I started learning the Primary series of Ashtanga yoga last November on a whim. An acquaintance posted something on Instagram that caught my eye, leading me to follow Ashtanga Yoga Atlanta on the app. Just my luck, their beginners course was starting in just a couple weeks and at a very reasonable price! I hadn’t practiced any yoga in months, and my heart, body, and spirit yearned for it.
Something about yoga has always drawn me to it. The exhilaration of intricate poses, the difficult sequences that leave me drenched in sweat, the way my mind can let go of the outside world for just a few moments in time. Some classes have left me feeling out of place or like a Fitness Barbie wannabe, sure, but in so many other classes I have through the years found peace. An acceptance of self. Harmony, if you will. But it had been some time since I’d felt that way, even in one of my favorite studios. The exhilaration was there. The relaxation was there. But something was just… missing. And in the rest of my life, I had long felt that same sense of a missing piece of some greater puzzle.
In 2017, I made big changes in my life: dietary and lifestyle changes, predominately. After several years of therapy, my relationships began to shift and change, as well, as I grew in emotional maturity and strength of character. I felt better than I possibly ever had before mentally, emotionally, and physically, and yet I still knew some piece was missing.
For those who are not familiar, the Ashtanga practice is a form of one of three lineage yogas – along with the Sevananda and Iyengar forms. This means the teachings go back directly to their first emergence in India beyond what were essentially monasteries. Although much of yoga has been bastardized and Westernized, Ashtanga holds to the same key tenets and posture sequences that it did when it was first formed. For someone like me who did not grow up with a lot of discipline, this held a particular charm for me. There are six series, each with a specific sequence, and each sequence having a specific method and rhythm to it. Each sequence demands focus of the mind, exertion of the body, and a stillness and connectedness of the spirit I had never really experienced before. It took only one class to draw me in.
Although after the six-week beginner series I took a hiatus for personal reasons entirely unrelated to the practice, I was welcomed back warmly and encouraged to pick up where I left off. Now, six weeks back into the practice, I have not been given any new postures beyond the Half Primary series I learned during the beginner’s course. But each day of practice still brings something new – both about my practice and about myself.
Today, I learned three things:
- Every second of mindful effort is worth it. With short arms and long legs, I’ll admit I thought it might be physically impossible to pull of what we slangily refer to as a “jump-through”: you start in downward-facing dog and jump forward, swinging on your anchored arms and tucking your legs into your chest to sit down with your feet in front of you. The first time I tried it, it felt like the full-body equivalent of trying to lick my own elbow! But today, for the first time, my rear hit the floor at the same time my feet grazed it. Not there yet, but for the first time what seemed impossible four months ago now seems highly possible four months from now.
- Yoga is about relationships and trust. To be honest, these have always been difficult things for me in general, and it shows in my practice. When my teacher pushes me to help me get deeper into a posture, my muscles tense up. I don’t trust that even though the practice goes back more than a century, and he himself has been teaching for more than 20 years, I will be safe. I don’t trust that I will not break. It was a major thing for me to learn, though, because now I can work on letting go of that fear and allowing myself to trust him and trust the practice.
- Everything is connected, and it all comes back to the breath. After discovering that I was tensing my muscles during times when I could be trusting my teacher and allowing for further growth, I realized I was also holding my breath. Not on purpose, but it was as if my ribs were clinging to my lungs for the very life they were squeezing out of them! I noticed, too, in my deepest twists, that my breathing was labored and shallow, and my whole body felt as if in panic. I remembered the discussions with my therapist about how my juvenile rheumatoid arthritis made simple stretching intensely painful for me for many years – first in my childhood and then again in my adult life. It made sense that these difficult twists were triggering that past bodily stress response. And so, I began in these moments to focus on slowing my breathing and allowing my parasympathetic nervous system to kick in. I may only be starting to feeling more comfortable in these postures, but I also recognize that this is just the start in retraining my body to trust itself and let go of past trauma.
As cognitive animals, we humans must seek myriad ways to eek out an existence that we deem to be meaningful and worth living. For some, the practice of prayer brings peace to the worried mind. For others, running can take the edge off a stressful day. Still others may find emotional comfort in rituals. For me, yoga has been all of these things combined into one task that must be completed every morning, forcing a discipline into my life that is healthy and helpful. I am glad to have found it.
Whatever your restorative practices may be, I hope you utilize them well.