Love your practice and show up

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Photo Credit: c3lsius_bb Flickr via Compfight cc

From Kino MacGregor’s The Power of Ashtanga Yoga:

“Many people assume that because they cannot easily bend their bodies into the pretzel-like positions of the Ashtanga Yoga Primary Series that this method is not for them. The sole qualification for the practice of Ashtanga Yoga is to love your practice and to ‘show up’ on your mat as much as possible. It does not matter what level of asana you perform, because the inner work of yoga is fueled by the authentic search for inner peace.”

Since June 8, I’ve showed up to my mat much more than I ever have in the past 16 years since I was first introduced to Ashtanga. I show up on my mat most mornings. Do I spent a ton of time on the mat? No. Most mornings at least 20 minutes. Only about one morning a week am I showing up for 30-45 minutes. But this is a vast improvement over other years when I didn’t even have a home practice and was doing Ashtanga only when I showed up to a led class 3-4 times a month.

Moving forward, I’d like to increase the time of my home practice to at least 30 minutes most mornings and to get back into doing the full series at least once a week.

My major challenge right now is motivation. I’ve hit the low point of the semester — long days at the office with lots of meetings and advisee appointments. This means that prep work and grading is happening in the evening when I get home and the weekends. It’s been hard to get up in the mornings knowing I have such a full day ahead. But that is exactly the time to bump up my practice.

I have the excuse of teaching yoga two mornings a week, which forces me out of bed. When class is over, I spend 20-30 minutes on the primary series finishing poses plus some cardio work. If I didn’t have to get up to teach, I think I’d probably opt for staying in bed as long as possible. I hope once I get past this busy time at work, I will feel more motivated.

How do you stay motivated for working out or for your yoga practice?

Run away? Or confront?

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My favorite place of tranquility: Artists’ Point, Grand Marais, Minnesota. Photo by author.

At the end of the Ashtanga prep class I’ve been teaching at SunMoon Yoga Studios, I like to read a short passage while students are in savasana. I usually read from Kino MacGregor’s The Power of Ashtanga Yoga.

Last Thursday I read this:

“The asanas work first on a practice level to burn through the toxins in the physical, emotional, and energetic bodies The poses also work to change the basic hardwiring of the mind. Normally, when we confront difficult situations, we want to run away. If we encounter a scary memory, we often want to bury it. The pattern, while totally natural, is not effective at creating a truly happy, healthy life. Yoga trains the mind to stay in places of difficulty instead of running away and developing protective measures. In yoga, there is no room for defense mechanisms. In fact, the yoga poses are designed to strip away every protective layer you may have developed to reveal the inner purity at the heart of your being.”

Ashtanga, like most physical endeavors, is a challenging practice. I have never been on a run or a bike ride or done an Ashtanga practice and said, “Wow, that was easy today!” Part of the reward upon completing physical exertion is the satisfaction in knowing that you pushed yourself in a difficult situation.

What do we find challenging on an emotional or mental level? There’s a tendency to push it away and not want to go there, just like there’s a tendency to stay on the couch or stay in bed rather than move your body.

Because Ashtanga yoga is done in silence, with the focus on the audible breath, it creates a meditative state as you challenge your body in the asanas. Running and cycling for me also have a mind-clearing quality, but not as much as Ashtanga does.

We often turn toward more destructive habits when we don’t want to confront difficult thoughts and emotions. I have been guilty of this, but I find that since I’ve been practicing Ashtanga regularly I’m not running away from myself and I’m treating myself better. It’s a slow process — I’ve only been practicing regularly for about four months — but I am hopeful for continued growth and strength. For me, and for all of you, be patient and kind to yourselves and trust the process, whatever that may be.

Have yoga mat and running shoes, will travel*

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I was in Washington, D.C., earlier this week for AEJMC, a journalism educators’ conference. I found a way to squeeze in both a run and a visit to an Ashtanga yoga studio.

The run went well despite the 100-degree heat index! The 5K was loosely organized by a member of AEJMC. Whoever wanted to show up in the hotel lobby at 5 p.m. on Wednesday was welcome. We each paid $15, which went toward student scholarships. It wasn’t a big group, as you can see, but we stuck together and had a great time getting to know each other! I saw one of the women in the lobby later that night and she kindly invited me to hang out with her and some other people she knew, two of whom are living in Minnesota so I look forward to maintaining those connections.

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On Thursday evening, I took the Metro for a short ride up to Woodley Park. I went to the 7 p.m. led half primary series. Earlier in the day, I didn’t feel like going. I was completely exhausted from “conferencing” (those of you who have been to multi-day conferences know what I mean) as well as spending Thursday afternoon walking about 5 miles in between visiting the National Museum of Women in the Arts and the National Portrait Gallery.

I went back to the hotel room to change and it was so cool in there! The bed looked so comfortable! But even though I was exhausted, it was exhaustion that just felt gross. I knew that if I stayed in the room all evening and laid around, I would feel even worse and more gross.

