What I Talk About When I Talk About Yoga

Bear with me. This is a long one.

I’ve been wanting to write a post about yoga since a few people expressed interest in it when I wrote this post…last year. Oops. People may not be so interested now, but maybe? What if I promise this post contains no yoga selfies? I swear. Not that kind of post. I also promise not to take myself too seriously and refer to myself as a yogi. (I do own two Manduka mats, so obviously I am practically an expert…) You’re welcome.

Honestly, for a long time I was not interested in yoga. About 15 years ago I went to a few classes, but they were a sort of gentle stretching thing. Nothing wrong with that kind of yoga (I went with a friend who was still recovering from surgery resulting from breast cancer), but at the time I didn’t know of any other option besides Bikram, where you hold the same sequence of 26 static postures over several hours in a room heated somewhere between 95 and 108 degrees. I grew up in that kind of heat, so you might think I have a high tolerance for it. No. That kind of heat makes me feel claustrophobic, and I’m perfectly okay with being too mentally weak to shore myself up and deal with it.

When I started running in 2009, I found a bunch of running bloggers to follow. Almost all of them used yoga as recovery. (I still follow one, Peanut Butter Runner, who teaches yoga—although not Ashtanga—and now owns a yoga studio. She’s been through a lot, and I find her posts inspiring.) My interest was piqued, but aside from trying a few Yoga Download videos, I stuck to my weights and running routine. Eventually I got lazier and lazier…I stopped the weights, and then the running, and in 2015 when I wanted to get back shape I went to a trainer who suggested I supplement my workouts with yoga. The gym I go to offers lots of yoga classes, so many I wasn’t sure where to start, so I picked a class listed on the schedule as “Yoga Basics” that was at a good time for my schedule.

I came out of that first class completely impressed and totally hooked. It was like going for a run, if going for a run meant moving yourself around on a mat and breathing deeply for an hour. I went back the following week and the week after that. I was so lost in class most of the time that it took me a while to realize we were basically doing the same postures over and over again, with a few variations toward the end of class. And then one day my instructor sat up at the front and said the style of yoga we were doing was called Ashtanga, and it was founded by Sri K. Pattabhi Jois. He explained the deep breathing with sound that he asked us to do during the class. He explained why the room should never be heated (so you build your own inner heat, which helps you to heal).

Overall, Ashtanga is much more than a series of postures. If you’re interested in the history and background, you can read more about it here. You may be familiar with the term power yoga; Ashtanga was the basis for that, but they aren’t the same thing. I’m not really here to give you a lesson on Ashtanga, but here are the bare-bones basics: In Ashtanga, there are six series (or levels). You begin with Primary Series (duh), which is called Yoga Therapy or Yoga Chikitsa (how cute is that?) and is intended to help your body heal itself internally. The Second, or Intermediate, Series is called Nadi Shodhana, or the nerve-cleansing series. After that, students move into more deeply complicated postures in the next four Advanced Series, or the Strength Series (this refers to both mental and physical strength). Forget about Advanced Series for now. It’s amazing, but it looks like some serious Cirque du Soleil action. I’m not trying to scare you.

Back to Primary Series. It’s a 90-minute series, and it follows the same sequence every time. We hold each pose for five breaths. Between postures (asanas), you do a vinyasa (chaturanga, upward dog, downward dog); in the seated part of the series, you do a vinyasa between each side. There are also transitions in and out of asanas and into vinyasa. This creates the flow and ensures you keep the heart rate at a certain level. You breathe deeply through your nose, making a sort of Darth Vader sound, and on each pose you focus your gaze on a specific point (called a drishti). You practice in relative silence, with only the instructor’s voice and the sound of breathing to fill the room. (If you’re curious, you can watch the first half of Primary Series here. This is where beginners generally start.)

I tried a few Vinyasa Flow classes, just to compare. Generally in these classes, the room is heated, and the instructor tells you what comes next in the flow. It’s never the same twice, and sometimes the instructor just…uh, lets you do you. These classes also tend to have music, either all through or at various points in class. At least, that’s how it happened in the classes I took. I felt too hot and mostly lost. I had no idea what to do when the teacher said, “Do what you feel is right for your body,” and everyone started doing completely different things. I didn’t like that there seemed to be no order, and I found the music distracting (by contrast, I love music when I run).

I prefer Ashtanga. I like the silence. I like knowing the sequence. Each posture builds on the last one, preparing you for what’s next (and also for what’s to come in Second Series). You might think doing the same thing over and over is boring or easy. I assure you, it isn’t. Tuning into what you’re doing and releasing attention on everything else is not easy, but that’s the reason for doing the postures in the same order each time and focusing the gaze on a specific point. Primary series starts with Sun Salutations and then moves through a series of standing postures that include forward folds and balancing postures. After that you move into a seated series that contains a lot of forward folds and binds. Yes, it helps to be flexible, but so much of what it also requires is strength. Or at least, it requires you to work on developing these things equally. I’m sure there’s a rule somewhere that says we aren’t supposed to favor one pose over all the others, but my favorite is utthita hasta padangushtasana:

Some days my balance is awesome and other days I teeter right over. If I ever went back to a Vinyasa Flow class and was told to do my own thing, I’d probably just stand around holding my toe until the instructor told me to stop.

