Practice has been hard lately. Really hard. Almost as hard as it was in the beginning.
I didn’t come to Ashtanga yoga with a background in gymnastics, dance, or martial arts. I didn’t even come with a strong yoga background. I did Rodney Yee DVD’s and the occasional studio class off and on for thirteen years. My heels didn’t touch the ground in down dog, I couldn’t hold Navasana for five full breaths, and I certainly couldn’t jump through or jump back.
Yoga postures did not come easily for me. I had to work my asana off for months to touch my toes in any forward fold. I practiced six days a week right from the beginning, and I was hardcore. I held the poses I struggled with most for extra breaths. If I couldn’t bind a pose, I’d vinyasa back in and try it until my fingers caught or a teacher told me to stop trying. Sometimes my half-primary practice took two long, sweaty hours because of extra breaths and backbends. My practice got solid, but it took all I had to make that happen. I left the Mysore room exhausted and thirsty each day, glowing with exercise-induced endorphins. Check out the video below for a glimpse of what my practice looked like about a year ago.
If I’d known then that I’d still be fighting tight hip flexors and hamstrings today, I don’t know what I’d do. I figured I’d be well into second series by now, not still trying to bind my hands in Supta Kurmasana.
Up until a few weeks ago, practice had reached a place of relative ease. After learning Setu Bandhasana with Maia I still had some struggle bus poses, but I could flow through all of primary series smoothly and with grace.
Then came the week of the most recent full moon.
Normally, as it approaches the full moon brings openness to Ashtanga practitioners. Not me. I usually seem to be a little tighter around full moons, but this time, it was extreme. My hamstrings locked. Pressing my heels into the ground in down dog became an effort. Then hip flexors and psoas tightened and knotted, getting hard as rocks. Twists disappeared. Supta K regressed by months. I could no longer grab my ankles while backbending. Jumping back and through felt less like floating and more like dragging. What happened?
I don’t know.
I don’t totally buy into the theory that the moon has an effect on the “tides” of the human body. I just haven’t been doing this long enough to have enough personal experience to make a judgment call. I don’t discount it as a possibility, though, because I’ve noticed that my body does tend to be on a cycle of strength/flexibility that follows the waxing and waning of the moon. It’s just on an opposite schedule than the typical Ashtangi. Then again, that could just be due to my own hormonal cycle. I am female, after all.
Either way, I don’t know what happened, or why it’s still affecting me. All I know is that it’s taking extra effort to get through practice, in a way I haven’t experienced since I first started. It’s humbling. It’s frustrating. It’s uncomfortable. Poses that had become easy suddenly aren’t. Discomfort is edging out comfort, and it’s taking me by surprise. I guess I’d begun to expect the ease I’d gained after learning the final pose of Primary Series.
I should know better. In another program I attend, there’s a saying. “Expectations are reservations for resentment.” If I expect a certain outcome, I’m probably going to resent it if that outcome doesn’t manifest. Why should it be any different in yoga? Why should I expect comfort in yoga? This practice isn’t about ease and comfort. Rather, it’s about breaking through the bonds that keep me tied to unnecessary attachments and separated from my highest, best self.
Breaking bonds is hard. It’s anything but comfortable.
In other styles of yoga, the teacher will tell you to back off if something doesn’t feel good. I even do it in some of my own non-Ashtanga classes. I understand why; it’s so the student doesn’t injure herself. In anything but Mysore-style instruction, it’s hard to develop the student-teacher relationship necessary to know when to push a student and when to tell them to back off. It’s a safety thing. But avoiding a posture, or avoiding depth in a posture simply because it isn’t comfortable…well…I think that’s missing the point (which is why I recommend Ashtanga Yoga for anyone who’s serious about their yoga practice).
It reminds me of something Maia told me during my last week with her. I was trembling in a tenuous, but fully bound, Supta Kurmasana. She stepped away. “I could give you an adjustment to make that more comfortable, but I’m not. I’m just going to let you feel it out on your own for a little while.”
I nodded, or did whatever passes for a nod when your ankles are locked behind your head. I took five breaths, and I held the pose all on my own. When I came out, I was so weak I could barely push up into Tittibhasana.
Iain Grysak had a similar experience in Dwi Pada Sirsasana with Sharath: “He clearly was not going to adjust me; he wanted me to do the work myself…This is how the most skillful teachers will work with students – give them the minimum amount of input necessary for them to understand where they should be going, and then leave it up to them to work it out for themselves.”
Discomfort–and working through it–is part of this practice. Whether it’s the familiar discomfort of poses I don’t like, or this more recent discomfort with the entire practice, it’s something I can work through. Even if I feel like I’ve turned the wheel back to the very beginning, I can still unroll my mat every day and practice. Maybe I can even find some of the energy that pushed me through those early, difficult months of practice, and use it to keep me going even on those days when my hamstrings feel like dogwood trunks during Surya Namaskar.
Whatever discomfort I’m experiencing is ultimately temporary. This too shall pass. Practice will get comfortable again. Then it will get uncomfortable again. It’s a cycle. As Amanda Markland likes to say, practice is not a straight trajectory.
Besides, what else am I going to do but practice? Sleep in? Slim chance!