Thankfully I’ve been practicing ashtanga long enough to know that the physical activity would give me a boost of energy. So I packed my travel yoga mat into my bag and walked (again!) a few blocks to the Metro.

I’m so glad I did! If I hadn’t, I wouldn’t have experienced:

  • A part of DC I hadn’t been to before.
  • Seeing another beautiful ashtanga studio.
  • Mental clarity and a lift of my mood (which continued well into the next day).
  • Sharing my practice with welcoming, kind and gentle people.
  • A fabulous Lebanese restaurant down the street from the studio that nourished me after practice.
  • A gorgeous summer evening sitting outside in the city.

I’m still getting used to practicing yoga and running while traveling. The running thing has been working out well for about a year. Usually when I travel, I am busy and tired. In the past I have given myself a break while traveling. Traveling by itself is tiring with the flights and time changes and strange hotel rooms where you might not sleep well. But finally I have realized that squeezing in a quick run is the perfect antidote to that exhaustion. And honestly, after a day of sitting and taking in conference sessions, I want to move my body and not think anymore.

Yoga while traveling is really new to me. I found a yoga studio in Alnwick, England, when I was there in May, and now Woodley Park Yoga. I also did a morning practice in my hotel room on Wednesday, which I had never done before. So this is all part of my renewed commitment to Ashtanga.

Tell me about your workouts/yoga practice while traveling! Please share any tips you have. For example, I have a travel yoga mat and also some Yoga Paws gloves and socks. My travel mat is slippery so the gloves and socks work well, and you wouldn’t even need a mat with them because the grip is good.

* Title is in reference to this old TV show:

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My first Ashtanga workshop!

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Me and Angela Jamison. Angela, what a beautiful soul. I’m so grateful that she represented my first Ashtanga workshop. 

I finished my 200-hour RYT training in June. As the training wrapped up, I knew my next move was to devote more of myself to Ashtanga. To me, this involves four aspects:

* Cultivating a home practice, seeing as the nearest shala is a 90-minute drive away.

* Self-study of Ashtanga and yogic principles through reading of classic and modern texts.

* Continued self-evaluation and self-improvement. In the words of Angela Jamison (see below), what’s my stuff?

* Learning through face-to-face transmission through workshops and teachers.

I’ve been working on the first one and second one since June. I’ve been working on the third one for almost two years, but seriously and consistently for about a year. And the last one is very new — I’m coming off a weekend workshop with Angela Jamison, hosted by Ellie of Ashtanga Yoga Minneapolis.

I took pages of notes, practiced alongside 15 other ashtangis, and in general had a transformative and uplifting experience over the 10 hours. Plenty of blog posts will come from this experience! But for now, let me list some quick impressions:

* Angela Jamison is a beautiful soul. She is warm and empathic and encouraging.

* I just finished teaching a five-week summer session class at MSU-Mankato. That was an intense experience like none other, giving instruction day after day. How great it felt to sit quietly and absorb instruction, to be on the other side of the desk, so to speak!

* Ellie at AYM has a great shala space. The building is a former convent, and I could feel the sacred power of sanctuary lingering in the room. From where I sat, I could see the church across the street, which offered a symbol for quiet contemplation.

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* I soaked up the “tribe” aspect of Ashtanga. Back when I was practicing at Sun Moon, back when I thought it was only a physical practice, I still felt the power of the tribe and it was that I missed the most when Mona stopped offering Ashtanga. So to be back in a group of people committed to this practice felt like I was at “home.”

* I’ve been on this path for far longer than I had imagined. Angela said something about figuring out your stuff before you could fully embrace the practice. I have been drawn to self-study for the past year, for reasons that weren’t quite clear to me (or for reasons that seemed clear at the time, but now I see those weren’t the real reasons). The real reason was to prepare a clean heart for a commitment to the Ashtanga practice.

Have you attended yoga workshops? What has your experience been like?

Trust yourself. Question your habits. Find the reward in trying something new.

For about 13 years, I had taken Ashtanga classes at only one place — Sun Moon Yoga in Mankato. That changed on Thursday when I drove to Minneapolis to take a Mysore-style class at Minneapolis Yoga.

When Mona took Ashtanga off the schedule at Sun Moon, I really missed it, though I understand that it was hard for her to find qualified teachers. It’s true that I didn’t practice regularly at the studio, but there were times when I attended nearly weekly for 3-4 month stretches. So when it completely disappeared from the schedule, I missed it more than I thought I would.

The absence of an Ashtanga class, combined with my resistance to cultivating a home practice, meant that Ashtanga was absent from my life for the last couple of years save for a shortened practice every once in a while at home. But during my yoga teacher training, I felt strongly pulled to taking up Ashtanga again.

So if I was going to be serious about this, I knew I would have to make a commitment to attending a class. Ashtanga is a very specialized style of yoga, so classes aren’t easy to find. In addition, you want to put yourself in the hands of a capable teacher with whom you’re compatible.

I had some reservations going into Thursday. Mostly, would I be doing it right? What would this teacher think of my practice? David Rogers looked nice and kind when I did my research about him, but what if he was going to be one of those hard and critical teachers you sometimes hear about?

