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.