In 2008 I boarded a plane for Mysore, India where I had planned a month long stay to study Ashtanga yoga under Pattabhi Jois and his son Sharath. I had been practicing Ashtanga for a little over a year and had quickly fallen in love with a meditative self practice that required memorization of each sequence of poses.
My teaching schedule allowed me the freedom to attend daily Ashtanga practices as early as 5am. As a novice teacher I felt that I had learned everything I could from Vinyasa flow or Power Yoga classes and wanted improve my practice by mastering more advanced poses. likes the ones where you see people bent in pretzel like shapes.
I was anxious to conquer every pose possible so I could be the ‘perfect’ teacher. If you know anything about Yoga then you know that Asana, or the physical poses, are only a very small part of the Eight Limbs of Yoga. The breath and meditation are just as vital and more importantly the entire purpose of the physical practice is to prepare the body to comfortably sit in meditation.
As I boarded the 22 hour flight from Los Angeles to Bangalore, India my only thoughts were about how great my backbends were going to look once I returned home. Not to mention that my entire concept of India was like something out of a Beatles song so you can imagine my shock when I landed.
I was alone. I was exhausted. And I was thousands of miles away from home.
After traveling for nearly 24 hours by airplane and car I arrived at the bed and breakfast I had booked and collapsed on the bed passing out for almost half a day. The next day I signed up for my time slot at the school and took the rest of the day to explore Mysore on foot.
It’s a fairly small town compared to giant cities such as New Delhi and is situated a few hours away from the beaches of Goa. The town had profited considerably thanks to the Ashtanga school which had drawn students from all over the world.
Here, I thought, is where I’ll finally perfect my back bend and maybe, just maybe, move on to second series Ashtanga.
As if first series isn’t hard enough.
I was already suffering from chronic pain and tightness in my left shoulder and hip but I just brushed that aside and powered through. For the next four weeks I would take advantage of the hundred degree weather in India to become the most flexible, bendy girl I could be.
Nevermind the persistent pain and tightness that seemed to follow me everywhere. I was here to improve. And improve I did. My backdrops became effortless, my nose touched my knee with ease and I even got blessed with the green light to advance to second series.
At the end of the month I flew back to Los Angeles feeling like I could finally call myself a ‘real’ Yoga teacher. My euphoria at having ‘mastered’ first series, however, was shortlived. My body was having a crisis and one day while in the middle of a seated twist where I could typically clasp my hands and bind with ease, I froze. Actually my entire left side, which is my weaker side, froze.
It refused to budge and I panicked. I tried repositioning my feet, sitting up taller than ever but I couldn’t even get my fingertips to touch.
Even after months of searching every avenue of healers, heating pads, massage therapists, and physical therapists I still couldn’t figure out what was wrong with me. I had taken a step down from Ashtanga and was still taking Vinyasa flow classes but it only seemed to exacerbate the chronic pain I felt.
At some point I confided in one of my teachers as to why I had stopped going to Ashtanga and the answer he gave me was surprisingly simple. I was too flexible but lacked the strength needed to balance out my flexibility.
I didn’t believe it at first. Of course I was strong…didn’t he see how easily I could lift up into forearm balances and handstands? Yes, my arms and shoulders were strong but my core was weak. It took one class with a Pilates reformer for me to realize just how weak.
I ended up taking a break from my practice altogether to allow myself to heal. As a yoga teacher this was devastating. If I couldn’t practice then how was I supposed to teach?
A few months turned into a couple years before I finally returned to my mat. My ego had been bruised because I could no longer drop into my beloved drop backs with swan like ease. It took months of struggling with insecurities that I wasn’t good enough to set an example for my students if I didn’t have a stellar asana practice.
What a hypocrite huh? The entire time I had been instructing my students to listen to their bodies but I ignored mine for years while it pleaded with me for rest. Asana practice requires a lot of repetition especially with chaturangas and down dogs. Ashtanga makes even more physical demands. Had I listened to my body and balanced my practice with restorative yoga and rest, I would have avoided a lot of pain and suffering.
It was a harsh lesson as I missed my morning ritual of Ashtanga, but now I know how important it is to nurture myself if I want to cultivate a lifetime practice of Yoga. These days I enjoy a beginner level class as much as I enjoy a level ten class (kidding). But you get my point.
As long as I get to spend some time on my mat every day I am happy. And I am even more grateful that the time spent practicing these days is pain free. Word.