Thursday, March 28, 2013

A Practice Trajectory: Ordinary, Extraordinary, Everyday Ashtanga Yoga Pt. 6

"Touch."
"No fear."
"Lift."
Instructions given by Sharath amid practice during that week in New York — touching a head to a knee in Utthita Hasta Padangushtasana, not fearing while dropping back, lifting up in Uth Pluthi. Reading these words in my notebook from that time, more than a decade later, I have to laugh, how little things change, and how those are some of the best instructions you can give someone when it comes to practicing Ashtanga. Engage. Go for it. Make it about something other than your baser self. 
 Returning from NYC, I found many loose ends in California: I was bouncing between Santa Cruz and San Francisco, practicing with people in Mill Valley when I could, and picking up the pieces in the wake of my father's death. How a family reacts to the death of a parent is it's own revelation and process. Suffice to say, putting siblings and lawyers into a room together, however amicable the meeting, equal tense situations. It wasn't a particularly joyful time, but I remember making lots of art, buying a guitar, and writing. I was a lot unsure of how best to proceed with my life, and appreciated the refuge of the yoga studio that much more.
The beginners steep learning curve with which had propelled me through some trying times had opened up onto a plateau. I was doing most of primary series but there were many parts of it I wasn't really doing. I can't remember what postures I was stalled at, but I remember returning to the studio and seeing how many students with whom I'd started practice had advanced theirs considerably while I'd been off practicing alone: whether standing up from back bends or simply being more grace full throughout. I wasn't anywhere near the place where practice wasn't about advancing through postures or getting a high — it was a hard realization when I realized 'great' blissful practices and breakthroughs in postures were often followed by days of fatigue, or pain, or boredom. My reactions to the ordinaries revealed my addictive and over-ambitious tendencies: my desire for the highs and breakthroughs worked great for getting me to practice, but also set me up for a lot of expectation and disappointment. I was a long way off from seeing clearly how important it might be to establish a kind of rhythm to practice. Still, I was compelled to keep at it: by the energy of the room and continual insights, new perspective and sensitivity that practice revealed.
After another year or so, I moved definitively to San Francisco, this time living walking distance from Larry Shultz's It's Yoga. Larry of course was known for having studied with Pattabhi Jois for 7 years and then reconfiguring the traditional series into his own brand of Vinyasa yoga. He was hugely influential to many, many yoga practitioners (and eventual teachers), and not so popular among tradition-following Ashtangis. Even if I was really still early in my practice,  kind of kicking my way through it, I was fully committed to the Ashtanga Yoga series as Jois taught it.  Nonetheless, at the time, It's Yoga also had several days a week of morning open practice on its calendar, and I found my way to practicing there with a handful of other yogis. It was a fun group. Sometimes Larry would practice with us and he took to calling me "primary series Deborah." My being such a traditionalist annoyed him greatly.  But even if I was marking use of his studio's open practice hours, I wasn't going to take Schutz's classes.  I now view this stance as full of hubris. If you're going to go into some one's studio, you're asking for them to teach you something. If you don't like how/what they're doing, leave. Simple.
Larry kind of tolerated me, and long the way, certified teacher Dominic Corigliano came through and taught for several days, introducing me to much of second series. After, I started adding half of 2nd to my practice. This was and wasn't a good idea. I was flexible enough at the time, but I wasn't strong enough to hold my center. Encouraged by my fellow practitioners, I kept at it, and broke through to stand up from back bends (albeit sloppily). Outside of practice I was getting involved with an avid community of songwriters and filling up notebook upon notebook. Another writer friend, who taught Sivananda yoga as part of the Prison Liberation Project , asked if I was interested in teaching yoga to women inmates at the SF County Jail in conjunction with a meditation class. So I got my clearance and began teaching very basic asana at the jail once a week, an activity I heartily recommend to anyone wanting to learn that even a little yoga can go a long way. Occasionally I'd go up to Marin to practice and get some instruction...and be reminded that having a teacher was a really good thing.  Then my mother was diagnosed with lymphoma (a different form than my dad's) and started rounds of treatment. We had fairly fraught, love-hate relationship that we'd been chipping away at for a while. And while I can't say her illness made us closer — in fact,  even though she was seriously ill, even though I'd already lost my dad, even though we weren't close in a day-to-day way — but I couldn't really imagine her ever being gone.
Through it all, the idea of India kept nagging at me. Mom's lymphoma was in remission when I finally I put together my funds to get an airplane ticket to Bangalore and a month of classes at the Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute in the fall of 2004. It seemed like an enormous amount of time to be away, and I cried on the phone to my mom the night I left, but finally I was going to see for myself what was going on in Mysore. 

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