Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Practice Trajectory: Ordinary, Extraordinary, Everyday Ashtanga Pt. 3

"This wall divides us, we're on two different sides
But this wall is not real; how can it be real?
It's only made of concrete and barbed wire
Concrete and barbed wire, concrete and barbed wire
It's only made of concrete and barbed wire"
Lucinda Williams, Concrete & Barbed Wire

It would still take a good year after moving to Mill Valley before I walked into the 7am Mysore class at Yoga Studio. And that was only because a new job required I work regular hours. A musician and voice teacher I knew had become the manager of a content team at a new tech start-up in town. Tasked with staffing his department, he brought in most of his fellow artist friends to fill the available positions. Everyone kind of knew it wasn't going to be a long-term gig. Upper management was as uneven as it overall premise of the company—the start-up understood the growing priority of search but didn't foresee laptops or Smart phones and was simply way behind the curve of the rest of the looming Internet as we now know it.  Nonetheless, the pay was good and it allowed most of us to support our creative and yoga habits.
By this time, I going to yoga classes 5-6 days a week. I didn't need to be sold on yoga's benefits, but I hadn't really taken practice on. Led classes are a great way to start to learn yoga, but self-practice really is another ballpark. When someone is telling you what to do, it's that much easier to check out. When your mind wanders, there's someone who will tell you to switch sides soon enough.
Getting on the mat to practice an Ashtanga series is really meeting yourself each day: Shake hands,  "How do you do?" Only thing is, you really can't run the other way (or pedal harder up another hill, or take a drink or eat a cookie, or whatever) if you realize you don't like everything you get to know. It's all about staying on that mat with yourself as you are, and you acutely start to realize most of the distractions are your own creation. This is where it gets interesting (and then, eventually, boring).
At the time, the once-weekly led Ashtanga classes at Yoga Studio were intimidating enough for me to stay away from a Mysore class. The teacher didn't play music in class (fun, but again, distracting) and we were asked, repeatedly, to focus on our breath. Oh, yeah, breathing? hmmm, wonder what time it's getting to be. Only 10 more minutes of this.
But then I took the new job and it was 7am Mysore class or bust as far as yoga classes.
Despite being intimidated, when I finally walked in the door of the Mysore room, I immediately knew it was where I wanted to be. The room was alive with breath. There was a party going on in there it seemed, albeit a different sort of party. And so I began to learn what practice was.
At first, my competitive bike racing mentality to learning went into overdrive: It's training. I'll show up. I'll get 'in shape.' I'll be able to do all of the poses. In fact, I'll race the person on the mat beside me. How were these people so at ease? I should be that way. I'm going to be that way...But then it became more like: Shit, this part of me won't move... I feel kind of sick. God, I have to cry...all of it interrupted by occasional moments of ease or out-of-nowhere insights.
Mysore practice was (is) magical and mysterious and challenging and totally knocked me upside the head and undid me. A lot of toxicity, physical and emotional, rose to the surface, as the practice of breathing and sequenced asana started to chip away at the shells I didn't know I was wearing.
"Most people don't come back after that," J.B. opined after witnessing a run of my teary practices. In retrospect, backing off might have been a good idea.
"When people don't come back it's likely because they're overwhelmed," Peter Sanson said at a recent workshop about why it's hard for some people to stay motivated to do Mysore. "It's too much. That's why some days you might not do the whole series. You go slowly. You want to be able to do the rest of your day. How else are you going feed the kids or take care of the house?"
I would have benefited from hearing Sanson's words 13 years ago, but they likely wouldn't have sunk into my head at that time. 
YogiTimes once assigned me to interview Larry Schultz (1950-2011), an influential San Francisco yoga teacher who was among the early wave of Westerners to practice with Sri K Pattahbi Jois. He was also one of the first Westerners to adapt and reconfigure the traditional practice for his students. He had a mixed reputation among traditionalists (and I'd had my own run-in with him about following tradition by the time I interviewed him), but during our conversation, I came to appreciate his perspective. During the interview, he retold a story about an experience he had with Jois early in his practice:
"In the beginning, I was a terrible person. I had drug issues. I was unhealthy. That's why they called me 'bad Larry.' I was operating from a whole ego-based structure called me." Larry recalled. "Pattabhi said there were three kinds of yoga students. He told us, 'The first kind, all is coming seven years, the second kind, all is coming in 12 years, and the third kind, bad people.' He looks at me and he says, '25 years, all is coming!' I said Oh fuck! But I walked out and thought, well, when I'm 56 my whole life is going to be completely different. And it is. It's remarkable."
While no one called me 'bad Deborah' (at least to my face) at the Yoga Studio, I certainly had plenty of unaddressed issues (albeit not drug and alcohol problems) with which to wrestle. Investigating more healing modalities, I signed on for Rolfing and when that brought up too much, I booked a series of somatic therapy sessions. I remember often taking 10 or 15 minute breaks throughout the work day to go in the bathroom and cry. But I didn't stop practice.  I didn't want to miss anything. I was hooked on seeing how poses could reveal so much information; how practice could be bliss one day, hell another; and how transformation, though slow going, was really possible.
More than anything, Ashtanga and all the information practicing it gave me, fed that deep longing for something else. The same longing I felt looking at that students in that initial class with Richard Freeman and at some of my fellow students at Yoga Studio.  There was a committed group of 25-30 Ashtangi's showing up every day to  practice in Mill Valley, more than one who was often coming and going from India.  Again I had the feeling they understood something I had no clue about.
And the studio soon became refuge in more ways than one. Within the year my dad's health would begin to take its final turn for the worse....

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