What does that mean? Follow the phases of the moon? Aren’t we a little too sophisticated and scientific these days for “following the moon?” Sounds like something one of our ancestors might have done. But there is a very good reason to follow the phases of the moon.
What do you do on Moon Days? Nothing! You take rest. No asana, no pranayama, no meditation. Just chill out.
Ashtanga is unique among other systems of yoga in that practitioners observe Moon Days. Moon Days are days when the moon is either completely full or completely dark (also called a New Moon). On Moon Days, Ashtangis are supposed to not practice any of the Series, for reasons I will explain later. Typically, there are two Moon Days every month, one for the full moon and one for the new moon. When you have two full moon in one month, which occasionally happens, then it is called a Blue Moon (hence the meaning of the phrase, “Once in a blue moon,” to indicate rare occurences).
Now, Ashtanga is also unique among other systems of yoga in that practitioners are encouraged, if not enjoined, to practice the series every day, and take rest on Saturdays.
[A brief digression on Saturdays: I know that the “tradition” has changed recently in Mysore, so now the rest day is Sundays. I’ve been practicing for about 15 years, so it is hard for me to change that long of a pattern in my nervous system. Also, Saturdays are associated with the planet Saturn, the god of limitation and restriction, duty and discipline. Saturn is cold, dry, and harsh. I like to start my practice on Sundays (the day of the Sun, giver of all life) and end my practice on Fridays (the day of Venus, the godddess of love and relationship). It just feels better.
Plus, I have always associated Saturday with rest in general, and morning relaxation (Saturday morning cartoons, anyone?!?)]
Back to the topic: Moon Days and Ashtanga.
So, Ashtangis typically practice six days a week. They take Saturdays (or Sundays) off from practice. This can be a grueling, if not unrealistic, routine for many, if not most, practitioners. It can also deter many people from starting an Ashtanga practice. But more on that later.
Enter the Moon Days. With the Moon Days, you get two additional days off each month from practice (unless it so happens that the Moon day fall on a Saturday). Some months, it might be a Wednesday; other months, like this one, it is a Friday. It helps to break up the regularity and routine of a practice, and it also teaches you, more importantly, how to detach from your practice. As we know, Ashtangis love to practice. And learning the series can become obsessive, almost compulsive.
What is the yogic explanation of moon days? The idea is that the body is affected by the phases of the moon. During a full moon, the body is more watery, the mind is more aggressive and assertive, and we may tend to be more headstrong and quick to act. There is plenty of folklore among people about more murders, more emergencies, more ER visits occurring during a full moon than during other days. During a New Moon, the body is drier, the mind is more lethargic and unfocused, and we may tend to be more depressed and unmotivated. Of the two, it is generally more important to not practice on New Moon Days, as the combination of dry joints and aggressive movements may not be favorable.
Take that explanation as you like.
More importantly, though, is the concept behind the Moon Days, and this is the central thread running through this post: the idea of following cycles in our lives. The Moon goes through visible phases every month. Let’s say our observation of the Moon begins on a New Moon. The moon will be completely dark. Every day, the moon becomes more visible, sliver by sliver of light, until 14 days later, the moon is completely full. Then the moon begins to wane once again, becoming less fuller day by day, until 14 days later, the moon is once again completely dark, hence new.
Now, we often think that our practice of Ashtanga is linear and progressive. I start with learning Surya A and B, then the standing postures, etc, etc. Every day, I add on one more posture, and my practice gets a little longer. I keep making progress each day, and it will never end.
But the truth is, progress is not linear. Life is not linear. Some days you are less energetic than others, and it feels better to do a shorter practice or to just take a walk. You may occasionally strain a muscle or become ill with the flu, and you cannot practice all of Primary or Intermediate. Or you are traveling across continents, and you cannot find a space to unroll your mat. In other words, your life is constantly shifting and changing, and your body is also constantly changing. As you grow older, your practice also changes. If you have surgery, your body changes, hence your practice will change. If you become pregnant, your practice will change because your body has changed. After you give birth, your body will be different than it was before you became pregnant.
So it is a myth that the Series will always be the same, regardless of conditions and circumstances. And, as you can read in the book of interviews called Guruji: A Portrait of Sri K. Pattabhi Jois Through the Eyes of His Students, the Ashtanga Series have changed and evolved over the years. There is no original, true Primary Series, or Intermediate, or Advanced A or B, (C, or D, for that matter). Guruji was constantly evolving and experimenting with the Series. Read Mark Darby’s interview where he says that the Advanced Series were changed depending on your strengths.
After all, he called his center the Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute, with a subtle emphasis on Research.
So…I encourage you to do the following in your practice:
- Keep a Moon Journal: Take a note of when the full moon and the new moon are each month. Three days before the official Moon Day, observe how you feel, how you are reacting to others, how others are interacting with you, how your practice feels, how your body feels. Just make a quick note each day. Then, after 5 or 6 months, review the journal to see if you can see any patterns. Don’t get caught up in assuming that a Full Moon will be characterized by more aggressive actions, or that a New Moon will be more depressing and down (although they might!). Look for the subtleties.
- Adjust your practice according to the phases of the moon: Just as the moon waxes from New to Full and wanes from Full to New, so experiment with the same pattern in your practice. From the New to the Full Moon, focus on adding on new postures (if applicable), on challenging your strength and flexibility. Focus on building your practice, on experimenting with new techniques, new subroutines, new approaches. It is a period of accretion. From the Full Moon to the New Moon, focus on consolidating your practice. That is, focus on refining your alignment in postures, on smoothing out your vinyasas. Clean up your practice from all extraneous movements. Learn how to hold back slightly when holding a posture, so you are not pushing to 100% within the stretch. Focus more on the breath and the shape of the posture, rather than your willful imposition of where you should be within the posture. In other words, focus on refining your practice as you move towards the New Moon.
- Practice the Chandra Krama (Moon Sequence) once a week. The Moon Sequence is an alternative vinyasa sequence designed by Matthew Sweeney, meant to address the same focal points of Primary Series (forward bends, twists and core strength), while also placing less strain on the shoulders, wrists and lower back. I am teaching a Moon Workshop at Washington Yoga Center in April. Or if you are a regular Mysore student at Yoga District, we can discuss integrating Moon Sequence into your weekly practice.
So, take rest today. Today is a New Moon. New Moons are associated with starting new projects, planting seeds, and for reflecting upon one’s path. Take what you have learned in this post and reflect upon your own practice.
As always, I appreciate your feedback in the comments below. If you find this to be valuable, please share my website with your friends and fellow Ashtangis!