Taylor Hunt, an authorized Ashtanga teacher in Columbus, Ohio, wrote a Facebook post this week that really clicked.
“Yoga for me has always been hard work. From the very beginning I have struggled to change and stood in my own way. So often in the yoga community I hear the words love and light get tossed around with such ease. I never understood what that meant. Yoga was never pretty for me and it required that I was determined to change and be a better human being. I understand the reference of love and light but do you understand the struggle.”
Yes, Taylor, I do.
I went on vacation at the end of May and I slacked off in my practice. Over two weeks, I only unrolled my Manduka four times. Not once did I complete my full practice.
I’m not mad at myself for that. I made a conscious decision to prioritize spending time with my family while I was on vacation. Sure, I could have woken up early every day and practiced, but it’s rare that my husband and I ever get to wake up together. Usually, I’m up at least two hours before he hits snooze on his alarm for the first time. I wanted our vacation to be about us, not about me trying to fit in a full Primary Series every day. I was okay with that.
I figured I’d be a little tight, maybe a little sore when I returned to daily practice. I wasn’t expecting to have lost 75% of my backbends, 50% of my strength, and 90% of my flexibility. I’ve been standing and dropping in backbends for more than two years, but all of a sudden, it wasn’t happening. Nor was anything else.
I couldn’t bind the Marichis properly, or jump through without dragging my feet, or jump back without pushing off my toes. Practice was a travesty.
Worse, I didn’t want to be there. My body hurt all over, almost like I had the flu. I was in a shitty mood from the minute my alarm went off until I finished practice. I didn’t leave the shala energized, I left drained. Practice exhausted me mentally, emotionally, and physically. I had to take naps just to get through the day.
On my third day back, as I grabbed my toes and exhaled into Padasgusthasana, I thought, “Why the fuck am I doing this? I can’t believe I voluntarily torture myself like this.”
Then it hit me. I didn’t have to. There are billions of people out there who live happy lives who don’t practice Ashtanga yoga. I could be one of them. I imagined a life of sleeping in, then doing a quiet sitting meditation. I’d get back into running and jog along shady wooded trails instead of sweating my face off in a hot, smelly room. I could wake up after the sun came up, to a world that was bright and alive. It would be beautiful.
The only way I got through the week without giving in to these temptations was by telling myself that I would quit next week. The thought of quitting got me through. “After this week, I’ll never have to do this again.”
Practice has never been easy for me, especially lately. When other yoga practitioners talk about getting blissy in baddha konasana, I nod and smile like I know what they’re talking about, but I don’t. When my friend Auriel posted about a beautiful meditation she experienced during a yoga practice, in which she saw herself as a lotus flower blooming out of the muck, I liked her post and said I was happy for her, but really, I thought she might have been delusional because I sure as hell have never had a vision of myself as a fucking flower, especially not during yoga.
This practice hurts. It does things like force me to let go of comparing myself to others. If I don’t, I’m going to get crabby because the girl practicing next to me, who’s been at it for less than a year, is doing the entirety of Primary Series better than I can on my best day.
This practice hurts because it puts me face to face with my deep-seated need to achieve. I’m used to achieving. I’m good at it. I graduated with high honors from college, even though I was an active alcoholic at the time. I was one of three graduates to get honored by the department when I finished my Master’s. I’ve won more than $2 million in grants from the EPA for small towns in Indiana. When I worked in a call center, I was at the top of my department. When I played the French Horn, I was first chair. When I rode horses, I went to the World Championships.
I hinge a lot of my self-worth on achieving. I’m kind of a pompous ass that way.
When I’m confronted with something that I physically cannot achieve (hello, jumping through with straight legs), it messes with my head in a big way. In Ashtanga, my physical body gets in the way of my emotional and mental bodies. And that sucks. Even if it’s temporary, I’m forced to deal with the uncomfortable fact that I can’t get that bind, or nail that transition, or put my body into a particular shape.
I spent months trying to wiggle into Marichyasana D. That pose loomed like Castle Black for a long time. Not being able to do it was both physically painful (I had bruises on the backs of my arms from squeezing them against my shins) and emotionally painful (I wanted something I couldn’t have). It was uncomfortable as hell.
When I finally got it, there was no parade. No one applauded. I wasn’t even excited. My first thought was, “It’s about time.” All that struggle, and I didn’t get anything tangible for it.
Here’s the place where I should start explaining that it’s all worth it. But I can’t. I’m not sure that it is.
I recently interviewed a dancer with modern dance company Dance Kaleidoscope. When I asked her how hard it was to become a professional dancer, she said, “If you can do anything else, anything else in the world, and be fulfilled, then you should do that.” Basically, she was saying that if there are other options, any options, then take them, because dance is brutal.
