Six Years of Ashtanga Yoga

I’ve been reflecting on my Ashtanga yoga journey each year since I committed to this form of practice back in 2014. You can read about past years here. 2020 was the year of the pandemic for us all and a year of practicing the mindful attitude of letting go for many of us. Disruption is a common thread in my past posts about this practice, but the disruption this year was worldwide. Because of the pandemic, there were no Ashtanga yoga retreats, no live workshops with traveling experts, no visits to gurus on their world tours. There was only me unplugged or in front of a computer screen in a hallway in my basement, at the foot of my bed, or on my deck in good weather.

Almost everything I said in my last post was turned on its head. My home studio offered no online Mysore style practice and my uncoordinated and glasses-needing self could not adapt well to choreographed practices online. So, I practiced exclusively Mysore style at home at first, then virtually in Columbus, OH and Miami, FL for several months. Working with new teachers challenged me more than ever and my practice took me to places I hadn’t been before. One teacher said to me, “Quit making it about getting from posture to posture and focus more on the transitions.” I started taking lots of led practices to better learn the counts and to focus on the spaces between rather than on the destination. I was feeling a level of confidence in my practice I hadn’t previously felt… and then, as is the nature of all worldly things, it fell apart.

In June I developed a debilitating pain in my side and lost appetite and energy. I couldn’t sleep on one side of my body because of severe pain and I couldn’t practice yoga at all. I finally went to the doctor and discovered that my body was producing elevated levels of red blood cells and platelets while running low on ferritin – a strange combination – and there is, as of yet, no diagnosis. There are no answers – we wait and watch, ruling out until we might one day rule in. This ambiguity has been great fodder for my mindfulness practice, but disruptive to my asana practice. It’s been like starting over again and very humbling.

Again and again I receive this important lesson from the universe; getting in my own way, hyper-focusing on what I’m drawn to, tends to be counter-productive. It reminds me of these cheap fidget novelties you see at gas stations and pharmacies, sometimes called “water wigglers” – flexible tubes filled with liquid that, if you squeeze them too tightly, will shoot right out of your hands. If you hold them lightly, they provide sensory stimulation that can enhance attention to tasks. This conditioning to strive, leverage, and pursue is so deeply ingrained, yet most things that have borne fruit in my life have been things I’ve held lightly. My continual lesson is non-striving, letting go and letting be – will I learn it in this lifetime?

I’ve found that, unless you’re a fiercely self-compassionate person who is willing to very assertively set boundaries over and over, most group ashtanga yoga classes don’t tend to offer a great environment for nursing an invisible illness or injury. A good number of teachers (fortunately not at my local studio) treat skipping postures or making significant modifications as softness or laziness. “Can’t or won’t?” they’ll ask. I recognized this tendency in myself as well – it’s the conditioning that likely drew me to this practice in the first place. Like anything taken to an extreme, it can transform from balm to poison.

Most of us have had to practice letting go in one way or another this year. I had to work through some grief around the changes in my practice. Heading to the shala at dawn was how I started most mornings for years – a place I felt healed, whole, connected, and free. I’ve also had to let go of the conviction that I’d ever get back there, or to they way things were, or to the particular form of practice I’d once enjoyed. Everything is uncertain – the state of the world, my own health and capabilities. I recall the parable of the old farmer, “Good or bad, who can say?” to remind myself of patience. I silently recite the mantra, “Right now, it’s like this” to return to the refuge of the present moment – to what is real and true here and now, which I’m grateful to find is always quite workable. May we hold our loves lightly and remain flexible and resilient in the certitude of uncertainty.

I said to the wanting-creature inside me:
What is this river you want to cross?
There are no travelers on the river-road, and no road.
Do you see anyone moving about on that bank, or nesting?

There is no river at all, and no boat, and no boatman.
There is no tow rope either, and no one to pull it.
There is no ground, no sky, no time, no bank, no ford!

And there is no body, and no mind!
Do you believe there is some place that will make the
soul less thirsty?
In that great absence you will find nothing.

Be strong then, and enter into your own body;
there you have a solid place for your feet.
Think about it carefully!
Don’t go off somewhere else!

Kabir says this: just throw away all thoughts of
imaginary things,
and stand firm in that which you are.

– Kabir, I Said to the Wanting-Creature Inside Me

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