Hate is a very strong word. I never use it lightly. To say I hate Ashtanga would be an outright lie. I don’t hate Ashtanga. I don’t like the way my body feels sometimes when I’m doing certain poses in the Ashtanga primary series and sometimes I don’t like the way it feels for hours after the practice either. But I don’t hate Ashtanga. I don’t like the idea of having to wake up at 5am every single morning to attend the closest MySore class which is a 20 minute drive away from my home nor do I like having to practice by myself. But I don’t hate Ashtanga. I don’t like the constant struggle that goes on inside me about whether I should continue with this demanding and challenging practice that, on the best of days leaves me feeling calmer, stronger and more empowered as a human being, and yet on the not so good days, leaves me feeling week, broken and disappointed. I don’t hate Ashtanga. I just hate my relationship with it.
My first encounter with this intriguing practice was when I began my yoga teacher training back in the summer of 2013 at Downward Dog Yoga Centre in downtown Toronto. Before then I had dabbled in pre-natal yoga, hot yoga, Moksha yoga, and any other form of yoga that was offered at a nearby studio or gym and fit into my schedule. Nevertheless, it took only one class to draw me in. I was hooked before we were even halfway through the standing series. The poses were done in a very specific order, with each pose being held for a very specific five-breath count. Adjustments were made to my body, which for the very first time in ALL my years of doing yoga, allowed my body to understand what the pose was supposed to feel like as opposed to what I thought it is supposed to look like (there are no mirrors in an Ashtanga class). I was being challenged. This was actually hard stuff!! And just when I would begin to think I had mastered a pose, my ego would be shot down with yet another adjustment, or my teacher telling me to relax my muscles, relax my face, pivot my foot this way, rotate my bicep that way. There were days I thought I would never get a pose right.
It’s been two years now that I have been practicing Ashtanga and there are still days I feel like I just can’t get a pose right. But the difference between now and then is that today I am okay with that. Or at least that is what I tell myself. Here is where that love/hate thing comes into play.
As far as the Ashtanga practice is concerned, I am still a beginner. More than two years in and I’m still just beginning to scratch the surface. There are 68 poses in the primary series, not including Surya Namaskara A & B (the opening sun salutations) and I have yet to complete all of them. I could tell you how many I think I can do but that would just be my ego talking and if Ashtanga has taught me anything, it is to let that go. There are days during my self-practice when I arrive on my mat and I try to rush myself from one pose to the next. I take out the vinyasas between poses and sometimes even skip certain poses all together. Sometimes I am done my practice in 30 minutes. But that’s okay. I showed up. I at least did something. There are other days, like today, where from the very first inhale I feel exhilarated. I work through every single pose, every vinyasa, every seated jump through and attempted seated jump back (I still can’t do those just right) and manage to get through 66 of the 68 poses (okay so my ego came back. I’m still learning 😉 ). Today was a good day and I am happy about it. That is what actually prompted me to write this blog. I haven’t had a “good” day in my Ashtanga practice in a really long time.
There are some days during a Led Primary class that I feel pain in my body. I tell my students all the time to learn the difference between discomfort and pain and that it is okay to work through discomfort but one should never work through pain. You can’t force the body to do something it doesn’t want to do. I should heed my own advice. My “discomfort” threshold must be high because many times I tell myself that something just feels uncomfortable only to realize by the end of the class or the very next morning that it was actually pain. That is when injuries occur and I can’t tell you how many times I have had to take a break from my Ashtanga practice to heal my injuries. Whether it be my shoulder, my overworked hamstrings, my sciatica, my SI joint, my knee. You name it, I’ve probably felt it. It’s funny though cause I have rarely ever had to take a break from yoga in general…but my Ashtanga practice is different. It is more demanding. It is more taxing on my body. But more than that, it expects more from me than any other form of yoga I have ever taught or practiced. Or , wait a minute! Maybe it’s not Ashtanga that demands more from my body. Maybe it’s me in my Ashtanga practice. Could it be that my Type A personality is what continuously tells me I need to get to the next pose (for those of you who have never practiced in a traditional MySore or Led Primary setting, the teacher will stop you at a pose when they feel your body isn’t ready to move on to the next pose), or that I need to go deeper in my bends? Could that be the reason I am injuring my body? It’s not Ashtanga’ fault. It’s mine and trust me, coming to that realization was not easy. One of my teachers once told me that all of us who practice Ashtanga have Type A personalities…hence the word Ashtanga!
I am not, by the standard definition of the word (or perhaps the modern day definition), a true “Asthangi”. I don’t wake up every morning at the crack of dawn to practice six days a week. I don’t attend regular MySore classes and weekly Led Primary classes and I have never been to the Ashram in India. I practice Ashtanga mostly on my own and usually about 3 times a week. Either in the studio after I have taught a class or in my basement where my mat lies waiting for me in the middle of the room. Some days I can’t wait to get on to that mat and other days I just stare at it blankly not wanting to go near it. I told myself a few weeks ago, while I was taking one of my usual “breaks” to heal my knee and sciatica, that I was okay with not doing Ashtanga. Maybe it just isn’t for me. I told myself that I could still practice other types of yoga and it’s not like I teach Ashtanga so what is the big deal? The big deal is that I realized today that I have been lying to myself. I told myself I didn’t need to do it because I felt I wasn’t moving further in to my practice and I was tired of injuring myself. I was also frustrated with missing the last month of Led Primary classes and felt I had fallen behind. But truth be told, once I gave my body the rest it truly needed and came back to my mat this morning with intention to only do what I could, my body did more than it ever has!! I am so grateful for this body and make a promise going forward to give it the full respect it deserves.
Ashtanga is not just about the getting the pose right. If that was all I thought about I would be doing a huge disservice to the practice. Ashtanga is primarily a spiritual practice. But more importantly for me, it is a practice that forces me to look within. Deep within. It persuades me to face my fears, find my weaknesses and bring them to the forefront so that I can work on them and turn them into my strengths. It forces me to show up. To be present. To listen to my body and respect it. It makes me admit when I am weak, when I haven’t fully shown up and when I just need to hang up my mat and call it a day. These are all things I am learning on my mat and off my mat in my every day life. I have come a long way in these last 2 years and I have an even longer way to go. It’s going to be a bumpy road, but as long as I continue to remind myself of the reasons why I do it, I will continue on this path and let it guide me to where I need to be.
Did I say I hate my relationship with Ashtanga? I changed my mind…I think I kinda love it ;).
Until next time,
Have a fit and fabulous day!