I feel that way about Ashtanga. If you want to do yoga and have fun, or relax, there are tons of classes out there designed for those purposes. If you want to get fit and strong, join a gym. If you want to lose weight, go running. If you want to find inner peace, go meditate and hang out with the Buddhists. If that stuff works for you, then stick with it. There are reasons that Ashtanga isn’t a popular practice when you compare it to hot vinyasa or Crossfit or running or something like that.
But if everything else leaves you feeling empty, then God help you. You may be one of us.
Ashtanga is painful and terrifying and demanding. I’m honestly not sure why I’m still doing it, but I am. There’s a quote from the Big Book (that weird, culty-looking tome that AA members read and quote obsessively) that seems to apply here: “We alcoholics are undisciplined. So we let God discipline us…”
I need discipline. I’m an alcoholic. An addict. I don’t need bliss, or love and light. That stuff gets me in trouble, because I want more of it than exists in the world.
I’m not going to quit. At least not yet. I’ll be there on Monday, rolling out my mat at 6:00 a.m. with the handful of other practitioners in this city who will be doing the same. It probably won’t feel good, but I’ll do it anyway. I’m pulled to this practice, for better or worse. Here’s hoping that I find the better soon.
If not, fuck it. Love and light are overrated.
Thanks for reading, Maria!
I hope this piece isn’t parody because this is exactly how I feel. And doesn’t just apply to ashtanga, it’s every method. And this love and light non sense is for the birds. And yet, I keep going back. Thank you hank you thank you so much for sharing. It’s comforting to know I’m not the only o e grumbling when I roll out my mat.
It’s definitely not parody, Heather. The struggle is real! Thanks so much for reading.
OMG, its awesome. I really love your text. I was laughing and crying when reading it. Maybe we all feel like that, but noone of us dares to say it…? I have been also having that thoughts often, ‘why the hell am i doing it, whe we are all doing it?’. I didn’t find the answer, maybe because i didn’t find anything that i could do better. Or anything that would be better for me. I definitely have a love-hate relationship with ashtanga. But maybe the practice does give more than it takes… Love, M.
Marta, thank you so much for your comment! It is really nice to know that I’m not the only one who feels like this practice is sometimes a form of torture.
Love your comments and totally feel what you feel. Ashtangis are a crazy bunch. We have such high level of pain threshold that my osteopath therapy would happily put more needles into the various parts of my body or hauled me in for more corrective alignment!
Hate it and yet knows that my hands can bind, body can bend and …bring in the challenge master!
Well enjoy whatever breaks that comes and then roll out our mat when we are ready or not!
Thanks for reading, Angela. We’re a crazy bunch indeed.
Emma, once again, your words hit me right where it counts. I relate…. Been practicing, not as often as I ‘should’, but have been making an effort to learn on my own (no studio near me to go for assists) and it is a struggle. When you think about it, really, on and off the mat, life is a beautiful struggle.
Just wanted to let you know, I get it. I get it, and I get you. Miss you lady!!
Kendra, thank you (as always) for your kind comments. Miss you, girl!
It’s been a week I keep coming back to this post. Last week I kept hearing my elder brothers voice saying the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results…. Ha.
Thanks for reading, Shaz!
So happy to have stumbled upon this this morning. I haven’t practiced in a week and a half and I know the struggle ahead. I’ve thought about quitting for all the same reasons. Maybe I already have, for a few minutes here and there. I think I’ll get back on my mat tomorrow morning
Naomi, you just gave me the inspiration to make sure I get up and practice, too. I was just thinking about sleeping in tomorrow instead.
Ashtanga is a fun practice for small boned eight – 12 year old children, after that the body begins to grow and mature and unless you remain small and or are trained in gymnastics or dance you may find many of the asanas inaccessible. I introduced a 10 year old girl with 6 months of casual training in tumbling and gymnastics to the most advanced poses in the first 3 series and she easily learned them all in less than one hour at the Y where I teach fitness and meditation. Why would adults therefore spend countless hours and years in pain and suffering trying to learn something that a small child can learn in minutes? You can’t learn Bach or math or get a medical degree or play championship golf or comprehend Shakespeare unless your willing to spend thousands of enriched hours on the discipline. So why bother learning something that a child can know in a few weeks of happy play? Stupid.
Thanks for sharing your opinion, Robert. I’m glad I don’t feel that way.
I think we can all relate to this. Very well put. I’m always waiting for an applause or something when I nail a transition or complete a bind. The only applause I get is in my head, and it’s more like a “holy shit! That was hard”.
Btw, where did you go on vacation, looks similar to home, in New Mexico.
Thanks for reading and responding, Nicole! I know just how you feel. And yes, that’s New Mexico. Pecos River.
Still… You do yoga for pleasure! That’s why I think it hurts. It might not be your cup of tea, but you want to crack it. That’s the way you want to get things. And yoga is not a thing to achieve. To me, it is to find the balance. There are different yoga methods because there are different type of people. There are hundreds of asanas but not all are suitable for your type.
