Yoga is the path of purification and transformation. This means, that we can expect to go through many different changes physically, mentally and emotionally throughout the course of our practice.
Generally, any kind of transitional movement in our practice goes from the grosser aspects of our selves to the subtler. What this means is that we are apt to go through more physical changes initially and, over time, we will experience more subtle changes to our mental and emotional states.
Yoga is a process in which we are attempting to awaken and bring forth the more essential parts of our selves. By using the word, “essential”, I mean those parts of our selves that are transcendent and do not change over time.
The further we move away from what is natural or essential in our selves, the more “extra” elements we carry around with in our lives. We eat more than we need to, own more possessions than is needed, talk more than is necessary and so on. It is not so much the fact that
we live with these extra elements, it is the attachment and identification we form with these things that is so harmful and causes such suffering. The stronger the attachment and identification with these extra elements, the more we are apt to forget our essential selves. Having an awareness of the essential aspects of selves is, in many ways, the essence of what Yoga practice is all about.
So, when we embark upon the path of Yoga, we begin to practice and live our lives in such a way as to begin to let go of these “extras”.
What you can expect initially is that your body will begin to go through some very strong and often dramatic changes, especially in the first six months of intense and dedicated daily Ashtanga yoga practice. You will begin to develop what is known as “tapas” or heat in your practice, in your body. This will result in profuse sweating (of course in some more than others). For some, very strong odors will emit from the body. Many people experience changes to their skin. Their skin will break out in acne, rashes and such. In more extreme cases, some people develop very large boils.
Other mild to stronger symptoms of purification will begin to appear for most practitioners. It is very common to see the increased occurrence of colds and flu and fevers, as well as, headaches, drowsiness and light-headedness. It is important to honor and respect these kinds of changes, as they can be quite deep in one’s system. I recommend that you take extra time to rest and be quiet. You can also be mindful of your tendency towards “busyness” and begin to reduce the general number of activities in your day.
Naturally, because the asana practice is so rigorous, you can expect strong changes to your physique and overall health of your body. You will get significantly stronger in a very integrated and well-balanced fashion. In particular the “core” strength of your body will improve. The “core” refers to the area of the lower trunk and pelvic regions. Strength in these areas has been shown to dramatically increase the function of balance, smoothness of motion and speed of reflexes. It is common knowledge that athletic performance can be improved significantly through the development of one’s core strength. Flexibility of all areas of your body should increase dramatically.
One area of improvement that is often overlooked is the increased functionality of the gastro-intestinal system. The frequency of forward bends in asana practice very powerfully cleans out and reconditions our digestive organs. Most people in our modern culture and society, because of unhealthy diets and stress, have some degree of bowel or digestive dysfunction. Constipation and excess gas are the norm for most people. One report stated that many people carry up to 20-30 kilos of undigested feces in their bodies at any one time! A well functioning gastro-intestinal system is vital to the optimal functioning of our immune system and hormonal balances. Overall mental and physical health is dramatically affected by the state of our digestive systems.
Thus, one of the areas of focus as we dive deeper into our practices, is the greater and greater level of mindfulness and care of what, when and how we put food into our bodies. I will speak more elaborately on this topic at some other time.
Now, as you begin to become healthier and more in tune physically, you will begin to become sensitive and aware of subtler aspects of your self. For example, you will begin to notice that your senses will generally begin to increase in acute sensitivity. Your sense of smell and sight and hearing will be sharper and clearer. You will feel temperature and pressure changes in different parts of your body in a way that you never have before. Many people report an increased sensitivity and depth to their sense of taste. What was once flavorful before will begin to taste overly salty, bitter, savory or sweet. You will find yourself beginning to crave foods that have subtler or even plain flavors.
The process of purification will begin to affect you mentally, emotionally and psychically as well. Usually chronic imbalances in one’s system generally become more acute before any deep healing takes place. You will find that your thoughts and your emotions will become more intense and frenetic at times causing periods of great discomfort. Bad moods and bouts of edginess and impatience are common during this time. Although it may seem like you are going crazy at times, this part of the process is important and necessary, so don’t worry about it too much. It is also common to experience intense dreams and very colorful fantasies.
The result of this kind of mental, emotional and psychic purification is that you will find you are becoming far more sensitive and alert to your own state of mind, as well as, the state and energy of the people and environments around you. Many people report an increased occurrence of psychic types of experiences (i.e., reading other people’s minds, anticipating unrelated events, as well as, an increased occurrence of synchronicity). In short, you will become more sensitive to the “energy” of people and places and things. You will become more sensitive to those aspects of our reality that remains hidden or unseen to most normal people. In the long run, this will not seem so unusual to you. What is strange is how most of us can be so blind and unaware of basic aspects of our existence for so long.
Again, as you go through this process, be sure to give as much respect and honor to the subtle and not so subtle changes that are taking place. This path of Yoga, this path of purification is very, very powerful. You are awakening great stores of energy, vitality and power within yourself that you perhaps never knew you had. Anytime, you awaken or come into contact with these kinds of energies, it is important to realize that with greater power, comes greater responsibility. By its nature, the purpose of this power is not intended simply for the gratification of your own selfish desires. In fact, to do so is foolish and dangerous in many different respects. Reflect deeply and mindfully about this process and take great care.
[Thank you, Govinda, for sharing some of your philosophy on Ashtanga yoga. And, thank you, for sharing so many of your wonderful, high-quality Ashtanga photos with the community via Flickr. These photos are from Govinda's set titled, My Personal Favorites. All the captions on these photos are Govinda's.
Readers, please share some of the changes you've experienced because of your Ashtanga practice in the Comments! -Ed.]