Returning to Practice

I snuck a couple of postures from the Ashtanga primary series into my morning practice recently. I got to the seated section of my practice and I felt like I hadn't worked hard enough. Not in any kind of uptight, masochistic way--just that my body wanted to work harder. So after I'd done some backbending and forward folding, I doubled back to Paschimottanasana and worked all the way through a modified Marichyasana D. I also worked about with half and full Padmasana and experimented with Tolasana. 

In Savasana, I was exhilarated. My inner leg lines were singing, they were so awake. I felt so energized. I couldn't pull a bus down the street, but somehow the practice had lit me up from the inside. Not super-restful, but it was an unusual feeling.

It was the first time I'd done anything resembling Ashtanga in more than a year. 

In 2013, I had surgery. It was major, both personally and in scope, but also common enough, and in an analog (face-to-face) space I'd be happy to say more. Suffice to say, I went from a pretty active physical practice to a static one. After two months of resting, walking, and lots of yoga nidra, I found myself at my mat again.

I'm not sure what made me reach for Ashtanga at that point in my life, returning to my practice after weeks of being too tired to do more than walk around the block. Maybe it was all the David Swenson and Kino MacGregor videos on YouTube. Maybe it was that one of my first formative teachers was an Ashtangi, and for more than a year I attended her free community class, a led Half Primary Series. Maybe it was my Pitta personality that led me there: I just love order and organization, and I'd check out the print-outs and posters of all the poses and swoon.

Angela Jamison, an Ashtangi practicing and teaching in Ann Arbor, Michigan, writes that it's the most healing sequence she's ever encountered. All I know is, when I started working with that sequence, after I'd gotten the green light from my doc, I felt like a complete beginner. All of the strength, the balance, and any care I'd built up in my practice had evaporated. I was starting from scratch.

I spent about four months practicing consistently. It was a deeply healing practice, actually. One awkward salutation at a time, I began to regain some of the strength I'd lost, and I renewed my relationship to my body. It took lots of time and patience, a quality I don't get honest, but I began to build consistency, and after a time I returned to my physical practice feeling well-equipped to continue, and ready to begin teacher training in a few months--which I did.

I've since moved away from Ashtanga as a practice. I still love its order, and its ability to help a practitioner cultivate discipline and focus. I think the practice--as I was doing it, anyway--left me feeling unbalanced. I'd knock myself out for an hour or more trying to put my body into shapes, but when I reached the end, final rest, I had no direction on how long to stay. When I watched others in Mysore practice, they seemed to pop up after less than five minutes in Savasana. Also, I really wanted some kind of seated practice--some pranayama, some concentration technique--and I never got it. Some days I'd do a couple minutes of alternate nostril breathing, not really knowing if it was an appropriate fit; other days I'd try some slower Ujjayi, which felt totally wrong, but I didn't know what else to do. 

But the most important reason I departed the Ashtanga community was because I'm not sure it was the best practice for me. That series built up so much tapas that I'd leave the shala pissed off. Mad at the girl in my way as I was putting my shoes on; mad at the elevator for moving so slowly; mad that I'd bought too much parking, instead of just enough; mad at how hungry I was; mad at the songbirds for singing too sweetly: you get it. 

It's possible that this anger lives in me, and part of my life's work is to deal with it and let it go. It's possible that this practice aggravated my prakriti, with all of its tapas building, and sent me into hyperdrive. It's possible that I just didn't know how to modulate and release all the heat I was building. Maybe I needed more castor oil baths.

Most likely, the answer's D, all of the above.

I respect Ashtanga. I think it's a perfect practice when you're stuck and don't know what to do, or you're away from home and need something to corral your mind and body, or when you need to start from scratch and reset, as I did. It's nice to return to, like a friend who gets jokes no one else will, and you two can do the entire Miss You Much choreography you learned in 7th grade.

 I could definitely be seduced by the challenging, competitive side of Ashtanga, and wind up forcing, pushing, coveting. Injury. Suffering. Provocation. Once in a while it's perfect for some structure and power.But I'm glad that I've found a practice that suits me and helps me cultivate balance.