Saturday, February 23, 2013

A Practice Trajectory: Ordinary, Extraordinary, Everyday Ashtanga Yoga Pt. 1

On the path, Mysore 2008
It seems there's an all-time high level of conversation and debate regarding whose teaching Ashtanga Yoga correctly, how and if one is 'advancing' in practice, if a teacher is authorized or not, appropriation of yoga forms, teaching quietly and teaching 'loudly', etc, et al., while the fact that sincere and dedicated yoga practice generally makes people better — physically, emotionally and spiritually — often gets, well, overshadowed. Over the past 15 years, I've had many, many ups and downs in my practice, which isn't particularly 'impressive' in any outward way, but nonetheless, am ever more appreciative of, and which I dare say, has made me an at least slightly better person.  Over time, yoga has infiltrated, informed, transformed, benefited, rocked, saved, annoyed and (I hope, now) integrated with my life. I owe many debts of gratitude to the many Ashtanga yoga teachers who have held space for me while the practice did its work.
Like many people, another physical practice — in this case, competitive cycling — and injury, led me to take a yoga class. But if I look back further, yoga was always swirling around my life. My aunt on my mother's side, took classes with the Baptiste family back in the 50s and my mom— a devotee of Jack LaLanne exercise TV shows, routinely did shoulder stand and halasana on the living room floor when I was a kid. I didn't recognize it as such, and she didn't call it yoga (it was simply her 'exercise'), but there asana was before me.
Later, at UC Santa Cruz where I completed my undergraduate degree, my future first husband took yoga classes through the rec department. I have no idea who his teachers were, or their training, but he taught me sun salutations somewhere during our time together. We were both avid cyclists and hikers and he was an accomplished climber. After graduation and marrying, we moved to Boulder, CO, where, after getting settled and finding work, we joined local bike teams and competed at the regional level. I rode my bike an hour or two each morning before my new job as a sports journalist, covering triathlon and cycling. Quite naturally, I was drawn to do a few sun salutations each day before getting on my bike. I did this for maybe 5 years without thinking much about it other than it helped wake my body up a bit before getting on my bike.
Training for bike racing is grueling. Like any somatic pursuit, it brought up 'stuff,' manifesting at that time in fatigue and sometimes injury (oh my knees!).  Pursuing cycling and inevitably hitting some walls in my advancement, along with being surrounded by athletes at work and at play, naturally led to my interest in different modes of bodywork. I enjoyed regular therapeutic massage, which led to chiropractic, Chinese medicine, and cranial sacral therapy.
Still, working full time, traveling and racing began to take a toll, and I was led to sign up for a 'gentle yoga' class. I wish I could remember this graceful woman's name: she was in her 60s, taught classes out her home in the foothills above Boulder and practiced EMDR on the side. The asana was indeed gentle, mostly involving seated poses, but I invariably felt more alive when I left her class. More so alive, to my surprise, than I did riding my bike, which was saying a lot. I didn't realize how hard I'd become while training for cycling and pursuing my career, but I was beginning to realize there was something more out there. While I felt that  "I had it all (the house, the husband, the job)" I also had an inkling there was more. Of course, the cycling, the tiny bit of yoga and the various forms of bodywork were slowly starting to open me up. What did this mean?
Boulder is a great place to get your questions answered. I started taking poetry classes at The Naropa Institute — the first Buddhist accredited University — my husband was reading Alan Watts, we did a weekend sit at the Shambhala Center, we got more musical, then we started sitting regularly with a Zen monk. We were dabbling in many wisdom traditions, yes, but we were nonetheless hot on the trail of our respective life practices.
During this time, we were friends with a couple of professional cyclists who were always on the cutting edge of alternative activities. They took yoga, they'd traveled all over the world, including India, and one of them, in a radical move, signed on with John Douillard, an Ayurvedic doctor, as his coach. One day, I was over at their house, drinking chai, and they told me about this 'amazing yoga teacher' who had a studio not far from where we were living.
Intrigued, I made a point a few days later to walk four blocks from my house to The Yoga Workshop to take a led class. It should be noted that at the time I thought I was the shit. I wasn't a pro cyclist, but I was a serious one.  I was immersed in bike culture: Lycra, energy drinks and bars, carbon fiber, heart-rate monitors, race results, team sponsors, ripped bodies, shaved legs, the whole bit. And my life was pretty picture-perfect on the outside.
Then I walked into The Yoga Workshop and ...went down the rabbit hole.
Who were all these people standing mat-to-mat, peaceful smiles on their face? I set up a borrowed mat across from a slim, mature woman with a lined face and a serenity about her that told me she knew something I had no clue about. Then Richard Freeman walked in. In my memory, and I have no idea if it's true now, he was wearing a dhoti. In between giving instruction, he stepped lightly about our mats, talking of strange things and concepts —bandhas? soft palates?— and making light adjustments. He gave me an adjustment in Parivrtta trikonasana, revolving triangle, and I nearly fell over. WTF? Who was this guy? 
By the end of class, I was exhausted, intrigued and slightly miffed. Then he — again, I have no idea if this really happened but it's how my memory recorded it— blew a conch shell to rouse us from savasana.
Who were these people?  Of course, I had to go back....

1 comment:

louloulovesbooks said...

I love reading about the stepping stones to practise, as we know it. I missed you in Mysore this year. X