The Agonizing Beauty of Ashtanga Yoga.

Via Dearbhla Kelly
on May 30, 2012
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Boredom, breakthroughs and surrender.

Recently I wrote a piece about my frustration at hitting the wall in my ashtanga practice. I was bored with primary series, my body hurt from not doing backbends and I was painfully aware of radically confronting myself every time I got on my yoga mat.

But somehow the writing of the article proved cathartic and helped me articulate—and discover—the reasons that I kept showing up on my mat day after day despite my struggles. And, as that well-worn adage says: when you really accept something, change often quickly follows. What do you know? Pretty soon after writing the article, my teacher, who incidentally loved it, moved me on to second series.

Oh joy, excitement, tingling delight of a new learning curve. The delicious awkwardness of once again being on unfamiliar turf: shoot, is bhekasana next, or is it dhanurasana? The sheer delight at doing more backbends, not to mention my back’s gratitude to be stretched and extended. I was purring like a playful kitty cat.

And then I got to kapotasana. The dreaded. The purring turned into yelping. My lower back spasmed, my thighs trembled. And from there to supta vajrasana. Some days I thought I’d never get back up, but of course, with the teacher’s arms for guidance and support, I did. Many times my heart was pumping loudly and I had to pause just to calibrate and ground in my body, taking a few deep breaths before I could move on.

But I kept going, kept showing up on my mat, grateful for another day, still infatuated with the practice, like the heady first few months of a new relationship. I figured out how to move from my diaphragm, bear down through my legs and use bandhas to create space in my lower back. It got easier. On good days I can just touch my feet with my hands. Yippee! 

I even wanted to do primary again, and looked forward to Fridays and the chance to enjoy the feeling of completion that comes with doing all of primary. I was in ashtanga love.

But then the cracks appeared.

The novelty of learning a new series wore off. I got stuck at eka pada sirsasana (foot behind the head pose). Man, I never knew my hips were that tight! Pigeon has always been a delight for me. Okay, maybe not always a delight—on occasion I’ve ridden the wave from clenched-jaw-something’s-opening-up-in-my-right-buttock-but-I-don’t-know-if-I-want-this-to-go-all-the-way-cos- then-I-might-have-to-deal-with-the-underlying-emotion to soft jaw, tearey-eyed, softening release, grateful for the opening. But trying to get my foot behind my head while upright? No baby, not happening. Actually, I think it did once on the left side. Once! Thank you very much.

So here I am stuck again. With my frustration, my self-criticism, my tightness. As if I really could have thought it would be any different. As if I wouldn’t run into the same issues just because I started adding new poses. But still, elation has been replaced by deflation, the thrill of the new with the familiar dull ennui of the continuous present challenge. And so I’ll do what I always do. I’ll go deeper. Fine tune. Breathe. Accept. Try and show up with grace, an open heart and a smile. Try to stay out of my head.

And, as I always do, I’ll fail. Repeatedly. I’ll feel hopeless and defeated, ebullient and optimistic. But somehow I’ll find the beauty. I’ll welcome the delicious irony of finding myself back in the same place again. I have to. What else is there?

Yes, I could turn my back on ashtanga, try a different practice. But that wouldn’t fulfill me, not the same way. What’s more, I’m not a quitter. Once I’m in, I’m in. So here I am eka pada sirsasana, come on, show me what you got!

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Editor: Lynn Hasselberger


About Dearbhla Kelly

Born and raised in Ireland, Dearbhla Kelly M.A. is a Los Angeles-based yoga teacher, writer and neurophilosopher. She began her academic training in Amsterdam and received degrees in philosophy in Dublin and Chicago. She is particularly skillful at marrying the more esoteric teachings of yoga with modern scientific insights and the practicalities of everyday life. Her writing has been published in the Huffington Post, Yoga Journal, Elephant Journal and Origin Magazine. A dedicated ashtanga practitioner, she teaches yoga and neuroscience workshops worldwide. Her lilting Irish accent and Dublin wit make her classes uniquely enjoyable.


21 Responses to “The Agonizing Beauty of Ashtanga Yoga.”

  1. Thaddeus1 says:

    Such a very sweet post Dearbhla. So many nice little snippets of realization.

    It's amazing to me how even when we (and I include myself chief amongst this "we") know certain things about the practice, like for instance that "progress" will not make us happier, or more content or more realized, yada, yada, yada, that it takes a kick to the head, or in your case, a leg behind the head, to wake us up once again. It's amazing and spectacular and beyond a doubt why Ashtanga is such a powerfully transformative practice.

    Thanks for this contribution.

    Posting to Elephant Ashtanga. Be sure to Like Elephant Ashtanga on Facebook.

  2. Andy says:

    Very well articulated. Ashtanga is so humbling to me. I can't even jump through. So Primary Series is rife with disgruntlement!

  3. Dylan says:

    Nice. thank you for the inspiration to do an Ashtanga practice again.
    im not sure if it was the article or the sweet picture of the cat, but its gonna happen 🙂

  4. Sonyata says:


  5. Rogelio says:

    BKS Iyengar once said Yoga is an experiment sometimes we succeed and sometimes we fail…..not an exact quote….but its still yoga…..we win either way…..

  6. Juls says:

    Great post about a beautiful love, journey to self discovery. There are so many. Thankfully

  7. Dearbhla says:

    Hey Thaddeus,
    thanks for your reply…sorry mine is so late – have been off the grid. Yes, ashtanga is very powerful.

  8. Dearbhla says:

    Thanks Andy!

  9. Dearbhla says:

    Thanks Dylan.

  10. Dearbhla says:

    Thanks Juls.

  11. Dearbhla says:

    Thanks Sonyata.

  12. […] who gives me new poses when he feels I’m ready and he is the teacher whose opinion about Ashtanga I value the […]

  13. […] that I knew I had to ask was, “What has been the reason for you to maintain and continue the Ashtanga […]

  14. […] The primary series is the training ground for all of these elements. Not just the asana by itself. Not just the breathing, or the bandhas or dristhi, but it is the integration of these elements. Primary is the place where we plant the seeds of tristana and water them so that they blossom into an integrated practice. […]

  15. […] Every morning I witness ordinary people achieve extraordinary things in their practice. The most inspiring part of all, is that I know they all started in the same place and put in a tremendous amount of work to get where they are. No line jumping here. They have earned their practice. […]

  16. […] Yet, I built it up in my head every day. The dread would come somewhere around janu sirsasana A. I was convinced I would never move on in the series. […]

  17. […] start of second series. Others got up off their mat, walked across the Shala to Sharath, and demand kapotasana. The answer is always the same: No. Sharath gives a new posture only when he deems you’re […]

  18. […] for at least the first year, (maybe two) I remained a part time Ashtanga enthusiast. That is, until kapotasana: a posture that seemed unreasonable and the kind of whacky sh*t circus performers […]

  19. OleManJake says:

    This was the first time I've read any of your stuff. Looking forward to more!

  20. […] see, I’ve followed the rules and abided the standards for quite some time now. I’ve experienced the resentment of being held back and the pride of being moved forward—followed by the admonition of feeling both. I have practiced […]

  21. […] I’ve often wondered why I stayed with this practice that brought up these not so flattering experiences. […]