Another Again: On Sequencing in Repetition

I want, in that if-the-world-could-change-to-suit-me way, to be an Ashtangi. I adore the strength of the practice, the beauty of doing the same sequence over and over until you can either add on or, eventually, move to the next series. I try to take a led primary class at least once per week now, but until an affordable studio opens near me (and by near I mean a walking distance that allows for those early morning Mysore practices) I do not anticipate this desire becoming a reality. 

Mostly, however, this post is about the repetition of the Ashtanga practice. For as long as I have been practicing yoga in class settings, I have been drawn to teachers that have a fairly set warm up sequence that students practice every class. I like this repetition. It allows me to settle in and gives me a feeling of coming home. I even like when teachers repeat dialogue. It’s like hearing a song you love that makes you remember the feel of the dance you often do when the chorus plays. 

Rather than allowing you to check out, an oft-repeated sequence offers you the opportunity to really check in with your physical practice. You can let go of wondering (or trying to predict) where the teacher is headed with this sequence and thereby get out of your head and into your body. You can feel when your hips or hamstrings are tighter than usual because you have worked at the edge of this pose already several times this week or month. On the other end of that spectrum, you can notice “progress” in a pose, that elusive pay-off that we are not supposed to seek, but are more than pleased when it lands on our mat. And in the pendulum that is repeated practice, working a similar sequence regularly can teach you the futility of being attached to those results, because at any moment, the shape your body achieved yesterday could inexplicably become unattainable again (where, oh where has my unassisted Padmasana gone?).

The first teacher whose classes I attended more for her teachings than her timeslot taught a 90 minute class twice a week. Roughly, the first thirty minutes consisted of a warm up sequence I could probably still replicate today, even though I can’t remember when last I made it to her class. The next thirty minutes pulled from a set of familiar asanas, though her choices varied each week, and the last thirty minutes were dedicated to whatever pose she was teaching for that month. This format worked so well for me as a student that I now use it (revised for a shorter class) when I teach my regular classes. From this perspective, I’ve found a new reason to love the discipline of a repeated sequence: I can more knowledgeably observe my students’ practices and recognize their obstacles and achievements in ways that help me guide them.

This path of repetition is not for everyone. I have heard other students object to a teacher’s choice to do “the same thing over and over” and I’ve learned to stop trying to convert them; their challenge comes from a different approach to the practice. I sometimes admit to myself that though I am seduced by my imagined Ashtangi life, it’s possible that actual daily practice of the primary series would frustrate me with its sameness and rigidity. Even given the limited variation of sequences my preferred teachers employ, their classes fluctuate wildly compared to Ashtanga or Bikram practices. But I am happy to repeat myself during that class, that week, or that month when the sequence is wonderfully familiar, when I can immediately drop in and marvel at how my body wishes to travel this known path this time around. Again.

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