June 24, 2013

How Practicing Ashtanga has Taken Me from Full of Sh*t to Full of Something Real.

It recently dawned on me in the midst of practice that as a yoga teacher I’ve been pretty much full of shit.

And maybe still am.

I’ll give you an example: over the past three years that I’ve been teaching vinyasa, I’ve often said something like,“Don’t be afraid to fall out of this pose! Falling is great, it’s how you learn!”

God, I’m gagging as I write it.

In my defense, in a way I wasn’t full of shit at all when I said that—it was usually said the the context of a standing balance pose, like utthita hasta padangustasana (otherwise known as “hold one leg up in the air by the big toe, move the leg around and fold over it, without falling” pose in the Ashtanga primary series).

And in the small context of that pose, I was in fact, speaking from experience. I used to be so afraid of falling out of that pose (I might look stupid or incompetent) that I would sacrifice my alignment just to remain standing up. Getting over that allowed me to find both balance and alignment.

But outside of that pure context, I was full of shit. Falling is great? Don’t be afraid to fall? In the past year alone, I have been afraid to drop back, then afraid to stand back up; afraid to jump into bakasana (crow pose); afraid to do forearm stand or handstand without a wall—and deathly afraid of falling out of either even with assistance.

It’s fear of falling that has, until recently, stopped me from finding a true vertical in headstand.

Fear, fear, fear. When I’m upside down, there is fear—and that’s just the yoga poses. Don’t even ask about my life.

Don’t be afraid? Ruh roh—if the only thing we have to fear is fear itself, then I am in trouble.

I’m afraid of getting lost when I’m driving. I’m afraid of driving in heavy rain. I’m afraid to ride elevators by myself. I’m afraid of small enclosed spaces like airplane bathrooms and have been known to hold it on cross-country flights. It’s fear that has so far, stopped me from having a second baby. It may be fear that stops me from practicing six days a week, because I might also be afraid of realizing my potential.

I’m sure I’m missing a few, or even a few thousand—my husband could fill you in. But hey look, in my defense, I used to be a lot worse and it’s yoga and some beautiful teachers that have gotten me as far as I am.

It’s amazing that no one has called me out on how far I have left to go.

No one has—but my practice did. So thank you ashtanga; because of you, I’m a little less full of shit.

It happened in the Mysore room a few weeks ago; I was sweating, tired, moving through the end of my epic-ly long practice, when my teacher David Garrigues says it—(I knew it was coming, I feared it, oh how I feared it, but I pushed it aside, since it wasn’t here yet). Until it was.

DG: “Okay. Now, pincha mayurasana (forearm stand).”

Me: [nothing. Internal monologue starts. I can’t do this. I can’t just kick up into this pose. I’m going to fall, and I am afraid to fall. Like really really afraid. Can I use a wall? Oh come on Jean, this is Mysore; you so cannot use a wall. So what am I going to do?

I have no choice. I have to ask for help. So I call out to this constantly roving teacher, in full earshot of at least half the packed Mysore room.]

Me:  “David—I have fear.”

DG: “Fear”? What? If you fall, it’s just like a backbend it’s so easy.”

Okay, so that’s paraphrasing what he said (because when you are dog-tired in the Mysore room it’s not the best memory at work ) and because it is not important what he said so much as how he said it. He said it, like it was a given—he was stating an obvious truth. Not in a dismissive way; it was more like, “Come on, in my head I’ve seen you capable of doing this a thousand times so just do it already.”

So, with David nearby—and I can’t recall if he physically assisted me, he was maybe just there—for the first time in my life, I did it. I sent my legs up and I fell.

And it’s fine—it’s better than fine. It is the proudest moment of my yoga life and on my back in the ruins of my first true attempt at forearm stand, that’s when I realized that in my three years of teaching, I’ve been oh-so-full-of-shit.

But it’s not over, because I still have a little fear—I still have no desire to fall. Just because I have done it doesn’t mean it’s done.

But Ashtanga…it’s like the practice knows this. This is why Ashtanga has my number; I’m supposed to keep sending my legs into the air without a wall to catch them, and often falling, that day, and the next, and just about every time I get on my mat. I have to face my fear again and again, not in a week or two when I feel like it.

So I do it. And each time, there’s a little bit of fear, and each time, the fear grows weaker.

Maybe the reason why they say teach what you know is because when you really know, the image of the pose is so strong in your mind, the energy you give off as a teacher is so confident that the students in your presence cannot help but be swept up in it’s power. I step through fear in ways I normally don’t consider possible around a teacher I trust, because I’m willing to surrender my limited image of myself in exchange for the expansive bad-ass image of me that they see.

It’s happened to me more than once now, with David, as well as with the lovely Peg Mulqueen—I can feel the energy of this teacher’s belief.

“It seems that the more deeply an image is held in the teacher’s mind, the better he can convey it, and the more likely the student will react to it.”

~ Eric Franklin, Dynamic Alignment through imagery

I think the energy I feel emanating from David comes from a knowledge that is rooted in practice. I think this because over the past year, as I’ve become more steeped in Ashtanga, as I have seen myself evolve from unable to do dozens of things to capable of doing all that and then some, as I have seen my body and my mind evolve at lightening speed into something strong and clear, I have felt this same energy, at its most beginner level, very quietly take root within me.

Sometimes I find myself looking at people doing yoga and feeling just blown away by the enormity of their potential—the perfection of where they are now, because “now” holds within it a stunning sneak peak into where they can go.

The beauty of the Ashtanga practice is that it does not permit you to keep habits that do not serve you. It does not permit you to avoid things just because you don’t like them. It does not permit you to run away from the things you fear. You can’t just say, “pass.”

The Ashtanga practice is not something outside of you; it comes from you; it is you. So it’s me—I no longer allow myself to take a “pass.”

(Well, I’m trying.)

In Ashtanga, and specifically, the Mysore room, my experience has been that eventually I’ve had face it all, head on. Like fear. Like pincha mayurasana. And then I’m left with this glaring dichotomy between how I behave on the mat and how I behave in life, and I start doing things, like riding elevators and using small bathrooms without windows, driving on strange highways in places I haven’t been before, and finally calling my nurse-midwife to talk about the traumatic experience I had birthing my child two years ago.

Am I still full of shit? Probably, at least a little. But maybe now I will be—and over the past year I have already been—more aware of it. Maybe I’ll be more precise when speaking to a class about fear, specific to my experience, to the people present, to whatever is going on in that moment. And, maybe I won’t say so much at all.

Maybe I’ll be more able to convey an energy of the possibility that goes beyond maintaining balance while standing on one leg, all the way out to so much that seems impossible now. Because what isn’t possible, when you finally have an ongoing dialogue with your own fear?

I’ll try.

Practice by practice, day by day, the less I’m full of shit and the more I’m full of something real.







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Ed: Bryonie Wise



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