I’m going to North Carolina, not only in my mind, my whole body. My classes from Sept 27 to Oct 2 are clear to make room for my absence. Mind Body Fitness Center in Greensboro hosts David Williams, teaching the Ashtanga primary series. Forty-nine years ago while traveling in India David met Patabhi Jois, affectionately “Guruji.” Williams was the first to bring Guruji Jois to America to teach yoga. A couple of months ago I randomly stumble across an youTube video filmed in the 80s. Williams blithely admits on camera he’d like to know what a fifty year yoga practice would look like. I write the guy an email, and receive a reply within minutes. That’s kinda cool. I ask him, “So what’s a fifty year yoga practice feel like?” His reply? “I’ll let you know in a year.” lol
I knew then and I know now that he’s a person I’d like to meet.
My At-Home Yoga
In my private practice I teach myself Ashtanga yoga, from books, dvds, youtube and downloads. Why not the studio? At my age (50s) I am loathe to take up space next to hotties half my age doing this sort of rigorous practice. I want to scope it out myself first, in the seclusion of my home. The more I learn the more strangely addicted I get to everything about the subculture. In keeping with the custom, I do not advance until I am proficient. The first 13 minutes take the longest to digest. Four years to get strong enough. I didn’t do more (of the sequence), until I could do those first ten poses. I use other styles of yoga to build myself up. I am glad I didn’t cheat. There’s a method to the madness. The poses line up to artfully unfold the body successively.
The people I’ve met who practice this style are generally less competitive than the people I meet who practice flow, vinyasa, power and hot yoga. If vigorous yoga appeals to you but keeping up with the Joneses does not, I highly recommend joining a yoga shala or crafting a self-led practice. A yoga shala is a room where people hang out and run through their sequence, self-pacing. Sometimes a teacher is present. Sometimes it’s just yoga lovers working out in communal spirit. Usually it’s a music free zone. The soft sibilant sound of ujayii breath is intoxicating. Less common is a “Mysore” room, where one room in a multi-room studio is made available for people to communally practice self-led Ashtanga. Finally there is a version called a “led-class.”
Ashtanga lovers view this as a spiritual practice, so don’t worry if you’re not good at it. I do what I can, daily, like a prayer. The consistency counts more than the duration. Take Sundays and moon days off. Over time my body indicates my natural alignment. I learn myself, intimately this way. I become aware of subtle energy shifts. Kundalini vibrates my spine. As promised the constant repetition jumpstarts my brain. Pranayama opens up like shorthand for adjustment. Sutra and Mantra work like mnemonic devices. Mudra electrifies the practice. What can I say? There are things that must be studied laboriously and things that come in a flash of insight. Ashtanga has been a moving meditation.
A “led-class” as it sounds, is when a teacher paces the series, telling the participants when to breathe, when to change poses – the sequence itself shouldn’t change. That’s the beauty of the system. Once I memorize the order of the poses I don’t have to startle over what happens next. When I’m in a flow class often poses I do quite well at home fall apart completely because I’m not ready. I don’t get anything out of that. Yeah, yeah I know people who love ’em, for me flow’s always been sort of “meh.” I get that doing the same thing repetitively is boring for some. To which I respond when I have a couple chances at a new sequence I do better. To me, “flow” is too much like learning a dance. Only after I know the dance can I settle into the meditative state I crave.
A major tenant to Ashtanga is to stay the course. Like prayer, like worship, being proficient is less important than being dedicated. Be devoted. I love that I don’t have to worry about being old, fat, female or asymmetrical. Only the truth matters. I master a pose (to a degree) before eating up the next. I say to a degree because two years ago I deem my down dog pretty damn good. Two years later? That pose is even better. So trust me on this: you don’t know what you don’t know. You can’t know what you don’t know. Try not to let that make you crazy. Be profoundly curious. I highly recommend staying away from led classes until after establishing a self-led practice. I mean apps and dvds are nice, but nothing is the same as full immersion if you want to avoid injury.
The body is a self-preserving mechanism. If you’re getting aches or pains, trust me – either something is wrong with your alignment, or you haven’t the strength. Accept the message. Back off. Adjust. Re adjust. Calibrate yourself.
Older yogis caution me about the wisdom of jump backs and arm balances at my age. I have no intention of re-injuring myself. I done been though enough already. Personally I don’t think the style is to blame but the presentation. Led classes are hypnotic. Not just Ashtanga, teachers are enthralling. Bless their hearts, I get mesmerized by the teacher’s voice, whether live or recorded. That’s when I find myself doing things without judgement. Doing things against my better judgement. Left to my own devices self-preservation kicks in. I never transfix myself. When I practice on my own, whether Ashtanga, Kundalini, flow, etc. my own awareness reins me. When I practice with a teacher her enthusiasm bleeds into my personal space. They don’t mean to be bad, but they are compelling.
Before I practicing Ashtanga I can’t do a lotus pose. Not even one. I used to meditate sitting cross-legged in a vague sukhasana, my back aching, my shoulders rounding, my chin plummeting to my chest. Padmasana, by contrast, is self-contained. My spine spurts upward freely from my hips. My hands rest on the shelf of my feet. Meditation has become a wholly new experience. I no longer daydream. I focus on one point to the exclusion of all others. I sense the neural channels that connect my right brain to my left brain multiplying. I’m calmer. I’m broader. At my age the normal brain physiology is pruning (hang out with some 50 year olds if you don’t believe me.) But getting smaller with age isn’t required. Chose to expand.
Perhaps I should say the “results so far. . .” I’m healthier than when I was 35. My former husband associates aging with falling apart, getting duller, slower, shrinking into himself. I’m now two years older than Howard was when I met him sixteen years ago. Fourteen years ago I thought the pharmacy of opioids he took to mitigate pain were a necessary accoutrement to age. He made it seem so. The drugs he takes to stave off pain make him increasingly more sensitive until at last he went full-time addict and left. The work I do makes me increasingly more tolerant, until at last I become full-time yogi. My life has never been the same.
Now y’all play nice!