Recently, I was faced with the question of why I practice ashtanga yoga. I’ve been asked that from time to time, and usually say something like ‘it helps me feel better” or “I feel more balanced.” Most people accept that and while it’s not wrong, it really doesn’t convey how I truly feel about the practice. But how do I put that into words so people understand? Truth is, I just hadn’t figured that out. Partly because the practice of ashtanga yoga is very personal to me and conveying my feelings isn’t all that easy, and to be truthful I just haven’t committed to the work to sort that out. This time was different. It was after Mysore practice and some of us were chatting with a mother of one of the group members. She joined us for practice for a bit that day and then watched. Afterwards, we were talking about how we did (and the amazing practice photos her son had just taken), this lovely lady commented on how beautiful ashtanga yoga is, but to do it so often we must really like it. Huh. How do we answer that?
As I thought about it a bit, my answer on why I practice came suddenly… because I need it.
Wait, I need it? Wow, that was a revelation! But how did that happen? True, I now try to practice 6 days a week, 5 if there’s a moon day. I watch what I eat, go to bed early, and arrange my schedule to practice each day. I read about ashtanga yoga, take vacation time for workshops, and hang out with ashtangis. Heck, I even dream about getting that pose I haven’t figured out! It sure wasn’t always this way though.
I didn’t start out practicing ashtanga yoga. In fact, it was a fluke that I started practicing any yoga at all. Fourteen years ago, a friend asked if I wanted to try yoga with her home practice group. Being a 41 year old guy living in a small town in southern Illinois with no yoga studio and no exposure to any type of practice, I was reluctant to say the least. But, my friend promised there was another guy who practiced with the group, and I would know most of the people. Ok, I knew I needed to get in better shape and the gym wasn’t my type of thing, so I agreed. Well, I went to that first practice. Did I like it? Nope. I couldn’t do a lot of it, and was really sore the next day. But, I could see the others really got something out of it. So I went back, and after a while started to feel better. Not just during practice, but in general. Something was working. I wasn’t sure what it was, but I kept showing up. Then, a few years later I made the trip to take a vinyasa class in St. Louis. Wow, got my butt kicked! But, again I could see how much the rest of the class got out of the practice. So I kept going. Over the years, doorways opened. I got to work with great teachers, tried different yoga styles, even went through teacher training. I loved all of those experiences, but I still felt there was something out there that I wasn’t quite connecting with.
Then one day in vinyasa class the teacher mentioned that we’d all worked hard getting stronger, so we were going to try ashtanga yoga. Got my butt kicked hard. It was by far the most difficult practice I had ever been through. I was sweaty, shaky, and knew I was going to be sore for days. Something was different this time though. This time, I got something out of the practice. Something shifted, even opened up a bit. I still wasn’t sure what that was, but a new doorway opened, this one to ashtanga yoga. So I followed that path, and began to learn something. Through the long process of practicing the primary series, working on poses, and trying to get that next asana, the thing I started learning was about myself. The things that make me happy, sad, frustrated, annoyed, or just content were a bit easier to understand. More importantly, all that emotional garbage I’ve swallowed over the years had space to come up and be acknowledged as something I don’t need or want. That process was definitely scary at first, but I slowly began to see it as healing in action, a letting go of what doesn’t work for me anymore. A chance to become a healthier person, maybe even a better person. Not that I’m done with that process, far from it. But as I work on the healing of this ashtanga primary series, this yoga chikitsa, I know I’m on the right path.
So, now another doorway has opened. One that shows me I need ashtanga yoga. I’m not sure where that leads, but with the support of the amazing ashtanga community at Saint Louis Ashtanga Yoga, I’ll keep getting on my mat and try to find out. Who knows? Maybe another doorway is there just waiting to be opened.
by Jeff Howard