Truth: a very flexible person could walk into class and probably do almost every posture. Some, like garbha pindasana, where you thread our hands through your legs in lotus and then rock and then balance on your hands in kukkutasana (that’s what Sharath Jois is doing on the cover of that book in the picture, by the way), may take even a very flexible person some practice, especially if he or she is weak. But even the most flexible people tend to struggle with the flow and the transitions, and they find it hard to concentrate and keep up, and most importantly, many of them struggle with the strength required…and a lot of the time, they don’t come back. What’s interesting is who shows up week after week: men and women of all ages, of all sizes, some of us not very flexible or graceful, but we all continue to come to class and put in the work. 

Truth: Ashtanga is not supposed to be competitive. In fact, the most traditional style is Mysore, after the place in India where Pattabhi Jois lived and where his son Sharath Jois lives now and runs the school his father founded, where all Ashtanga teachers go to get authorized/certified to teach. There are only 80 certified teachers in the world, and maybe three times that are authorized. In Mysore style, you practice alone, moving through the full series. You are supposed to focus on your mat, yourself, your breathing, your drishti. But doing Ashtanga in the real world, at a gym, it feels competitive. Let’s face it: it’s a yoga class at a gym, and many people are at the gym because they want to look a certain way. It can be very difficult not to compare yourself to other people in the class. People believe they should not sit at the front until they reach a certain level. (I sit at the front, but in a far corner, because I like not being able to see anyone else.) It can be tough when you see someone getting into a bind like marichyasana D after a few months, when you know that posture is still probably a year or more away for you. It can feel disheartening when it feels like the instructor gives the most attention to a very specific clique of people (and easy to forget there are 40-50 people in class, so it’s probably not personal).

But for me, the transformation has been amazing. I started practicing four or five times a week in February 2016. When I say “transformation,” I don’t mean how I look. As far as flexibility goes, I’m somewhere in the middle. As strength goes, on the weaker side of middle. I naturally have a lot of anxiety. In the classes I take, I am firmly in the middle of the pack. My forward folds are awesome, but I struggle with anything that requires open shoulders, and I cannot do a headstand very well on my own. In fact, I was just about to get there last summer when I fell out of one and broke my three little toes (oh, that makes it sound like I have three feet; three little toes on my right foot). A couple of remarkable things happened: one was that I fell and immediately went to class and practiced, not realizing the severity of my injury. I promise you if that had happened the year before and I hadn’t even really been injured, I probably wouldn’t have even gone to class, instead declaring I needed to take it easy. The second thing was that I was back on my mat two months to the day after my injury, and I swear my foot healed faster because of it. And I also attempted the headstand. For me, this is a huge mental transition. Before, I would have given up. I’m not a very disciplined person. I’ll almost always choose what’s comfortable.

Don’t think I don’t cry. And sometimes I consider quitting. Running never made me cry. (I probably will start running again; it’s the only thing I love as much.) Lifting weights didn’t either. But there have been times I’ve been so frustrated during class, when a posture that was easy the week before is suddenly gone, or when I fall over (happens all the time), or when I feel like I don’t belong because I’m not young or thin or flexible enough. But those days are far and few between (except for the falling over part), and they also mean I am showing up and facing those things every time. The truth is, I am somewhat less anxious. I am more confident, not in how I look but how I feel. I’ve been in much better shape in the past and I’m a little overweight, but every time class brings me something new, I feel strong and capable, and I carry that out into the world with me. That’s the thing that keeps me going back, more than anything. A few weeks ago I had one of those days where nothing was right in class, and I felt foolish, like I should just give up. But I told myself, my practice is my practice. Whatever it is today is all it is. What I did yesterday doesn’t matter, and what’s to come is irrelevant. And I went back to class the next day, and did a 15-breath-count headstand. (No joke…and then haven’t done it since!) My practice is my practice. And there you have it.

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2 comments

  1. Thanks for all this great info! You’re inspiring me to get back to my practice, which has lagged quite a bit since I took a new job last year. But I miss it so much. I felt so much better, both mentally and physically, when I was practicing regularly.

    The very first yoga studio I attended with any regularity was an Ashtanga studio, and I can see the appeal of working through the same sequence each time. I didn’t gel with the teacher there, so I switched to a Hatha/Vinyasa Flow studio, which ended up working great for me. There are a lot of options at this particular studio, which means I can avoid the heated classes. If there is a “do your own thing” period at the end of class, the teachers usually provide a suggestion or two, and I appreciated that a lot when I was new. After I’d been doing it for a while, I got more comfortable choosing something different if it seemed like it would feel good.

  2. Hi Teresa, I do think the teacher can make a huge difference. But overall no matter what we choose I think we do reap very similar benefits in terms of focus, clarity, confidence. I just wish I’d known about it all ten or fifteen years ago!

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