Friday, November 26, 2010

How I fell in love with Ashtanga

Life is not measured by the number of breaths we take, but by the moments that  take our breath away.
             ---      Unknown

Yes I know, yoga is supposed to be about taking long, steady breaths, but I love Ashtanga precisely for all the moments where my heart skips a beat (or pounds harder), and my breath pauses a few seconds in awe.

Not all power yoga classes are created equal.  Some seemed to be taught by teachers who feel compelled to work students to exhaustion. The Anusara-inspired class are better in that they have a theme for each class and the teachers really do try to inspire their students.  However, I kept finding myself going back to the same led Ashtanga-inspired class, for a variety of reasons.

I would think that I’d get bored of a class that does almost the same asana sequence every time, but there are so much goodness packed into this class and so much room for improvement, the perfectionist in me has its hands full, mentally trying to refine different  bits and pieces of the primary series each time.  The teacher allows us to customize the number of vinyasas we want to do through out the seated poses, so I have the freedom to control the amount of physical workout I get according to my needs that day.  Although I joined yoga to get a workout,  the pace and predictability of this class allows me to really focus on my breathing for extended periods of time and enjoy a sense of peace and calm generated from this breathing method.

A couple months after I had been going to this class regularly, the teacher quietly came over and gently pressed on my back, pushing to extend the spine during one of the seated forward folds. Then he started doing this almost every class after that day.  It felt nice that I could go slightly deeper into my forward fold with the teacher’s assistance, but  I didn’t understand why he would keep doing this consistently since my back would pop right back up after he removed his hands.  I was content with the flexibility I had to begin with – I could touch my forehead to my knees, which was already better than most people right?  The teacher can press on my round back all he wants but it ain’t ever gonna become flat against my legs like those yoga models in Yoga Journal photos.  I don’t know how those gorgeous yoginis managed to achieve it but that ain’t ever gonna be me.

… Until a few months later, when I suddenly noticed during one of my forward folds, that my belly was touching my leg.... without assistance.

My heart must have stopped beating for a second, while my logical brain went into shock at this incomprehensible observation. 

Holy cow what’s this crazy Indian black magic?  Seriously, I thought I was too old to try to accomplish this pose if I didn't achieve it after I turned 15 years old or something.  So I just need to show up to class, go through the same sequence every time, where the teacher will perform some uncanny adjustments, and over time all the poses that I deemed impossible for me would just magically happen, all without me forcefully pushing myself to strive for perfection? I FREAKING LOVE THIS SYSTEM!!

For the past months since I’ve started, there have been soooo many (literally) breath-taking moments. I do a little dance in my head whenever something magical happens, such as the first time the crown of my head briefly made contact with my mat in Prasarita Padottanasana D, or the first time my forehead made contact with my leg in Utthita Hasta Padangustasana A (my teacher provided so much support he might have gotten more workout than I did for doing this pose. It was like trying to hold up a super unstable structure that's about to fall apart at any time).  For my first assisted headstand,  boy did my legs feel like they were fish out of water… they wouldn’t stop kicking in panic until they touched something solid... in this case I think it was the teacher’s shoulder. But once I was fully up side down, it was such a cool feeling, different from anything I've experienced before! My body had never been in this position,  relatively to gravity, with this amount of pressure on my head. The teacher pulled away, and my legs were in panic mode again, then he used his hand to try to keep my legs upright, and then I crashed onto the ground in a sprawled mess, but that was so much fun.  

I feel extremely thankful that I stumbled upon this teaching system.  For the first time I'm not forcing myself to reach for some superficial goal (score 100% on that exam, get into that prestigious school/program, aim for that black belt, land that perfect job etc), and ultimately experiencing loneliness,  disappointment, and lack.  My goal had simply been to get through all the poses without falling behind with what everyone else was doing.  I am blessed to have such a talented and enthusiastic (and funny, and kind, and patient) teacher who somehow seems to keep track of my progress in a not so small class.  I do my showing up part, and it feels like he shares the workload (adjustments seem like a lot of work to me) in helping me grow, not just in terms of improving in asanas, but various other limbs of Ashtanga as well.  I should say that all of the yoga teachers at my yoga studio, heck, most yoga teachers in general, seem to be phenomenal beings. But this Ashtanga system... I'm still amazed by it every time I practice.

By the way, even though my body now makes full contact with my legs, my teacher still comes to do the spinal extension push sometimes... seems like there's still a lot of room for the spine to lengthen in the direction of the toes!

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