the focus internally comes easier. The rest of your day runs more smoothly, thanks to a fantastic kick-start from the meditation in movement that is your Ashtanga practice. Calm lingers, stress finds it harder to take hold.
But “first thing in the morning” is relative. Practising here in Goa with Rolf Naujokat, I’m in an easy rhythm of getting out of bed at 4am and onto the mat by 5am. Anyone would think I was a natural early riser.
At home in the middle of an Irish winter, 6am is the earliest I manage to crawl from under the duvet. I can just about drag myself to the mat, bleary-eyed, for 7am. That doesn’t make me a bad yogini. It makes me an adult in a cold country with a busy life. One of the big lessons of Ashtanga is that it helps us to learn to listen to our bodies. At 4am in Ireland, mine is screaming “MORE SLEEP!”. At 4am here, where it’s balmy and warm even at that early hour, my body is ready for the day. It’s not just the climate – I can get to bed early here, because I have nowhere else to be and nothing else that needs to be done. After my morning practice here, I have no other responsibilities, except to myself (“Do I feel like another fresh coconut juice?” “What will I read when I’m finished this book?” “Is my back getting as much sun as my front?”). Back home in Ireland, my yoga practice is part of my day – a day that’s filled with family, friends, work and all the responsibilities, both enjoyable and not so much, that come with normal adult life.
But there is no right and wrong. if you’re happy getting up at the crack of dawn (or even earlier), knock yourself out. Set that alarm and enjoy your time on the mat. Rolf, who at almost 60 years of age still practises 4th series, rises at 2:30am. That way, he’s finished his practice by the time he comes to teach us. But Rolf lives in India and his working day, teaching yoga, is over by 9:30am, so it all comes naturally to him. Just like any other worker who rises early and works irregular hours – train drivers, nurses, radio presenters – they catch up on their sleep when the rest of us are wide awake, doing the stuff we have to do.
Not everyone can practise first thing, even at a more reasonable time like 7am. Luca is a carpenter from Italy who is here for a month. He took up Ashtanga 3 years ago. His long working day starts at 7am, so to practise before work, he’d have to get up at 4am or thereabouts, which would leave him exhausted, in view of his working hours. So he practises when he gets home from work in the evenings, before his evening meal. Luca has no teacher at home, and taught himself from books and DVDs. He gets his teaching now from stacking up his holiday time and spending it with great Ashtanga teachers like Lino Miele in Italy and Rolf here in Goa. The rest of the time, it’s him and his mat. And when you see him on the mat flowing through 2nd series, you know it’s working for him.
If you’re find it a struggle to get a home-practice together, beware the holier-than-thou attitude of some Ashtangis who boast of being on the mat at some ungodly hour of the morning for an hour and a half or more. Practise when you can, as often as you can. Six days a week is the goal, and more than likely a distant one right now. That’s normal. Whatever you can manage to start with is right. At his workshop at Greystones Yoga Studio last September David Williams talked about “The Daily Minimum” practice, meaning 3 Surya Namaskara A, 3 Surya Namaskara B, and the final 3 finishing poses, Yoga Mudra, Padmasana and Utplutih, then a short Shavasana. That should take you all of 15 minutes or so. It’s more worthwhile to do that every day, or most days, than to do 90 minutes once a fortnight. I wish I’d understood that when I first started Ashtanga and would try to practise first thing, with small children running around gleefully underneath my Downward Dog. If I’d known then what I know now, I’d have spent more time doing 15 minutes in peace and quiet, at whatever time of day worked, and less time feeling guilty for not getting through a whole practice at the crack of dawn, six days a week.
Whatever time you practise, if you stick with it, you’ll probably find you want to practise more often, and for longer, as time goes on. It’s a good idea, i think, to try to stick to the same time every day – it helps your body and mind to make a habit of it, and you’re less likely to miss your time on the mat. And if life still gets in the way and you end up skipping practice despite your best intentions, remember tomorrow is another day!