“…Yoga taught me to be tender toward myself and to connect with, and cherish my body. Ashtanga taught me the rewards of persistence and consistency and to believe that with these tools, anything is possible.”
At the start of 2016 I was perusing Instagram (where I had previously only followed close friends and vice versa) and I stumbled across a series of yogis performing seemingly effortless handstands, the splits and better yet — handstands and the splits, all rolled into one. That, my brain said. I want that.
That very day I began to practice yoga — just in my bedroom, alone, a few minutes a night. Basic stretches, short flows streamed from the Yoga by Candace website or the Yoga with Adriene Youtube channel. I quickly learned that yoga was not the boring, lazy “fad” I had perceived it to be during my time at University…yoga was hard. I had not the strength to lift and jump back into chaturanga nor the balance to perform a simple headstand…and let’s not even talk about handstands! I also did not have the patience or the courage to lie still in savasana, with nothing but my breath to shield me from my roaming thoughts.
…I persevered. I followed a “yoga for strength” video series by Candace, every day for a month and I saw my crow pose (bakasana) evolve and strengthen. The changes and the improvements felt huge…and before I even realized it, I was hooked.
After that first month I decided it was time to start attending classes in order to receive the benefits of real live teachers. Usually notorious for indecision (born of a fear of making “the wrong choice”) I promptly bought a membership to a local hot and room-temperature “fusion-style” studio that offered vinyasa, power, yin, hatha, restorative and even a led hot Ashtanga class. I also participated in my first Instagram #yogachallenge…
In a nutshell, that is how my love affair with yoga first began. And oh, but how it has evolved.
At my studio I gained an appreciation for slow. Soft. A respect for the patience and the strength that is required for Yin yoga, for remaining in a posture for one, two, for five minutes. For allowing the emotions and sensations that arise to rise, for seeing them without making a story of them and then simply letting them pass. I learned about the meaning of “yoga,” the yoke between our mind and our physical body. How to nourish one, we must nourish the other. And for the first time, I gave consideration to the idea that perhaps my body was not my enemy to be conquered…but a friend, seeking love.
In practicing yoga I also began to work through my pervasive fear of failure and my drive to be “the best.” Each class would be filled with yogi’s of all levels, abilities, ages. Everyone modified based on their own needs. On occasion, I began to practice stepping back into chaturanga, challenging myself to sit with the uncomfortable feeling of “doing less”, even as the person next to me jumped back. “I can do that too!” I’d want to yell. But I forced myself to step back. My purpose was to challenge myself — to practice doing less than my best, to practice coping with being “less skilled” in my mind than the others around me. To learn to compare less. To learn to give myself grace.
…Meanwhile of course, on Instagram: #yogaeverydamnday. Although seeing these advanced, lithe yogis contort themselves into complicated postures may have initally skewed my perception of what it means to “be a yogi” (tip — you don’t have to be able to perform any particular posture), these accounts motivated me and expanded my repertoire of what was possible. At the studio, every class had to be catered to accommodate the fresh-to-yoga yogi, which eliminated a large variety of postures that required practice and persistence to perform. By following these challenges, in which I would post a photo of “that day’s” posture (or my best attempt at it) my knowledge of the asanas grew exponentially and I was encouraged to practice more, and different and more difficult poses…and by maintaining my “at-home practice” I was able to dedicate the necessary time to improving a given posture or to reaching a certain goal. And so my muscles grew and strengthened, my balance stabilized and I felt my enticing front splits come slowly, slowly within reach.
At this point (although I’ve rambled long enough, I’m sure) I’d like to introduce you to my dearest love: Ashtanga yoga. As I said, there was one teacher (my beloved, feisty, Star Wars-loving friend, Frederique) who was an Ashtangi and who taught a couple of led Primary or half-Primary Ashtanga classes a week. Something about the primary series, the postures (Aside: Ashtanga is a set series of postures that grows as you advance as a practitioner — it is also typically taught Mysore style (more on that here)) felt so incredibly right to me, that I soon never missed an Ashtanga class. I loved the memorization of the postures that came, how I could lose myself in my Teacher’s count and in my breath (5 inhales, 5 exhales) and quite nearly shut-off my ever-whirring brain. I loved the natural transition from the standing postures into the seated sequence, how a series of hip-openers gave way to cleansing twists, then to backbends and inversions. I loved the energy that built in the room as we sang the opening and closing chants. I loved (and still love) the repetition of the same postures every practice, how I was forced to remain humble as my body taught me how different it would choose to be and feel every day — for example, some days a previously “simple” pose would feel impossible. Yet even with the fickleness of the human body, I loved how clearly progress could be marked. When you practice the same postures day in and day out the changes that come are unmistakable.
…I’ve since transitioned to the traditional Mysore style of teaching, travelled to Ubud, Bali, the sometimes proclaimed “yoga capital of the world,” and moved cities where I now practice 6 mornings a week at an Ashtanga yoga shala. I have worked hard, backed off during injury, and achieved things I never thought possible. I can grab my heels unassisted in kapotasa. I can drop back into wheel pose from standing, and stand back up in a single breath. I can do the splits (front…don’t get me started on transverse)! Yoga taught me to be tender toward myself and to connect with, and cherish my body. Ashtanga taught me the rewards of persistence and consistency and to believe that with these tools, anything is possible.
I cannot sell yoga hard enough. Yoga is for everyone, whether it is yin or restorative, vinyasa, Bikram or Ashtanga. Hot power yoga to a Beyoncé soundtrack. Classical Iyengar (although I must here admit that I have never experienced this style, or Kundalini). Find a studio with teachers and a philosophy that vibe with you. Find a teacher that vibes with you. Unroll your mat at home with Candace or Adriene for free and just…get started. Roll out that spine and flex your wrists. Focus on breathing, on how it feels to fill your lungs and then slowly release the balloon of air. Maybe you are a hard-charging high-intensity athlete — well don’t kid yourself that yoga cannot be intense. I have seen professional athletes absolutely kicked after an Ashtanga practice. But more importantly, open your mind to the meditation in movement, in breath that is yoga. Give yourself that chance to tune into your body and your mind, to move in ways that feel good. Whatever it is you need or are missing–I believe that you can find it in a yoga practice. Just find the practice that is right for you.