I’m more than halfway through this month-long Ashtanga experiment. As promised, here’s a photo of the treat I bought for myself, thanks to a coupon for the spa at the Palmer House. I got my toenails painted a color I’m calling Third Eye Indigo (OPI calls it Eurso Euro. I like mine better).
I discovered myself injured after practice yesterday. I don’t know what I did—if there was a particular moment that something got pulled or tweaked—but at some point I was in pain. This pain, a tight ache on either side of my lower back/ribcage, was present overnight and still here with me when I woke this morning. I wondered if I should practice at all, but I remembered words I’d read from Angela Jamison: “Practice in the body you have today. No matter what, you can accept and move with the body-mind that’s here right now… When I have been injured or ill, I still roll out the mat. I sit, like or gently move, focus on the breathing, remain calm and feel the energy in my body… This practice of coming to the mat even when there is great difficulty is often fascinating, and sets a new baseline for further gratitude for my body.”
So the practice today was slower. Often, when I move slower, I work more deeply, but not today; because I was sore, I wasn’t pushing myself further into poses. I focused on my breathing and the bandhas. Sometimes I would hold poses longer because I hadn’t engaged the bandhas at the beginning of the pose. (Also, I found myself doing more sun salutations than usual, both A and B. It felt good and necessary, but also I was colder than I usually am at this time of day. Winter has finally descended for real.)
Injury is nice because it slows you down. It forces you to either choose to ignore your body—which is to say push through the pain or anesthetize it—or to connect and listen to your body and to move with curiosity and care.
After my asana, I sat on my mat at my altar. There’s a brass icon of Ganesha and one of Nataraja (Dancing Shiva), and today I was thinking of Ganesha, really trying to take him in. My Ganesha is seated, and has a lovely round belly. Not much of the images I see in yoga pop culture feature people who have lovely round bellies. I began to think about gratitude, about my lovely round belly, and how grateful I can be for it.
I don’t think the fitness world—including yoga—teaches us much about gratitude for our bodies just as they are. We think about exercise as a means for losing weight, releasing endorphins, building strength and flexibility, all kinds of results: but seldom is exercise an expression of pure gratitude. What if it were? Stepping up to the mat or lacing up our running shoes, or working with the heavy bag or the Cadillac, what if whatever we did to stay healthy, we did to express gratitude to and for our bodies? What a generous gift it would be to love our bodies in such a marvelous healthy way. It might undo some damage for us.
Day 30 the final day of my month of Ashtanga, and instead of bounding out of bed at 5:15, 5:20, 5:30 as I’ve been doing, I felt so addicted to sleep, that after I turned off my alarm, I went back to bed and slept until 7:30. I didn’t get on the mat until almost 8 am. That’s the bad news. The good news is I was able to practice just as well as if I were practicing early in the morning. There’s a nice kind of magic practicing in the early morning. It’s dark and quiet and all of living buzzing energy hasn’t quite started yet.
I wonder often about the nature of Ashtanga as a “householder’s practice”. I don’t know if it fits seamlessly into everyone’s lives, though I know it’s designed to do so. I walk down the street and consider the fireman, the mail carrier and the bus driver, the doctor, the baker—do they have daily yoga practices? What if they wanted to?
So, here we are, at the end of 30 days of Ashtanga: what have I learned? What do I have to show for it?
I think I kind of hate this very question. It feels like I come to yoga with my hand out: I want to be able to show something for my work. I must have results! What can you do? It’s a Western way of thinking: our world is based in results. But it makes me feel stuck in a kind of loop, like I’ll never get out of thinking this way because I keep thinking this way. The Gita would never approve of this idea of measuring results; a key part of yoga is a detachment from the results. No post-practice debrief or measurement.
This morning I’m thinking of one of the yamas, aparigraha, or non-grasping (non-greediness). I feel a great sense of grasping, not in the sense of stuff, but in the sense of knowledge. What else can I learn, learn, learn, what can I know, know, know, so that I can possess all of this knowledge! Never mind that I can’t settle on what I would do with it! I don’t think the grasping serves me well. It’s an escape from the world of tangible, measurable results, but it’s just another ego trap. I don’t want to think about what I can collect on, after having invested four weeks on a physically and emotionally demanding practice.
Having said that, I know I have to reflect, to take stock of my experience, and part of my intention was to observe without judgment. So, what happened?
- I love the early wake up call, but it’s still hard to get up. Part of this challenge requires that I get up before 6 am to do my yoga. On the plus side, I’m at my best in the morning, and waking early feels aligned with my internal rhythms. The other side of that coin means that I have to actually be a wakeful, functioning adult at 5:30 am, or earlier, if I can manage it. I’ve tried taking some good advice on how to wake early, but it still feels I have to fight with myself in order to get up. I cling to the hope that some part of me will be able to do this willingly. Not yet.
- My body is definitely changing, though not in a way I expected. I haven’t lost any weight, though I do feel stronger and like I’m building more muscle. Things feel open than when I began the practice. My hips, my hammies, my shoulders: everything feels like it has a little more play in it. There are still quite a few poses I struggle with, ahem, utthita hasta padangusthasana, and anything with a lotus leg, too. But the practice is changing my body. I think the breathing I do might be making more space in my ribcage. It feels wider; my bras feel tighter, and I know my boobs aren’t getting any bigger. (Though how cool would that be, if yoga gave you bigger tits? Suddenly classes would be a lot more crowded.)
- I feel that “opening” that yoga teachers talk about. In the last week or so I’ve been deeply aware of my hips and pelvic floor—I spend more time than anyone should considering my piriformis while walking down the street, or what my psoas is doing while I’m putting away groceries. Sometimes, while bending over, I just stay there for a while, let out a gutsy sigh and enjoy the stretch. I don’t exactly know what’s moving in there, but something is and I can feel it.
- Ashtanga makes me angry. The yoga teachers also say that we store a lot of emotions in our hips. Well I must be carrying anger (and pain, underneath it), because the more yoga I do, the more I feel the anger. In an issue of Yoga Journal, Sally Kempton wrote that she told her meditation teacher that meditation was making her irritated. “‘It’s not that mediation makes you irritated’, he replied, ‘you have a lot of irritation inside you, and meditation is bringing it out to be released.’” I imagine something similar is happening in my yoga practice. My body-mind has stored up a lot of pain in my hips and this movement is opening it up and moving it around. Fortunately, being at least a little aware of this can help me find a positive place to channel this pain and not at those around me.
- I love the discipline that this practice imparts. This work hasn’t been easy, but I did it! I got up at the crack of dawn and did hard yoga almost every day, and (most of the time) I liked it! I’m not a disciplined person, and this practice has brought an energy and a structure into my life that I love. On the other hand,
- I really miss poses that aren’t in the sequence. Every day it’s the same thing. I miss goddess pose, and restorative pigeon, and I miss a proper lunge that lasts for longer than two seconds. I miss the variety of coming to my mat and just seeing what I felt like doing that day. I hope to find a way to make Ashtanga a bit more flexible (ha! Yoga pun!) so that it has the same structure but also some variety, to keep my flighty nature focused.
At the end of it all, I’m so glad I did this. Ashtanga’s really helped me deepen my practice, and it is definitely the ego-busting challenged that it promised to be. While I can see some change, and it’s largely positive, I’m not sure 30 days was enough to make me a convert. The kind of profound physical and subtle change that might be possible is on its way, but a month wasn’t enough time to bring it here in full. As a practice, it hasn’t yet cemented itself in my life. It has more the consistency of tapioca pudding than asphalt.
Maybe it just means more practice.