Saturday, March 2, 2013

A Practice Trajectory: Ordinary, Extraordinary, Everyday Ashtanga Yoga Pt. 4

There's really no manual for facing the death of a parent. My dad's illness and eventual passing was the first such experience of my adult life. It was a big blessing to me to have been introduced to Ashtanga practice before his health seriously declined. During that time, showing up for 7am practice not only felt revelatory, but like lifeblood.
You can't help become aware of your conditioning — both outer and inner — while going through the sequence of asana each day. Could I accept the moment as it was —including where I was in learning the series — and learn to breath in each posture, finding a larger context within which to experience the moment? Could I accept that my dad was dying when I barely felt like an adult? How much aversion did I feel, toward myself and others, on and off the mat? Did I judge/find fault with/praise myself and compare myself to others while practicing? While dealing with the hospital or my dad?  Or did I make my experience about someone, anyone else but me: my siblings, nurses, other patients, other students, or my teacher. Would I get into blame or obsess about how he was running the room, or being mad or happy depending on how many adjustments/postures he gave me, or simply take responsibility for myself? It's amazing how much core material can arise in an-hour-and-a-half of movement! I could honestly assess my feelings...or avoid reality altogether and simply not practice, stay in bed and tune out.
These options for approaching practice, or life, don't really ever go away. As a beginning student,  I spent more time with the judging and the striving and putting a lot on the teacher (('let's see, my dad is dying, wonder where I should project that relationship?'). Nonetheless, getting to the studio to practice was far easier that watching my father die.*

It's easy to forget ashtanga is a faith practice albeit in the guise of a physical activity. This was often lost on me amid those first years of my practice, but I chanced upon the moment —those snippets of grace that practice unearths and widens during Mysore classenough to stay enthralled by the whole experience. It was a rich period of being introduced to the basics of the language of the sequencing of postures and how that affected mind and body. Likewise, open studio doors, the commitment of other Ashtangis and my teachers to showing up were very bright lights in a dark time.

Amid my second year of practice, the tech-start up job dried up at the same time it as clear my dad wasn't getting better. Likewise, I was scheduled to be part of the wedding party for childhood friend who was getting married  in September. Through the company my brother worked for,  I was able to live in a small house on Santa Cruz ranch land they operated. It was close enough to my dad to visit regularly and right on the coast, with a view of the ocean, with enough open linoleum floor to set up a practice space. Self-practice was new, and my primary series pretty rough, but I had the habit instilled in me enough to keep it up.
At that time, I couldn't find a Santa Cruz studio with a Mysore program, but through casting about I found a small practice group that met three times a week to practice in a Capitola living room. Led by a woman who'd once practiced with Pattabhi Jois on his early trips to California, it was a small, sweet group and included a woman who'd started practice at age 70. "When I had to get a pacemaker, I realized I had to do something different and I started doing yoga," she told me. Close to 80 at the time, she had a graceful primary series in place and provided another welcome contrast to the VA hospital where my dad was being treated for cancer. It also gave me an inkling of how many people were practicing yoga beyond the studio system and a wider view of self practice in general.

Speaking of Pattabhi Jois, he was returning to the states to teach. In September of 2001 he'd be in New York for several weeks. While I wasn't sure how the summer would play out for my father, I signed up without hesitation to fly to New York and return a week before my friend's wedding...

 *I wrote extensively about my dad, practicing yoga, the event of 9/11 and practicing with Pattabhi Jois* for the first time in an essay "A Yogini in New York" which first ran in the anthology "Bare Your Soul: The Thinking Girl's Guide to Enlightenment" (Seal Press). 
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