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The greater New York population was just beginning to stir when I met Tony in a Chelsea district coffee shop at 8:30 A.M. on September 11. We'd both been up more than three hours, having risen before dawn to make it to a 6 A.M. Ashtanga Yoga workshop taught by the master of the form, K. Pattabhi Jois. Because of the intensity and discipline required of Ashtanga Yoga— a highly specific series where each bend, jump and twist is synchronized with a corresponding inhale and exhale — an instant camaraderie often springs up among its practitioners. Energized by two hours of the deep breathing and flowing movement that Ashtanga Yoga entails, Tony and I enthusiastically compared the paths that led us to New York from our respective homes in Georgia and California.
An interest in improving my health after a history of eating disorders, divorce and competitive sports found me exhausted to that first 7 A.M. Mysore Style Ashtanga yoga class. After noticing a sign for a yoga studio a few blocks away from my home, I ventured inside thinking it would help me get back in shape. I had no idea I would one day fly across the country to study yoga, let alone have a spiritual awakening. But I soon found out that practicing Ashtanga went far beyond practicing physical movement, it was practicing liberation of the soul.
The teacher, a lean man with a long dark ponytail, cleared a space for me and began to talk me through the series, one asana, or posture, at a time. Morning sunshine filtered through a south facing wall of windows onto two rows of people standing or sitting on green, blue, and purple yoga mats. Everyone moved through the sequence at their own pace. One woman stared at the tip of her nose as she balanced on her forearms and curled her feet up and around to graze the top of her head. A man sat in a cross-legged position with his eyes shut while ten other students inhaled and floated their arms skyward to begin a round of sun salutations. The only sound was that of breathing and the occasional murmurs of the teacher's voice. Instead of leading everyone at once, he circulated around the room, giving tips to students on an individual basis, modifying or adjusting a posture, then moving on.
Ashtanga calls for performing a series of postures, evenly inhaling and exhaling five times while in each pose then proceeding to the next one. Regular practice results in an increased sense of calm, fitness, and closer alignment with the self. As I went through that first practice I was immediately struck by how little I had scrutinized by body on such a focused level. My left hip could barely open while I found it easy to touch my feet. Surprised at the amount I learned about my habits of movement during just one class and motivated by the healthy glow worn by the other students, I returned the following day.
As I began to attend class six days a week, I discovered that steadying the breath, regardless of comfort and discomfort, pain or pleasure, was the real focus of study. But I often stopped breathing in response to a tight muscle, immediately jumping to the conclusion that I couldn't go on. Surrounded by more advanced students, I doubted my place in the room. But if I were to get anywhere near yoking together my body, mind and spirit— the union that is yoga — I would have to transcend such beliefs and judgments about my capabilities.
"Each time I give you an adjustment I'm creating more room for your breath," my teacher explained as I tried to inhale deeply into my tense shoulders. His adjustments took my limbs past their usual limits, expanding both my range of motion and my belief in the possible.
Slowly and ever so slightly my flexibility increased with each passing day. Sending breath deeper into my body was stirring up a well of repressed feelings. Soon the challenge of practice was more emotional than physical. It became obvious to me that I had spent much of my life suppressing my feelings — learning that I could have them and survive was revelatory. I often spontaneously burst into tears as I "detoxified" past experiences. Sometimes I wanted to bolt from the room in sheer terror. At other times, practice felt like pure bliss.
If there is a "goal" to yoga it is to cultivate equanimity or equal, non reactive regard. Ashtanga is a "practice" as opposed to simply an exercise for this reason. Tears might be running down my face and my teacher would simply say "Breathe, here," tap my sternum and move on to another student. The challenge was to "be" with myself no matter if I was uncomfortable or ecstatic and complete the practice with the utmost attention I could muster. My emotions were a part of the action but they didn't have to control the show.
Despite the frequent emotional discomfort, I invariably felt more at peace with myself and with the world around me by the end of class. The tears not only provided new insight into my habits and history they freed up more space for the present. As I expanded the range of motion of my physical body, my ability to perceive and receive information, both physical and energetic, increased. The world looked, smelled and sounded more vivid and I felt more connected with both myself and others. Everyday challenges seemed less stressful, my appetite and digestion began to improve and my sleep was sound. Life seemed far richer than I could have ever imagined and the continual self discoveries I made motivated me to get to the studio each day.
It's considered somewhat of a rite of passage to travel to Mysore, India, to study with Jois, the 87-year-old Brahmin who devised and refined the Ashtanga system. By the time I had a year of regular yoga practice in me, I was clear on how central Ashtanga was becoming to my life and wanted to make the trip to its source in Southeast Asia. But as I began to plan an international pilgrimage, my father's health began to deteriorate precipitously. Not realizing the direct parallel at the time, my commitment to Ashtanga had coincided with my father's diagnosis with Non-Hodgins Lymphoma. Instead of finding myself wandering the exotic streets of India after yoga practice, I soon found myself walking the halls of the Veterans Administration hospital in Palo Alto, California, not far from the home in which I grew up.