Thursday, November 12, 2015

The Accidental Astangi

Last night, I had to choose between seeing not one but TWO bands I really dig and doing the full Astanga Primary Series at the yoga studio I manage.  A year ago, this would have been a no brainer, no question -- the bands would certainly win.  But tonight, it was ninety minutes of rigorous yoga that won the day -- and not just any yoga, astanga yoga.  The old me would have run screaming in the opposite direction, happy to be doing anything but primary series.  I mean, it's really hard.  It's relentless and grueling and maybe even arguably monotonous.  The only time I'd ever really done Primary Series was during my teacher training back in '12 when we'd use the sequence as our touchstone for learning how to cue and adjust.  Astanga is the foundational practice at O2 Yoga where I did my training and, as Elliott likes to say, Astanga is like learning your musical scales -- it's classical music -- O2 Yoga is jazz.  But you have to learn the foundations before you can start to break them down and spin them into variations.  One of my TT highlights was at the end of the second weekend when I taught a partner successfully through the entire sequence.  What a rush!  It's a lot to memorize, it's a lot to do and I did it!  Wahoo!  But after we moved out of "Astangaland" in TT, I never looked back, leaving the joy of teaching primary series to dwindle into a spec in my rearview mirror.

So what changed.  Certainly not my tight calves that make all those forward folds so difficult for me.  Definitely not my lack of arm balancing skills.  In a non-Astanga class, these sorts of limitations were easy enough to find modifications or variations that worked for me in a way that didn't make me feel inadequate -- in fact, my limitations helped me learn how to work around them and still develop a strong practice.  Even so, I was never tempted to return to Astanga.

And then the one thing that would bring me back happened:  my friends started teaching it.

When the regular Astanga teacher went away for a couple of weeks, my friend and fellow TT Kristen volunteered to sub the class, but since she hadn't taught it since teacher training, she asked a couple of us if she could practice on us.  So I said OK.  I mean, Kristen's one of my favorite people and I wanted to be supportive, so it was easy to agree to her request, especially since it wasn't a real Astanga class -- just a practice class.  What I learned was that my own practice had grown by leaps and bounds since the last time I'd done the series -- I was shocked how little I hated it, to be perfectly honest.  So I went to one of the weeks Kristen taught it during the regular Astanga class time and left the class feeling better than I thought I would.

But even then I wasn't sold.

What happened next was a month or so later, another fellow TT and dear friend Rebecca made a special guest return to O2 (she has her own studio in Newburyport) to teach the dreaded Second Series (aka Intermediate Series).  I had only ever done Second Series once in my life and at the end, my only thought was, "I am terrible at yoga."  Second Series has a lot of backbends and foot behind the head and a host of other bizarre literal twists and turns -- not to mention seven headstands.  Seven!  I had practically vowed never to do Second Series again but when Rebecca came back to teach it, she said, "I'm teaching a class at O2 and you're thinking of not coming to it?"  Damn.  She had me there.  So I came to class and had a very similar experience to my return to Primary Series with Kristen:  this isn't as hard as I remember it.  I mean, it's hard, don't get me wrong, but I wasn't intimidated by it.  Its complexity wasn't overwhelming anymore.  This was something I could work on.

So after that, I set a goal for myself:  Do Astanga a minimum twice a month -- at least one Primary Series, one Second Series -- and I have stuck to it.  Not only have I stuck to it, I have learned to love it.  I still can't do all of the poses -- some of them I may never be able to do -- but none of that matters.  I have learned to modify, I have learned when to push myself and when to find compassion for myself, and I have learned that this Astanga business is fun!  That's right -- I said it's FUN!  Many of my friends and co-workers at the studio are still shocked how much I have gotten into Astanga over the last year -- and I get that.  But I also recognize the need for new challenges and having a regular Astanga routine has served as such for me.  It's given me a new perspective both on and off my mat -- it's given me new goals to achieve.  

It's funny to look back over my yoga path and see the trajectory:
1.  Be dragged to a yoga class by a friend, certain never to return again.
2.  OK, be dragged to one more class.
3.  Fine, one more.
4.  Wait, this teacher is really great!
5.  Buy yoga mat from Target for $12.  Go to that teacher's class once a week or so.
6.  Maybe try another teacher...  Other teacher OK!
7.  Regularly attend four to six classes a week.
8.  Become a member at the studio.
9.  Do teacher training & get a real mat.
10.  Manage the yoga studio and make it the center of your beautiful life.

I mean, that's it!  In the details there, though, is the fact that I stayed almost solely a Basics student for the first several years of practice, only occasionally attending an Intermediate level class, despite the encouragement from my trusted teachers.  There were "basic" postures I couldn't do -- like crane pose -- and I needed props for so many things -- a strap to reach my big toe in forward folds, blocks under my hands for half moon and so on -- and I thought I needed to be able to do all of these things perfectly and without props before "graduating" to a Power class.  What finally got me there was a crowded January at the studio where I quickly learned that capacity crowds for Basics on a Saturday morning wasn't my jam and maybe, just maybe, the Power class before it would be a little less packed.  Plus, Ann, one of my favorite teachers, taught that class.  Certainly, she'd forgive my blocks in half moon...  What I learned was that my fears were unfounded -- that it was not required to be able to do everything in order to be a "Power Student."  Lots of people had limitations and everyone used props for something.  So that stuff wasn't a big deal.  What was important was understanding the intention of the pose and knowing how to modify as needed.  That's not to say that I don't still -- to this very day -- attend Power classes and feel a little sheepish about my limitations, but I also am confident enough in my overall practice to push forward, to try, even if I'm almost certainly going to fail this time around.  

It took years after embracing Power to turn the corner where I was surprised to find myself fitting in nicely with the astangis.  Hey, accidents happen -- sometimes they are happy ones.  This is certainly a case of that.  Doing Astanga now shows me how much my practice has changed, developed, grown stronger.  It's a point of pride to have this unit of measure for me to see how all my hard work has paid off.  The investment, totally worthwhile.

The last three hundred sixty-five days have been full of exponential spiritual, emotional, and compassionate growth for me.  In my life off my mat, outside of my wonderful "yoga bubble," I lost a very significant relationship and with that came the loss of my entire way of life.  So many friends, so many standards of living that had to shift, change, or disappear all together in order for me to move on from what had become an unhealthy and destructive cornerstone friendship and I don't know how I would have gotten through any of it without my yoga community.  I have said often over the last couple of months that I lost seventy-five percent of my way of life this past year but the twenty-five percent that I kept is, god, the best of the good stuff.  All of that is a way of explaining why when Kristen and Rebecca asked me to do Astanga with them, I said yes and in doing so I put my trust, faith, hope, sweat, and tears into this practice that asks you only to move and breathe at the same time in return.  

It's a healing thing, friends.  I am humbled and thankful for it every single solitary day.  

I am an Astangi, even if just by accident.

And, p.s., it doesn't hurt that Lynne, the regular Wednesday night teacher is extremely hilarious and awesome.  Elliott is also hilarious and awesome, but he teaches Astanga at the Somerville studio on Tuesdays, which is not my regular gig.  They're both great and they're both so knowledgable and they care about not only the integrity of the practice but making it as accessible as possible to their students.  So if you've been thinking about trying it, do.  The end.  Namaste.

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