Do the right ones that balances you and you will love yoga and yourself.
Thanks for reading and commenting!
Hi Emma,it’s refreshing to hear another teachers story….coz u can so feel that same pain, feeling of torture and thoughts that sometime do cross allllllll our minds but no one admits to it?I am currently on vacation and I’m a Ashantga and Rocket yoga teacher in Dubai. ..and Rocket is 2 steps ahead of Ashantga. ….so every other day I practice,if not daily. ….but now when I feel laid back n lazy, I just do a Yin Practice and it balances it out u r right….I was teaching 11 classes a week n didn’t hv time in that last month for my own self practice. ..I got here n couldn’t do a crow?can u imagine. …my students can now do. …It took me 2 strong days of focus n breath alignment to get it….It realized,i need to keep my practice sustainable. …best part is my 2 little girls r my photographers while I practice..n they join me too….?
Thanks for your comment, Dharna. 11 classes a week is definitely a lot!
As an recovering addict myself I think it’s all too easy for us to pass the addiction onto something else, we can make that something positive like AA/NA or yoga or just about anything, but it can still become an obsessive part of our lives which are based around our need for control. I don’t think many of us are exempt from this.
I suppose the thing is that it doesn’t matter if you can’t get into the postures as well as others might. Maybe it wasn’t the time off that was the problem it was that you were putting too much in in some way before? The point is that it gives you a sense of peace and stillness which is the aim of the game.
If this was me I would give the primary series a break occasionally and focus on pranayama or meditation.
Helen, I appreciate that you read the post and commented. It’s always nice to hear from a fellow in recovery.
Nailed it. Thanks.
God I loved this post so much. I’m sitting here all stiff from 3 hard days of practice and asking myself if I should just take a hot bath and take it easy today and why – just why – am I doing this? I don’t need to lose weight. I’m in good shape and great health, and god knows, my progress is excruciatingly slow. The achievement stuff, I totally get that, although you’re still an overachiever compared to me ;), but that’s just the thing: Comparison. I don’t want to compare myself. So I just tell myself that I’m the slowest student that Ashtanga has ever seen and then imagine that the slowest students sometimes, just sometimes, make the deepest and most beautiful progress if only the practitioner doesn’t die of impatience first! Anyway, thank you for this. I quoted you on my FB page and tagged my crazy Ashtangi friends. They’ll understand too!
Thank you so much for reading and sharing some of your own story. Here’s to all those days we unroll our mats instead of take hot baths!
Wow. I stumbled upon your post in such a round-about way and it says, you say exactly what I feel. I know these experiences. I am starting to see the parallels between my sobriety practice and my Ashtanga practice and maybe now I understand why a lot of people don’t get it. It’s a struggle. It’s a struggle that I need. A struggle to keep me sane and present for my own life. Thank you so much for speaking the words that I wanted, needed to hear. It’s been almost a month since I last practiced. I checked out. I’m not sure why, but I did. My practice (Ashtanga and sobriety) was feeling so good…and then…
Thank you for speaking the words I needed to hear. to heal.
Thank you for your kind and honest words. Best of luck to you, your sobriety and your practice.
Thank you for the insight, great read you nailed it, made me laugh and also recognize all the feelings I, and I guess lots of fellow practitioners, goes through on the journey.
The answer to “why” is properly multiple, but for me it’s about getting in to get out, and not just skim the surface or take a quick peek, but really go in, penetrating all the physical and mental layers of stiffness, stubbornness, and to quote the source, the 6 poisons; desire, anger, delusion, greed, envy and sloth and cultivate real softness, stability, patience and kindness of the body, heart and mind. It’s the path of honesty, and as almost all practitioners sooner or later realises, it just takes time, really long time. So I hang in for the ride, everyday uninterrupted since 1999. In my experience, and as you also explain with D, the goal isn’t really that’s important, it’s the journey and what you learn and experience on the way that matters, and it does matter.
Note. Just spend around 14 years catching my heels unassisted in Kapotasana. Got the pose sometimes in 2002, a few week ago I did it. I had no idea how much I had to soften up and how much strength I had to build up to nail it, It’s unexplainable for any outsider. But, as you all know, it had to be done, and done is done. And the journey brought about multiple change, that deepens the yes, this is why I do it.
Thank you for reading, and thank you for your kind and insightful comment!
And just another note, if you allow.
The path is about waking up, not about catching heels in Kapot, even though it can feel quite important as you struggle to do that. But waking up is one thing, properly happens to lots of people someway along the path. The issue is to stay awake, that’s why I/we constantly needs to practice. To stay vigilant, to stay sharp, to stay honest, to constantly keep the weed away. No one is free from that, not even the greatest saints or the gods.
Well said, Eskil!