My mat is my canvas, body this awkward paintbrush, breath the colors, and postures an ever-shifting frame.
Every morning as the sleepy sun wakes up so do I, making my way to the small wood-paneled room, saying good morning to all the smiling dirty faces who keep the pigeons company at night. I creak open the door—the room is hot, the air is sweat, I step in and I am safe once again.
My practice is an ancient one—one that continually circles back to the Indian yogic lineage, Sri K. Pattabhi Jois’s words boldly painted above the cloudy glass windows. Every time I twist and twist and can’t hook, I shift my eyes up and am reminded, “When the mind is calm, the asana is perfect.”
My practice is one of discipline and consistency, a simultaneous force of powerful pushing and soft surrendering, and it isn’t really very fun.
There are six series in Ashtanga yoga, that through practice (and a lot of patience) you slowly evolve through. Each posture, and eventually each series, work on different points in the body and nervous system, breaking down the ego and silencing the mind.
Many practitioners never move on past the primary series, which includes advanced asanas (postures) that you’ll never see taught in most other yoga studios. The sequences are set and never ever change. You are expected to practice at the same time, with the same teacher, six days a week, and only s/he can advance you to the next posture. A Mysore style Ashtanga practice mirrors the style practiced in the Sri K. Pattabhi Joise Ashtanga Yoga Institute (KPJAYI) in Mysore, India. It is an individual practice practiced collectively in a room.
The teacher holds the space, as students file in and out, the energy of the others uplifting your own, the gaze of the teacher focusing yours.
My teacher knows me in a way that no one else does, at the same time knowing almost nothing about me. Emotions are stored in our physical bodies, and only he knows how tight my shoulders are and exactly how to day-by-day break them open—sometimes gently, other times not so much.
He knows what my sweat feels like, and how my body moves when it breathes. He knows the incredible trust he must create with his students, especially the women—touching and pushing and twisting us—and knows it won’t work without our body’s complete surrender to his soft force, his silly laugh.
I focus, but my eyes wander and they fall on beautiful people. Some only slightly older than me, others much more so, each in different cuts and colors; no one looks the same, yet all more advanced in their practice than I am. Each painting their own unique life story in the way they know how. Perhaps one day my painting will be as pretty as theirs, perhaps it won’t, but this is not the reason I paint. I paint with my breath and my body to learn, and I paint to live.
I’ve always heard, and I always say, who we are on our mat is who we embody off it. Each posture is a different “posture” we take on in daily life; our reactions to the asanas paralleling our reactions to the things that make us sweat in real life too. Society requires us to cultivate various masks as we march through our lives, some easier to fulfill than others—the more challenging ones breaking us down, yoga building us back up.
When your thighs and knees are pressing down locking your upper arms and shoulders, your hips ripping open, chest smashed to the ground, your face doesn’t even know where to turn so you can breathe. How do you react?
At first I panicked, stuck and caging myself to the floor, barely able to contort my way back out of it. I wanted to cry and scream but didn’t even have the breath to do either. A few weeks later ask me again, and the answer has changed. Kurmasana has stayed the same, but my reaction to it has traveled. Like Kurmasana, I am learning to stop struggling against the challenges of the universe and start surrendering instead, trusting in the process and myself.
My practice has slowly taught me to set fire and burn the masks, the labels, the exterior, turn up my breath and dance through this life song instead. I want to be exactly me in any and all situations, not needing to hide behind any name, especially my own.
I won’t be a better human when I can press up into a handstand, and that’s not why I practice. My teacher, who may know how far my inner thighs can internally rotate, has no idea when I show up in the morning and I’ve been through death or a broken relationship the night before, like the last few days alone have brought.
I may cry before, I may cry after, and sometimes I may even cry in Savasana, but I come because I need to come—and if I don’t come, I practice in my room, at the hotel, or wherever my little rectangular rubber home will fit. My teacher may not know the contents that fill my heart, but nevertheless he knows my heart.
An Ashtanga practice might be a crutch, it might be discipline, it might be a little bit of both, but it teaches me to save myself. When I’m sinking and my heart turns black I move and breathe and pray and I recognize myself once more. I was thrown into yoga during one of the lowest points of my life and it undoubtedly kept me afloat when at any moment I could have sunk instead.
I don’t know the specific magic of a yoga practice, because I know I’m a grain of sand among the dunes of practitioners that feel the same way, and starting a daily Ashtanga practice a few months ago has only sped up this process tenfold. It has been with me through the highest and lowest points, humbling and reminding me that it is all part of this story I created about my life. Sometimes there may be nothing else to wake up for, but I do because I practice—and no matter what, by the end, even if my face has been branded by hot glowing tears, I smile.
Every day my body gets stronger, every day so does my mind, painting my perspective instead of the other way around.
I never imagined I’d be someone who would wake up so early just to go to yoga, planning my evenings so that I’m home early enough to get good rest, my friends still dancing on South Beach at the time I’m waking up to go to the shala.
I never imagined I’d enjoy a practice with no music, no talking, and no change in sequence.
I never imagined I’d be smiling, unrolling my mat as the sun unrolls its rays, chanting my mantra to begin my practice, my life, one more time and one more day.
This practice has taught me to be open. To lead with my chest, even if it’s just for a moment. One day that moment will turn into a minute, an hour, a lifetime. Be open.
Never tried yoga? Check out a community class in your neighborhood; you’re bound to meet other open-hearted people, but most importantly, you just might reintroduce yourself to yourself.
Never practiced without music? Maybe tomorrow, try shutting off the tunes and turning up your breath, focusing on moving with your inhales and exhales instead of the bass.
Never heard of a Mysore Style practice? Check out your local Ashtanga studio and see if it’d be something you might like. I never knew I’d like it until I tried it!
You are your own most beautiful work of art, adding a stroke of color every day. The paintbrush is in your hands, create the world in which you want to be.
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Editor: Travis May