I recently returned from a short trip to visit my Ashtanga yoga teacher.
He is not my teacher in the sense that I go to his class every day (sadly for my practice, that’s not possible), but instead, he is the teacher I reference when I’m asked with whom I study. He is the teacher who gives me new poses when he feels I’m ready and he is the teacher whose opinion about Ashtanga I value the most.
I do occasionally attend other certified/authorized teachers’ workshops, but I call this one particular teacher, my teacher. I didn’t exactly choose him as my teacher. He sort of came with the boyfriend package I signed up for (another story all together), but I believe it has worked out this way for a reason, so I’m cool with it.
Whenever I return from visiting my teacher, I have a difficult time writing my blog or talking about my experiences with him. I feel pretty raw and fragile after practicing under his guidance. His workshops are always really intense—and not just physically.
I spent a month with him in Kovalam, India earlier this year and to this day, I am not sure how to articulate to people what that experience was like…
Uh…well, it was awesome. My practice improved; I changed the alignment of my chaturangas; I grabbed my ankles fully in my backbends; I didn’t get any new postures much to my annoyance but I understand why; I was frustrated by a lot of the lectures; I never felt like I was good enough for him, umm…I cried a lot.
That’s all true, but none of those sentiments capture or express the totality and intensity of working daily with a senior teacher like this one. He’s amazing; the yoga is killer and I love the challenge of it.
But there’s no denying it, when I practice with him, I cry. A lot.
I just can’t seem to help myself. It’s not that he is mean or heartless. No, not at all. Sure, he can be a bit sharp at times. He’s certainly not warm and fuzzy (but neither is the practice), but I know that he cares deeply about his students, even if sometimes he shows it in funny, awkward ways.
Okay, here’s a little disclaimer: I cry a lot in Ashtanga even when I’m not with my teacher, it just happens to intensify with his presence. Ashtanga is a seriously powerful practice.
I vividly remember the first time it made me cry—I was shocked—it felt like my heart had been blown open by tornado. Funny, looking back now, I must have thought that would be a one-time incident. But oh no, I’m totally that token crying girl in yoga class (every shala’s got one).
Why does Ashtanga make me cry? Trust me, it’s not just because it’s “hard.”
Practicing Ashtanga makes me cry because I’m a stereotypical perfectionist and my body fails to live up to the perfection I foolishly want and demand from it.
I cry because there is real pain in my body and I wish there wasn’t.
I cry because laghu vajrasana ( little thunderbolt) shows me point-blank that I am weak—I get stuck with my head on the floor and some days that is just too real a metaphor.
I cry sometimes because dropping back over and over again makes my heart feel like it’s breaking; my breath gets sucked right out of lungs and my lower back feels like it might snap at any second.
I cry because as the postures open me physically, the emotions that have been stuck in the crevices of my body for years start spilling out everywhere.
I cry some days because the world can be a really sad and unfair place and when I think of the people I know (and don’t know) suffering, it makes me feel hopeless and helpless.
Ashtanga rips me open, makes me raw and more vulnerable to these feelings, and that can be frightening.
Yes, I cry. But, more important than that, I gain so much real joy in my life from the practice of yoga. The experience of yoga makes life all the more authentic, all the more real.
From practice, I am more open, observant and much more sensitive to myself, to others and the energies around me.
As I result, I am now more aware and conscious of the feelings I feel, the sensations I sense and the stories I tell and am told.
Wow, what a gift! Isn’t that beautiful? I’m so grateful to yoga for all that.
When you practice yoga, you are forced to stare that raw realness of life straight in the face. You can’t run away if you’re committed to a serious practice. Perhaps this explains why so many people quit a practice as intense as Ashtanga yoga. It’s simply too scary to keep looking into the jaws of the shark of reality day after day.
This brings me back to my teacher. One of my personal “issues” is that I really want to be “good,” to be “right” and to make people happy. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been afraid of disappointing people. Even when I act like a rebel and like I don’t care what people think of me, it’s more or less a facade (that’s right, calling my own bluff here). I’m aware of this in myself. I’m working on finding a level of self-love and self-confidence where it really doesn’t matter to me what anyone else thinks or feels about me, but I’m not there yet.
When I study with my teacher, my clingy, childish need to be not only good, but the best comes out full force.
But my teacher doesn’t give a lot of positive encouragement to me. I think he clearly sees this grasping need I have to be “special” and so he doesn’t play into it. He’s smart like that. I can count on one hand the number of times he has given me some sort of positive affirmation. I can count on two hands (maybe three) the number of times he’s told me that I’m not strong enough and that I need to work harder.
Perhaps that sounds mean or unsupportive? Well, sometimes I’ve felt that way too. But the more time I spend with this practice, and with him as a teacher, the more I realize that this is just his way of working with me specifically. And I think it’s actually working!
Since my time in Kovalam this winter, I’ve been actively building strength through the way I practice (more bandhas, more core engagement, longer chaturangas), but also through supplementing (his suggestion, believe it or not) by lifting weights, doing push-ups, pull-ups, dips and Pilates too. I’m feeling stronger and stronger and this is really empowering.
I need someone to push me, even if I think I don’t want it, I need it.
In this sense, his method with me has been extremely effective—I am working harder and I am getting stronger and I’m psyched about that. It shows in the way my practice looks and feels as well as in the devotion and dedication I feel toward it.
There is another way in which his teaching has been effective. In the past I’ve gotten worked up and hurt by things he has said (and not said) to me. But now, it doesn’t phase me so much.
I’ve stopped looking for him to coddle me because I’ve come to an acceptance that that is not who he is, and that’s okay—I don’t need to be coddled, and more importantly, I don’t need to do my practice for him or for anyone but myself.
I take my teacher’s feedback and his alignment cues, I research the way it feels in my body and I learn from it. With the heightened awareness about my body that my practice gives me, I’m learning how to own my practice—how to practice for me.
I’m know I don’t need my practice to impress anyone. I don’t need to “look good” doing it. Yes, I care about my teacher’s approval, but not so much that this is all I care about because I know that my practice is mine.
My yoga practice is my individual experience and expression. It is different every day and some days it’s prettier than others. Oh well! …And some days there are tears.
But each tear I’ve shed on my mat has not been in vain. Each time the practice rocked me so hard that I cried, I got to know myself a little bit better, I saw things just a little bit clearer and I felt more and more alive because of it.
So, does my yoga teacher make me cry? Not so much. Those tears are coming straight from me.
The practice of yoga opens me up to my own tears and my own Self and that’s not a problem at all. No siree.
Keep those tears coming.
With humble gratitude to my teacher and his teacher before him, Namaste.
Editor: Brianna Bemel