I’m sure you get tired of reading my writing from time to time and so, in an effort to keep your attention, the entry that follows is by a dear student of mine, Julia Stone. She presented the piece to me as a “musing”, but I feel it is so much more. I hope that you enjoy.
The Embrace of Mysore Ashtanga
by Julia Stone
Like so many of us, I came to the Mysore room to heal.
About six months before I stepped into the room, I had injured my back in a way that terrified me – or I should say, to a *degree* that terrified me. The pain was some sort of carnivorous vine wrapping around my lower back, rendering me inert. I couldn’t stand, walk or sit. Lying down was better, but after a while I would inevitably have to adjust or rise, and then the pain would come back with a vengeance. It was the type of pain where you can’t even locate the point of origin - a medieval corset that made my hips throb, bowing to its sudden and mysterious power.
Yoga was something I did when I had a random bit of free time. I didn’t make time for yoga, and I had never loved yoga. I grew up in a place where everyone did yoga, so naturally I was resistant to it. Especially when I was in high school and a Sufi-esque modern dance teacher/model who was substituting for my actual dance teacher wanted to warm up with sun salutations. What?! I was here to create, to jump, to express and escape myself. Last month, with my *real* teacher, we had performed as various bugs splatting against the wall. I didn’t want some mundane (and strangely difficult) yoga warm-ups from my local health-food coop.
I began to actually like yoga as kind of a fluke – I was working as a cook in San Francisco, and I had developed sciatica from all of the standing and chopping. I should mention that I am really really tall, but apparently even the lauded, and much more petite, chef Alice Waters had sciatica, so I guess none of us is immune. When someone in the kitchen recommended yoga, I gave it a shot. I adored my yoga teacher and the intimate studio where we practiced. But mine was a messy routine – inconsistent and undisciplined. I felt better after doing yoga, but the sensation didn’t last long.
Years later, in New York with my fresh back injury in remission, I think I ultimately took the plunge for Mysore Ashtanga because of its purported therapeutic design. I read about how Guruji used yoga as therapy to help patients with a number of different ailments. I also liked the notion that in the Mysore room you can gradually build up a practice, and that the practice will meet you where you are – injured or otherwise. It appeared to me as a healing modality.
So I looked for teachers of the method in my neighborhood, and decided to try Michael’s class because he seemed devoted but not dogmatic – an elusive combo that I’ve since found to be true. I emailed and inquired about the best time to start, to which Michael replied: “right now” is always the best time to start.
When I entered the Mysore room, I suppose I felt a typical degree of intimidation. I had never had anything remotely close to a private lesson, and was used to just kind of muddling through whatever the teacher was demonstrating in front of the class. Oh, how I was in for a surprise! Michael had me place my mat right next to him (in full view!), and sat down beside me to begin. “This is a breathing practice,” he said – words that I still cling to around halfway through my Surya Namaskar Bs.
Michael had me doing sun salutations for weeks. Loads of them. And practically *nothing* else. Since that time, I’ve seen many students enter - but never return to - our practice space after their first class, and I always want to shout out at them: he had me do this too!! There’s nothing wrong with you! It’s not going to last forever!!
Anyhow, at one point I also remember Michael saying something to the effect of: Well, it’s taken your body years to get like this, you can’t just expect to undo everything overnight - these things take time. This sentiment reminded me of something that my mom told me after I’d had my second son: it’s taken your body nine months to get this way – be patient with its careful return.
But once Michael starting gradually adding asanas onto the sun salutations, things got a little dicey. Right away, from just the first few new positions, I was feeling a strange sensation in the center of my knee. I immediately began to question my decision to start Ashtanga, and was dreading the notion that I might injure myself in the process of healing. I described the pain to Michael, and he seemed to think it was just some inflammation. But I’d never had ANY knee pain – what was I doing to myself?! Should I trust him? These are my KNEES we are talking about here!
It is so hard to trust a teacher, but it is harder not to trust one. The pain in my knee quickly subsided, but new pains rose and passed throughout my body like running water. Next it was my hamstring, where I had to adjust all of my forward folds by deeply bending my knees, and then straightening and engaging them again as soon as I was able. Then it was some seriously sharp pain in my side. The pains would arrive, reside in a part of my body for a while, and then leave as though they were never there.
Slowly, I began to trust that the pains would come, and that they would go. Oddly enough, those pains have yet to reappear in the same spot. Once, when I got a pain in the same area of my lower back that I had injured months before, I was flooded with the memory of that pain. The new pain started trickling around my hips – radiating a bit on the sides. I was strangely calm, gently modifying my practice and focusing on my breathing, but to my surprise and delight, the pain didn’t progress – it just stayed there for a few days and subsided.
I described this whole process to my Ashtanga-curious mom by comparing it to a teenager wearing braces: if your teeth are really crooked, it’s going to take a lot of slow, gentle pressure to realign them. Don’t move too fast or you’ll damage the root. The asanas seem to serve as a type of brace – guiding the body back into the position where it will ultimately feel the most comfort.
But sitting in a chair behind a computer all day is also a brace – and one that for many of us must co-exist with asana. So it is a constant struggle: we are pulling our bodies one way for hours each day, and then trying to realign them each morning.
The breath, however, isn’t relegated to hours in the Mysore room or the office. The breath can transcend these marked spaces. Perhaps part of why Ashtanga yoga is a healing practice is because it demands the breath front and center. When you forget the breath - no matter where you are - the benefits quickly escape.
The concept of a breathing practice is a rather confusing one. Is it that we are literally practicing our breathing, or that the practice itself is a living, breathing entity that somehow requires our attention? I am still very new to this breathing practice, whatever it is exactly, but as I move through the motions in the Mysore room each morning, I feel profound gratitude to hear the guiding words of my teacher: “breathe higher.”
So high that even the corset can’t constrict us.