Although the focus of my yoga practice may appear to be on the physical asanas of the practice, there is a deeper, more spiritual, level to the practice. The Ashtanga Yoga system is built upon the “Eight Limbs of Yoga.” (the word ‘ashta’ means ‘eight’ and ‘anga’ means ‘limb’). When I first began my yoga practice, it was very much about the shapes of the asanas. But, over time, the philosophical and spiritual components began taking precidence over the shapes. That said, it is very easy to lose sight over the reason for the practice. As I age and my body’s ability to perform the physical asanas as well, or as easily, as I once did, the 2nd Niyama becomes more an more important.
“Samtosha, or contentment, is a pure and exellent form of happiness that spontaneously arises when we free ourselves from the mind’s constant nagging about unfullfilled desires. This is really the secret to moving on with our lives rather than being stuck in and trapped by a specific situation. Samtosha arises when the mind lets go of its iron grip of a situation long enough to let us simply observe with great interest but without drawing conclusions or making judgments and assumptions. Letting go, we automattically tap into an endless reservoir of kindness and compassion that lies within.” – The Art of Vinyasa; Awakening Body and Mind through the Practice of Ashtanya Yoga by Richard Freeman & Mary Taylor.
This past weekend, I awoke feeling a constant ache and soreness from an 8 mile, hilly trail run. Adding insult to injury, so-to-speak, it was raining and dark outside. I should just go back to sleep, I thought, my practice won’t be any good anyway. Pushing that aside, I decided to show up for my yoga practice anyway. I would do what I could and try to be satisfied with whatever that was.
Big or Small, it all counts
I look at this majestic tree and wonder how long it took to grow so big. It’s hard to imagine that it was once a seedling struggling to break through the earth. Now, it just is. As I played in front of it, I watched as hikers passed by without much notice of it. Even to the shade it offered on this hot day seemed commonplace.
I got to thinking — and invite you to do the same:
Think back to a time you were young and you did something small which gained a lot of attention. Maybe you drew a picture, tied your shoe, or urinated in the toilet for the first time. It wasn’t as huge of an accomplishment when you think back, but really IT WAS.
“I miss that sensation of a small achievement feeling like a really big deal”. – Gavin DeGraw
As adults, when we set our sights on learning something new, we often forget to celebrate the successes along the way to the end goal. Maybe we have decided that we want to learn the primary series from the Ashtanga Yoga tradition. But each time we step on our mat, we forget what comes next and feel a bit lost. And it’s all too easy to get frustrated with ourselves. I’ve been there.
I even let it keep me from joining the Mysore room because I didn’t know the practice well enough. Yet, that’s where the learning happens. Instead of reaching out to get help, I got down on myself for not being able to do it right. Thank God, I kept trying… and eventually got brave enough to join the room. Once inside, I got kudos for just showing up. Seriously. All I had to do was get there.
I say “all” I had to do but, believe me, I recognize that that is often the hardest part. Even while practicing at home, carving out the time to step onto your mat for practice sometimes takes a tremendous effort. An, YES, even in a pandemic. In fact, maybe even more so. Some newer students of mine recently shared that it is harder to practice virtually in mysore than in a led yoga class (both with video on). At first, I didn’t appreciate the difference. The fact that in a led class, the students are all watching the teacher is the key to this feeling of vulnerability. It takes some time to realize that often, mysore practitioners do not ever look at the computer during their practice. They just listen for the cues and take comfort in the community that breathes along with them.
YOU need to celebrate your successes (big AND small):
Since nobody but the teacher is watching you practice, it is more important than ever to take note of your steps towards the bigger goals. If you grab your big toe instead of your knee in your variation of Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana, that is worth celebrating. If your fingertips touch while trying to catch/bind in Marichyasana C, that is fantastic! Even falling on your face while trying to land your Bakasana B is big. No, it’s HUGE! It means that you generated enough courage to try.
Don’t let these little signs of progress go by unnoticed. Consider keeping a practice journal and write it all down (the good, the bad, and the ugly moments). One day, you’ll be frustrated in yourself while attempting to clasp your wrist in Marichyasana D and may not even remember the first day you were able to catch your fingers in that same pose.
No matter where you are in your yogic journey, there is someone out there who is still mustering the courage to enter the room (virtually or in person). Like the magnificent tree in the photo above, they may look to you for a welcoming smile or encouraging wave. If you can remember when you were in their position, it will be easier to show them the way to enjoy the sweet little moments of joy in the practice – for they matter just as much, if not more, than the bigger successes that come and go.
By now, you all have probably noticed that practicing at home has its pros and cons. For me, not having to pack up all of my work clothes, lunch, and other items needed for the rest of the day, coupled with not having to navigate the morning commute, is a HUGE plus. Accountability and discipline are a must to keep me coming to my mat day after day. I don’t always feel it, but I do it anyway. When it is all said and done, I am ALWAYS glad that I did.
