Thursday, August 22, 2013

Do your practice, all is coming

So I've written about Ashtanga in this space before, but not as much as I'd thought I had. It's been on my mind for weeks now.
This is Kino MacGregor, the yoga world's Ashtanga darling. She's got a killer bod, and her down-to-earth instruction has made the practice accessible for lots of practitioners. I can't swear by her methods, but she sure is cute. And check the delts.

This isn't a yoga blog, it's true, despite the fact that I write about yoga an awful lot. I write about yoga so much because I think about it, and because it's a really useful tool in understanding some of what I struggle with in life (right now, a sense of direction, #BlackPowerisforBlackMen, what "Spirituality" means, who am I post-surgery). My yoga practice is the place where good writing happens, it's a place that is safe when almost every other place feels threatening, and even when my practice feels distant or stiff (as it does right now) or rife with self-judgment, it's where I go. So even as I'm thinking about how much it hurts to connect to the pain of rejection (specifically within the context of culturally being abused and rejected by black men, not as a mate but as a member of one's (my) own community), yoga feels appropriate.

So, Ashtanga. If I haven't said it yet, I have a complicated relationship with Ashtanga. Ashtanga is a deeply athletic, highly structured system of asana that involves practicing the same sequence of poses, in the same order, with the same breath technique and the same energy locks, or bandhas. It's broken down into several series, Primary, Intermediate, etc. and I think there are seven or eight in all. But Primary is Primary, no matter where you go. It's a bit like Bikram, or maybe a Catholic church in that way: you can walk into any Ashtanga studio anywhere in the world, and the Primary series will always be the same. You don't need to speak the language to practice.

(As an aside, the name is a bit of a misnomer. Ashtanga translates to "eight limbs", which actually describes the path of yoga as a lifestyle as opposed to exclusively a physical practice. Asana, poses, is only the third  limb of eight that constitute yoga: but that's a bit of a rabbit hole and would take us off our point.)

I love the structured nature of the practice. At its best, it feels rhythmic, meditative, familiar and always challenging. Structured things make me quite happy. I love order, and I follow rules. I swoon in office supply stores. There is a part of me that is deeply soothed by the structure and order of the Primary Series. I don't have to decide what to do, because it's all there, laid out for me, I just have to show up and try.

I fell in love with Ashtanga in grad school. I'd recently moved away from my friends and community, I was chest-deep in my thesis, and I spent so much time making words that I wasn't interested in any kind of experience (especially a spiritual one) that involved language. So every Sunday night, I would go over to Yoga Now--back when it was on the North Side, on Broadway at Thorndale--and take the free class taught by Patricia Hyland. A dark-haired short woman in her 50s, Patricia had been practicing Ashtanga for decades, and would start every class with an unsolicited and rambling mini-lecture (welcome by me, despite my need for silence) about Ashtanga. Then she'd decide it was time to get down to business and we'd do Half Primary, all of us. It was hard. It was quiet. It was an opportunity for me to dive into whatever I was bringing into the room that day, and to come face to face with it. I loved it.

But I also have a hard time with it. I'm the kind of yogi who takes the whole idea of different yoga traditions with a giant grain of salt. There's a kind of purist vibe about Ashtanga, its ancient quality, its connection to the Indian subcontinent (Mysore is both a method of practicing that involves learning sequences slowly, one pose at a time, over many months or years, and the city in Southern India for which the method is named), its profound discipline and punishing demands. I believe in the wisdom of our teachers, and I understand why one woman would  prefer Iyengar to  vinyasa, and why Tantra traditions just seem too far out there for some Type A's, but really. At the end of the day, it's all about a physical practice that unites movement and breath, body and mind, gross and subtle, masculine and feminine. Does it matter what lineage we hold up as our favorite? (Having said that, my sweet spot is Tantra, because that metaphysical, shiva/shakti stuff is right up my street.) I wonder about the safety and accessibility of some poses: Ashtanga strikes me as a system of yoga westerners would take to like fish to water, because it's can be goal-oriented, about go-go-go, push-push-push, achieving the next level. Lots of people hurt themselves when they practice thoughtlessly; they push too hard. This is true of just about any physical activity, so it's not a huge deterrent, but still. Also, I struggle with the beauty of Ashtanga. Ashtangis are gorgeous, and I mean in the way you'd expect a yogi to be: they're lithe, muscular and graceful. During practice, they mist themselves with oil and water (only so that they can shove arms through legs in kukutasana) and they glisten with strength and beauty. Not long ago, Yoga Journal did a spread about this woman and this project, and it really rubbed me the wrong way. As stunning and powerful a practice as this is, I don't trust the outward celebration of the stunning physical body that it creates in its practitioner.

Given this love/hate relationship, I go back and forth with Ashtanga. For a time, I practice, working diligently but compassionately with what bit I can in Primary series, then I decide Ashtanga's not for me, and I give in and do what I want to do: sun salutations that involve lunges, poses to open my outer hips that I can actually get into, yin (!) yoga. It's wonderful. But then I begin to feel like something's missing, like my practice, all loosey goosey and going with what my body wants, just isn't hooking me enough. I pull out my Ashtanga books and handouts, and I cruise the interwebs for one or two Ashtanga blogs that I can cling to for inspiration when my discipline is flagging and I just don't wanna anymore.

It's a cycle. Not vicious, but not fun.

I find myself back again, fascinated by the structured and nature of Ashtanga, thinking that given some other life changes I'm dealing with that it would be good to have a yoga practice that was a) unchanging; and b) could help me connect to myself, get to know that which is new, grow, change and discover. I need exercise, I need to build strength, stamina, discipline, endurance. Why not pick up a yoga practice which will help me cultivate all these things?

Because it's fuckin' hard, that's why.

I don't mean hard like, man-I-can't-get-my-foot-up-to-my-thigh-in-tree-pose hard. I mean hard. You want a practice that will force you in an unattractive way to get to know your ego, Ashtanga is it. It requires a lot of you and takes a lot out of you, and if you don't bring a truckload of patience and compassion to the mat with you, and I mean every time you practice, you won't make it. I find myself thinking of it as the ego smashing practice, because every time I step to the mat, what I think I know about yoga dissolves and evaporates in the room and it fills with my hardworking, frustrated energy.

I wasn't sure if I should even try practicing Ashtanga at this point in life. It's true, I need to get back to a place where my body is strong and healthy. I'm softer in places I don't want to be, and taking care of myself means building muscle tone, endurance and strength. I began to wonder if I was just too old, if I should just let go of Ashtanga forever.

But the Universe has been sending me all kinds of messages not to do that. On Sunday, the Foundational class I went to at my favorite studio was taught by an Ashtangi, and our class mirrored the Primary series in a way that was uncanny, although still accessible. Kino MacGregor, see above, keeps showing up on an online yoga magazine I check out. On top of which, one of the yoga blogs I read just posted a led Ashtanga-inspired video for beginners. The Universe is rising up to meet me, and it's bringing Primary series.

If my body learned these poses once, it can learn them again. If I learned to wake before six a.m. so I can finish my practice and have breakfast early, I can learn again. If I woke and practiced without checking FB or Twitter, I can do it again (although that will be quite hard). It just takes more time this time around.

I'm considering making my journey with Ashtanga a little more public this time. Not here, but maybe at my blog at MsFit. If you're interested, let me know. I like reading those kinds of things, but I don't know if anyone else does.

Until I decide, I guess my job is to put my head down, make my body my laboratory, and trust the words of Sri K. Pattabhi Jois. Do my practice, all is coming.

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