But in general I looked forward to the adventure. If things didn’t go well, then I just wouldn’t go back. But if things did go well, this had the potential for cracking something open for me.

In short, it went very well. Two days later, my mind is still spinning. I gained an entirely new perspective on Ashtanga and I feel newly motivated to practice.

Some of my main takeaways:

* Wow, it was warm in the studio! The class before mine was a Bikram class. David opened the doors and windows, but it didn’t really cool off. So there’s me, the yoga practitioner who had always been resistant to a hot practice, on my mat with sweat rolling off my face, down my back, my arms, my legs, etc. And I loved it. In all those years of practicing Ashtanga in relative coolness and comfort, I realized I was not getting the maximum detoxifying benefits. Let the sweat drip!

* I have some habits to break. David pointed out a couple of things with a gentle, “Why are you doing it like that?” One thing that will take a lot of work is doing a chaturanga with my elbows slightly out instead of squeezed into my ribs. He also showed me some poses in which a flat back was not the primary goal — lengthening the spine could come later.

* This was my first true Mysore experience. In traditional Mysore, a teacher will stop you when he or she feels you have had enough. I didn’t quite get through all the forward folds when David stopped me from progressing further into the sequence. I was grateful — I had so much new information to digest and I was getting tired.

* I had the confidence to do things I had never done before. I explained to David that I didn’t do jump backs. He simply said, “Why not?” And I realized that I didn’t have a good answer. So I gave a weak excuse about worrying that I wouldn’t do them correctly or that I would lose form. He went into a speech about how much we worry about something “looking right” that we don’t even want to try. Mind. Blown. I couldn’t see something so simple for myself.

* I also got the feel for chakrasana (the backward roll in Ashtanga to get from one pose to another in the seated sequence). David helped me — I will need some work to get it on my own — but it felt great to go through the motion. Again — Mind. Blown.

* I had a chance to explain Ashtanga to a group of people unfamiliar with it. As I was waiting for class to start, the sweaty Bikram students came out to join me on the patio. Since Ashtanga is fairly new to Minneapolis Yoga, a lot of them didn’t know about it so they were asking me all sorts of questions. They also liked my dedication to the class for driving a total of three hours for one hour of class 🙂 The three hours in the car offered a wonderful opportunity to listen to books!

* I love the built-in community at a yoga studio. That community is evident at Sun Moon, but it’s also a community where I know a lot of people. Even though I didn’t know anyone at Minneapolis Yoga, we all sat around the patio for a few minutes smiling and talking and sharing our experiences.

There’s so much I’m forgetting. Each moment during class was a special one where my brain was working overtime in digesting the information and also soaking in the experience. I look forward to going back! In the meantime, you will find me on my mat practicing chaturangas and chakrasana at home or in the Fitness for 10 studio after teaching my Tuesday/Thursday classes.

That special yoga glow, lol!

Primary-Series-sequence

Sometimes the universe is just trying to tell you something, right?

My last weekend of RYT 200-Hour training featured the Ashtanga primary series practice. On Saturday morning, we did the complete series, led by Crystal Born — we took Ashtanga class together for years with Melanie Williams at Sun Moon. It was so nice to see Crystal again, and Emily S. also showed up, so it was a mini-tribe reunion.

I hadn’t practiced the entire series in, I don’t know, about two years? Whenever the last offering was at SunMoon. I’ve done bits and pieces of the practice, like a 30-minute or 45-minute version that David Swenson developed, and I’ve worked separately on some of the more challenging poses, like shoulder stand and headstand. But still, I feel a little like a loser…how can I call myself an Ashtangi if it had been that long since I’ve done the entire series?

(More on this later…I have LOTS to say about why I took that time off).

Dare I call this past weekend life-changing? I understood Ashtanga in a way that I had not understood it before, even in 15 years of on-and-off practicing. Something just CLICKED. Things CHANGED. I hadn’t been very kind to myself in the past two years and when I got home on Sunday, I viewed myself in a totally different light. Bad habits that had become a part of my life over the past two years just went away.

I came home and just started reading a couple of great Ashtanga books (The Power of Ashtanga Yoga and Yoga Mala). I had already booked a weekend workshop at Ashtanga Minneapolis in July and now I’m about to book another workshop. I’m motivated and obsessed about this practice in a way that I had never been before.

After 15 years, I feel ready to devote myself to this practice rather than simply dabbling, which is what I had been doing.

As Kino MacGregor says in The Power of Ashtanga Yoga, “…only after many years of practice have I begun to realize just how powerful the practice really is.”

The 13-year process of writing my memoir and getting it published taught me a lot about patience and also the idea that things take the time they’re going to take. My book came out in 2013 rather than 2010 or 2005 for a reason. I don’t really know the reason, but I trust that there was a reason. The universe wanted me to practice Ashtanga for 15 years before I did anything more with it. That’s an encapsulation of life in general, isn’t it? We have a timetable, but the universe has its own timetable.