Connecting to my community via zoom helps as well. After the laptop incident, I don’t dare use my laptop for the connection. Instead, I use my phone. I can’t see everyone at once, but I can hear the breath, voices, and comments while I am on my mat. It’s not the same as being in the room with them, but similar in a way. What I mean is, you aren’t supposed to be looking around, listening in on everyone else’s practice – but knowing you all are in it together in the collective flow is really powerful.
Then, there is my new puppy…
Kobe has been with us for five weeks now. From Day 1, I have made an effort to let him be with me during my practice. To be honest (or frank), I don’t really have a choice. In the beginning, he woke rather early, and had already gotten some rigorous play time before I rolled out my mat. So, usually, he fell back to sleep shortly after my standing poses were complete. Now that he is sleeping through the night, he wakes at the start of Mysore and is fully charged from a full night of sleep. And he wants to PLAY!
Monday being a moon day, I incorporated puppy play into my mini practice. In hind sight, this may have been a mistake. For on Tuesday, he repeatedly brought me the toy I had played tug-o-war with during practice the day before. Only NOW, I didn’t want to play. He and his toy were repeatedly put in my practice space only to be ignored. Young Kobe persisted, tugging on my ponytail, licking my face when I was in the most vulnerable of poses (i.e. kapotasana, supta vajrasana). I struggled, feeling guilty for ignoring him while desperate to not lose my practice.
On Wednesday, I begin again. I am determined to teach my pup some mat manners. He climbs on my mat as soon as I roll it out. “No. No.” I say, picking him up and moving him.
Off the mat.”
It quickly becomes a game. I try to hold both my composure and my ground. A part of me wishes that I wasn’t on zoom for all to see my struggle. The other part of me doesn’t care, confident that my peeps (who are both my peers and my students) don’t care. The practice continues. I use the gate intermittently to create some physical separation (hoping to better illustrate the command). The familiar potty whine comes. We take it outdoors. Then go back inside only to find that Simba (our 9 year old dog) has joined the party.
I am on the verge of tears and just about ready to throw in the towel, when Kobe lies down for a nap. I finish up my practice to get ready for my first meeting of the day…thankful for having not gave up.
While LIVE on our Mysore ZOOM, I flow through my morning practice with an acute awareness that my teacher is watching. Not only is she watching, she is waiting for me to finish up my second series already so that she can see what progress I’ve made in the third series poses she gave me last week.
But my practice is slow today and my coffee has yet to kick in. Gasp if you wish; I don’t care what you think. I NEED my COFFEE.
As I lay on my back, working to place my lower leg behind my shoulders, I notice the moon through the window in front of me. In the window of the adjoining bedroom, I can also see the sun’s blessed light. It’s lovely and a part of me wants to spend another 5-10 breaths in yoga nidrasana. But then I remember my teacher. She’s watching. I hear her call the name of one of the other students. The last time she called his name, he was at pasasana, and I was 3-4 poses ahead in the series. I can tell by her words that he is now working on pincha mayurasana. It is clear that today’s practice has not been flowing as steadily as it should. I suppose the time I spent crying BEFORE going into kapotasana slowed me up…a little. Yeah, that was unexpected.
“Okay Juls,” I tell myself (quietly, as my computer is no longer on mute), “just breathe and get moving.” I limp along to the end of second and arrive at third with 30ish minutes until my work meeting. I am sore but have more energy today than last week. I might go well. I mean, miracles DO happen. Right!
Third Series has been described as “Divine stability; sublime serenity.” Reading this description sure makes it sound nice. Right? And, it IS nice. But it’s also HARD. The journey to this point is far from stable or serene (without the added pressure of having it be divine or sublime on top of that). I’m not complaining; I asked for this and I am happy to take it on. Lord knows my side body is weak and could benefit from a little stability – and serenity. My teacher knows this as well.
Nonetheless, I must admit that the difficulty that I am experiencing feels foreign yet satisfying. It feels right to finally be working on creating stability in the side body. And although there are moments when I question if I really deserve to be have these poses, I am super grateful that my teacher has allowed me to go here.
Let’s Get Real
On Wednesday, before stepping onto my mat, I connected to the Mysore zoom meeting and set up my phone to record my practice. My initial thought was that I might record a video of my practice through half primary series, then add voice over instruction later on. However, once I got going, my practice seemed to just flow.
This was not my usual experience. For one, I generally go straight into intermediate series after parsvotanasana, only doing primary series on Fridays. Once I got to navasana, I decided to keep going. And once I’d finished some semblance of setu bandhasana, I was inspired to continue to intermediate series. By the time I finished, I’d done all the poses in both series plus the bookends (surya namaskara, standing poses, and the closing sequence). About a 3 hour practice in total, and I was energized!
It sounds pretty good, eh? Well, it was far from perfection but the experience was pretty sweet. I somehow managed to get my feet into lotus during my karandavasana attempt, then burst into laughter when my derrière landed on my mat with a loud thud. A few poses later, I was thrilled to have lift off of both my feet and face in mayurasana. But my elbows pushing into my stomach caused an audible release of air from my butt. I laughed so hard that I lost the magical lift I’d achieved. Thank God my sound was muted on the zoom call.
And, it was all caught on video.